Nuclear whoas

This topic has been kicking around in my head for a long time, long before I ever started blogging, and now in the wake of Japan’s issues with the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, more of this information is coming to light and being discussed, where it had been ignored and denigrated before. The issue isn’t simple, and many, many people will find elements contestable – I’m not worried about that, as long as they’re diligent enough to weigh the factors realistically and without bias, rather than simply trying to find evidence to support their current viewpoint and ignore the rest. This issue is not political and is not partisan; if your viewpoint incorporates words such as, “Obama Administration,” and “environmentalists,” seriously, your mind is too small to be messing with this. Go watch Talking Head TV and imagine you’re well-informed, someplace where you can’t bother the adults, okay?

There was a push recently, with concerns over global warming and energy crunches, to sell nuclear fission power as “safe” and “clean,” apparently using definitions of these words that do not match the common perception. Nuclear energy was being promoted as our way out of dependence on foreign oil, the way to reduce or even halt greenhouse gas emissions, and as an environmentally friendly option for the power needs of the US at the very least, but often the world as well. And it’s true, the plants themselves produce only trace amounts of greenhouse gases, the production of the fuel only marginally more. If greenhouse gases were the only threat to public health and energy concerns, then such plaudits might be accurate. However, this is hardly the case, and considering things solely from such a standpoint is either grossly misrepresentative or criminally ignorant.

Let’s do a quick overview. The idea behind nuclear (fission) energy is that the proximity of two elements that produce ionizing radiation will create heat, copious amounts of it, and this heat can be used (in lieu of contemporary heat sources like burning coal, natural gas, petroleum products, and garbage) to turn water into steam; this expanding gas is used to turn turbines that make electricity. No waste gases are produced, and even the steam water is recycled. It’s exactly such simple explanations that are used to allay public concerns over nuclear power, but there’s a leetle bit more to it than that.

The key part is, the elements necessary to produce this heat effectively and in large enough quantities are kinda toxic. As in, among the most dangerous substances known to life. Virtually all toxic substances require actual contact with someone to produce ill effects, but ionizing radiation is way different: toxic effects, and in fact dangerous heat-producing effects, increase with proximity. For the typical nuclear fuels required by most power plants, the fuel rods themselves aren’t terribly strong – the real action comes when you’re introducing two types within a certain distance of one another, where their interaction produces enormous heat and no small amount of ionizing radiation. It also changes the very makeup of the fuel rods themselves over time. The dangers from this radiation not only depends on proximity to the elements themselves, but also the amount of time exposed, since the effects are cumulative and can overwhelm the body’s ability to heal.

A small side note: I refer to “ionizing radiation” to distinguish it from common radiation such as photons emitted from a large variety of sources. An electric bulb radiates, in both visible light and infra-red (heat,) as does your stove and even your own body. Ionizing radiation refers to the specific forms of both energy and particle production that we typically call “radioactivity.” Some of it is relatively benign, and can be blocked with a piece of paper, such as Alpha Decay. Beta and Gamma Decay start to become a different story. “Decay” simply refers to the fact that radioactive elements, or radio-isotopes, are unstable in nature, and will spontaneously change their state by emitting either energy or subatomic particles, or both, whereupon they will change into a stable element and remain that way. It’s the energy and particles that make up what we commonly refer to as “radioactivity” or “radiation.”

There’s another key property in all of this, and that’s something called “half-life.” Half-life refers to the amount of time that radioactive elements have potency, and it’s slightly confusing. Expressed as a period of time, a half-life is how long it takes for half of any given radioactive mass to decay to a stable state where it is inert and no longer toxic. Given a kilogram of Uranium-238 and a half-life of 4.468 billion years, this means that in 4.468 billion years, only half of that mass will have changed to its inert form of Thorium-234 – the other half kilogram of material is still U-238 and still radioactive. In another 4.468 billion years, the amount of radioactive material has now dropped to 1/4 kilogram, and in another 4.468 billion, now only 1/8 kilogram. That’s how it works (and this time frame is indeed the half-life of U-238.) Generally, in ten half-lives, a radioactive element has decayed enough to be effectively inert throughout. Welcome to the world of nuclear decay rates.

This might make someone think that a short half-life, like that of Dubnium-262 (34 seconds) would be better, making the substance far less dangerous, but this isn’t quite the case. What it means is that the decay, the release of energy and particles, takes place very quickly, almost exploding outwards from the element, so short half-lives usually mean a very high level of toxicity until the element decays enough. Pick up a piece of Dubnium-262 during that six minutes of its effective life, and you’re getting a whopping dose, much more so than the equivalent mass of Uranium-238, which you could survive easily, and in fact may notice nothing more than a slight warmth.

All of this is necessary to understand what it is we’re talking about with nuclear energy – and I made a specific note above about “fission” energy, which is what every power plant in the world uses. Fusion is different, and could potentially be quite useful, if we could do it – right now, it seems to be impossible to produce in sustainable ways (we manage it in the heart of a fission chain reaction, which is how high-end nuclear weapons work, but this is short-lived and the fission produces lot of bad effects.)

