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Strictly Speaking

Politically Correct?

CORRECT (politically – )

The most academically objectionable connotation of a word now in use, a distinction harder to achieve than pulling Excaliber from the stone. The niggle about political rectitude (maybe I shouldn’t have used niggle, although it’s a perfectly respectable word, despite its suspicious phonetic garb)... As I started to say, the difficulty with applying the censorship of political rectitude to common usage is that there is no arbitrating body, no high court or universal agreement of what is speakable or not.

Worse than that, as an attribute to raise hackles and rankle sensibilities, it is hard imagine a less promising way to impose guidelines to linguistic use than to bound them with the word, “politically.” Immediately come the questions of whose politics and to what end, and what measures should be exercised against whom and by whom, within what boundaries?

Forgetting the entire constitutional issue of Freedom of Speech, which constitutional lawyers will in no way let you do, you don’t have to peer very far down the dark tunnel of time to see Senator Joe McCarthy’s Congressional witch hunt, fast on the heels of one Adolf Hitler, who was very politically certain about what you could and could not say in his Third Reich, an what happened to you if you dared defy authority.

The saddest aspect of yet another attempt by one like-minded group to control all others is that, yes, there is a better way, even if you are dogmatically certain the political rectitude has a place. Practice it, or preach it (something that might be denied under somebody else’s vision of political correctness), but don’t attempt to impose it on others.

Even my nine-year-old daughter was smart enough to figure this out when, while she was young, we drove by the Avalon Theater on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC, headed home. Starting out at the gang of protestors silently circling with signs, she read the movie’s name, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and wondered out loud. “If they don’t like it, why not just no see it? Nobody else has to think like them.” Yeah, this is the kind of kid that you might except would eventually go to the University of Chicago, where she double majored with honors.

Here’s the point. Difference is inevitable. It is the grinding wheel that sharpens the cutting edge of science, indeed of all knowledge. And to hamper the process of free expression with what are admitted to be political constraints is not only anti-intellectual, it is tyrannical.

We already have enough laws about what can’t be said, and in context a lot of them even make sense. You don’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater where no fire exists. You don’t unjustifiably defame another’s reputation, unless you can prove your accusations true. You do not incite to riot, for the common good. But there is a delicate balance about freedom of expression in a country that was born in the spirit of the Enlightenment, and where freedom of assembly is precious. Strange, then, that America has no equivalent of England’s Hyde Park, where anyone can step onto a box and say anything he or she wants, even regarding the queen. Hyde Park is Freedom Central as far as expression goes.

It is almost de rigueur in Hyde Park to be blasphemous, or obscene, or traitorous, or inciting, or sexist, or bigoted, or crazy as a loon. The idea there is that in a democracy the average man or woman has enough common sense to figure out what works, or is right, at least for them. Isn’t this the basis for getting twelve of them together in a box to determine whether an accused is guilty beyond reasonable doubt?  Read More 
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To Know or Not to Know?

KNOW

Knowledge is the process of the collection of the best available evidence by the most exhaustive means, and of attempting to create the most elegant and parsimonious explanation for it. Suspicion has no place in it.

George W. Bush claimed that he knew Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Yet had they been there, he would have had evidence aplenty in the form of satellite imagery of nuclear sites like those identified in contemporaneous North Korea of the same year.

The intelligence services routinely compare and exchange imagery in the search of risks. John F. Kennedy showed Soviet missiles in Cuba, and showed also unmistakable Cuban landmarks framing the missiles. Much better images existed of sites in Iraq. They had been monitoring Iraq for signs of the resurrection and development of a nuclear weapons program.

There were none because Iraq had abandoned its program. The French intelligence services knew this, and refused to rubber-stamp the Bush-Cheney fiasco, which was not about Al Qaeda (no convincing evidence), not about WMD (no satellite imagery, no humint), not about freeing the Iraqi people. The invasion was less about “a bad man who tried to kill my Daddy” than it was about oil.

The first priority of American boots on the ground was to secure the Iraqi oil fields. The search of Saddam got second billing. The search of WMD came in a distant third.

The problem of claiming that you know something, and having that be disproved, is that you lose your credibility forever. You have played your best card, and when turned up, it was shown to be a joker.

