All posts by Greg Laden

What kills our children?

Help me fill in and expand these data. Put additions or corrections in comments. Thanks.

Table 1
Time Period Chief cause of death for our kids
 Colonial America Epidemic contagious diseases
 19th Century and Early 20th Century Chronic and endemic contagious diseases 
 Lat 20th Century through early 21st Century  Accidents
 Recent Years  Gun Nuts, Republican Legislators, MAGA Judges, and the NRA 

On the record: Tucker Carlson will run for President

The more I think about it the more I’m sure. Here’s the argument.

  • Tucker Carlson has an ego the size of the universe.
  • There is no pattern of people key in a network leaving the network and doing better. (I get his from the current “Pod Save America” discussion).
  • So, the next thing Carlson does has got to be an upward move, and that can’t happen in a news or entertainment network.
  • Despite the potential strength of his position, starting his own network is probably not on the table. Therefore….
  • He runs for President.

Chance of winning the Republican nomination if he runs? 80%

Chance of becoming president if he gets the Republcian nomination? 50-50.

Sorry if I just ruined your day.

The Quarry Girls: Your next literary thriller

The Quarry Girls by Jess Lourey* is a literary thriller set in late 1970s Paynesville, Minnesota. To cut to the quick: I’m strongly recommending that you read this book.

Minnesota has an interesting relationship with “caves” and tunnels. Our downtowns have flying tunnels connecting the upper floors (third or fourth, usually) of skyscrapers. There are “caves” going under Saint Paul along the Mississippi river, some converted into tourist destinations, others sealed off because they are dangerous. Most or all of those are mines, not caves, but somehow our news media and other spokes-entities of our local culture have decided that a major human-made landscape feature that kills children will be dubbed natural. If you want more detail on that, put a note on a post-it to remind yourself to look it up at a later time. Closer to Minneapolis, and, really, beneath Minneapolis, is a network of natural caves. Actually, these natural caves are in many parts of the state. They would be better known were it not for the last glaciation, which covered much of our landscape with a very thick layer of till, temporarily (in geological time) obliviating the sinkholes that make up much of our karstic terrain. This is why we have very few home-swallong sink holes, even though we should have many.

Among all the tunnels and caves, some of the most interesting are to be found in Panville, Minnesota, which happens to be near where Jess Lourey lived as a kid. Panville, a neighborhood of Saint Cloud, was founded by a guy who seems to have been the Elon Musk of his day, sort of, by the name of Samuel Pandolfo. Pandolfo build an automotive factory, and an adjoining factory town with several dozen diverse homes. Pandolfo came up from Mississippi to Minnesota, so naturally, when he got a look at the climate, he freaked, and built tunnels connecting the factory town’s homes to the factory, in order to keep his workers at work and alive. He probably dind’t need to, they would have walked, but he was from a much warmer clime, so what did he know? Anyway, the Pan Motor Company’s cars never made much of a splash, and Pandolfo ended up in Leavenworth which at least is in warmer Kansas. But the tunnels, and the homes, remained. And the whole thing is a little spooky.

Enough about tunnels Let’s talk about serial killers. See the chart.

We’ve had a lot of serial killers in the US (check Wikipedia if you don’t believe me) but there seems to have been an extra large number in the 1960s and 1970s. Note that the rapid fall off on this chart probably reflects the fact that serial killers tend to remain active for decades before they are discovered and popped into the Table of Known Serial Killers in Wikipedia. But the 1980s looks like a real drop off, and I think it is safe to say that the American Serial Killer had a bloody golden age in the 1960s and 1970s. And, a few of them, at least, were operating in the general vicinity of Jess Payne’s childhood, both in time and in space.

So, what do you get when you add together a creepy old factory town with creepy tunnels, a plethora of mad men who abduct, rape, and kill, some nearby quarries, and a highly talented and experienced writer who is, by the way, actively and successfully experimenting with using writing to heal and understand childhood fear and adult angst about, well, serial killers and tunnels and stuff?

You get Quarry Girls by Jess Lourey.

Quarry Girls hase one of the best ever opening sentences at one end of the book, and a tear jerking final chapter. It is filled in between with a tightly structured story with characters that grab you by the limbic system, draw you in, and keep you there until you finish the story and order another one by the same author. In my fiction reviews, I rarely discuss the story itself. Let’s face it. If you are reading this, you are one of my trusted and trusting readers. Just go read the book.