Nuclear fuel rods are very reactive, and have to be to produce enough heat energy to generate steam in sufficient quantities. They typically have an effective useful life, and once past this, they are removed from service and stored – right now in the US, almost always directly on the premises of the nuclear plant itself. They’re stored because they’re nowhere near being inert, and require both separation and constant water cooling, and shielding, for a period of time (typically about five years) before they can be safely packaged and taken somewhere else. This leads us to the two main problems.

Fukushima Daiichi ran into initial problems when the cooling infrastructure was knocked out, and the spent, unusable fuel rods in storage at the plant overheated, rupturing their storage and releasing radioactive gas and particles into the atmosphere. This had nothing to do with the reactor itself – this was the waste products of the reactor, long ago removed from service. Spent fuel rods, while lacking the power to produce efficient heat for optimal energy needs, nevertheless are still highly potent and very reactive, as much as 99% of their initial processed fuel power, and in fact may be even more toxic than originally manufactured because of the reactions within the plant core. They will remain at a level of extreme potency for years, and in fact, this is the largest issue with nuclear power at this point. The waste produces enough ionizing radiation that the storage pools do literally glow, an effect called Cerenkov Radiation. When you see photos of storage pools and there’s a blue glow in the water tank, that’s not fancy lighting. That’s the residual radiation from “spent” fuel, and the water is necessary to halt that radiation and keep the temperature down – unless it runs dry like one of Fukushima’s pools did. This is the waste product of nuclear power. Pools very much like Fukushima’s exist at most nuclear power plants throughout the world.

At this point, everyone and their brother is jumping up and down about “reprocessing,” the ability to take these spent rods and re-refine them into usable fuel again. Theoretically, this can be done until the remaining waste is virtually inert – in practice, it’s not anywhere near the “solution” it’s claimed to be. It’s expensive, elaborate, and inefficient, enough so that the energy costs shoot up tremendously. It produces massive quantities of toxic byproducts, and it poses its own issues, such as damage during transportation and the costs of reprocessing reactors. Nuclear reactors are very expensive to build, and recouping the costs takes decades. Reprocessing is literally a proposal to build more nuclear reactors to support the nuclear reactors we already have – in fact, to deal with their aftermath.

Or, we can safely store these spent fuel rods until enough time has passed that they are inert – again, in theory. Remember that bit about half-lives? Yeah, that’s the issue – some of these fuels, as well as the by-products (like contaminated handling and transportation vessels, reactor and plant materials replaced through maintenance, “polluted” by-products of the reactions and processing, etc.) have half-lives in the thousands of years. What kind of storage, exactly, is supposed to be “safe” for such a period of time? Can we account for the past thousand years of even seismic activity on any continent we care to name? Are we sure that water sources will not, and can not, break through any long-term storage options to carry such materials out into the drinking water and soils?

Oh, yeah, there’s this little bit of useful knowledge in itself. Even a tiny amount of weakly radioactive material can be exceptionally damaging when introduced into the human body, where it is likely to be retained indefinitely. A dental x-ray isn’t any big deal – until you leave the machine on constantly and drag it around with you, which is what absorbed radioactive particles do. They can be incorporated into plants from contaminated soil, and ingested by ourselves or our food cattle, and carried along in our water supplies.

We may view accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima as isolated occurrences, freak events that normally would not happen. But we can’t judge on “normal,” and before either of these plants were built, the best engineers had the foresight to incorporate countless safety features. Chernobyl had plenty of functions to prevent runaway reactions and dangerous heat buildup – until they were all shut down by inexperienced plant operators in a “routine” test. Three-Mile Island had plenty of coolant backup systems – until they failed to both operate properly and give correct condition indicators. Fukushima was built to withstand a 7.8 magnitude quake – until a 9.0 magnitude struck, followed by a tsunami. The thing about a nuclear reaction is, you don’t stop it by cutting the fuel flow; it runs by itself, and the infrastructure is necessary not to continue power production, but to keep it from going out of control. Once started, the produced heat isn’t going away quickly – it needs to be managed constantly. It’s a little like running your car at full throttle the moment it’s started, and requiring the brakes to keep from flying off the road.

And as I mentioned earlier, even the waste products, the spent fuel rods, need their own constant infrastructure just to be stored.

You’ll hear supposedly intelligent pundits (like The Straight Dope’s Cecil Adams) telling us that Chernobyl wasn’t as bad as predicted and isn’t an issue anymore, which is why you need to be very careful about listening to rhetoric. Note carefully how many aspects of the topic they manage to avoid or downplay. Chernobyl sits in a vast “exclusion zone” where people are still not allowed to reside within, twenty-five years later, and the soil contamination is considered far too high to grow food plants or raise livestock from. There’s an entire graveyard of vehicles, millions of dollars worth of equipment, wasting away nearby because the metal is too contaminated to risk the use of. And the Sarcophagus, the containment of the ruined reactor that remains literally hot to this day, is crumbling and will need (expensive) replacing. Groundwater seeps under this reactor are monitored for the eventual contamination that will occur, to see just where the toxicity ends up going. Adams himself seems to think that thyroid cancer being “treatable” makes it a non-issue.

This is the rather curious meaning of “safe” and “clean” that is used by proponents of nuclear energy.

