Book Review:  Concrete Economics, by Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong

This isn’t a normal book review, because I’m not going to plug this book.  More the opposite, actually.

Concrete Economics is in most respects a traditional work in that field.  For openers it is literally a cure for insomnia.  I read at night before bed – in bed – a practice most sleep experts say is likely to ruin your nocturnal regimen, and I have had more than a few nights “ruined” by the likes of Michael Lewis and Oliver Sachs.  After a few pages of Cohen and DeLong I was usually more than ready to turn out the light.  At 170 pages, this tome that should have been a one-sitting read for me took nearly a month to finish.  Even by the standards of the Drear Science, this book was a slog.

The authors’ style is heavy with one paragraph sentences, multi-syllable words and overly formal vernacular.  For example: “The East Asian Economies were eager to build up their manufacturing capacity and capability, and our ideologically motivated redesign of the American economy told us that we didn’t really care, because we didn’t really want those sectors.”  Did I mention the mixed metaphors?  “Alexander Hamilton: the only individual who may have been more than the tip of the spearhead of the heavy shaft of an already-thrown, near-consensus view on pragmatic economic policy.”  I nearly fell asleep typing that.

The book came highly touted by Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate and oracle of Progressive economics, so I expected to disagree with much if not all of the content.  I was (mostly) wrong.

Lost style points aside, the authors make a fair case that some economic planning by the Federal government is essential to the success of the Republic (italics mine, certainly not Krugman’s).  Early on they discuss the formative post-Revolutionary policies of Hamilton, who pushed the fledgling US government to assume the colonies’ war debt, establish a central bank and, most crucially, pass a series of tariffs designed to protect America’s emerging manufacturing sector.  The only way the country could gain real economic independence, argued Hamilton, was to industrialize. The plan worked well.  US makers were soon thriving and the tariffs protecting them were the government’s main source of revenue until the advent of the income tax.

Hamilton’s protective tariff model was adopted by Japan and, later, China as those countries struggled to join the Industrial Revolution.  Contemporary fans include our current president, who would also appreciate the authors’ use of words like “huger.”  I think they meant, “more bigly.” Continue reading

Lukewarming

The subtitle of this cleverly titled book is “The New Climate Science That Changes Everything.” Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. Knappenberger have done themselves proud with a book that should make climate change “Deniers” more comfortable (except, of course, that there are those who want to criminally prosecute them). Those who believe there is a pending climatic disaster will be less comfortable reading the book. The best way for me to begin this combination commentary and review is to quote from the back cover. “In Lukewarming, two environmental scientists explain the science and spin behind the headlines and come to a provocative conclusion: climate change is real, and partially man-made, but it is becoming obvious that more warming has been forecast than will occur, with some of the catastrophic impacts implausible or impossible. Global warming is more lukewarm than hot. This fresh analysis is an invaluable source for those looking to be more informed about global warming and the data behind it.” Continue reading

Hail, Caesar!

This is a first for this website as a review and commentary about a movie. The main characters of the movie are Josh Brolin (the “Hollywood Fixer”) and George Clooney as Baird Whitlock (the intellectually-shallow movie star). (Clooney does an excellent job of portraying an actor who speaks lines with passion while not really understanding what the lines might mean.) Other characters in the Joel and Ethan Coen production include Channing Tatum and Scarlet Johnansson. The movie is mostly a spoof of 1950s Hollywood productions, including one that mimics an Ester Williams movie titled Million Dollar Mermaid. Another is a song and dance movie that has strong homosexual innuendo featuring Tatum as one of several sailors. All of that was moderately interesting, but my main interest was in the theme that many Hollywood writers were Communists.

The main story of the movie is that Whitlock, who is playing Caesar, is kidnapped by Hollywood writers who call themselves a “Study Group” and “The Future.” The script of the movie explains that Whitlock is allowed to mingle with his kidnappers. There is a bit of foreshadowing when one of the kidnappers calls his dog Engels (Friedrick Engels collaborated with Karl Marx). As Whitlock is being served finger sandwiches and photographed for the group’s newsletter he has to listen to a character spouting difficult to understand economic theory. A spokesperson then explains to Whitlock that the movie studio “.  .  .is a pure instrument of Capitalism.” “And so Baird Whitlock found himself in the hands of Communists.” Whitlock is told, “.  .  .until quite recently our study group had a narrow focus. We concentrated on getting Communist content into motion pictures.” There is a scene where someone is sorting what must have been Party membership cards signed by Gus Hall, a leader of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA).

The House Un-American Activities Committee (which included Representative Richard Nixon) held highly publicized hearings searching for Communists in Hollywood in the late 1940s. A frequent assessment by the entertainment industry and news media in the years to follow charged that many actors and writers had their reputations unfairly smeared and their work blackballed because of accusations that they were Communists. The movie suggests the Coen brothers believe the accusations had a factual basis. The movie even includes a night scene where Tatum is rowed by his comrades to a rendezvous with a Soviet submarine. Tatum jumps aboard the sub as one of his mates calls out, “Comrade, We salute you! You are going to Moscow to become a Soviet Man and help forge the future. We stay behind, continuing in our disguise as capitalist handmaidens.”