I should tell you right now that I was drawn into the Lourey sphere of literature when I came across an earlier book, “Bloodline” This is a story set in a similar environment, central Minnesota (for reference, dead in the middle of Michele Bachmann’s old Congressional District, so you know it is going to be a little creepy). Also, in a similar older period. I sense that Lourey sets her stories in an earlier decade in part because the things that make Minnesota Minnesota were less adulterated by the outside world in those earlier times. (There are other reasons as well, having to do with her personal history, as stated by the author herself.) Bloodline is a creepy story about some creepy people, and a lovable but still a little creepy protagonist. I loved it, and it made me look for more, and that is how I eventually came across the author’s most recent book, Quarry Girls. Meanwhile there is another book that I’ve not read, and frankly I’m a little scared to. I have some of my own emotional baggage that is threatened with exposure from the story presented in Jess Lourey’s breakthrough novel, Unspeakable Things. I am going to read it, though. Fortunately on-line therapy has become readily available an doesn’t cost that much.

(OK, OK, I admit: I’m teasing the author here a little. I’ve got an unspeakable story, but it isn’t really that debilitating. I’m sure I’m going to enjoy the book. I’ll tell you about it after I read it.)

So, go start reading Jess Loury’s books, and report back!

Titus Alone and Cheap

Titus Alone* by Mervyn Peake, is the third in the Gormenghast series.**

This is one of the most highly regarded of fantasy world constructions, while at the same time one of the least appreciated. Personally, I think this is because most, possibly all, of the printed version of the books are big and heavy with tiny type. And, there’s not been a movie. Regarding the first problem, that is solved by there being a Kindle version, and now is your chance to stock up the third of the three for super cheap, two bucks, but only for a day or two.

  • see associates note below
    ** Not a trilogy, though there are three of them. Peake died while writing the fourth in the series, leaving only three, and thus leading many to believe that this is a trilogy.

Do not fail to get Zero Fail by Carol Leonnig

If you like this sort of thing, and you like Leonnig as a journalist, you will want to act instantly on this, since I think this price is good for a matter of hours. Zero Fail is about the US Secret Service, longer and more recent history, changes, and controversy. I heard an interview with Leonnig recently and wanted the book, figured I’d wait a year until it got cheap. But suddenly, way ahead of schedule, Zero Fail is now available for less than two bucks in Kindle form

Regular price is way more, since this is new.

There oughta (not) be a law! Why legislators should not require specific topics to be covered in K-12 classrooms

Subtitle: Before you fix the problem, correctly identify the victim and the perpetrator.

I was just watching testimony in the House Education Committee, Minnesota Legislature, supporting a bill that would require some sort of financial literacy in schools. A long list of benefits was suggested, including fewer individuals succumbing to the effects of bad decisions about personal finance, and a healthier economy. This initiative was even touted as a life and death matter, since suicide is known to be linked at times to financial disasters that may have been avoided or lessened when a person is better able to handle their own finances and avoid depressing, troubling, personal disaster.

All these points are true and I do think that things would be better if students came out of high school with better financial literacy under their graduation caps than they might otherwise.

However, I don’t support this bill for several reasons. This bill is one in a continuous stream of bills our legislature introduces, one or two a year, in which a societal ill is linked in the minds of a few legislators to an inadequacy in our school system, which of course, we can fix by simply telling the teachers to get on the ball and make these newly molded citizens to be less flawed than they obviously are. These bills do not take into account several important facts, which almost always apply, regardless of the issue being addressed, such as financial literacy, critical thinking, civics and so on.

1) Chances are we already do what the bill is asking for. In this case, testimony demonstrated that FACS classes exist, and include financial literacy. So, the net improvement in all the things proposed by the legislation would be much less than suggested, because we have already done 80% or more of what can be done.

2) Schools sometimes ignore legislation of this type, because they simply can’t do what is required, and there is no mechanism for enforcement. Nobody is going to close a school down because some students graduated without civics.