And all of this is occurring under a government that is a mere vestige of the one that created the mess, and cannot possibly afford to handle the ongoing maintenance required to keep people from harm, for the next several decades to centuries. It’s very easy to find gross exaggerations of the effects of Chernobyl – far too easy, really, which is unfortunate, because most people can’t handle subtle things like exaggeration, and somehow think that since some purported facts about Chernobyl are lies, that all of them are, and Chernobyl isn’t an issue at all. But the efforts put into damage control of that little “freak accident” (I mean, c’mon, let’s be real, how often can you count on human beings to do something stupid?) were vast and costly to the government and the community – the entire city of Pripyat had to be completely abandoned and the land surrounding it closed off to all human use. Even when vehicles are allowed within, they recommend distancing them significantly so that occupants are not following in the dust wake of another vehicle, for the additional exposure that can take place from inhaling particles in that dust. This, mind you, occurred in an area that was already sparsely populated and undeveloped, unlike a large percentage of locales where nuclear power plants reside in the US and Europe.

The Fukushima Daiihchi plant in Japan is effectively decommissioned, by the way – the emergency measures of pumping seawater into the lines to maintain temperatures low enough to avoid catastrophe ruined the whole system. Unfiltered saltwater does that. Once the fuel rods can be safely withdrawn, the plant will be shut down, for either rebuilding or simply remaining offline for years until the spent rods can be removed from storage to another location and the plant safely dismantled. While it seems we have now passed the point that this is likely to occur, had the reactor actually melted down as feared, it would then have to be sealed up for an indefinite, but very long, period of time, like Chernobyl – there is no effective way of cleaning it up, at all. [Note: When this passage was written, either no reactor had melted down yet or the news of it had not been disseminated. But yes, three reactors at the plant underwent core meltdown.] We can only wait until the toxicity drops to a level that allows brief exposures to try and contain and remove the mess. During that time, there is the constant threat that groundwater infusion or another earthquake can introduce radioactive elements into the water or nearby sea – you do know Japan relies on fishing for food and economic stability, right?

If some kind of economic breakdown occurs, or a change of government or something similar that upsets the funding structure of the long-term maintenance that even undamaged offline plants require, the toxic remains stand the chance of being ignored, the maintenance measures unfunded and forgotten.

The chance of this is low, you say? So is the chance of the US, the world’s superpower, going through economic crisis. The Soviet Union in the seventies, when Chernobyl was commissioned, was a superpower too – nobody planned on total collapse there either. Now, we’re concerned about the stockpiles of old weapons there, the abandoned biological warfare labs, the rise of nuclear terrorism, and the vast amounts of mismanaged waste.

Remember, this structure must remain in place for years simply to remove the fuel rods from the plant itself, and decades to centuries (or more) to maintain a safe place for the waste products. How’s your knowledge of history?

Systems break down – and sometimes, aren’t even implemented effectively in the first place. Right now, countless nuclear power plants operate with known flaws and issues that remain uncorrected. Why? “Well, it’s too costly at this time.” Sound like any politician you know? Even with the structure in place and adequate contingency plans, we’re not even capable of following them. And while this is only distantly related, there are contingency plans for medical nuclear waste, too – specific procedures for the handling and dismantling of items like radiation therapy machines. Until someone simply walks away without following them.

The same pundits who tell us nuclear power remains safe because we know how to keep it safe, seem to ignore that we have enough trouble with maintaining low-tech, easy to repair structures such as bridges. That administrations change constantly, and politicians seem dangerously short-sighted – since many terms are limited, “foresight” only lasts until the next election has passed (or the media moves on to another topic.) That competency is far from the first hiring principle in the States anymore, and the loose regulations on energy companies mean they operate solely on profit concerns. And that the history of nuclear safety in the US is not only far from reassuring, it’s criminally negligent.

Again, this isn’t your typical freak accident or natural disaster – nuclear accidents, and even failure to maintain containment of waste, can last for centuries. Is it bad when wildfires run out of control? Now picture the fires burning for hundreds of years across the same kind of areas – except you can’t see it and have no idea where it’s really burning, until people start developing cancer at much higher rates than normal (and by then it’s too late.) The smoke is colorless and odorless, the fire invisible, the path unpredictable. Do you still want to call it a natural disaster? Of course, this is ignoring that there is nothing natural about it and that we are not idly standing by while it happens – we’re the direct, and knowing, cause of it. We’re simply betting that it not be too bad.

That’s the entire history of nuclear power, by the way: betting that we’ll escape the worst effects. Dry storage casks of spent fuel rods are already failing (less than 1% into their necessary containment life,) dump areas are seeping, storage pools at nuclear plants are getting full – all because the problems of what to do with the waste were to be solved later. We never knew what to do with it, since we have never figured out how to make something safe and stable for thousands of years. But we proceeded anyway, and pro-nuclear nitwits are still urging us down this path like teenagers with their first credit cards, sure that the future will sort it all out. Is “foresight” really that unknown a concept?

Now, pause for a second. The waste, the after-effects of accidents, the infrastructure to maintain, and the toxic effects of the elements for centuries to millennia to come, are all to produce electricity that we used up long ago – perhaps watching “Mork & Mindy” or “Dallas.” It is used to produce the electricity to power exciting toys like iPhones and giant flat screen TVs. To run freaking leaf blowers, for fuck’s sake, because you know how much of a hazard leaves are to have lying around, and how dangerous rakes can be in the wrong hands.

