It’s the Best Time Ever to Be Alive – Make It Even Better in 2018

Adam & Eve Driven From Eden

Driven out of paradise for our sins

Humanity is not going to hell in a hand basket. We have problems, crises, and dire threats that we must tackle, but once in a while, lift your head up from your phone/tablet/TV and be encouraged.

Steven Pinker tells us the long arc of human history bends away from war, towards commerce and expanding sympathy for others. In a more immediate timeframe, a New York Times columnist writes that 2017 was the best year ever.

We, naturally, focus on our own current problems. But consider the whole world:

I’m actually upbeat, because I’ve witnessed transformational change [in 2017]…. A smaller share of the world’s people were hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before. The proportion disfigured by leprosy, blinded by diseases like trachoma or suffering from other ailments also fell. Nicholas Kristof

He cites statistics regarding illiteracy, extreme poverty, and childhood death rates (once, two-thirds of parents had a child die before age 5) all vastly improved in our lifetimes.

If that’s too far away for you, consider America in the 1950s:

the U.S. had segregation, polio and bans on interracial marriage, gay sex and birth control… it was a time of nuclear standoffs, of pea soup smog, of frequent wars, of stifling limits on women.

Nostalgia has always been attractive. Ancient Greeks wrote of a past Golden Age when a Golden Race of people enjoyed a perfect life. Hindu and Norse cultures have similar stories, and the Bible describes a succession of kingdoms in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 2) as degenerating from gold, to silver, bronze, iron, and finally to clay. Clay – that’s us.

It’s very human to yearn for a past that never was, or maybe for a time in our own lives when we were young, optimistic, and unburdened. But, as a famous wizard observed, “it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

Take Kristof’s advice to heart: let our triumphs empower you to tackle the mortal threats we face. Let’s make 2018 the best year ever.

Why Show Their Faces?

Colorado lost another law enforcement officer last weekend, a young husband and father, killed in an ambush perpetrated by a deranged cop-hater who staged a domestic disturbance and shot up the responders from behind his bedroom door.  To compound his unspeakable act, he live-streamed the entire atrocity on social media.

As shocking and disturbing as this cold-blooded act was, it was compounded by TV stations’  unfathomable decision to air parts of this evil bastard’s broadcast on the nightly news. Bad enough that the news media repeated his name and paraded his life history in front of the world, but to give him actual face time?  Exactly what purpose does that serve? The gunman died in the lethal exchange so outing him removed no threat to the community, in fact quite the opposite.  Showing his face and his sick manifesto  only serves to provoke and encourage other sick, angry individuals to seek media glory by imitating him. That, and adding to the misery of those closest to the people he hurt.

I am sick and angry, too.  Sick of seeing the names and faces of these killers plastered on the same screens as the grieving families and colleagues of their victims.  Angry that our mass media puts ratings above the feelings of violence victims.  Purveyors of “news” are fond of excusing such behavior by citing the public’s “right to know.”  What about our right to not know?

If one media outlet would have the spine to keep the names and faces of mass killers out of its stories I would be a viewer for life.  As for the rest of them I will wait, in vain I’m sure, for an explanation.

Running Out of Badjectives

Michael Wolff’s latest literary offering, Fire and Fury, Inside the Trump White House, hits bookstores this week, and looks to be a best-seller.  Whether it should make the NYT list in the fiction or non-fiction category will probably depend on one’s political affiliation, but whatever the source of review the book will certainly carry the adjective “controversial” in front of it.  Nothing assures a book’s success like controversy, and coming from the pen (keyboard?) of Wolff, whose reputation for historical accuracy will never be confused with that of, say, David McCullough, this work is on pace to sell millions.  Which begs a question.

Ever since Donald Trump first appeared in the public eye, descriptions of his behavior have exhausted the list of synonyms for “bad”.  He is widely acknowledged to have exaggerated his business acumen, cheated on his wives, stiffed his contractors and suppliers, personally attacked every critic with vitriol and immediacy, bullied other men, verbally and physically harassed women, and pretty much lied about all of it.  And that was before he ran for President.  Since he has been in office, he has done nothing but double down on these character flaws.  He has tried to intimidate the press, bad-mouthed judges, embarrassed and emasculated (sorry, Betsy D and Ms. Chao, Nielsen and Haley) his cabinet, alienated our allies, provoked our enemies – I could go on, but you get the idea.