3) (To integrate numbers 1 and 2 above) the schools least likely to actually implement the proposed changes are also the ones that are not doing this if this bill becomes a law. Basically, schools already want to teach financial literacy (or civics or what have you), but there is a reason a given school can’t, usually having to do with being underfunded. A law of this type will not close the above hinted 20% gap. The effect of the bill will be virtually nothing.

4) The plate effect. This is a plate:

This is a teacher’s plate:

So, where you gonna put this extra new thing you think teachers were not doing?

5) Teaching something in school does not guarantee that the specific thing that was learned is now a functional arrow in each student’s respective quiver. We teach kids how to learn, how to approach problems, how to think, by teaching teaching them a bunch of stuff to know. Then, over time, the stuff they know (at the time of the test) fades away, leaving a better person, but not necessarily a person who can recall that specific knowledge. Every one of those legislators would fail almost every one of the High School (or College) tests they took way back when, were they given the test right now. But we still regard them as educated individuals.

6) This other thing that makes this so unfair: Financial troubles are not the fault of the students (or the teachers). They are the fault of the corporations that control the finances. Fix that, legislators.

And now it is time for an instructive parable.

I was in financial trouble just now. I was suddenly knocked back on my financial heels by a $500 bill that came out of nowhere. Here’s what happened, in temporal order:

1) I had emergency eye surgery. It was covered by a health insurance plan.

2) Following an unfortunate divorce, I continued to have the same exact insurance. Same company, same primary payer, same exact level of coverage. Every single thing about this insurance was identical. IDENTICAL I TELL YOU! Except for one tiny little ting thing. The policy number changed.

3) I had a required follow-up appointment following this surgery. That appointment cost $500. Eye doctors are expensive.

4) The insurance company refused to pay the bill.

5) The insurance company sent me a notice that they figured out that I was being covered by a different insurance company, so that other company should pay the bill. It included a form that I could fill out saying either who that company was, or I could check a box indicating that I did not have another insurance policy. I did not have another insurance policy. I checked the box and mailed it back to them.

6) The insurance company sent me a notice that they figured out that I was being covered by a different insurance company, so that other company should pay the bill. It included a form that I could fill out saying either who that company was, or I could check a box indicating that I did not have another insurance policy. I did not have another insurance policy. I checked the box and mailed it back to them.

(Note: Yes, 5 and 6 are the same thing. They did it twice! I think each of these two letters originated from each of the two policy numbers. In other words, Company A, my insurance company, thought Company A, itself, was the other insurance company.)

7) Meanwhile, the health care provider had been me increasingly wrought notices that I must pay the bill or else.

8) Finally, my heath care provider sent me a note suggesting that I call my insurance company at the number on the insurance company’s insurance coverage card.

8b) The card has no number on it, but since I took a “business machines” class in high school last century, I knew how to get a phone number and was able to call them anyway.

9) I called. They looked up my account. The person on the phone intoned a paragraph of words no one would ever understand, not even a lawyer in the insurance industry. Eventually she translated for me: The problem was solved internally and I had no reason to call after all. The bill would be covered.

HOLY MOTHERFUCKNIG CHRIST PEOPLE !!!!!! The insurance company and health care providers probably spent a couple of hundred bucks on these useless paperwork shenanigans. I spent close to an hour messing around, which is below the average amount of hapless consumer time spent on this sort of thing. So, nearly HALF OF THE COST OF MY FOLLOW-UP APPOINTMENT can be attributed to the inability of a huge insurance company to handle a change in an account number.

All insurance companies should be forced to take a financial literacy in high school.

People don’t have financial woes because they did not learn about interest rates in high school. They have financial woes because usury interest rates are allowed by our representative government. People don’t get ripped off by charlatans or sold bad mortgages because they did not take a financial literacy class in high school. These things happen to them because of regulatory creep, allowed by our elected representatives. People don’t live hand to mouth, barely, and have their finances fall apart over the littlest thing because they did not take financial literacy in high school. These thing happen because our minimum wage standard is laughable, our tax burden is unfairly distributed, and there is very little done in our society to develop job security. These are all failures of our legislative bodies. People don’t have health care related financial disaster because they did not take a financial literacy class in high school. This happens to them because our legislative bodies can’t modernize our health delivery system

Stop blaming the teachers, stop blaming the schools, stop blaming the kids. They are the victims, not the perpetrators of all that cause personal financial disaster.

