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Tuesday: Are you still vulnerable to media messaging?

Check out this graphic from xkcd.  It shows the amount of absorbed radiation that is/was produced from various sources.   FYI: the blue squares are measured in micro Sieverts (the Greek letter μ), the green ones in milli Sieverts.  Micro is much smaller than milli, which in turn is much smaller than a Sievert.   But if you had been listening to the media for the past two weeks, you might have had induced panic attacks and rushed out to your local apothecary for a stash of potassium iodide (the chemists who still have jobs are not happy about the shortages).  I’ve read that people are even buying gas masks.

This makes me very sad.

Because as you might note from the graphic, the amount of radioactivity produced by the Fukushima plant for people in the evacuation zone is less than they might have gotten in a CT scan and only slightly more than any woman might have gotten in a mammogram machine.  If you’re truly worried about exposure from Fukushima, shouldn’t you also be worried about having your breasts flattened to the dimensions of a pancake and then blasted with xrays?

This is why I keep urging people to stop watching television news.  It doesn’t matter what channel you have on.  It doesn’t matter if it’s broadcast or cable.  They’ve got your number.  They know what kinds of stories will get your attention and they know what buttons to push to get the right Pavlovian response from you.  Be careful of what you read in newspapers too.  in this media and political environment, we must be constantly on our guard because it is so easy to manipulate public opinion.  We still have no idea who is behind all of the nuclear plant hysteria.  What was the purpose?  Was it an attempt to put the nail in the coffin of the nuclear industry in this country?  Kill it in its infancy?  Did it have help from energy speculators who are trying to drive up the cost of oil?  Is it the result of journalists who have a built in bias against nuclear energy after having watched The China Syndrome and the TMI accident coverage when they were younger?

By the way, did you notice how little radioactivity was produced during the TMI incident?  If you listen to the media, you’d think it was right up there with Chernobyl- squared.  The actual amount was tiny.  REALLY tiny.  It’s a blip.

Oh, sure, you say, but NO nuclear energy is safe.  You can never turn your back on it.  I’m not so sure I’d agree with that statement.  If anything, the Fukushima accident refutes these claims.  It shows that a 40 year old reactor can come through a “great” earthquake, a tsunami and a power failure and still expose people in Japan to less radioactivity than they would get in a CT scan.

That doesn’t mean I think we should run out and get one for the patio.  But I am very willing to consider nuclear energy as an alternative to burning fossil fuel.  The lessons learned at Fukushima could make new reactors even safer.

The emissions I worry about come from the broadcast end of the spectrum where carefully crafted messaging can turn otherwise perfectly rational people into raving lunatics indistinguishable from the end-of-time fundies with generators and MREs in their survivalist stash in the basement.  The hysteria that swept the nation last week was embarrassing.  It shows how vulnerable we are.  Manipulating the crowd is easier than we thought and, as we saw in the 2008 election season, it works just as well on the left as it does on the right.  Your liberal leanings offer you no protection.

The poison in the air isn’t coming from the reactor up the river.

In other news:

The female science and engineering staff at MIT is suffering from the same bias that women in industry face all of the time. (I actually think it’s gotten worse in the past 10 years).  A few years back, the female profs at MIT put together a study showing what they were up against when it comes to getting tenure.  They got less physical space, they didn’t get as many opportunities to consult, they weren’t added to leadership panels.  But here’s the thing that really got my attention because it’s something I see every damn day:

And stereotypes remain: women must navigate a narrow “acceptable personality range,” as one female professor said, that is “neither too aggressive nor too soft.” Said another woman: “I am not patient and understanding. I’m busy and ambitious.”

Despite an effort to educate colleagues about bias in letters of recommendation for tenure, those for men tend to focus on intellect while those for women dwell on temperament.

“To women in my generation, these residual issues can sound small because we see so much progress,” said Nancy H. Hopkins, a molecular biologist who instigated the first report. “But they’re not small; they still create an unequal playing field for women — not just at universities, and certainly not just at M.I.T. And they’re harder to change because they are a reflection of where women stand in society.”

This is very subtle but very real.  It just flies under the radar because no one is physically groping you.  I’ve seen more than one woman derailed by this crap.  You can’t be as assertive as a guy or you will be called “hard to work with” or “not a team player”.  But if you’re passive and demure, you’re ineffective and can’t get your work done.  Plenty of women have to be “coached” to walk a fine line.  It doesn’t seem to occur to management to straighten out the asses of the guys in the department who may be slowing down the pace of projects with their obstinate refusal to cooperate.

