Russell's Blog

New. Improved. Stays crunchy in milk.

At last, some clarity

Posted by Russell on August 26, 2007 at 5:24 a.m.
From the moment it became clear that the stated reasons were both manifestly ridiculous and demonstrably false, petabytes have been devoted to speculation about the "real" reason why the United States invaded Iraq. They range from "'everyone' believed that there were WMDs..." to simply "the oil." Thus far, I have found no explanation that is particularly compelling, so I've left the question unanswered in my mind.

That is, until The Editors provided one that can turn aside old Occam's Razor. Of course it's speculation. However, since even the best friends of the White House can only speculate on what goes on in there, speculate is all we can do. This administration is a black box. Well, a black box from which leaks a steady drip of incompetence and malfeasance, but a black box nonetheless. I suspect that even with the benefit of historical perspective, the academic study of early 21st Century American History will do no better on this topic than speculating on the circumstantial evidence.

The Editors offer what I consider the first successful sally in this endeavor. If it's anywhere close to true, then I think its profanity is completely justified.

Science and Islam

Posted by Russell on August 24, 2007 at 4:58 p.m.
This month's Physics Today has a fascinating article by Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy about the fate of science in Islam. Dr. Hoodbhoy is a professor of nuclear physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. He covers a lot of ground, from the golden age of science in the Muslim world (the 9th-13th centuries), it's collapse with the rise of Asharite fundamentalism, to science in modern Muslim states.

Americans should look carefully at what happened in Baghdad in the 13th century. The Muslim world was resplendent civilization of intellectual tolerance, cultural pluralism, and political liberalism. This period came to an abrupt and bloody end with the overthrow of Mu'tazilah thinkers and leaders and their replacement with the stricter, inflexible, literalist Asharite thinkers. The bloody death of rationalist religious inquiry splashed across every aspect of civilization, dooming science, politics and culture to a prolonged dark age.

Americans would be well served by the study of this sad patch of history. It has many important parallels with our own inflexible, literalist religious doctrines.

Science finds every soil barren in which miracles are taken literally and seriously and revelation is considered to provide authentic knowledge of the physical world. If the scientific method is trashed, no amount of resources or loud declarations of intent to develop science can compensate. In those circumstances, scientific research becomes, at best, a kind of cataloging or "butterfly-collecting" activity. It cannot be a creative process of genuine inquiry in which bold hypotheses are made and checked.
Hoodbhoy's argument here is broadly applicable. It is just as true for Islam as for Christianity, or Judaism, or any other religion. It is even true for non-religious doctrines. The study of physics was able to flourish under Stalin, but evolutionary biology and genetics, which tended generate ideas embarrassing to the cause of Communism, were repressed and grossly distorted.

Could this happen in 21st century America? You bet.

Boiling Nukes

Posted by Russell on August 17, 2007 at 8:35 p.m.
Like coal and gas power stations, nuclear power plants are heat engines. They produce power by exploiting the difference in temperature between two heat reservoirs. When most people think of a nuclear power plant (or any heat engine, really) the component that naturally dominates one's attention is the hot reservoir -- the reactor. The reactor contains most of the clever science and engineering, so it commands attention. But it takes two reservoirs of comparable heat capacity to make a heat engine.

Surprisingly, though, the electricity production of a given power plant is usually not limited by the reactor. We know how to build staggeringly enormous reactors, and even small reactors can be designed to run extremely hot. Rather, the generating capacity is limited by the heat capacity of the cold reservoir, which is a function of the natural environment in which the power station is situated. Nuclear reactors are cooled by water, so the generating capacity of a nuclear power plant is directly proportional to the quantity and temperature of water available from the environment.

So, what happens when there is a drought? Or a heat wave? Or both? The heat capacity of the cold reservoir shrinks, and the generating capacity of the power plant shrinks with it. It doesn't matter how big and fancy the reactor is if there isn't enough cooling water.

The water in the Tennessee River has gotten so hot this summer -- more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit averaged over a day -- that the TVA was forced to shut down one of the reactors at Browns Ferry. The heat capacity of their cold reservoir has shrunk so much that they can only operate two of their three reactors. The TVA is already suffering from reduced production at their hydroelectric stations due to drought conditions.

The lesson here is that nuclear power isn't simply a solution to global warming. It a technology that is threatened by global warming.