The question I would pose is:  How much more Trump dirt can possibly be found between the covers of Wolff’s exposé than what we have already had sprayed in our faces?  Does anyone think that Wolff, from his spot on the White House couch, has managed to gather any tidbits of scandalous gossip that Robert Mueller, with his hundreds of FBI agents and his bottomless subpoena power, has overlooked?  Or that anything he can offer his readers about Trump’s vindictiveness and immaturity can equal the revealing content of the President’s own Tweets?

Even if every sentence of Fire and Fury is absolutely true, It is not likely to tell us anything about Donald Trump that we haven’t already figured out.  I don’t need to pony up $29.95 to be privy to the knowledge that our President is narcissistic, ignorant, duplicitous, nefarious, cold-blooded, inarticulate, thin-skinned, juvenile, lascivious, add-your-own-badjective-here.  Unfortunately I, and pretty much every other citizen of the world, already have that information.

Michael Wolff will likely get rich from this book, wherever Barnes and Noble decides to shelve it.  But if Wolff wants to interest me in a tell-all Trump tome it had better reveal an impeachable offense by page 5.  Otherwise, no sale.  I have seen all the dirt on Trump I can stand.

Message Undeliverable

The special Senatorial election in Alabama is over, and the era of the political earthquake continues.  Voters in this reddest of red states, a year after elevating a clinically narcissistic, linguistically challenged, misogynistic Republican to the country’s highest office, decided for the first time in 25 years to send a Democrat to Washington.  Both parties were quick to get on message about the result.  Both messages are predictably laden with partisan spin, and are a sad indication that neither party has gotten the real message.

Republicans assured us that Doug Jones’s win was not a refutation of Donald Trump or his/their policies, and that Roy Moore would have won easily if not for a Democrat-orchestrated smear campaign.  A more reasonable assessment might be that Alabama voters couldn’t stomach being represented by Moore, an accused sexual predator who also happens to be Elmer Gantry on steroids.  His alleged mall-trolling aside, Moore is a disgusting anachronism even in the Deep South, and his loss was a gift to the Republican party at a time when its image is already layered in mud.  Making the best of President Donald J. Trump has put the GOP on shaky moral and ethical ground, and having to support and defend Moore any longer would have stripped Republicans of any pretense of decency that might be left to them.  They already seemed hellbent on stripping themselves of any vestige of fiscal conservatism by concocting a tax reform plan that drills a trillion-dollar hole in the concept of a balanced Federal budget.  Has the Party of Lincoln become the party of misogyny and hypocrisy?

At the other end of Dream Street, Democrats are telling us that Jones’s victory is a referendum on all things Republican and the first falling rock of a liberal landslide that will return Congress to Dem control no later than 2020.  To prepare for this glorious occasion, the party has initiated a Reform Convention the apparent goal of which is to codify more, not fewer, extreme planks in its platform.  The Dems’ bewildering takeaway from the presidential election continues to be that Hillary Clinton was not liberal enough, and their response will be to anoint an aging, blustering European Socialist the party’s de facto standard-bearer.  Even if Bernie Sanders doesn’t run in 2020, whoever the Democrats nominate will be mouthing his words.  At a time when most Americans want to see more cordiality in Congress, the Democrats seem prepared to declare a full-blown class war.  In a country that pollsters say is still moderately conservative, this approach may get headlines, but will it get votes?  In his victory address Jones, a former US Attorney, sounded like a moderate Democrat.  How will he fit into the Party of Bernie?

So as the world of politics as we thought we knew it provides yet another election night surprise, both Republicans and Democrats appear unable to see beyond their respective dogmas. As both camps retreat further from the political center, are voters to be stuck choosing between government by the Old Testament and take-no-prisoners Populism?

Hopefully not.  A Centrist movement is gaining momentum nationwide, and every time the American electorate is presented with a lesser-of-two-evils choice by the two-party system, that movement gets a little stronger.

How much longer are we going to allow the political extremes to pick our candidates?  I’ll bet that many Alabama Republicans are asking themselves that question right about now.  And if the Bernie Revolution comes to fruition, many Democrats will be asking it as well.