This is a time-exposure under overcast skies in Florida, late at night. The sky glow comes from reflected city lights. The blue 'collars' on the insulators really were visible, and come from extraneous charge arcing from the power lines.

When we see photos of the cities at night from space, with their sparkly glowing areas, this is light, electricity, being sent into space for no reason at all except remarkably inefficient designs. Any light not shining onto the surfaced to be illuminated, that bounces off of low cloud or humidity cover and makes it impossible to even see objects in the night sky, is completely wasted. TVs and radios left on for “ambience” and because, supposedly, it makes a “better shopping experience” is environmental damage that is completely pointless. We’re actually discussing an energy option that can have ridiculously toxic and hazardous effects for time frames we cannot fathom, longer than we have even had written records, because using electricity efficiently is too fucking inconvenient? Seriously?

Is it sunny out? Go outside, and look directly at the sun. Did that hurt? Yeah, it’s a stream of photons, energy, getting past your tiny little contracted pupils, a hole just a few millimeters wide, and hitting your cornea – too much energy for you to cope with. Now cover your lawn with dots the size of your pupils – how much energy is that? I’ve melted plastic in a few seconds with a focusing mirror from a telescope that was only ten centimeters across, and watched water boiling furiously from one about a half-meter across, on a hazy polluted day in Philadelphia. Ever been to the ocean? When do the waves stop? They don’t? Yeah, that’s all energy – free, clean (in the proper and intelligent sense of that word,) and constant. The entire planet (and many others) runs on it. The uranium ore that we refine to run these power plants is created by geothermal activity, a tiny fractional byproduct of the vast heat directly beneath our feet (and a finite supply itself, by the way, just like petroleum – it takes thousands of years to create uranium and push it to the surface.) All we need to do is find efficient ways to use all of this naturally-occurring energy. Many options are already in place, and research continues into more effective methods. But the corporations that profit from privatized energy provision aren’t in a hurry to relinquish their stranglehold, so our PAC-bought government still subsidizes and caters. Bear in mind, however, politicians can only receive contributions from lobbyists and special interests while they are holding office. We do actually have some power over this.

That is, of course, if we don’t spend it instead trying to argue that nuclear energy solves problems, ignoring all of the ones that it creates.

Meanwhile, we can be a hell of a lot more efficient. Shut it off, do it manually, or even question whether it’s needed in the first place. You don’t need to buy a hybrid car, you simply need to shut off the TV show too stupid to even be aired (that’s most of them.) “Angry Birds” is not a necessity, and neither is Facebook. Leave the laptop home, and take a book instead. Let the kids use the freaking school bus. If it’s less than two kilometers (or a mile, if you prefer,) walk. It’s better for you anyway.

Kindly don’t try to argue that some of these are petroleum-derived and have nothing to do with nuclear power or electricity. Our entire energy system is interactive, and what gets used in one way takes that resource away from another potential use elsewhere. Not to mention that we still need to wean off of petroleum anyway, and getting into good energy habits shouldn’t be selective based on worst effects (or anything else, really.)

Any accident, any exposure, any expensive containment, is too much. One case of thyroid cancer from contamination is too much – it isn’t better because it’s not your child. This is a weird aspect of human perception – “we” (as a society) need the power, but “they” are an acceptable casualty of it. Try reversing it – “I” will gladly risk my life, so “you” can be a self-indulgent prick with a gadget fetish. How’s that work?

By all means, don’t take my word for it – or anyone else’s, either. Stay informed. Just remember: today is the “tomorrow” where we were supposed to have already corrected those issues we put off decades ago.

Further reading:
Wikipedia’s page on Chernobyl
Wikipedia’s page on Three-Mile Island
Wikipedia’s page on Fukushima Daiichi
Wikipedia’s list of nuclear power accidents by country
The Kyshtym (or Mayak) disaster. Money quote:[T]he CIA knew of the 1957 Mayak accident all along, but kept it secret to prevent adverse consequences for the fledgling American nuclear industry.
The Santa Susana Field Laboratory – government oversight at its finest.
A map of the nuclear waste hazards in the former Soviet Union.

Little game safari

The nice thing about macro work is, you really don’t have to go anyplace special.

I walked down to the new local park today, a pretty decent area with a dog park and some paved trails bordering a river. From a scenic standpoint it’s a bit limited, being more “cleared and planted” than natural, but it’s possible to find some areas along the river that will look pretty nice once everything has leafed out – we’re not quite there yet here in NC; the trees are budding and finally getting some green on them, but it’s still a faint haze over the greys and browns of winter. However, more signs of spring are visible, especially if you look close.

I had wandered down to a small, swampy catch basin for water drainage, and in the tall grasses alongside, this praying mantis cocoon had hatched out today. No more than a centimeter long and looking like bits of fluff, these newborns, possibly Chinese Mantids (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis,) were swarming all over the immediate vicinity, completely unnoticeable unless you happened to be paying attention. This is something I exploit quite frequently, by the way – I’m so used to looking for photo subjects that I often spot interesting things that most people walk past, oblivious. Occasionally, someone wonders about my foci of attention, but most times I have to actually point out the fascinating little subjects right under their noses. I can’t stress it enough: look carefully at your surroundings.