Posted by Russell on August 15, 2007 at 9:24 p.m.
Evidently, no one noticed that in passing the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, Gonzalez will get yet another nifty new power. Now, he can fast-track the process of killing prisoners. Hurray!

I wonder if it has ever occurred to the friends of the administration to wonder how these various expanded powers might be exploited by a hypothetical power-hungry, incompetent and ruthless ultra left-wing Democrat. It wasn't that long ago that people were actually somewhat concerned that a seemingly moderate Democrat might turn out to be a card-carrying Communist taking his instructions (or his ideas) straight from the Politburo. On the basis of such a possibility, wouldn't one want to blunt the power of such a disastrous individual by insisting on a limited executive?

I think we can take Republican party's embrace of expanded executive power as sufficient proof that they understand that the radical left is dead. They know that the most sinister thing the Democratic party has to offer is a few small-time crooks and the occasional philanderer. We can take the very fact that supposedly serious people are willing to promulgate the idea of a "unitary executive" as evidence that the advocates of the theory do not expect their political opponents to exploit such powers.

They are probably correct. If one may indulge in some speculation, what would Al Gore, had he been elected and had turned out to be a foaming-at-the-mouth enviro-communist, have done with the power to indefinitely detain people as "enemy combatants?" Whose phones would evil-universe Al Gore illegally wiretap? I can't imagine any answer to these questions that isn't just plain silly.

Barring some exceedingly bizarre event (e.g., the conquest of the United States by space aliens), I will probably vote for one of the Democratic presidential candidates next November. For the first time in living memory, we face the refreshing dilemma of choosing among genuinely good candidates, rather than the drudgery of selecting the least odious. I have to admit that even my least favorite Democratic candidate would probably make a pretty good president. But I wouldn't trust any of them with the wiretapping powers Congress granted to this president by passing the legislative turd that I shall dub the Illegal Wiretapping Reauthorization Act of 2007.

So there you have it, folks. The Republican leadership trusts any Democrat to exercise executive power responsibly and effectively. If they didn't, then they would be less enthusiastic about the expansion of executive power. Clearly, they trust the field of Democratic candidates more than I do.

If I were on The Simpsons

Posted by Russell on August 14, 2007 at 4:47 p.m.
The Simpsons and Burger King have a cute little Flash application that lets you turn yourself into a character on the show. Here is what I would look like, I suppose, if I appeared on The Simpsons :

I'm curious how much it actually does with the photo you upload. I wish they had one for Futurama. I think it would be even cooler to be a head in a jar.

The Metro

Posted by Russell on August 11, 2007 at 11:09 p.m.
While I was on jury duty last week, I rode the train from Pasadena to the courthouse in Downtown LA every morning. One of the best things about jury duty, I think, was riding the train. I took the Gold Line from the Lake Street station in Pasadena, switched to Red Line at Union Station, and then switched to the Blue Line at 7th Street, and hopped off at Grand, less than a block from the courthouse. The whole trip took took about 40 minutes when I caught a local train at Lake Street, or about 28 minutes if I was lucky enough to catch the Express. Driving from Pasadena during rush hour would have been... excruciating. At least an hour and twenty minutes.

I miss the train. It was quiet (except, inexplicably, for the tunnel leaving 7th Street), fast, and comfortable. I was always able to find a seat, even during peak hours. The stations are nice. I got a lot of reading done, and the scenery is interesting. If anything, my opinion of Angelenos has improved considerably from the random sample I encountered.

Now that I've been released from the jury, my trips to UCLA in West Los Angeles are by car. The train doesn't go here, and the buses from Downtown are slow, infrequent and astonishingly crowded. My most recent ride on the 720 bus featured a fifteen minute interval smashed face-to-face into the enormous pot belly of a 400-pound black man, who didn't seem to enjoy the experience any more than I did. No amount of shuffling and begging ones pardon were sufficient to disengage skin contact. The only solution was to stare out of opposite windows and wait for the rumbling glacier of sweat, flesh and steel to reach its destination. Riding the bus sucks.

West LA needs to get with the program, or it's going to become a slum. All the interesting new development in Los Angeles is happening Downtown, and the new zoning changes are only going to accelerate that. Running the Red Line down the Wilshire corridor to Ocean Boulevard is only a start. The proposal to turn Pico and Olympic into paired one-way streets is utterly idiotic, but understandable given that people in West LA would probably chew off their leg before allowing a even a single precious lane to be sacrificed for a light rail project.