OMG Lindsay Port

We Minnesota DFLers* love Senator Lindsey Port. She is the amazing senator representing Minnesota Senate District 55, which by coincidence is where I was for most of the day today being judgmental at high school students.** That is a tough district for a DFLer to represent, but she is so well respected by the people of Savage and Burnsville (Go Lakers!) that she wins handily.

So today, I heard DFL Party Chair Ken Martin giving the You Betha award to “all of the DFL women in the Senate who maintained composure while the extremist white men in the Republican party explained to them how abortion works, for 11 hours, except of course Lindsey Port.” Or words to that effect. (Listen to the original here.)

Why was Senator Port exempted from the Straight Face award? Have a look.

Click to see face palm:

Sorry, Lindsey, maybe next time! Until then, however, keep up the good work.

*DFL = Democratic Party

**Judging a speech contest

Get this guide to the unwritten rules of college success

The Secret Syllabus, A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of College Success* by Jay Phelan and Terry Burnham is an unconventional yet science-based analysis of what a student entering college should do, to make that endeavor worthwhile. It is entirely counter-intuitive, and even shocking. Phelan and Burnham toss the usual advice into the garbage heap, and replace it with an entirely new mythology of how one should think about, and try to achieve, success in college.

And I’m sure this is excellent advice.

I’ve been advisor to college students, directed an admissions program, and I tutor college bound high school kids, so I know something of what I speak. I found the approach taken in this recently published book to be refreshing and very much on the money. I also know Phelan and Burnham pretty well. Jay Phelan and I taught together at Harvard for years, and I was one of Terry Burnham’s PhD thesis readers. I’ve been waiting for years for them to write this book, and now that they’ve done it, I’m very happy to recommend it.

The perspective Phelan and Burnham take is in part anthropological, in part rational-economic theory based, but mostly just plain creative and innovative. How to study. How to study a language. How to be job-marketable. How to have an effective plan for your college major and coursework, instead of the usual bone-headed plan everyone else has (and so often fails at). How to get a mentor and develop a productive relationship with them. This series of dependent clauses may not make great sentences but they accurately describe what you will get out of this book.

As with their earlier work (this is not their first book), Phelan and Burnham have their magic fingers on the pulse of current culture, and fold this into an engaging and humorous writing style. I know that these two authors have been through a lot, and they’ve turned their long and diverse experience into valuable advice.

If you have a kid heading for college, or even one who has been there for a year or so, just give them this book. If you are an advisor, counselor, or just the sort of prof or high school teacher that students look to for guidance, read this book, it will make you look wise. If you are a first or second year college student and want your instructors to be more helpful to you, and want to feel better about the choices you are making, put this book on your must-have list and actually read it when you cop a copy of it.

Here’s a video of the authors talking about The Secret Syllabus. Man have they grown up!

Solving the 4K blues: VLC on Windows 10 with a 4K monitor

VLC is an OpenSource media player that runs on most (or all?) platforms.

When running VLC on Windows with a 4K monitor, you can’t see the menus or any other text without a magnifying glass. That is true of a lot of software. (Don’t tell me about Windows font scaling, that is a broken feature of Windows and does not affect most software that is not Microsoft produced.) Windows 11 is rumored to be better a this, but not everybody has paid the ransom to run that OS on their otherwise capable computers.

The fix for most software is to go into some configuration utility accessible from the software’s menu, and fiddle. For VLC, you have to know the secret incantations.

1) First, “find the VLC.exe file” which is not in a “VLC” folder as you would expect. Go to your “Program Files” and locate the “VideoLAN” folder. That is the folder in which you’ll find “vlc.exe”.

2) Right click on vlc.exe, and pick “Properties.”

3) Select the “Compatibility” tab.

4) Hit the button for “Run compatibility troubleshooter”

5) Follow the instructions for the troubleshooter. It won’t mention anything about resolution, but it will give you a choice for “recommended settings.” Try that. Continue on with the instructions, and your problem will be solved. I took the defaults. You may want to fiddle more.

Bob’s your uncle. Have a nice day seeing your menus!

Turns out you can run this compatibility thingy on any software, or at least, other software. It worked well with VLC, for me. I don’t know how well it will work on other software, but I intend to find out!

Please post your experiences in the comments.