The bright conditions today helped no small amount, because I packed light and didn’t bring a tripod, never a good idea when doing macro work. But I was able to shoot handheld at f11, ISO 400, and get excellently sharp images. Once again, depth-of-field gets very short for closeup and macro work, so closing down the aperture to f11 or f16 is almost a necessity, and my friends here (well, they didn’t think so) obliged by lining up in a way that I could get them all in the same focal plane. Even a short variation in distance from the camera, forward or back, would be enough to bring one or another out of sharp focus – notice the cocoon and background leaves. So the goal in macro work is to get the key portions of your subject the same distance from the camera. Technically, this is the same distance from the focal plane, which is the film or sensor – I point this out because tilt-lenses and view cameras can allow some creative options in this regard. Tilting the focal plane can do some neat things to depth-of-field. I have a full-movement 4×5 monorail camera – the old bellows-style, put-your-head-under-the-black-cloth monster, that I just haven’t been masochistic enough to try closeup work with, but it could be very entertaining. Because of the elaborate setup needed for view cameras, focusing and metering and loading the film holders, they’re not for anxious or quick-moving subjects like mantises. Fossils are good macro subjects for view cameras, if you find a placid one.

While walking alongside the fields and tall grasses, there were constant ratcheting zipper sounds – grasshoppers taking short flights with noisy wings. I’m not really sure what purpose this serves, since it attracts attention directly to them, making them easy prey for birds I would think. But perhaps it’s a sexual signal, and its usefulness in reproduction outstrips its hazard? The little guy here, however, is not one of them. Its flight was quite silent, and if I hadn’t been paying close attention to where it landed, its camouflage would have served remarkably well. This is a Cattail Toothpick Grasshopper (Leptysma marginicollis marginicollis,) and as implied by the name, I found it alongside the catch basin. It was perfectly trusting in its ability to blend in, so I was able to approach quite close without causing the anxiety that the mantises displayed. At maybe three centimeters long, only a close inspection would show that this was something other than a leaf.

Coming soon: more from the same day. I added a lot of images to my stock on this little trip.

Have we lost the ability to learn?

While I have been searching for a topic that heralds the return of spring, or at least something interesting on the science front, current events present their own topics that require broader examination. Though numerous pundits and bloggers are offering their own take on things, I would feel remiss if I sat back and ignored them myself.

The violence in Afghanistan over the burning of a qur’an is receiving all sorts of debate here in the States, not the least of which being whether some nitwit pastor of a podunk church in Florida deserves some portion of the blame. Let me be clear: he doesn’t. He was simply making a grandstand play for attention because he had nothing of any real importance to say regarding his own religion – you might as well try to blame Perez Hilton for, well, anything.

One could even blame the media for parading his actions into world exposure, but this, too, is like kicking a puppy for wetting on the carpet. It’s the media – they haven’t known what news is since 1974. You can’t blame them for making money off of the feeble-minded trailer-park denizens that still pay attention to their attempts to stir controversy. Somebody out there, and it appears to be a lot of somebody, thinks there’s some value in the refrigerator art that we get in lieu of decent information.

The only ones to blame are the members of the mob, the ones who gave any credit whatsoever to the encouragements of the posturing mullah and stormed the UN headquarters. The ones who couldn’t see the “lookitme!” cries (from both sides) for exactly what they were – pointless handwaving. The ones who never considered that a book is just paper with ink on it, springing from the same mass-production methods as newspapers, as children’s books, as toilet paper. The ones too stupid to think on their own, and somehow proud of this fact.

Or, perhaps, not proud at all, but actually ashamed – just too juvenile to admit it to themselves, much less others. Instead, defensively, they violently asserted their “rights” to be stupid as long as plenty of others did the same – this many people can’t be wrong, can they? I’ve been asked that myself far too many times to count, with absolutely no one ever accepting the simple answer, “Yes, they most certainly can.” How much more proof is needed than this?

What we need to recognize is that this is what happens in a theocratic state – what happens when we think that religion deserves some place among the laws of the country and the power of its citizens. And yes, I said “we” – human beings, the lot of us. I’m not stupid enough to think this is an aspect of islam any more than it’s an aspect of christianity or even buddhism. They all have their own admonishments for peace, against violence, but this has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with what the practitioners get up to when they feel they are “right.” Religion is not a force for good, it is a bastion of authority, and always has been. Seriously, we can’t look at the ideas of omniscience and omnipotence and see that these are intended as ultimate argument halters? Let’s not be naïve.

The only reason that anyone encourages religious “rights” and rules, anti-blasphemy laws and the inclusion of creation myths in the classroom, is because they know that such things cannot stand up on their own merits, on the very simple concept that they’re better. That they should self-evidently work, like gravity and electricity, or even like freedom and equality. We have countless people throughout the world crying for the protection of their precious little mythologies not because they’re such good systems, but precisely because they suck so badly that too many people simply can’t buy it.