Are we worried yet?

Posted by Russell on August 09, 2007 at 1:56 a.m.
I know that individual events, however strange, can't necessarily be attributed to global warming. But... A tornado in Brooklyn?

Jury Duty

Posted by Russell on August 06, 2007 at 9:39 p.m.
Finally, the judge released from jury duty, so I can talk about what I've been doing for the last week-and-change.

The case was pretty simple, but wasn't completely cut-and-dry. Here is the basic sequence of events :

  1. There was a birthday party with about 12 people. The defendant was one of the guests.
  2. The party ended, and the guests went to the sidewalk to get their cars.
  3. The valet brought her 2007 Mercedes S-class to the curb, but did a crappy job of parking it.
  4. Another car (an brand new Austin Martin) stopped to wait for the defendant's car to pull out.
  5. Traffic backed up for about a block (a long block).
  6. Two motorcycle officers saw the traffic, and noticed that the blockage started at the valet area. This had happened before. They made a U-turn to see if they could get things moving again.
  7. ???
  8. The defendant, now in her car, pulled away from the curb. The Austin Martin took its spot, and traffic started moving again. The officers decide that nothing more needed to be done.
  9. The defendant's car stopped after traveling about the length of two parked cars. The defendant later explained that this was to put on her seatbelt.
  10. Seeing that traffic was once again blocked, the officer activated his lights and his squawker.
  11. The defendant moved her car up the street about the length of three parked cars, and turned onto Hollywood Blvd, where she yielded to the curb.
  12. The officer had only intended to prod her into moving along, but since she had pulled over, he figured he should investigate a little more.
  13. The officer smelled alcohol as soon as the window was rolled down.
  14. The officer ordered her out of the car and performed a field sobriety test, on which the defendant performed poorly (but not the worst he'd ever seen). The officer then offered her a voluntary breathalyser test, which measured her at more than twice the legal limit. She was arrested, booked, and tested again at the police station with a more sophisticated machine, where she once again came in at more than twice the legal limit.
She was charged with driving under the influence and with driving with a 0.08 BAC or above.

The sticky part was what happened at between items 6 and 8. The arresting officer testified that the defendant was in the car the whole time. Basically, that nothing happened between item 6 and 8. The defense alleged that the defendant was waiting for her designated driver, and that the officer ordered her into the car, and ordered her to move it. Unfortunately, the evidence that might have supported this allegation (witness testimony) was apparently deemed inadmissible.

I suppose that the judge decided that whether or not she was ordered to drive was irrelevant, on the grounds that she could have refused the order. However, one of the key elements needed to sustain this kind of charge is that the act needs to be voluntary and deliberate (although one need not necessarily intend to break the law). If the officer's order somehow stripped her of her volition, that may undermine the charge.

However, we were never permitted to hear evidence to support the allegation that she was ordered into the car. Evidently, the judge didn't buy the argument that such an order might have stripped the defendant of her volition. So, based on the evidence we had on hand, we were forced to hand down a verdict of guilty on both charges.

Personally, I would have preferred to hear the argument and evidence pertaining to her volition. I probably would have urged a guilty verdict anyway, but I think it might have been relevant. After all, if a police officer orders you to do something, most people feel an extraordinary pressure to comply. If, in this case, the officer orders you to do something that happens to be illegal, I suppose it must be ones own responsibility to refuse. If that is what happened, the argument should have been vetted before the jury. It might not have helped the defendant, but if that is why she did what she did, she should have been permitted to explain herself.

Anyway, I'm very curious to find out what arguments were made during the sidebar discussions. Maybe I'll feel better about the verdict when I find out what was kept secret from us.

Otherwise, the experience was very interesting. We had a very entertaining bailiff. If you ever get pulled over by a Los Angeles County Sheriff named Rodriguez, and who has big tattoos on her biceps and talks very fast, she's only acting like a jerk. She's actually a very nice person. The jury had a lot of interesting people.

Oh, and George Takei was in my jury pool. He was dismissed, but I got a chance grumble a little about transportation to the courthouse with him and to say hello as he was leaving the next day. I wasn't quite sure if it was him, but his voice is absolutely unmistakable. He's also a really nice guy in person, though I don't think that's really news to anyone -- except maybe Tim Hardaway.