Drawing from Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval handbook on health and well-being showing people eating what might look like yoghurt but is actually cheese.

Yoghurt and a New Year’s Resolution

Happy New Year on this New Year’s Day.

I was going to make a New Year’s resolution to procrastinate more, but I didn’t get around to it.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on this yoghurt project. A while back I asked my Facebook friends how they make yoghurt. This was in prepration for buying a device, if needed, to do so. (I ended up getting as small, half-gallon size, Instant Pot*) The answers were amusing. I think there is a yoghurt-making culture (pun possibly intended) in which newcomers are challenged much like new Navy recruits are. “Bring me a bucket of steam, sailor.” It was suggested than an oven works great as a yogurt machine (that from a physicist whose day job is making tiny black holes in Europe). It was suggested that leaving milk in a pan on a radiator would be fine. And so on.

Anyway, I’ve developed, through a combination of scientific methods and systematic application of new folklore, a method of making yoghurt that works really well, and that has useful variations. I’m slowly working on a YouTube video giving details, and I’ll let you know when it is done.

Meanwhile, I just did these calculations. I have two ways of making the basic yoghurt, one using organic ultra-pasteurized milk, the other using off the shelf regular cheap milk. Then either of these two versions can be used with or without fruit, which turns out to be pretty expensive (the fruit, that is) where i live. And by “fruit” I mean “blueberries” because what other kind of fruit would one possibly want to put in yogurt?

Using Chobani yoghurt in small individual containers as a baseline (they are $1.69 each in my local store, when not on sale), priced out per gallon, I get:

$40.82 Store Bought Individual Containers:
$30.58 Homemade, Organic Milk, with Fruit
$21.49 Homemade Cheap Milk with Fruit
$15.08 Homemade, Organic Milk, No Fruit (with flavoring)
$5.99 Homemade, Cheap Milk, No Fruit (with flavoring)

Quite a range! The “Cheap Milk” needs an extra pasteurizing step at home, so it takes longer. I did not factor in energy use, but driving to the store vs. heating something up probably offset each other. It takes very little time to make the yoghurt, and the homemade tastes better. Add 20% to the cost of the homemade if it is strained to make it thicker, which is something I do about one in five times, just for fun, and to get the whey for making soup.

Trump, by design, is above the law

Every now and then a person of privilege, who has done something seriously wrong, gets popped and spends some time in prison. They pay fines all the time, and spend piles of money on lawyers, so “justice” is served against those offenders, but that justice is milquetoast at best. For the most part, the privileged are above the law. Worst case scenario: drug and rape numerous women over several years, and spend three years in prison for it (Bill Cosby).

You know this is true, and you know why it is true. It is true because the system was designed by the privileged to put the privileged above the law. Duh. Of course.

I say this to help you become a happier person. Trump will never see the inside of a prison cell, or if so, such a stint will be a short one. He can’t be imprisoned because he will avoid, delay, and appeal, until each of his legal problems goes away, or he dies, whichever comes first. It will be a combination of both, almost certainly. During this period, the “Justice” Department, and various state Attorneys General, will chug along making sure the rest of us see justice, while a much smaller number of individuals, Trump included, stay free, live free, and die free, no matter what offense they do.

There are exceptions. Sometimes a person of privilege fucks up some other people of privilege, and those offenders can go to jail forever. Bernie Madoff went to prison forever, for taking 36 billion dollars from a wide range of people. I assume some of his victims were individuals of power. Plus, he failed to pay billions in taxes. That is a world apart from anything Trump ever did, as far as messing up the privileged goes. Minnesota’s Denny Hecker went to prison forever, well, for 10 years, for defrauding a third of the suburban middle class of Minnesota. So of course he’s brought to justice. But he is one of dozens (hundreds?) of similarly crooked people selling and trading and conniving who are all free, and who will will remain free. By and large, a working class stiff, especially if a person of color, can get months or years in prison for voting in the wrong place, putting their kid in the wrong school, jay-walking across the street, or sneezing too loud, and that is a good day for such an individual, because at least they were not blasted to kingdom come by the cops. A thousand people will be shot or maimed by cops, a million bilked by scammers, and tens of millions ripped off by landlords, for every privileged person who truly gets justice. Trump will never get justice.