I’ve Always Believed We’re Stuck With Republicans and Democrats – Maybe I’m Wrong

Maine is a small state. It seems like a world away to me, living in rural New Mexico. But Maine has accomplished something – by intent or by happenstance – that could lead the nation.

Independents in the Maine state legislature now hold the balance of power. A “fulcrum” of 6 independents and 1 Green Party member has denied both major parties a majority.
The 74 Democrats and 69 Republicans in the chamber must now work with either each other and/or the bloc of independents to pass legislation. Rep. Martin Grohman, a former Democrat, recently disaffiliated from his party because he thinks he can accomplish more as an independent. centristproject.org

One of the depressing aspects of the last presidential election was the pitiful choice given voters. I believed voting for a third party candidate or staying home was a waste of my vote. Maybe independents do offer a way out of our current partisan mess to a brighter future. And all hope is not lost for the traditional parties.

Maine Senator Susan Collins is a perfect example of the outsized influence that principled, centrist politicians could have. Collins is a moderate Republican who demonstrated the power of bucking party bosses.

Be sure to watch for independents in state and local elections, and for third parties and moderate ‘Pubs and Dems’ who may lose their primaries but run as independents. Sanity can return and moderates can regain their voice. I know it can happen because it has happened.

Plutonium – the Most Deadly Substance Known to Man – I Heard That Someplace…

Pu238 powers spacecraft

Pu238 power source for Mars rover Curiosity

Long time readers know we once worked in the American Nuclear Weapons Complex and, specifically, at the Rocky Flats Plant. This blog began when the excellent, first-hand account An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats was published. Since then we’ve ranged far away from Rocky Flats.

Today I’d like to return to my transuranic roots, as it were. Plutonium-239 is an effective bomb because it’s relatively easy to handle in a military setting.

Don’t misunderstand me. It’s still a bomb, and a powerful and scary bomb at that. It must be guarded against misuse, whether accidental or intentional. But the plutonium inside is not terribly radioactive as it sits there (not compared to some medical isotopes) and, provided you keep it contained so no plutonium dusts are inhaled and it doesn’t catch fire, it doesn’t present a huge danger. Not even to Navy personnel who practically sit on nuclear warheads in submarines.

But that’s about radiation. What about toxicity?

Plutonium recently appeared on one of my favorite sites, Skeptoid. The researcher and host, Brian Dunning, periodically posts corrections to past podcasts, and posted this:

I mentioned plutonium as being the most toxic substance known… It’s one of those bits of pop culture knowledge that I uncritically parroted.

[A listener responded.]

The myth of extreme plutonium toxicity can be traced to unsubstantiated statements made by Ralph Nader and other anti-nuclear activists of the 1970s. He was challenged by renowned health physicist, Dr. Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh, who offered to ingest the amount of plutonium that Nader considered lethal.

I don’t know that I’d volunteer to swallow a dose of plutonium. The government would follow me to collect all my bodily effluvia for way too long to be convenient. But, yeah, as a healthy adult it would mostly pass through me, with little being dissolved or absorbed.

Dunning’s listener provided a link to “a list of substances…which are determined to pose the most significant potential threat to human health due to their known or suspected toxicity and potential for human exposure. Plutonium appears at number 120.” An American federal public health agency keeps the list here. The benzene used at Rocky Flats, once common in college and commercial labs, is more hazardous.

(In case you’re wondering, arsenic, lead, and mercury top the list, followed by vinyl chloride and polychlorinated biphenyls.)

The list was prepared for “substances that are most commonly found at facilities” at hazardous waste sites being cleaned up by the government. Plutonium was not commonly used at such sites. Fallout from old above-ground testing is everywhere, however, so if plutonium were the most hazardous substance known to man (a phrase I recall reading) it would be present at all sites, and should show up higher than #120.

This doesn’t mean the hazards of plutonium should be ignored or that clean-ups are unnecessary. It means that anyone, even a fine researcher, may repeat common claims without much consideration – inculcated, to use a favorite word, by repetition. That’s an error we’re all likely to fall into from time to time. We humans are more likely to believe something if we hear it over and over. I hope, when I’m corrected, I’m as gracious as Dunning.