Happy birthday Earth!

Isn’t that what “Earth Day” means? Nobody seems to know exactly what year we’re celebrating (some say 4,542,368,926, some say 4,542,368,933 – I mean, c’mon, scientists!) and I’ve always wondered how they figured out what day the Earth was formed anyway. It coalesced out of the accretion disk, a cloud of dust and rocky debris, so when is it “done”?


But anyway, I’ll just make this brief post to urge you to go outside for at least a little while today, and pay attention to the non-concrete-and-asphalt bits around you. Sure, you should make the effort to be green, and that’s fine, but this isn’t about scolding – it’s simply about recognizing the interesting functions of the world that go on without our intervention or influence. We can be awfully self-centered as a species, so much so that it takes extra effort to see what else is going on – silly but true. So go out, and listen to the birdsong, and try to figure out what function it’s performing. Look at the leaves and flowers and see how they unfold from the base where the nutrients come from, or how they capture water. Watch an insect run right smack into a wall and realize that they treat flight differently than other species.

And if you miss your chance today, then do it tomorrow instead – it’s not like there’s only one day a year where this is allowed or encouraged. I’ll be back with any interesting things that I’ve captured or observed, later on.

My apologies, again

If you’ve been trying to access the blog in the past few hours and were running into issues, it’s all my doing. I’ve been trying to get through a list of upgrades, and it means lots of trials, shutting things off and back on, and so on.

The up side is, there’s a few more options available, some of which I’ve implemented. The down side is, I’m not done yet, but this is probably as far as I go tonight.

While I like the Atahualpa WordPress theme, the initial install was an old version that didn’t upgrade to the latest without major errors, so I left it alone for a while. I finally walked it through several versions tonight, but it’s stalled again at 3.6+; there are known issues, but so far the remedies haven’t worked for me.

Anyway, it’s better, but not current. I apologize for any issues you may have had.

Full of sound and fury

In these times when banks demonstrated that they couldn’t be trusted with the enormous responsibility that they were given, leading to economic horror stories and an unstable job market, it’s refreshing to see our administration putting a lot of effort into actions that can only improve our situation.

I’m talking, of course, about Ten Commandments Weekend and the push to have plaques with the commandments installed on courthouse or state capitol properties across the nation. And here, I thought a national day of prayer couldn’t possibly be topped for positive action.

Oh, no, you’re thinking. Here’s goes another atheist off on a rant about some benign christian activities. But you’re wrong – I actually approve of the actions. You see, if anyone is brain-damaged enough to think that this is functional in some way, and if the populace is childish enough to vote for anyone like that, these things are good to know. It’s like when they put “Student Driver” on the backs of cars – it’s just that extra little bit of warning, you know?

The idea behind this, or so it’s claimed, is that the ten commandments are the cornerstone of our laws and morals, and so we need to be, um, reminded of what they are, I guess, because a knowledge of the specific laws (that everyone manages just fine) isn’t enough. We need to know just where they came from, so we thank christians (or is it jews?) for their input in making us safe. I think.

To be honest, I really don’t know why this is being promoted, because it sends a very distinct message that people are total fucking morons. A quick perusal of the ten commandments (any version you prefer because, as has been noted countless times now, there are several versions in the same damn collection of scripture) will show that their usefulness is about on a par with looking both ways before you cross the street and not swimming for an hour after eating. Some of them are useful (don’t kill, don’t steal) but do we really need to be reminded of these? It seems kind of ignorant to think that we needed these to create laws when chimpanzees and wolves have much the same social structure, you know? And then others are simply superfluous. “Honor they father and mother” – do we actually have any laws based on this? Are there laws that specifically denote “father” and “mother” in any kind of special way, so that you’re in violation if you’re not honoring them? And what exactly constitutes “honor”?

[A quick note: you did notice that “Thou shalt not kill” doesn’t specify humans, didn’t you? That leaves rocks and dirt for food, provided you carefully sweep off the microorganisms first. Just a reminder.]