My wife and I watched the movie on cable and agreed that we were pleased we hadn’t paid to see it when it was in theatres. Watching the movie was less entertaining than reading the script and thinking about what I wanted to write.

Twilight of the Bombs

This book by Richard Rhodes has the long subtitle, “Recent challenges, New Dangers, and Prospects for a World without Nuclear Weapons.” I was eager to read the book because of previous Rhodes books, Making the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun. I considered the author to be a diligent researcher, but was surprised to read his assessment of the down-sizing of the nuclear-weapon production “.  .  .partly in response to unilateral and negotiated arms reductions, partly because public concern had caught up with its environmentally abandoned ways. The FBI had actually raided the Department of Energy’s plutonium-production facility at Rocky Flats, in Colorado, in 1989, looking for evidence (which it found in abundance) that the DOE and Rockwell International, a contractor, had violated environmental-protection laws.” (212-213) Rhodes obviously read the headlines and didn’t bother with careful research that would have told him there were not actual violations of environmental laws. He could have learned the complicated truth about the outcome of the raid by reading my book, An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats: Urban Myths Debunked. Regardless of that major flaw, the book contains interesting information. Rhodes also mentions that “.  .  .Rocky Flats, the only facility capable of producing plutonium pits, was permanently closed.” (page 218) That statement would have been more accurate if it had said Rocky Flats had produced most of the plutonium pits for several years. Continue reading

Radioactive Iodine and Thyroid Cancer

I posted a commentary about how the State of Colorado has announced they intend to study the incidence of thyroid cancers around the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. The decision was inspired by allegations by people calling themselves “Downwinders.” I speculated that the fears of thyroid cancer were stoked by an autobiography of someone who grew up near the plant and believed the facility was responsible for increased incidence of cancers, including thyroid cancer.

I mentioned in the December 7th commentary that the autobiography, which attracted and continues to attract significant readership, had many technical flaws. I obtained a copy of the book on interlibrary loan from the local library, which has three copies that were all checked out. I don’t intend to do a detailed review, but will reiterate my first reaction to the book was that it contained a complete catalog of outlandish rumors that were spread by critics of the Rocky Flats Plant. The book has too many inaccuracies to have generated the attention it gained, and I only intend to list a few:

  • Page 17 mentions how the workers stand in front of glove boxes to “. .       .mold and hammer the plutonium ‘buttons’ into shape” (That’s just silly!)
  • Page 18 introduces the word “trigger” for the use of atomic weapons to initiate thermonuclear fusion “. . .of a hydrogen bomb—a mushroom cloud, as in the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.” (That bomb was not a hydrogen bomb. It is mentioned on the same page that the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki was an atomic bomb.)
  • Pages 29-30 summarizes the amount of plutonium released from the 1957 fire in Building 771 as being “. .       .from 500 grams to as much as 92 pounds of plutonium or more.” This is an example of the willingness of the book to publish absurd exaggerations. The 92 pounds of plutonium would equate to about 3000 curies. Add twelve zeros if you want to convert that into the picocurie unit used to monitor air, water, and soil around the plant. That immense amount of plutonium released into the environment would have swamped the many thousands of samples collected around the plant during and after its operations. As the book points out, the half life of plutonium is around 24,000 years, so releases on the order of what the book mentions would have been persistent and easy to detect.

I believe the Colorado study will conclude that the Rocky Mountain region and the Denver metropolitan area had a higher incidence of thyroid cancer than the rest of the nation. There is a discussion on page 89 that snow will wash radioactive particles from the atmosphere, and the area has heavy snowfall. The era of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons resulted in higher incidence of thyroid cancer among youngsters who drank the milk of animals eating grass contaminated by that snow-related fallout. I speculate in the book I’m currently writing that Rocky Flats indeed had an impact on risk of thyroid cancer. Children of people moving to the area to participate in the economic boon created by the plant could be said to have been exposed to higher risk. Note that the increased risk had nothing to do with the operations or emissions from Rocky Flats. That probably wasn’t the intention of the author when she wrote on page 331, “Nearly every family we know in the neighborhood has had some form of cancer or thyroid problems.”

The author mentions that the area around the Rocky Flats Plant is “safe” according to government agencies on page 333. She then dismisses that conclusion in following pages. My conclusion is that you should be careful in selecting what you read about Rocky Flats. There are still people who protested the place and its mission who want you to believe the worst. The truth is that Rocky Flats accomplished its national defense mission and the people who worked there were diligent in assuring that they and their families living near the plant were safe.

Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi

atoms-in-the-familyI obtained this book by Laura Fermi published in 1954 by my usual method of interlibrary loan. It is an excellent book that gives personal insights into Enrico and many other of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. This is an excellent companion to the book by Leona Woods reviewed last week, and readers shouldn’t become accustomed to having a review posted each week. I’m doing more writing than reading lately. Also, I once again am posting a summary of the book complete with page numbers for reference, which is how I usually save information to be used in my book about the history of the development of nuclear weapons and the Rocky Flats Plant.

The first sections of the book introduce Laura Capon and Enrico Fermi in Italy when they first became acquainted in Italy. It progresses to their wedding and the beginning of the troubles for Jews imposed by Mussolini (Il Duce). Laura was a non-practicing Jew, so she and the children were all at risk. She tells of how their lives became increasingly dangerous until the family left Italy by travelling to Sweden to accept Enrico’s Noble Prize and made it to the United States. The “becoming Americanized” is fascinating reading. Laura’s father, an Italian naval officer, was at first not concerned about the actions that Mussolini took in the early days. “Il Duce knows what he is doing. It is not for us to judge his actions.” 5-6

The book describes the childhoods and families of the Capons and the Fermis. As an example, a traumatic loss struck the Fermis when Giulio, the oldest son, died of complications from an abscess in the throat. (Laura and Enrico would name their son Giulio.) The family moved into a melancholy existence and Enrico filled his life with studying and outdoor activities. It wasn’t long before his teachers declared that he was “exceptional.” His academic achievements and early career are described. 15-32 Much of one chapter is devoted to his yellow Peugeot, which is described as having a top speed of 20 mph. The next chapter describes the Fermi’s early married years 33-68

Fermi began to achieve wide recognition for his brilliance and was named to the Royal Academy of Italy in 1929. Enrico and Laura spent two months of 1930 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They also spent some time in New York City, where Laura was astonished to note “…with a shock the existence of tattoos…on the bare arms of summer riders, in the most civilized city in the world.” (What would she think today?) They were often asked what they thought of Mussolini, which was “…indicative of the great interest fascism had aroused in the United States. Those were good times for fascism, which was looked upon with tolerance, often with sympathy, both inside Italy and abroad.” 73-81 Continue reading

The Uranium People

the-uranium-people_webThis autobiography by Leona (Woods) Marshall Libby is a valuable asset to anyone wanting to learn about the people involved in the Manhattan Project. Leona was the only woman present when Chicago Pile-1 sustained controlled nuclear reaction under the leadership of Enrico Fermi, who had become Leona’s friend. I obtained the book through my local library’s interlibrary loan process, which I recommend for books such as this one that was published in 1979. Leona’s book focuses on the achievements of the Manhattan Project and includes very little personal information. The book often meanders into stories of events involving Leona and other Manhattan Project scientists, but I thought those distractions from the main story were among the most interesting. The front and back covers of the book contain reproductions of the famous letter from Albert Einstein to F. D. Roosevelt outlining why the United States should speed up research on chain reactions and warning that Germany might have embarked on the same effort. I highly recommend this book, and will warn that I’m going to break from my tradition of trying to restrict this review to two pages. Besides, I haven’t posted a review in weeks, so I “owe” a very long review. I’ll let the reader decide how much they want. I often record page numbers for items from the book in what I call my “personal reviews”, and I’ll leave those in the event someone wants to look up the reference. I also left the sections I recorded in bold for my own reference on passages that I wanted to be certain to remember when writing my book about Rocky Flats.

Leona had done her doctoral work as a chemist in the University of Chicago physics department chaired by Nobel laureate Arthur Compton. Her doctoral professor was future Nobel laureate Robert Milliken. She joined the Metallurgical Laboratory in August 1942. She describes details of her work where she was the only woman participating in activating “Fermi’s Pile.” She also was involved in at Argonne, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. Her primary role in the operation of the first nuclear reactor was to build boron trifluoride counters to detect neutron flux. 118 She frequently expresses pride in her soldering skills in making the detectors in her autobiography.  She was obviously disappointed that, “Laura Fermi, who kindly was going to read the book before its publication, died suddenly December 26, 1977.”  Ix-x

There are many stories about Leona’s numerous interactions with Enrico and Laura Fermi. She was clearly an admirer. Chapter 1 begins with the sentence, “Perhaps the most influential person in my life was Enrico Fermi.” She then lists all of his positive attributes and adds, “He managed all of this…without pomposity.” She said even “…he was amazed when he thought how modest he was.” I was also impressed that she said Fermi was influenced by the deterioration of relations between the U.S., Soviet Union, and China and the Soviet detonation of a deliverable hydrogen bomb to lay “…in a store of canned goods and water in his basement.” 1-9 I intend to leave most discussions of how Enrico and his family made it to the United States to escape the Fascism that threatened Laura and their children to a review in another book “Atoms in the Family” authored by Laura Fermi. Continue reading