Think I made a contradiction with that last sentence? That’s because you’re thinking that the blanket terms “christianity” or “islam” mean everyone has the same beliefs and structure within. Now consider it in the terms of how baptists view catholics, and how well sunni and shi’ites get along. Ponder why any town actually needs seventeen “christian” churches within three square miles of one another. New churches spring up faster than options at Starbucks.

Our founding fathers, those that drew up the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, at least knew what the fuck “history” was, and made an astounding effort to try and prevent the huge mistakes of the past. The tenets of these documents are not up to voter acceptance, not up to mob rule, precisely because they could only protect the voters and the mobs by remaining out of their hands. Politicians and military officers and police officers swear to uphold them because, without them, we are far too likely to repeat the same stupid behavior of cultures long past. The separation of church and state exists to make the distinction between those that rely on mindless assertions, and those that have to make things work despite the vagaries of the populace and their flavor of the day religions. One has historical fact behind it; the other denies history, science, physical laws, human nature, and common sense in favor of, “because I said so.” While our culture has been steadily moving away from raising our children with such inane and worthless assertions, it still seems acceptable to many adults. You’ll pardon me if I call that hypocritical and asinine.

It’s amazing to me that we don’t even have to have a knowledge of history to see what’s happening in places like Afghanistan right this very moment, and still cannot see the implications. Religious authority is not concerning itself with proper conduct, and cannot handle the tiniest bit of questioning – they are proudly demonstrating this to anyone with two brain cells to rub together. Someone can make the case that Afghan citizens have simply had enough of US involvement, and receive no argument from me. But that’s not what the protests and violence are all about, is it? The mobs are not acting on some US-provoked incident in Afghanistan that’s a symptom of the problem and unrest, or on a new UN resolution. They acted on the provocation of their precious little fairy tales, and by relying on the authority of both the mullah and the mob, rather than applying their brains for just the tiniest of seconds and realizing that the book they held in their hands was not gone at all (not to mention how many more get destroyed every time a bomb goes off someplace.) They’re reacting because someone can actually call it a fairy tale and they have no good response for this. Yeah, please tell me that’s providing peace and comfort to the masses. Please tell me the theocratic state is making things so much better.

And for some reason, we have numerous dipwads in this country that want to do the same here. Anyone that thinks christianity is somehow different is obligated (and openly invited) to explain how.

By all means, we really do need to be teaching religion to schoolchildren – they need to know this shit. Our founding fathers certainly did, nearly two and a half centuries previously. Hey, I’ll be happy to do it myself, and can one-up the idiots crowing for “teaching the controversy” across our country right now – I won’t show any bias towards any religious denomination or sect in the slightest. Seriously, I’d love to do this.

I’m sure anyone reading can imagine how scary that sounds to many, but the real question is, “Why?” It couldn’t possibly be because I could sell this faster and more effectively than any religion named, could it?

It’s missing something

Mike Booth has almost got it pinned down:


I was about to add that he missed the part where you post updates to your “Wall” about things you should have found too boring to pay any attention to yourself, but think must become more interesting when shared. Then I asked, “And how is a blog post different from a status update?” and trashed the whole idea.

I can has virile now?

Free willy

Some time back I talked about the power of tradition, and why it even has this power. Now, as I approach a topic that’s been stewing in my head for a while, I recognize that this same power is one of the things that seems to be working directly against our understanding and use of a simple subject, so much so that scientific and philosophical debate are actually taking place.

That subject is free will. We all know what that is, right? Just like we know what consciousness is – until we’re asked to define it in a functional way. Then things start to get a bit fuzzy. So pause here, give it a shot now, and define “free will” in a way that you’re satisfied with, then forge on. Let’s see if we’re on the same page.

Merriam Webster says:

1: voluntary choice or decision <I do this of my own free will>;
2: freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

…while Wikipedia says:

Free will is the putative ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints. Historically, the constraint of dominant concern has been the metaphysical constraint of determinism.

… and goes on from there, as Wiki does (did you ever see a short Wiki article?) Both hint at the historical source, which is basically scriptural; free will is what separates us from “the animals,” and is defined as the ability to purposefully choose between good and evil, or even know what those are. Chances are, your own definition included at least portions of these, and perhaps favored one in particular over the others. I put “the animals” in quotes, by the way, because it’s another concept that we still fall prey to, and it’s simplistic in nature: we are animals ourselves, by any definition of the word. Anyone doubting this just needs to watch me eat…

So, the original idea was really, “capable of sin,” the aspect that distinguished us from other species, the ones without souls. In working parlance now, it still distinguishes us, but in much vaguer ways. It amounts to capriciousness, the concept that we can do whatever we want, and engage in behavior on a whim, as opposed to merely responding to instinct and/or conditioning. It also implies, explicitly, that what we do is not governed by specific physical constraints such as a predetermined destiny or predictable chemical interactions. The other side of this, the idea that physical (or metaphysical) laws can account for everything we do, is referred to as determinism.

