Ronin of the Spirit

Because reality is beautiful.

Independence Day

On this day, the anniversary of the founding of our nation, I want to talk abit about magical thinking and how it applies to law.  I’m sure that all my readers have read me quote Wikipedia’s definition of magical thinking sufficiently at this point.  So, I will just use my own understanding to break it down this time, and skip the quote.

Magical thinking consists of several different basic issues: Correlation equaling causation, contagion, synchronicity, and symbol power.  All of them profoundly rooted in the laws of our land.

Correlation as causation is the idea that related events must cause each other.  People who own homes generally don’t get caught breaking into cars.  Thus, a multi-billion dollar tax write-off (mortgage payments being tax deductable) is foisted upon an unthinking public. (Obviously, owning a home does not cause good behavior, it is merely associated with it.)

Contagion is the idea that things placed near each other share some transfer of identity or quality. From this concept, the voodooist makes a doll of the persons’ clothes or hair, the clairvoyant needs something that belonged to the deceased, and the Catholic church claims healings resultant from holy relics.

Synchronicity seeks to relate a number of random events with unifying cause.  For instance, the charge that California suffers many earthquakes because it is the center of the United States pornography industry rather than because of the San Andres fault.

The power of symbols, is what I wish to talk about today.  Dwight Conquergood said this of symbol power “Symbols instill beliefs and shape attitudes that underpin social structures. The binding force of culture, by and large, is a web of symbols that enables people to control and make sense out of experience in patterned ways.”  Tarot for Dummies has this to say “You may not even realize it, but your life is shaped by symbols that are passed to you or inherited from your culture, your race, your peer and social groups, and your family” and further “The picture symbol of an evergreen tree decorated with lights and other ornaments is an archetype for Christmas. Without consciously thinking about it, you are prompted to think of snow and Christmas presents when you see a picture like this. (And depending on your past experiences, you may feel anything from excitement and hope to depression and anxiety.)”

Symbols have no more power than we give them, but often, as a society, we grant enormous power to certain symbols. Imagine you are lost and need to ask for directions. Think of a small plain building with a flagpole in front. On the flagpole flies Nestle Company flag.  Would you be comfortable stopping there?  Most likely. Now, imagine the same scene, only the building flying a Nazi flag.  Would you stop for directions?  If not (and most people do say “no”) why not?  From a logical stand point, why not stop?  In a democratic society there will obviously be people you disagree with.  Is a historical revisionist, white supremest somehow more evil corporate lawyer? (Turn your attention again to Nestle, it has purposefully marketed infant formula to developing nations’ mothers by having actresses dress has nurses and give away free samples until the mothers milk dries up, then begin charging for it.  They also use child slaves in the processing of their chocolate.)

The Nestle ImageThe Nazi Image

Despite the fact that both represent oppressive regimes, you would most likely stop for Nestle, but not for Nazi. The greatest absurdity, of course, is that a person’s adherence to bankrupt moral code has little to do with their capacity to get you from 10th Street to Mulligan Avenue.

That is the power of a symbol.  One associates so much with the mere symbol that the instant response is revulsion and fear.  That a symbol of 60 year old failed government induces more concern than the corporate herald of multi-billion dollar corporation that employs child slaves in the third world to make candies for child consumers in the first also shows how the power of symbols can have nothing to do with what is truly being represented, and everything to do with what people feel is represented. Finally, it shows how a group may maintain a symbol and operate under the social protection that the perception of that symbol provides.

How does this relate back to this Independence Day?  The constitution of our country is not the law of our land.  That which is fair and just is rarely simple. The constitution is not the law, but the heart of the law, the principals from which the laws are derived. The real “law of the land” is the United States Legal Code available here.  In a democracy, the law will never be simple.  Different groups and people will require compromise and specification. Which means volumes, rather than pages of law.

You will hear in these United States constant statements such as “The Constitution guarantees certain rights”.  And that, dear readers, is bullshit.  The constitution is lovely piece of old paper.   Next time your rights are being violated, call out to the constitution. See if it sprouts little parchment legs and comes running to your defense, a musty musket clutched to its flat, printed breast.  The constitution is a symbol.  It is not the symbol of justice which makes justice,but just men and women.  Rosa Parks was granted her rights not by the Constitution in a little glass box but by the work of her hands and the bravery in her heart.