For women in the sciences, it’s like walking on eggshells all the time.  I’m glad that MIT is calling attention to the problem because I see very little effort to do so in industry.  It seems like industry thought it solved the problem when it dealt with sexual harrassment.  But my sense is that the power plays that exercised themselves as sexual dominance before have now gone underground.  The same hostility and gender discrimination still exists but has disguised itself as phone calls and emails not returned, not sharing crucial information or giving credit, refusing to meet or invite to meetings, and complaints about “temperament”. And the science world is just much more critical of women.  Everything they do is subject to more intense and punishing scrutiny.  It’s ruining our job prospects and careers. It looks like the women of MIT have gathered enough evidence to show that the discrimination is real and not a matter of sensitivity and perception.

Stieg Larson’s latest book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest has a subplot that describes this phenomenon when a female magazine editor takes a job as the managing editor at an “old boys network” newspaper.  The symptoms are all the same as the ones described by the MIT profs, advice given to women on interviews and to our general experience in science and finance workplaces.  It’s not just a few isolated incidences.  It’s systemic.  Before you know it, MIT will be able to show a correlation.

Can a country afford to treat half of its brains like second class gray matter?

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Monday: Cocaine

This is a very quick post before I dash off to (what’s left of) work:

I finally saw Inside Job last night.  It’s a pretty good documentary, especially for anyone who’s intimidated by Michael Lewis’s book, The Big Short.  Lewis covered a lot of this information in his book so much of the material is not new except for the little bit on the heavy use of cocaine and prostitutes by the finance guys.  They *would* have to be guys.  There’s an interesting sliver of science correlating the risky trading behavior with the risky social behavior.  It turns out that rewarding a person with money has a similar effect on the brain as giving the person cocaine.  Money can be addicting.  And you can’t keep addicts in the same social environment and expect them to give up the drug easily, so expect the bad behavior to continue.

But what really got my attention was the timeline.  I know this was covered in The Big Short as well but it bears repeating.  The meltdown started in 2007 and by February and March of 2008, the market was getting a little panicky.  They knew they were headed for a breakdown.  This roughly coincides with huge contributions to Obama’s campaign.  Wall Street was placing its bets, turning on congressmen and superdelegates…

And the cocaine just keeps on coming.

I wonder if the lefties who flocked to Obama in 2008 would still have done it if they had known that September 2008 was going to lead to economic catastrophe.  Is Obama an enabler?

In other news:

Paul Krugman says the GOP is sharpening its knives for Elizabeth Warren.  She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie, Cocaine.

For some strange reason, homo sapiens evolved away from penile spines.  Go figure.

The NakedScientists summarized the Japanese Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor problems last week.  Their overview should relax the nuclear nervous nellies.  Er, but probably won’t.

And, finally, CNN has discovered that donations to Japan lag far behind the responses to Haiti and Katrina.  I can’t imagine why.  ‘gits.

Sunday: Lori, Noam, Libya and Paywalls

Lori

Lorenda Starfelt passed away last Tuesday.  She was 56.  Her death was announced by her husband Brad Mays yesterday on Correntewire where Lori posted under the name Basement Angel.  Long time readers of this blog will remember Brad and Lori as the filmmakers who documented the dispossessed of the 2008 primary elections.  I met them on several occasions.  Brad was a loose cannon and Lori was his voice of moderation.  She was beautiful with a dazzling smile and captivating eyes.  Brad says she died of uterine cancer that had spread to her liver.  I never knew she was sick.  I am very sorry to hear that she has died.  Her voice will be missed.

Lori intuitively understood the people who defected the Democratic party for the Tea Party.  She knew that racism had very little to do with it.  She knew that the Tea Party is rallying its supporters with false messages but at least it gives them answers.  The Democrats have abandoned its base, liberals and working class and the well educated unemployed.  We shouldn’t be surprised that the movement conservatives behind the Tea Party are picking some of them up.  In one of her last posts at Corrente, she posted this clip from an interview that the Commonwealth Club did with Noam Chomsky:

I have mixed feelings about Noam.  I can’t argue with the points he made in this segment.  He understands the way the powerful elite has used language to pit the working people of the world against each other while they make off with the loot.  And he’s right to criticize those of us on the left for failing to get our act together to deliver a different message.  But in an ironic way, he’s part of the problem.  For all of his justifiable criticism of the failures of the Obama administration, which he must known were coming if he was paying attention to the language of Obama’s 2008 campaign, he was willfully blinded to considering any of the other Democratic candidates as better options.  He didn’t like any of them, he says.  Noam reminds me of the people back in 2000 who thought there was no difference between Republicans and Democrats.  Well, there isn’t much difference now but back then there was.  Maybe Bill Clinton didn’t turn out to be the uber liberal that Chomsky and others like him were hoping for but there was a world of difference between him and the Republicans.  In the same manner, there was a world of difference between the top two Democrats who ran.  One lead from deeply held left of center principles; the other was just a brand who walked and talked like the finance industry that footed the bill for his campaign.  The difference between them had everything to do with who was backing them.  (Next time, pay attention.)

Noam’s weakness seems to be that he’s stuck in the 60’s, reliving the civil rights movement, Cold War and Vietnam.  Sometimes, I just want to smack him.  No one likes war and no one on welfare would prefer it to a well paying job.  The last thing we should do to help people on welfare is make it necessary for them to receive it.  Has he forgotten that poor people on welfare tend to live in the low rent parts of town, because that’s all they can afford?  That concentrations of poor people tend to perpetuate generational poverty, substandard educations and hopelessness?  No, Noam, we don’t want that.  We want government to help poor people by helping them get jobs.  There is a role for government but welfare isn’t a goal.  It’s a stop gap on the way to something better.

What would Noam think of the air strikes on Libya?  For the most part, he’s right about the unnecessary wars we’ve been saddled with.  Iraq was a sham that many Americans were tricked into pursuing.  But the war in Afghanistan?  I’m sorry, we needed to go into Afghanistan after 9/11.  The fact that the Bush administration screwed up the country after the invasion does not alter the necessity of going there.  A country can’t allow a ragtag group of terrorists to attack it and then turn the other cheek.  It sends a bad signal to the rest of the world, which despite our civilizing evolution of the past century is still barely holding itself in check from ripping itself to pieces for power and natural resources.

This morning, we  joined the French and other countries in attacking Libya as an impressive cultural shift continues to ripple across north Africa and the middle east.  Radio Free Europe sums it up:

The British and U.S. strikes came after French warplanes fired the first shots on March 19, destroying government tanks and armored vehicles in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

The campaign, called “Odyssey Dawn,” currently involves forces and equipment from the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Italy, and Denmark. It is the biggest Western military intervention in the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

It followed a decision on March 19 in Paris by Western and Arab leaders to enforce a UN no-fly zone over Libya in order to prevent Gaddafi from carrying out attacks on civilians and opposition forces.

In an audio message broadcast on state TV, the 68-year-old Qaddafi remained defiant, saying he was prepared to defeat the Western forces in what he said would be a “long, glorious war.”

“You are unjust, you are the aggressors, you are beasts, you are criminals. Your countries are against you. There are protests everywhere in Europe, in America against the steps you’re taking against the innocent Libyan people,” Qaddafi said. “The people are with us, even your people are with us. All the people on Earth are against you. You will fail like how Hitler failed, Napoleon failed, Mussolini failed. All tyrants fall under the feet of the people. This is the era of the people and the great [Qaddafi] revolution.”

Uh-huh.  Maybe Qaddafi should cut back on the hot sweet tea.

If you are a person of principle, ideally, you want to allow the peoples of these countries to determine for themselves what their government should be and encourage them from the sidelines.  But the possibility that civil unrest threatens to destabilize the world’s economies might also make you want to act when a divided country starts to spiral out of control towards years of violence.  Better to pick a side, preferably the anti-dictatorship one, and aid it.  In this case, timing is everything.  Be swift and thorough.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide which American politician has been the driving force behind arguing for and assembling the allies for an air strike.  Hint: Ditherers don’t do it.  Unfortunately, unbiased reporting on foreign policy at the NYTimes is spotty, which brings me to the paywall issue announced last week.

While I admit to being a regular NYTimes reader, lately, I have been disappointed and a little shocked by what I read there.  Last week’s coverage of Japan’s struggle with their nuclear reactors was breathless and hyperbolic while reports of the dead, missing and displaced was muted.  For the “paper of record”, it was disgraceful.  Meanwhile, anti-government bias there is becoming obvious.  Maybe the editors aren’t aware of the degree to which they have conformed to the anti-government point of view.  But today, their blurb on the frontpage to their editorial on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget parrots the movement conservative line that “Governor Cuomo is right to argue for spending cuts” even while it laments that the wealthy in the state are not going to be compelled to cough up more in taxes. Who decided that the spending cuts are the right thing to argue?  Did we poll the residents of New York, consult with leading economists, call up some historians?  And this article on the sea walls of Japan that didn’t hold back the tsunamis is just downright bizarre.  Not only is the “government programs are wasteful; private industry initiatives are dazzlingly perfect!” messaging obvious, it’s worked into the piece in particularly awkward ways.  It’s almost like the editors took the original writing from the bureau in Japan and made it work for the Goldman Sachs readers.  Sometimes, I read an article and think *I* could have written it.  Recent writing in the NYTimes doesn’t have the same quality as it did even a couple of years ago.  The prose seems clumsy and amateur, even a little bit dumbed down.

So, while I love Paul Krugman and will find a way to get my fix, I’m not inclined to pony up more money for a paper that seems to be evolving towards the clueless “creative class” readers and Wall Street crowd.  For one thing, soon I won’t be getting a steady paycheck so wasteful government spending in my house is strictly forbidden by real budgetary constraints.  Besides, it’s not like the NYTimes has gone out of its way to cover those of us educated unemployed or working class stiffs.  The union busting moves in Wisconsin were definitely downplayed and even Krugman is puzzled over the way we, the degreed unemployed, are being ignored and forgotten.

The NYTimes is marginalizing itself.  It’s becoming a paper for Mike Bloomberg types and their minions.  The little people who still get the “dead tree” version will have access at no additional charge but if you have internet access, why the heck would you get a hard copy?  It just piles up in the recycling bin.  And if you’re not printing on as much paper, why charge $15.95/month for the electronic version?  Presumably, with the exception of the bandwidth, the costs of printing the paper have gone down.  Is the NYTimes just following the herd of other corporations that have given in to MBAs and consultants who don’t know the business they are asked to manage?  Cater to the money and tell them what they want to hear.  Screw the news, even if it is your core business.  By the time journalism is just a fleeting memory at the NYTimes, the business guys will have taken the money and run.

The NYTimes lost my subscription with the Judy Miller incident.  They’re not getting it back simply because they have international news bureaus, especially if those news bureaus can’t write what’s going on without passing through a political filter.  I’ll have to get my news from more international sources from now on.

Thank goodness Brooke is a budding polyglot.

Saturday: A rush to war?

U.S. and Allies Strike Libya
Barrage of Missiles Hits Air-Defense Targets

TRIPOLI, Libya — American and European forces began a broad campaign of strikes against the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi on Saturday, unleashing warplanes and missiles in the first round of the largest international military intervention in the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq.

I’ve got the TV on now (I know, I know but I’m hearing some good stuff) and they’re talking about how slow and careful Obama was to get involved in this intervention.

Slow?  Careful?  How seriously were we talking about this a week ago?

Thursday: Watching the fear roll in

I can’t say I’m a fierce advocate of nuclear power – not by a long shot – I’m skeptical about our ability here in the US to adequately regulate the plants from the design phase through the operations.  And the worst case scenarios of what can happen when things go wrong scare me witless.  And I’m really scared for the Japanese right now.

But, isn’t the current situation in Japan bad enough (could it be worse?) without videos like “Forecast for Plume’s Path Is a Function of Wind and Weather” spreading fear that radiation from Japan is going to kill us all here in the USA?

Play the short video and you’ll see the “radiation” spread across the Pacific, pretty much blanketing the western United States.  It’s scary for sure.

It’s got to be deliberate that not until you actually read the small print that you find out that:

The forecast does not show actual levels of radiation,

and

Health and nuclear experts emphasize that any plume will be diluted as it travels and, at worst, would have extremely minor health consequences in the United States

And what is going on in the background while we’re trembling in fear of our lives?

Well, the Obama administration has it’s eyes on the prize:

Social Security Suicide

Via Jonathan Chait, The Hill reports that Obama administration economic officials are pressing for Social Security benefit cuts.

It’s starting to look like a particularly vicious form of slight-slight-of-hand to me.

Wednesday: Living in “interesting times”

Just a quick note to remind you (as if you needed any reminding) that there is more than one crisis in Japan.  The nuclear power plant emergency is a small part of the problems the country now faces. Here is a message from US ambassador Roos. The bigger problem involves thousands of displaced people whose houses and livelihoods and, sometimes, even families were swept away by a roiling ocean.

Chip in if you can.  Here is a list of resources you can donate to courtesy of the folks at Apartmenttherapy and UnPlgged:

Japan Earthquake Resources.

While the world watches Japan, it has taken its eyes off of Libya and Bahrain.  Keep them in your thoughts as well.

Tuesday: Once again, Americans have made it all about US

I’m fairly disgusted by the reaction of Americans and yes, particularly Californians, to the events at the nuclear power plants in Japan. No, no, don’t even *try* to make excuses for your behavior. The events are serious but the idea that millions of Americans are imminently threatened with exceedingly high levels of non dispersed cancer causing radiation is “ridiculous and stupid”.

The situation in Japan is serious. But I don’t expect anything like the mega catastrophe that some of my favorite writers are hyperventilating over.

And let’s not forget that the atmosphere knows no international boundaries. This is not just about US. There’s no special exemption for us and we wouldn’t be the only country affected. Air patterns are not just straight and linear. And dont forget that we are part of the rest of the world and have to share in the good and the bad. Isn’t that what the whole idea is behind Global Warming? Or is that just another abstraction that only the spoiled West can indulge in? Don’t make me feel badly about that too.

Meanwhile, please turn your attention to the survivors in Japan and donate a ten spot or so to your favorite international relief effort. Ten bucks here and there- before you know it, you’re talking about real money. It will take your mind off the radiation problem in Japan, which at this point, is growing bigger in the imagination than it deserves.

Get a grip, people.