George Carlin pointed out long ago that coveting your neighbor’s wife or property is not exactly enforceable, since they’re “thought crimes” and if you find that your neighbor’s wife is hot (husbands are not mentioned, because gender bias is something god approves of,) a plaque in the courthouse foyer isn’t going to correct that in any way – unless, perhaps, she works in the courthouse. You’d think god would have figured this one out. But worse, coveting property is what actually motivates us to improve; we pay for houses, cars, and so on by working harder and earning more money. They’re the neighbor’s possessions until we pay for them, aren’t they? And in most cases we actually need them, even if we don’t need them to be as elaborate as they might be. These are just vague and misdirected commandments, really.

The first few are the most amusing, however. “I am god,” yeah, fine, too bad you always manage to speak through proxies, mister omnipotent. “Don’t pay attention to those other gods” – wait, what other gods? Am I the only one to notice that this says either that there are more than just the one, or that it’s really easy to mistake something else for a god? Again, you’d think telling a real god apart should be rather easy, but I guess not, so I suppose we should always ask for ID. And let’s not forget, “Don’t take my name in vain.” Now, as far as I’m concerned, you can do any damn thing you want with my name, because seriously, that’s playground shit. But it seems there’s an issue about this when you’re omnipotent. Anyway, it serves the cornerstone of our laws – you can look up the very laws that were influenced by these anytime. Just like keeping the sabbath holy – we need these laws! If people were to work on Sundays (or maybe Saturdays – moses was jewish after all) and cuss, there’d be total chaos! People! Take a stand for morality! And if you lop your hand off on the weekend, just wait for Monday when the hospitals reopen. Ice is cheap for that very reason.

Yes, it’s a damn good thing our representatives and congressmen are fighting to maintain such wonderful standards! We need to know the history of the laws themselves! History is a good thing – we can relive mistakes if we fail to understand the important lessons of history. You know, like theocratic states and allowing religion to dictate government. Oh, wait, I didn’t just remind everyone that government itself isn’t religious (there’s this little thing about taking oaths to that very effect as they assume office) and that we’re supposed to be open to any and all religions as part of the guaranteed freedoms – did I?

So, yeah, I’m very much in favor of any representative, congressman, senator, mayor, or ombudsman who parades their abject ignorance so publicly. It makes it much easier to tell them apart come election time. I even pay attention to how much public support such things have, because it’s far easier than trying to administer IQ tests to the populace, and less time-consuming than putting a box of rocks in front of them and seeing if they can outsmart it.

But maybe I’ve got this all wrong. Perhaps those nice upstanding politicians recognize that religion is waning in this country, and are taking steps to counteract this. We all know that, a few hundred years ago when religion was omnipresent and many countries were governed by holy authority, there was no crime at all. Thing were much better then, especially when you could burn the witches and ward off demonic possession with blessings and holy water. When the churches helped most people through the eye of the needle and into heaven by relieving them of their filthy riches, taking the onus of damnation on themselves by hoarding the wealth of the populace. Ah, good times!

Unlike today, when things are so shitty and armageddon is coming… soon. Any day now, really. It says so right here in the scripture, if you can figure the rebus out. A church on every corner, godly slogans on currency and pledges, illness-survivors and sports figures crediting god for their triumphs, these just aren’t enough to hold back the atheist horde; the US needs plaques! Atheists can’t stand plaques – we can’t cross running water either. This country will get back on a fine moral footing with plaques.

Anyway, it’s not like the members of our government are being funded by the taxpayers to provide specific functions or anything, so who cares what they get up to?

I can imagine someone saying that it’s really all just a ploy by politicians to appear pious and moral and trustworthy, but seriously, can you really buy that? The premise requires people, especially religious people, to be weak-minded enough to find these actions worthwhile and a higher priority than, say, politicians simply doing their jobs. That they believe those particular politicians firmly follow the commandments against lying, stealing, and adultery. There aren’t that many criminally na├»ve chuckleheads out there, are there?

Naaaah.

It’s hungry!

I do have mercy on my four readers sometimes, and can avoid umpteen-hundred-word posts once in a while. So, click in the box and feed the poor little treefrog.


Though possessing an unsophisticated amphibian brain, this sticky-fingered exophthalmic learns amazingly fast – leave the cursor in one place and it’ll simply wait for the meals to appear.