The Constitution is the symbol of everything that is right in the country.  I mean it no disrespect.  But let us remember, today of all days, that it is not the symbol of freedom that guarantees our freedom.  It is free men and women, fighting to stay so.  Do not put your trust in the symbol of power, but its source: your own heart.

July 4, 2008 Posted by | Government, Politics, Religion, skepticism, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Nuclear Power

I’m reading about nuclear power. A fellow blogger wrote a post on the general coolness of pebble bed reactors, and I’ve been trying to “get” the whole nuclear power thing. It’s strange to find what’s out there. I had no idea there were so many types of reactors, or fuel methods, or methods of operation.

And I hate to admit this…they scare me a little.

I pride myself on being able to divorce my emotions from a topic of consideration, but emotions exist for a reason. We tend to think humans are unique in having emotions (we’re not) or that emotions are useless (they’re not). Emotions help us make decisions in the absence of meaningful data. Survivors of traumatic brain injuries who have received injury to the emotive part of the brain find it very difficult to do simple things. They excel at things such as playing chess, but may struggle for hours to do something as simple as step into a room. Without an “Emotioner” they can’t determine the value of the data they receive, so the angle in which they cross a threshold is of equal importance to them as things like oxygen and not starving to death.

So, I am nervous about nuclear power not because I can’t get any data; far from, I am awash in data. The problem is deciding the relative value of each datum.

Some of the most common “facts” about nuclear power are, in fact, bologna. For instance:

Chernobyl was not a nuclear explosion. It was plain, old-fashioned boiler explosion in a pressure vessel which had nuclear materials in it. The same thing would happen if you took World War I locomotive, and put uranium in it, for the same cause and reason: heat something which is cooled by boiling water, let the water run out, and it blows up.

Chernobyl did not release more 30 times fallout of Hiroshima. It didn’t release any “times” more of anything. The differences between the two are large enough you can’t really pin it down with a mathematically precise comparison. You might be able to say “…the calculated mass of fallout from Hiroshima following a nuclear explosion was roughly a 1/30 the calculated mass of the total sum of all the radioactive materials that were vaporized without a nuclear explosion in the steam explosion and following fire at Chernobyl.” But even that is pretty misleading. A lot of the mass of Chernobyl had a half life measured in seconds. That is to say, in less than a minute, it was totally harmless.

Three mile island was a total non issue. Due to stupidity and laziness on the part of both plant designers and plant operators, the first three fail safes didn’t work. The forth kicked in fine, and there was still 5 and 6 to go. Was “radioactive material” released into the environment? Yes. About 6 bananas worth. Every person reading this who isn’t a nuclear scientist just went HUH??? Bananas are full of potassium. Totally naturally, some potassium is radioactive. The amount of radioactivity released was about the same as the total radioactivity of 6 everyday bananas, per capita.

The standard anti-terrorism yardstick is now “747 resistance.” No one will put it in those words, but in all seriousness, it is everybody’s terrorism related question. So yes, reactors are 747 resistant. The part of the reactor made to withstand high-pressure and high temperature from the inside will do about as well from the outside.

The kind of reactors which are the best at making a lot of electricity are totally incapable of making materials for nuclear weapons. This is not because of regulation, this is because of the inescapable laws of physics. You have a better chance of making nuclear materials in your backyard with home made equipment. Read the Radioactive Boyscout if you don’t believe me.

But then there is the other side…

However, the above much touted fact sort of obscures this one: the reactors which are pretty good at making power are also pretty good at making new fissionable materials. Many of these fissionable materials are only useful for electrical production, but some are the type needed for nuclear weapons, and sometimes (depending on the reactor type) these materials are presented in a relatively convenient way. (Note that this is how India got the material to build their bomb. They got this from a totally normal US/Canadian experimental reactor, which makes about 10 Kilograms of Plutonium a year.) England had a reactor commonly called a Magnox reactor. France, and North Korea use an identical design. It makes a lot of electric power and a lot of weapon grade material. The Magnox reactors is what the UK used to build their entire nuclear arsenal.

The reality of nuclear material recycling is this: we can recycle huge quantities of nuclear material. Nuclear physics allows us the near magical ability to transmute waste into fuel and use it again. So called “breeder reactors” are real and usable. In fact, they are used all the time. See above. The insurmountable fact, mentioned above, is the recycling process produces weapons grade materials. Now these weapons grade materials can be used in the right kind of reactor to make electricity, and more waste which can go back to the breeder reactor and continue the process. It’s fascinating, its exciting, and hopefully we can do it some day. But don’t be misled, it does mean weapons grade material.