If you read that Wiki article, you can see that this is a deeply philosophized idea, with much debate over whether our minds are really as open to variation as we’d like to believe, or whether, given our particular individual backgrounds, our brains must arrive at specific conclusions or actions because that’s simply how they work – predictable electrochemical reactions. In other words, if I know enough about any particular brain, I could predict what someone’s reaction to specific questions would be, every time, because their reaction is guided by their past experiences and is not, for instance, random. Even if they consciously decide to be random, crazy, impetuous, this is only an aspect of their brain that called for departing from a first choice at that particular time, maybe simply to try and thwart my prediction and demonstrate their own free will.

All this is particularly pointless, however. Why we actually concern ourselves over free will doesn’t have anything to do with blindly following instinct, or with whether our past experience guides us irrevocably. The clue to this is when you think of phrases such as “against our will” – obviously, we have very limited functions within us that are truly involuntary, such as responding to pain or something getting in our eye. With a bit of effort, we can often overcome these, and exert our free will even over our own bodies.

No, the point really is whether or not we’re happy with our decisions, whether or not the behavior we engage in is, not voluntary, that’s not even necessary, but simply acceptable to us. That’s what we really want to have, isn’t it? Our past experience may tell us that a certain intersection is prone to idiots jumping the light, and this conditions us to be cautious when approaching it again. We don’t concern ourselves with whether this is an automatic function of our brains, nor with whether or not we can consciously overcome this if we wanted – instead, it’s obviously to our benefit to be wary. Or we may see a new restaurant, and impetuously decide to try it out – perhaps governed entirely by our hunger, desire for a better eating experience, time constraints, knowledge of that type of food, and so on. The impetuousness that we thought we had relies on a large number of factors, all of which may be dictated very specifically by the composition of our synapses – there was only one decision we were possibly going to make at that period in time, so we made it. This only bothers us if we feel that we don’t have control, because that lack of control may lead us someplace we don’t want to go. But the very nature of this determinism is that we approve of our decisions – it’s not involuntary, or at least not perceived as such.

This is where it becomes downright silly. We’ve got this concept, traditionally, in our culture now, and have a certain investment in it – “free will” is our ability to do as we please, not beholden to involuntary actions or reactions. It’s simply nonsense, a holdover from a time when we didn’t understand how our minds and bodies work, rooted in the fear of being unhappy – as well as being a feeble attempt to explain why a designed world seemed so random and callous to us, the Chosen Folk™. We had to have free will so we could choose, or not, to follow the deity’s rules. Why this was even necessary, why any such deity would base mankind’s entire mortal existence on whether or not we had the opportunity to be bad, still hasn’t been answered, and I suspect will continue that way as long as religion is viewed as useful. If you want to ponder it, you can also take a stab at whether one choice being punished with eternal torment constitutes anything remotely resembling “free.” When practiced across numerous cultures throughout history, it was considered “slavery,” but then again, no one could manage perpetual punishment, so maybe that’s the crucial difference?

All that has nothing to do with the plain fact that we function on past experience, for exceptionally good reasons, and act based on that experience. Would you have it any other way? We may jerk our hands away from a hot surface, or dodge a flying object. Does that bother us? Free will might be said to be the ability to plunge a sharp nail through our arm; survival and pain instincts, plus past experience, prevents us from doing it – do we have a problem with such self-preservation? We would have a much greater problem with having no such instincts, as well as engaging in truly random actions, even occasionally. Swerving in our traffic lane, for instance, or eating something unknown, just because we can. “Ha ha, look! I’m exercising free will!” Yes, perhaps very briefly.

It seems highly likely, given what we know about the makeup of our bodies and chemical reactions and so on, that our decisions really are deterministic. Given enough knowledge of brain synapses, for example, may mean we could predict the thoughts and actions of any individual. But so what? The amount of information that this would require, including the factors of the constant sensory input of experience, of merely living, is so far beyond our ability to capture, much less comprehend in real time, that such theoretical pursuits will likely remain forever theoretical. We could concern ourselves with the idea that it all has an inevitable conclusion, but so does every movie we watch, already committed as it is to celluloid (polycarbonate, silicon, whatever.) The places we plan to visit have a fixed set of properties, too: buildings here, oceans there, all distinctly determined – they don’t jump about at random. The appearance of a heron when I’m out pursuing photos might be deterministic as well, but I don’t know that. What we seek is the experience, the building of knowledge within that very organ that guides our actions, the brain. And these experiences provide different, and much greater, factors to build our actions upon – everything we learn colors our actions from that point on. That’s what interests and excites us, and always has (regardless of how you felt then or now about free will.) That’s all that’s really important.

Or is it Memorex?

I know I just did a comic, but this one was in progress beforehand. Regardless, I think Randall Munroe at xkcd understands:


I’m not much of a fan of philosophy, for several reasons, not the least of which that it can devote considerable time and effort into suppositions or posits that have little bearing on anything at all.

Plato’s Cave refers to a philosophical concept of how nature would be perceived by someone who could only see the shadows of people on the walls of the cave he was within, not the people themselves. It supposes that he would be happy with this, until he found out that the actual world held much more information and detail than he believed, whereupon he would find his former knowledge of mere shadows to be pitiable.

The comic also plays on a related concept, that of solipsism, which states that the only thing we can be sure of is that we exist; all else is perceptions. This is the idea expressed by Descartes when he said, “I think, therefore I am,” as well as the “brain in a vat” scenario: how do we know that we are really human beings experiencing the world, and not simply brains in a vat being fed simulated experiences by wire? How could we prove this?