Even better, now I’ve found a way to fund this site. Each click donates one dollar from your PayPal account!

Okay, that’s not true – you know you need to actually sign into your account to do that. But the guy that figures out how to rig that to actually work will make a fortune in a day or so before people catch on.

You’re going to go check your account now, aren’t you?

Get your own frog, or others, from aBowman. I would have gone with the spider but that would creep too many people out. And he doesn’t have any alligators yet…

I like spring

I know you count on me for much deeper, more profound statements than the title, but as a nature photographer and just someone who likes playing in the mud, I go through a kind of withdrawal during the winter months, and so I’m quite happy to see the explosion of natural things to capture interest when spring rolls around. All of these, by the way, are extensions of the same day of shooting I posted about previously, really about two hour’s worth, all in a local park.


Above, the catchment basin for water drainage that featured the praying mantises and grasshopper had the typical vernal occupants, the tadpoles. My hand is in a shallow culvert where the edge of the drain pipe had formed a very narrow channel for outflow, and the current proved stronger than the tails of these little guys – they had been carried in by the flow, and were unable to get back out to the greater pond area. Since, as I type this, we have gone through three fierce rainstorms in the intervening time, the water level has no doubt risen remarkably, and thus the narrow flow channel is gone – they are likely able to rejoin the pond now.


Not far away ran the creek which, while shallow and narrow, features two beaver dams and its own collection of spring evidence. Here, my patience allowed this minnow to return to his (most likely it’s a male) spawning pit, a depression that fish clear by thrashing away silt, and sometimes by nudging debris with their snouts and carrying away gravel in their mouths. Since the upstream path from this had a distinctive gravel deposit, I consider this likely, but identifying minnows from this kind of angle is difficult at best. The pit serves as a collective area where the newborn fry are free from too much current, and the parents can keep track of them easily, able to protect them within the smaller space. This one was very much aware of my presence, so I was required to hold still for a few minutes, camera raised, until he posed by his construction.

The lepidoptera are making their gradual return, as well. On the walk back, I spotted a heavily-bloomed vine that The Girlfriend told me is a Carolina Yellow Jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens,) being visited by a female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus.) The males of this species are very similar to the Black Swallowtail, being predominantly black – it’s lucky this matches the name, or it might have been confusing. The Blacks were the ones who raided our parsley patch one year. There is a benefit to either maintaining a varied garden or planters, or letting at least a portion of your yard go wild: it attracts so much more in the way of interesting insects and wildlife. If you’re active in nature photography, convincing them to come to you certainly helps.

It’s very easy to say that the swallowtails are the most common butterflies in this area of North Carolina, but this is not likely to be true: the swallowtails are among the biggest and easiest to spot, very distinctive when around (and often mistakenly identified as the deep orange Monarchs,) but the smaller ones outnumber the larger species by a significant margin – we simply fail to notice them as much.

Below, a Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis) pauses to grab some hydration at the edge of the catch basin. While everybody thinks of butterflies as drinking only from flowers, they need supplemental water and minerals too, and it’s not uncommon to see them feeding from other things, especially mudflats. They like salt, and I’ve convinced them to remain on my hand in butterfly houses by wiping the sweat from my forehead; I also have several photos of a cluster of butterflies that were quite happy over fresh raccoon feces. Seems unsavory, but one species’ trash is another’s treasure, and nature isn’t inclined to follow the preconceptions that we possess of pretty things.

At the same time, I have issues with descriptions such as, “red in tooth and claw,” simply because predation isn’t this evil or vicious thing that humans tend to make it out to be, either. Everything dies, everything suffers, at one point or another – that’s life. While it’s okay to have empathy and to want to avoid unnecessary suffering, for ourselves or any other species, this shouldn’t extend to making judgment calls on supposed “morality” or the appropriateness of natural interactions, most especially from a standpoint of how appealing, or unappealing, any participant is. I’ve had to remind people of this quite often, as they want to protect their birdfeeders from hawks, or birdhouses from snakes, or gardens from rabbits and deer. It’s all part of the system.