So how does this make you a happier person? Because I’m giving you permission to stop worrying about Trump. Worry about other things. Worry about clean elections, clean cars, clean energy, clean water, and clean air, and forget about our filthy, stinking “system of justice.” Respect each other, respect our collective activism, respect our occasional successes, and and feel good about all that. Accept the fact that Trump will die an old man with no friends at his golf course in Florida, and don’t worry about what he gets or does not get in the way of justice. He is above the law, more than any individual has been, but not that much more, and he is not alone. Just learn to stop worrying, and love the injustice, as it were. You and I have better things to do.

I do grow weary when justice commenters, many of whom I adore and am addicted to listening to, come back to that old line: “No one is above the law.” Sorry, Arlene, Rachel, Chuck, Jill, Heather, Kimberly, Barb, Joanne, Neal. Just stop saying “Nobody is above the law” when talking about Trump. It makes me sad when you say that. He is above the law. You need to reconcile that and learn to live with it.

Or, maybe somebody prove me wrong.

NPR Political Bias Annoys Blogger

Damn, I am annoyed. But I see hope.

On this morning’s “Weekend Edition” report on Monday’s expected US House January 6th referral of former President Trump for criminal charges, NPR’s national political correspondent Mara Liasson repeatedly referred to Trump’s effort to “Stop the Steal” as though there was a “steal” to stop.

Mara Liasson, NPR Correspondent.
Mara Liasson, NPR Correspondent.
“… when the former president encouraged his supporters to go up to congress to stop the steal, he was trying to stop congress from doing it’s official duty…”

“… according to the committee, not just sending his supporters up to stop the steal, but also to …”

Most of the rest of the words used by Liasson were appropriate, placing Trump’s actions in a framework that clearly indicated they were wrong. But the term “stop the steal” was not used in radio-scare-quotes, or with any ironic contextual verbiage. The term was used as though it was fact, that there was a “steal,” and Trump was trying to stop it.

You may think I’m nitpicking here, but I’m not. A statement that implies that Trump’s engineering of a violent insurrection was in any way appropriate or routine should burn in someone’s ears and nauseate in someone’s mouth. I hate to Godwin the discussion, but imagine saying something like “Hitler was well known for his efforts to address the Jewish Problem,” or words to that effect, and imagine saying that two or three times while summarizing Hitler’s biography. One would not do that. With reference to Trump’s efforts to overthrow democracy and reverse the legal outcome of a legitimate election, one should also not do that.

It was a mistake by Liasson that was allowed because she lives in a particular linguistic environment engendered by the specific journalistic culture of NPR in which all efforts are made to maintain the sense of balance, of false balance, regardless of the issues being discussed. This religious adherence to false balance is part of the reason that Trump’s insurrection could happen to begin with. The right wing rhetoric of Fox News and Infowars has gotten somewhere over recent decades because it took off from a platform of presumed equivalence and legitimacy of all perspectives. NPR maintains the “Overton window” in just the right position that the view out that window includes equal parts QAnon and Bernie Sanders.

Ayesha Rascoe, Host, Weekend Edition and Up First, on NPR.
Ayesha Rascoe, Host, Weekend Edition and Up First, on NPR.
After reporter Liasson made this mistake twice, NPR reporter Ayesha Rascoe provided a corrective. “And we should say ‘Stop the Steal’ is Trump’s term, that was what he was trying to do.” Liasson acceded to this correction and restated with reference to Trump trying to stop a free and fair election.

Liasson has been with NPR since 1985, and is part of the old guard there. She is one of the journalists involved in proving NPR to be an out-front, excellent, and fair reporting agency, back in the day. But over the years, I think she was also part of the NPR squad responsible for a rightward shift in reporting style and bias, which I’ve always assumed was the the result of bullying of the news agency by right wing elements in Congress.

Ayesha Roscoe is a relative newcomer, having joined NPR only four or five years ago. She is well known for her coverage of the Deepwater spill and the Fukushima disaster, and she covered the Obama White House for Reuters. Perhaps this impressive diversity of journalistic service immunized her from the NPR rightward slide that has caused many of us to withdraw perennial financial report from the organization.

Or, perhaps, as a newcomer correcting veteran Liasson, Roscoe will be put in her proper place in some quiet, back room manner. I hope not.

