Filed under: Government, Religion, Science, Society, tech, Terrorism, University of Missouri | Tags: a fine line, atheist, blogging, Cherenkov radiation, jim downey, nuclear power, physics, religion, science, St Pat's Day, technology, University of Missouri, Wikipedia
I had reason to look up this item the other day, and was surprised that I hadn’t ever posted it to the blog. So, in honor of St Pat’s Day (well, OK, not really, but there is a connection…), here’s a little something from my old archives from a few years ago.
So I wander into this nuclear reactor . . .
This morning’s news that the NRC has declined to force nuclear power plants to take additional precautions to prevent the breach of a nuclear reactor’s core by attack with a jetliner comes as little surprise, given the Bush administration’s attitudes about actual security issues.
But, as always when I hear such news reports, I was taken back to a sunny spring morning some 30 years ago, when me and a couple of college buddies wandered into a nuclear reactor.
It was the weekend of St. Pats day, and we were at the University of Missouri – Rolla to party with a friend of ours who was an engineering student there. I think it was Friday morning, and our friend had some classes he had to attend, so myself and my two friends decided to just explore the campus a bit (we all attended schools elsewhere).
I had considered Rolla for school myself a few years previously, when I had been thinking of going into physics (a dream derailed by poor higher-math skills). So when we came across the research reactor building, I wanted to have a look.
We just wandered in. No, seriously. We just wandered into the building, through a couple of sets of doors, and soon found ourselves standing at a railing, looking down at the glowing blue core of the nuclear reactor. In this day and age it is hard to imagine such a thing – and even at the time it seemed more than a little odd.
A few minutes after we came in, a nice fellow who fit the stereotype image of a science professor came over to us. Short, grey, bearded, balding, wearing a white lab smock over his shirt and jeans. He sort of looked us over, asked what we were up to . . . and then gave us an impromptu tour of the place (after tagging us with personal dosimeters).
It was fascinating, to me at least. The reactor core at this facility sits at the bottom of a large swimming pool, about 20 feet down. That provides all the necessary protection from the radiation generated from operation of the fission reactor (which doesn’t produce much power, and doesn’t use the sort of fuel used in nuclear weapons). Herr Doktor explained all this to us non-scientists, and also explained the eerie blue glow coming off the reactor (which was then in operation).
It was a color like I’ve never seen before or since – a soft electric blue that was both intriguing and repulsive. I knew what it was, having been interested in physics: Cherenkov radiation, caused when the radioactive particles generated by the fission reactions are faster than the speed of light in the water. But it’s the sort of thing that lasts in the memory, embedded there in a way not unlike a religious experience – hard to describe, or explain, or convince others of, yet extremely vivid for the one who experienced it.
Now, I’m not religious. I’m an atheist, in fact. I understand what that blue glow is – yet, whenever someone claims that they have had a religious experience, I can tie it to that same feeling I had on first seeing that other-worldly blue glow.
Well, anyway, I had to share that personal experience, and add a bit of perspective on the changes we’ve seen in terms of security over the last 30 years.
Filed under: Brave New World, Civil Rights, Connections, Constitution, Government, NPR, Predictions, Privacy, Society, tech | Tags: blogging, civil liberties, DHS, drones, jim downey, Martin Niemöller, NPR, predictions, privacy, Secret Service, technology, Washington Post, Wikipedia
First they flew to watch for illegal immigrants, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not an illegal immigrant.
Then they flew to look for marijuana farms, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a marijuana farmer.
Then they flew to watch the White House, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not the President.
Then … and then … and then …
Filed under: Connections, Emergency, Failure, Flu, Government, Health, NPR, Pandemic, Predictions, Preparedness, Science, Science Fiction, Survival, Travel | Tags: blogging, CDC, Ebola, flu, health, Homeland Security, influenza, jim downey, NPR, pandemic, predictions, science, Science Fiction, St. Cybi's Well, survival, The Atlantic, TSA, WHO, writing
… St Cybi’s Well, what with an incompetent theocratic government in place:
So imagine the scenario. A deadly flu pandemic is beginning in the northeast. TSA agents are asked to report for work in the germ incubators that are airports to keep the transportation system running. And while their bosses in Washington, D.C. can’t supply them with reliably functioning respirators to protect them from infection, they’re keeping thousands that may not work on hand, thinking they may hand them out for “employee comfort,” like security theater karma for those who make us remove our shoes and take our water.
But sadly, scarily, it isn’t. Rather, that passage is from the following news item:
As the Department of Homeland Security endeavors to prevent another 9/11, a terrorist attack that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, it is worth remembering that there are far deadlier threats out there. I speak not of ISIS or Ebola, but the influenza virus. The flu pandemic that began in 1918 killed 675,000 Americans. That is to say, it killed about as many Americans in a couple years as the AIDS virus has in decades. Worldwide, that same flu pandemic killed an estimated 30 to 50 million people. It would take 16,000 attacks like 9/11 to equal that death toll. Those figures powerfully illustrate the case for redirecting some of what the United States spends on counterterrorism to protecting ourselves from public health threats.