So now, let me take this opportunity to try an experiment. I’ve been thinking of soliciting readers’ own photos of local flora and fauna and putting up a special page, but I haven’t the faintest idea of whether there’s interest in this or not. That’s where you come in. If you’re interested in this, let me know in the comments. I’m only an amateur naturalist, but I’ll do my best to help identify species, behavior, and any other questions you might have as well. Should it prove popular enough, I’ll go ahead and set up a new gallery.

Thanks for your help!

Half a century

Fifty years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space, as well as the first to orbit the planet, beginning what is widely considered the Space Age of human development and accomplishments. For the first time, we left the planet and set foot among the stars.

Well, okay, that’s being a bit dramatic. We’d been leaving the planet for quite a while, just not very far. In fact, when you attempt to define things distinctly, it all becomes kind of muddled. The frontier of “space,” as opposed to simply “in the air,” isn’t able to be defined at all except arbitrarily – the air simply keeps getting thinner and thinner as you get further from the surface. No, dammit, not even that, but further from the Earth’s gravitational center, and to be honest, this is more like the Earth-Moon’s gravitational center, which isn’t the center of Earth at all. But anyway, “space” is not really a line you can cross, it’s just a convenient figure for some particular purpose, which may vary with the purpose. The International Space Station, orbiting higher than Gagarin’s maximum altitude of 327 km (203 mi,) needs periodic reboosts in altitude (orbital velocity – I’ll deal with that in a later post) because atmospheric drag causes it to lose altitude. So it’s not really entirely out of the atmosphere, and Gagarin certainly wasn’t. But the air was thin enough that it’s all a matter of semantics, really. Science is kind of muddy that way.

Gagarin’s flight holds entirely different perspectives depending on what nationality you are. The Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States carried a lot of different baggage – to the populace of either country, it was a matter of pride, accomplishment, and a bit of “in your face” competition to demonstrate which country was the bestest. To the military of either country, it was a tense battle between superpowers to see if either would gain a significant weapons and intelligence advantage by utilizing orbital and sub-orbital vehicles. To many of those outside of these two, it was a spectator sport of watching two countries pouring huge resources into dominance issues, some of which might overflow into drastic effects for any country near either of them, or indeed, for most of the globe. The Cold War was in full force, and no one really knew just how likely global thermonuclear war was, but it certainly didn’t help to watch the posturing of the US and USSR.

In the US, Gagarin’s flight (being a major accomplishment of the Soviet Union) was both a blow to morale, and a galvanizing issue: okay, you guys got first person in space (and, for that matter, first orbital satellite, too,) but we’re going to top that. It’s hard to say if landing someone on the moon topped that, really. It was certainly a bigger accomplishment, but we’d already lost the race for three other firsts (satellite, human in space, human orbiting the planet, which we didn’t even accomplish until our second manned spaceflight, with John Glenn – Alan Shepard only did a suborbital hop, less than Sputnik.)

What’s funny is, while I was growing up the US perspective was pushed fiercely, and the US accomplishments were focused upon. As a follower of the whole space program, I was disturbed to find out many years along that we were behind the Soviets for much of it. Not disturbed from the accomplishment or pride standpoint, but because the info was seriously downplayed in our media, even in the various books I grew up with. I knew Shepard and Glenn, Armstrong and Aldrin and Collins, but had never heard the name, “Gagarin.” Or how about “Tereshkova” – know that one? You should – Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, and while I’m slightly against even making distinctions of gender, the Soviets did it in 1963 – the US didn’t follow suit until almost exactly twenty years later with Sally Ride.

It’s all a remarkably interesting, and active, point in world history, and certainly worth knowing more about. Even without the various dubious “accomplishments,” the space programs contributed tremendous amounts to our development and technology, which is where the real accomplishments lie. Younger people (younger than I, anyway) perhaps take it for granted that we have satellite communications, GPS navigation, and photos of other planets and moons, but it wasn’t all that long ago that these were nothing more than science fiction – notice the older sci-fi movies that show a bare, unclouded Earth from space! It’s very damn cool, and whether you want to credit Gagarin as the leader or not, it’s all part of a vast culture of technology that is of great historical significance. Check it out!