Reactors ARE NOT “coal plants with nuke plants instead of coal burners.” Yes, the generator side of a nuclear power plant is identical to coal plants. Even the “feed water” pumps, without which, both coal plants and nuke plants will have catastrophic steam explosion are identical. But the differences come up immediately. When coal plants explode, radio active materials are not released into the air. Many reactors operate in non-intuitive ways. The Chernobyl reactor is a good example. If you cooled it off very quickly, it flushed out all the radioactive materials which had damped the reaction, and the reactor suddenly became more reactive. The Chernobyl reactor didn’t explode until they tried to keep it from exploding, after hours spent trying to make it explode. Seriously. Nuke plants are different.

Now this is the non-nuclear part and where my emotions come into play. People are stupid. I believe there is about 1 out of 10,000 people in the world who can truly create. That leaves 9,999 who are all destroyers. And at least 1 out of 10,000 of those disassemblers is a Newton or Einstein in their particular line of work.

When you read about nuclear reactors you will run into the words “Intrinsically Safe.” And that’s stupid. Three Mile Island was considered to be intrinsically safe…until it wasn’t. There is no such thing as “Intrinsically Safe.” My brother worked in a window factory. He ran a machine that had 6 “deadman” controls on it. (A deadman is a switch that shuts off if the person holding it is injured or killed.) This particular machine had a deadman for each foot, each hand, and each knee. You activated the moving part of it with you right knee, after holding down every other switch. In the 50’s this same machine had one foot switch. You loaded the material in and hit the switch. The reason the 90’s version had 6 switches was because consistently, over the years, people somehow kept getting one body part or another somehow injured.

Nuclear power will never be “intrinsically safe”. The cross roads of radioactive isotopes, high pressure/high temperature gases, huge machinery, and human frailty will aways be a dangerous intersection. Nuclear power is risky and anyone who says otherwise is a fool. The question is, “How does the risk of nuclear power stack up against other risks in this crazy life?” Quite well, actually. Thousands of people die every year in coal mining accidents. Around 40,000 die a year from car accidents alone. Life is a constant game of risk management. The winners get to add to the gene pool; the losers do not.

In the end, I guess my observation is this:

You can’t diffuse a bomb after it goes off. Magical thinking tells us that if we wish enough against something it will go away. Nuclear energy will never go away. Ever. If some killer virus killed all the human beings, in x number of years, a new species say, Proboscidea Sapiens (sentient elephants) will develop. They will have their Hiroshima. Even without us, nuclear power will be discovered. We need to accept the fact we have the power to kill ourselves, and choose not to. Prohibiting nuclear weapons while encouraging nuclear energy is not possible. Not because the reactors have to make the material. They don’t. It’s impossible because that’s the way man is.

Abstinence kills. Countries which teach “abstinence only” sex ed to their teens have the highest teen pregnancy. Regions which require total abstinence from hand guns have higher gun crime than nearby regions which are do not have total abstinence from hand guns. Total abstinence from alcohol (a.k.a. The Prohibition) reduced total alchohol consumption by only 60% (remember this was a total ban) and created organized crime. Countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands which have the least restrictions on pornography have some of the lowest crime rates against women.

I say again TOTAL ABSTINENCE KILLS. Total abstinence NEVER, EVER, comes from a rational mind. Total abstinence is an intrinsically unreasonable standpoint which says, “Even a little bit of ‘whatever’ is infinitively worse than anything that might be inflicted upon us to ‘protect’ or ‘free’ us from it.” People have drives. If abstinence doesn’t keep people from smoking, drinking, using drugs, masturbating, hitting women, killing people, or getting pregnant, I doubt, very seriously, it will prevent the drive to dominate a neighboring country and take their stuff by any means necessary.

We don’t need a ban on reactors that can make weapons grade nuclear materials. We need education starting at a grade school level on how energy works, nuclear and otherwise. Raise a generation of rationalists and nuke plants will be built and staffed by good people. Keep doing what we are doing and nuke plants, and anything else we need, will be prevented by legions of superstitions, fearful, illogical people who think they can make a problem go away by not liking it hard enough.

May 11, 2008 Posted by | Ecology, Government, Politics, skepticism, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment