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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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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.