I hope Ayesha Roscoe is the future of NPR, and not just a thorn in the side of a bad journalistic culture. I’m watching, and at some later time, I’ll reconsider my boycott of support of NPR and it’s coven of whataboutist false-equivalencers.

Cheap Kindle Books: Zinn the Sioux Nation

A Peoples History of the United States* by Howard Zinn is a classic revision of American History.

The Last Days of the Sioux Nation (Second Edition) by Robert M. Utley is a classic, but not necessarily the one book you’ll want to read about Native Americans of the northern Plains. But I put it here because it is currently dirt cheap on Kindle, and if your library does not have this 1963 title you may want to grab it up. I would recommend as a first read in this area of culture and history the recently published tour-de-force Wounded Knee by the amazing historian Heather Cox Richardson. Not on sale at this time but worth it.

I should mention that right now you can get some great deals on the Paperwhite Kindle.

Inflation was a right wing plot

Crank up prices, bilk customers, get rich, and strike fear in the heart of voters nation-wide; price fixing and gouging is good business. I don’t know why industrialists and business owners in all areas and at all times love Republicans, but they do, and they did cause the inflation bubble of 2022, in order to skew the election red. Didn’t work this time.

Source: Star Tribune 12/14/2022

Can we do something please about the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy?

How fusion works, and are we there yet?

Thought experiment: You know these two people who are perfect for each other and should marry and form a single household. They don’t know each other yet, but the truth is, the moment they see each other they will fall in love and instantly want to be married forever. Unfortunately, they are living in two very different places. One is living on a permanent human colony on Mars, the other is in a penitentiary in Russia serving a life sentence. Getting them together is going to take a LOT of work.

But, once they are together, they will, as stated, become one, in a sense. So, you organize a meet-up. It is in a house that is for sale, and the real estate agent and closing company are there, so all it will take for the happy couple to have their own abode is a simple signature. There is a wedding officiant in place, and witnesses, so their marriage will also be a single set of signatures. You have had two moving companies go to each of their respective earthly US-based households where all their stuff has been stored, and that stuff is now ready to be moved into the house. All you need to do is get them into the living room of this house.

Then, you get them together. Never mind the details as to how, but it works. They fall in love on first sight, instantly sign the marriage certificate and the closing documents, and movers move all the stuff instantly into their new home. They are now inseparable.

But there is one problem. They have two blenders.

And two Crock-pots, and two electric can openers, and two couches and … well, it goes on and on. If two households are going to merge, some stuff has to go.

Now, take yourself out of that quaint and seemingly improbably metaphor and imagine that when they pack up all the stuff that is duplicated to bring it to Goodwill, all that physical material turns into energy, with the formula predicting the total amount of energy being E = MC2, where M equals the combined mass of the extra blender, extra couch, extra everything else.

There are two sets of forces relevant to nuclear fusion. One is the set of electrostatic forces that keep atoms from getting too near each other. Without that energy there would be nuclear fusion going on all the time. This repulsing energy is the problem in our parable of lack of propinquity, with one of our ideal couple being on Mars, the other being in a Russian prison. These two people are not going to get near each other unless those overwhelmingly difficult problems are solved. The nuclei of two atoms are not going to get near each other unless the electrostatic forces are somehow overcome.

The other force is the strong attractive nuclear force that causes protons and neutrons to bind together in the nucleus of an atom. All you need to do to get this attractive force, represented in our parable by love at first sight, to combine the atomic bits is to get the nuclei near each other, nearer than the electrostatic forces would normally allow. There are a few ways to do this. In an ideal world, you just push them together using some sort of magic pushing wand, but such a wand does not exist. The way the Lawrence Livermore lab does it is to heat the atoms up using lasers, so they are bouncing around so much that kinetic energy pushes some of the nuclei nearer than electrostatic forces would usually allow. The above outlined parable could have used, instead of overcoming the impossible distance to bring the couple together in their future living room, the dance floor of a techno-pop rave. (But there would be other problems with that analogy.)