Of course, money only helps if it isn’t squandered. Take the extra $47 million dollars that Congress gave the Department of Homeland Security in 2006 to prepare for a pandemic. As a recent Inspector General report explains in depressing detail, a lot of that money was wasted. And one darkly hilarious passage in the audit reveals what may be the most galling example of security theater ever.
But it’s OK, because the rest of the world is ready to step up and fight against a viral threat which could explode into millions of cases in just a few weeks, right?
Two of the world’s top health organizations released predictions Tuesday warning how bad the Ebola outbreak in West Africa could get.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization agree that the epidemic is speeding up. But the CDC’s worst-case scenario is a jaw-dropper: If interventions don’t start working soon, as many as 1.4 million people could be infected by Jan. 20, the agency reported in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Sometimes it feels less like I’m writing a cautionary work of fiction and more like I am looking back and writing an historical account …
Filed under: Artificial Intelligence, Brave New World, Connections, DARPA, Expert systems, Google, Government, Guns, Predictions, Science, Science Fiction, tech, Violence | Tags: 30mm cannon, artificial intelligence, blogging, DARPA, drone, Dune, Frank Herbert, Google, Hunter-seeker, jim downey, Ma Deuce, Mil-Tech, Predator, predictions, science, Science Fiction, technology, The Atlantic
Yeah, it’s cool and all, but I can’t be the only one who looked at the news about Google X’s Drone Program …
A zipping comes across the sky.
A man named Neil Parfitt is standing in a field on a cattle ranch outside Warwick, Australia. A white vehicle appears above the trees, a tiny plane a bit bigger than a seagull. It glides towards Parfitt, pitches upwards to a vertical position, and hovers near him, a couple hundred feet in the air. From its belly, a package comes tumbling downward, connected by a thin line to the vehicle itself. Right before the delivery hits the ground, it slows, hitting the earth with a tap.
… and thinks “generation 1.0 Hunter-seeker“, right? I mean, this basically jumps from needing a large military drone to having a backpack assassination tool. Why worry about collateral damage with a missile when you can just drop a cigarette-pack lump of high explosive in someone’s lap, using a cell phone and facial-recognition software to make sure of your specific target?
Yeah, OK, perhaps I’m just too cynical. But human nature being what it is, you’ve gotta think that there was a reason why DARPA has been behind the development of these technologies …
Filed under: Connections, Emergency, Failure, Flu, General Musings, Government, Health, Pandemic, Plague, Predictions, Preparedness, Science, Science Fiction, Society, Survival, Violence | Tags: blogging, Ebola, Elliot Hannon, fire-flu, Foreign Policy, health, influenza, jim downey, Laurie Garrett, pandemic, predictions, science, Science Fiction, Slate, society, St. Cybi's Well, writing
Sorry for my absence here — I’ve been very busy with a another big project, one which I can’t discuss publicly just yet. But soon.
Without wanting to buy-into the complete panic in some corners about Ebola, here are a couple of very sober articles to consider, which are less about the actual disease and more about what such a pandemic does to the society it hits:
Battling the deadly outbreak of Ebola in Liberia has been a mammoth task for the country’s government and international aid agencies. Over the weekend combating the virus’ spread got even harder when a quarantine center in Monrovia was attacked, and 17 patients being monitored for possible infection fled the medical facility. The Liberian government initially said all of the patients had been relocated to another facility after the West Point health center was looted on Saturday, but later admitted that 17 patients had gone “back into their communities,” the BBC reports.
And this one from last week:
Attention, World: You just don’t get it.
You think there are magic bullets in some rich country’s freezers that will instantly stop the relentless spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa? You think airport security guards in Los Angeles can look a traveler in the eyes and see infection, blocking that jet passenger’s entry into La-la-land? You believe novelist Dan Brown’s utterly absurd description of a World Health Organization that has a private C5-A military transport jet and disease SWAT team that can swoop into outbreaks, saving the world from contagion?
Wake up, fools. What’s going on in West Africa now isn’t Brown’s silly Inferno scenario — it’s Steven Soderbergh’s movie Contagion, though without a modicum of its high-tech capacity.
And from that second article, more to my point:
I myself have received emails from physicians in these countries, describing the complete collapse of all non-Ebola care, from unassisted deliveries to untended auto accident injuries. People aren’t just dying of the virus, but from every imaginable medical issue a system of care usually faces.
That’s the thing — a pandemic is bad enough in its own right, when a disease such as Ebola has a mortality of more than 50% under the best conditions. Consider how much worse the impact will be once the overall public health system collapses due to the death of doctors and nurses, when deliveries can’t be made to restock supplies, when whole cities are quarantined, when people begin to really panic.
That is the horror of a true global pandemic. Like the one in St Cybi’s Well.
Cheery thought, eh?
PS: Two other unrelated things I want to mention. The first is thanks to all who participated in Helping Cassandra – you made a real difference. And the second is just to link to a blog post about some black powder shooting I did this past weekend with some very fun historical guns.