Now that I’ve impressed everyone with name-dropping and conceptual knowledge, I can proceed to my standpoint on such: whoop de fucking shit. How can we tell? We can’t. So why bother?

The various “Matrix” (or “The Thirteenth Floor“) scenarios, where reality is something much removed from our perception, are fun to watch and contemplate, but they really don’t lead anywhere – they cannot, by nature. We’re a species set apart by our curiosity, our drive to figure out the puzzles and the causes, but scenarios like these can only deny this drive, ultimately petering out in frustration or confusion.

One of the more interesting aspects of philosophy, most especially in Plato’s time, is that it operates on the premise that truth can be divined by meticulous thought and logical debate; experimentation was actually eschewed. This attitude remains today in the occasional denigration of “materialism” and “methodological naturalism,” which underlie what we typical consider the scientific method. The emphasis was on how our minds could tease out the nature of the world without resorting to the physical limitations of the senses – an interesting (and, to my limited knowledge, unintentional) paradox since it failed to recognize the physical limitations of the brain itself. This may have been the fault of either the belief systems of the time, or simply conceit, by thinking that humans held a special place in the hierarchy of life – which also continues today to some extent.

This philosophical concept has been around for 2,500 years or so, and hasn’t really added a whole lot in all that time. Meanwhile, once observation and experimentation caught on, especially the parts where perception was required to be supported independently, our knowledge base expanded hugely. The past 100 years has been incredibly productive, starting to fathom even the workings of the very brain that is supposed to be contemplating the nature of reality. Medicine, astronomy, quantum physics, electromagnetic theory, biology, cosmology, evolution… all owe little to the idea of logical proof.

True, mathematics underlies much of experimentation, and mathematical/logical proof has been around for roughly the same amount of time. But mathematics is a bit hard to consider philosophy, unless you bend the definition to make it indistinguishable from much of anything else. Math, really just relationships between values, isn’t up for discussion and needs no appeal to reason. It’s also an abstract, and its applications to the natural world only approximations.

Science does not rely on proof and cannot – there is no amount of evidence or postulates that can demonstrate the irrevocable nature of something physical. Science relies instead on the weight of the evidence, probability rather than axioms. There are no absolutes. Even so, it still works amazingly well.

It almost certainly bothers some people that we cannot establish any facet of our knowledge beyond all doubt, but this is simply the nature of perception; beyond reasonable doubt, however, is attainable. Seeking perfection or absolutes is a pointless pursuit, but going with what functions dependably works just fine.

As for being a brain in a vat? Well, it’s likely that the beings inducing sensory input that we interpret as the real world get a real kick out of us wasting time contemplating “reality,” so I wouldn’t give them the pleasure, if I were you.

Meanwhile, you still have to relish the phrase, “There’s meat everywhere!”

Some changes a brewin’

Up until this point, this blog has been largely a singular effort, all posts but one guest book review being written by yours truly (what the hell does that even mean? I can barely call myself “mine truly.”) But now it appears this may be changing, because I’ve invited a few people to do some guest posts, or even become semi-regular contributors, and that offer may soon get taken advantage of.

This is great, as far as I’m concerned – there is no reason for me to hog all this adulation, and this space isn’t dedicated to any particular set of pursuits. We all have our own personalities and interests, and now you may get the opportunity to sample some more without the effort of clicking more links.

So watch the bylines now, and welcome the new facets that appear!

Is it faith?

I’m sorry, I’ve been doing a string of religious posts recently, and it’s because every time I turn around something else stirs some thoughts that I want to pass along. I’m trying to space them out with items of other interest, but because I know not everyone here necessarily wants to see me pick on religion all the time, I will break the post up between the teaser and the meat. Below, I’m going to approach the question of, basically, “Isn’t trusting science a form of faith?”

Continue reading “Is it faith?”

Yeah, that’s about right

Scenes From A Multiverse shows how parallelism works:
prayers to the same deity that initially caused the catastrophe are the most effective powerwise

Of course, the deity in an alternate universe like Aetherea IV might actually have a history of answering prayer, in which case such advice might be worth something. But in this one, even if anyone really believes in their deity, are they fulfilling their requirements for good works by chanting? I’m just wondering.

Yeah, I’m sure the whole mind-meld-with-the-maker thing is real convincing, but no one can argue that money (and hard work if there’s the opportunity) are effective, can they?

Ask me, and tell me

Two quick notes here. The first: I added a new standing page at top, “Ask An Atheist,” dedicated to fielding any questions anyone wants to throw specifically at an atheist. Credit to Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist for the idea. I’m game to just about anything – fire away!

Second, I noticed that my spam filter had improperly tagged a comment, and I’m not sure how often this happens. This site still gets plenty of spam, so I’ve been leaving the task to a common program, but it’s as dumb as most programs are. I only exclude spam or obvious trolls – I don’t censor comments, and feel that open exchange is very important. If your comment doesn’t appear within a day, let me know. If it was intentional, I’ll explain why – chances are it wasn’t. I honestly don’t like the idea that someone may be commenting, regardless of agreement or lack thereof, and not showing up.