Forget about the needed energy for a moment, and just think about the atoms/people and their stuff. The atoms are made up of protons and neutrons, and when they are combined, there has to be just the right combination of protons and neutrons or else the fusion of two nuclei will not have an extra blender. There are some combinations of neutrons and protons that will take in energy rather than put out energy. Starting at the lower end of the Periodic Table, most combinations, if you could get them to happen at all, would put out energy (extra blenders and Crock-pots), until you get to a certain point, then the atoms if combined would take in energy. Certain combinations, given important measures of the electrostatic forces and the makeup of the atomic nuclei, would be easier to make happen, and others are more difficult. The details are very technical and very weedy. Suffice it to say that decades of research indicates that a certain combination of Hydrogen atoms, including different Hydrogen isotopes (different isotopes have slightly different bits in the atomic nuclei) can work, while others not so much.

Hydrogen, the lightest element and simplest atom, normally has one proton in its nucleus, and one electron. Since electrons often interact with the rest of the world by taking short or medium length trips to visit other atoms, a hydrogen atom is, essentially, a proton that at any given moment may have a sort of open relationship with an electron somewhere. Deuterium is a form (isotope) of hydrogen that has the usual one proton plus one neutron. It is heavier than regular hydrogen, and is a stable (not radioactive) nucleus. It is also very rare. Something like one in ten thousand hydrogen atoms is Deuterium. Tritium is a special form of hydrogen that has one proton and two neutrons. This isotope of hydrogen is radioactive. As a radioactive element, it decays into an isotope of Helium (releasing beta energy) with a half-life of about 4,500 days. Tritium is produced in a nuclear reactor (there are several methods) so it can be used for scientific purposes.

The fusion reaction that works best is combining a nucleus of deuterium, with a nucleus of tritium. The result is the nucleus of a helium atom (two protons and two neutrons). So, one neutron and one proton plus one neutron and two protons equals two neutrons and three protons, but the helium atom does not use that extra proton.

That extra proton is the extra blender, except it is not a blender, but rather, energy. (I’m oversimplifying here a little. Some of the energy is alpha radiation, some of it is in highly energetic extra neutrons which are captured to heat up an appropriate substance). The amount of energy released from one such reaction of just the two hydrogen atoms is about 1.9516042893337081e-19 horsepower. Obviously, in an actual fusion reactor, gazillions of atoms would be combined every second. The extra energy produced in in the latest experiment at Lawrence Livermore was about enough to bring five gallons of tap water to boil. In an actual fusion power plant, the energy produced by fusion would be used to heat a metal or liquid, to run a turbine to produce electricity, with some of the waste heat inherent I this process (close to half) possibly being put to some use as well.

The radiation produced from a controlled fusion reaction is short lived, and/or will affect only a small amount of material which is easily handled. The reaction does not produce any radioactive material with a long half-life, or that is toxic (both of those problems result from fission nuclear reactors of which we use many to produce electricity). In theory, deuterium can be “mined” from water, and this is fairly routine. Tritium is produced from nuclear reactors of the common fission type, so when people tell that using fusion reactors to produce electricity at a commercial scale does not produce long lived nuclear waste, check your wallet. The tritium production required to feed a large scale fusion industry will require fission reactions, which do produce this waste.

Prior to the latest Lawrence Livermore success most experts, when asked how long the first fusion reactors might be available, have typically said “I don’t know, maybe 40 years.” With this result, the best realistic estimate is probably the same. The big problems with using fusion have yet to be addressed. The reactions that happen now are ephemeral. The reaction itself can ruin the equipment used to make the reaction, and produces a byproduct in the form of extra elemental dust, as it were, that has to be removed instantly or it ruins the reaction. These are surmountable problems, but not easily fixed, and the short term prognosis is uncertain at best.

To understand what has to happen next, let’s try another analogy. Let’s say it is 1800, and someone has the idea that blowing up gasoline or kerosene can move something. So they invent a “car” that has cans of flammable liquid in the back. When a can is ignited, it causes a great explosion that moves the car forward a little. That kind of works, but is not ideal. The better way would be to somehow control the explosions, capture the kinetic energy, and convert that into turning wheels. In theory, that is possible, but in 1800, the metals, electronics, and other materials needed to accomplish this are about a century away in the future.

Today’s fusion experiment is to a future fusion reactor what a 19th century steam-punk submarine imagined in fiction is to a modern attack submarine. Quaint, at best. But hopeful and very cool. Cool in a hot-fusion kinda way, but cool.