This defines, “irony”

Until you read it, anyway:

Pearls Before Swine

Pearls Before Swine, where only the adult male crocodiles are stupid.

Odd memories, part five

I was raised, nominally, catholic, which just goes to show you that environment is not completely responsible for how someone turns out. But for a while in my early years, I not only attended church, but also “Sunday school,” which gives you the right idea even though it was held on a Saturday, probably somebody’s sadistic idea of keeping kids from cartoons. The armchair religio-psychotherapists reading this can have a field day with speculating if they like, since I did indeed resent being kept from the Pink Panther every week.

Anyway, one particular Saturday, I was dropped off by my dad in the usual spot, only to find that nobody was around – school for that day appeared to have been canceled. Bear in mind I was only five or six at this point, and now all alone a good distance away from where I lived. My dad also had to drop off my sister at a different location just down the road, so I hurried out to the main road to see if I could catch him on the way back past.

This was before it was determined that I needed glasses, and my distance eyesight was pretty bad. Mind you, this had led to some issues at real school (you know, where one learns useful things) as well, because parents sometimes just can’t see things through their child’s eyes, or more specifically, the way a child does. When asked if I could see the chalkboard, my answer was always, “Of course” – it was that big black fuzzy rectangular shape at the front of the class. Eventually, they got around to asking if I could read what was on it, and I got to make my first visit to the ophthalmologist. This was all later than the event I’m relating – stop sidetracking me.

Anyway, I saw a car pull out of the parking lot of the distant church annex where my sister attended her own Saturday school, and figuring it was my dad, I cheekily stuck out my thumb like a hitchhiker. As the car drew close, however, I determined this was not at all my father, and put my hand down, but too late. The windowless unmarked white van car drew up alongside and the driver inquired if I was okay, as if he’d never seen a six-year-old hitching a ride before (hey, some people lead sheltered lives.)

I explained the situation, and he was pretty insistent that he take me someplace safe so we could contact my parents, but even in those ancient times, parents cautioned their children about getting in cars (maybe it was chariots) with strangers. There wasn’t a hell of a lot else I could do, though, and we ended up only around the block at the house of the priest who led Sunday mass every week, father Whosenameescapesme.

Now, due to the marvelous reliance on euphemisms within religion, and the various things my parents and the Saturday school proctors had told me, and confusion about the various ways “father” is used, at this point in my life I was convinced that father Whosenameescapesme was, literally, god. He could be everywhere, couldn’t he? So of course he led mass each week, in our church and everyone else’s. It will interest you to know that god is tall, slender, with very short blond hair – pretty young-looking, despite Michelangelo’s and Monty Python’s misleading portrayals. I thought it was fairly cool that my dad could stop and chat with him after the service (god, I mean, not Monty Python, which would have been much cooler,) as if they were good friends. I know lots of people say they do this all the time, but my dad got answers!

It is, of course, another thing to a six-year-old. Here I was, waiting in god’s own house for my dad to come pick me up. I was raised pretty easy on the whole eternal-torment-in-fire thing (this was New Jersey, not the deep south,) but there was still a very distinct upbringing of “right” and “wrong,” and believe me, you start trying to remember every item on that list when you’re standing around in god’s living room. I touched nothing – I didn’t even sit down. I didn’t quite stand at attention, but I radiated innocence, as well as a jigger of fear, I’m sure. So father Whosenameescapesme, astutely sensing my unease, left me to my own devices until my dad showed, though if he’d possessed (heh!) even a faintly impish sense of humor he could have had a blast. Everyone but me ultimately thought it was amusing, especially when I made it clear the hitchhiking thing was a joke, not intended for anyone but my dad, so the only punishment I received was forty minutes of trauma not touching god’s stuff and hoping my shoes were clean enough. Of course, I remember this more than any chewing out that I ever received.

You’ll be interested to know that god’s living room is not terribly modern, dark and wood-paneled with anemic lighting (yeah, go figure) and his taste seems to run towards antiques. Actually, I think he lives with his mother.

Later, after being freed from this weekend onus (of which you’ve just heard my most distinct memory,) I established that Saturday morning cartoons are truly the bad influence that we’ve all been told.

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.