Knowledge should have informed the decision to invade Iraq. It did not. Secretly (the author knows this from inside sources) members of the Mossad, Israel’s Secret Intelligence Service, met at a neutral location with high ranking members of the U.S. State Department and said, “Don’t invade Iraq. Iraq has no nuclear program. Iran is the real problem.”

Instead ignoring this, Bush went on, attempting to bolster his decision with a “need to protect our good friend and ally, Israel.” Despite managing to stay awake through classes as Yale and Harvard, it isn’t clear that Bush ever knew anything, or could. As the expression goes, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. If so, you certainly can’t make it out of a horses ass. This I know for sure.  Read More 
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Measuring Things and Making Things

INSTRUMENT

An instrument is a device for measuring a quantity of well defined physical parameter. Instruments differ from machines, which are devices of manufacture: they make things. A machine may make an instrument, but an instrument may never make a machine.

Instruments need not be elaborate, and often can be most effective as teaching devices if they are simple. The combination of a bellows, an affixed balloon inflated to ambient pressure, a balance pan atop the bellows and a scale against the side of the balloon to report an increase in volume, can be calibrated as fixed weights are placed on the balance pan, pushing on the bellows, forcing its volume of air into the balloon, which then expands accordingly. Since pressure comes in units of force divided by area, and the area on the surface of an expanding balloon can be calculated as A = 4∏r2 a pressure gauge can easily be made. If measurement is the objective, it remains an instrument.

If the pressurized gas is forced behind a projectile and the projectile used to hold material together, it becomes a machine. It has made a joint, or riveted together two I-beams.

Instruments are the basis for measurement and measurement (empirical verification) is the basis for science. In its purest form, all science must be testable, so instrumentation is always the doorway to knowing. The ability of instruments to measure increasingly fine distinctions both in small and weak signals often places temporary limits on what we can know through reproducible measurements. Read More 
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How Expert are Experts?

EXPERT

An expert is a person who can infallibly predict the outcome of a situation. Courts of law often qualify witnesses expert status based on their academic degrees and positions, awards, books written, memberships in professional societies and other accolades. But if an expert infallibly characterizes a situation, there should be one and only one expert opinion.

Yet when expert witnesses for prosecution and defense testify during trials, often directly opposite conclusions are drawn. The problem comes with the requirement for infallibility. All experts are human. All humans make mistakes. Therefore some experts must make mistakes. Yet if they make mistakes, they fail the test of infallibility. Ergo, no one can be an expert.

The expert ship-builders of the steamship Titanic asserted that not even God could sink the ship. God proved them wrong and sank the ship. The bottom line is that expert opinions are a blend of ego, preference, ignorance, and analysis. At best, there are no experts, only serious students of the problem. Somewhere in the swirling controversy of emerging beliefs is the best direction to an improved model, which will itself in time be disproved, advancing understanding by displacing earlier errors.

Expert opinion enjoys popularity by an inclination to defer to authority. But as Einstein demonstrated, the truth emerges on the merits of the argument, not the status of the arguer.  Read More 
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Economics Re-examined

ECONOMICS

Economics pretends dismally to be a science governing the phenomenon of trade and the accumulation of wealth through the sale of goods and services. Like all social sciences it has embellished its claims with mathematics that is often structured to avoid a direct unambiguous test and repeatedly fails to reliably predict the outcome of capital investment. Contrary to theory, there is no ideally perfect self-correcting market where facts are available transparently and immediately, because market behavior is profoundly irrational. All slumps and crashes and burst bubbles are incontrovertible evidence that beside fraud and profit-taking, the major factors operating are greed, fear and panic.

These ubiquitous factors create the need for a regulatory body to prevent cheating, a phenomenon that demolishes Adam Smith’s euphoric notion that unobstructed capitalism is the most reliable road to the wealth of nations. Most expert at flim-flamming, flip-flopping and menacing paranoid back-biting, economics once awarded a Nobel Prize to a couple of its favorite sons for advancing the notion that a risk-free equation they had labored over into the delusional mists of many a weary night had allowed an investment strategy by which the shrewd application of large doses of capital would produce for its participants vast and continually increasing fortunes. They retired from academia and hired their services out a top dollar to parties limited to antes of fifty million dollars.

Since the market is far more exquisitely sensitive to perceptions and fears than it is to the fundamentals or market prospects of its listed companies, initially the investors did so well that it looked as if everyone could apply the B-S equation. Then all clients of all investment advisories would be able to put a goose in their portfolio, Tiny Tim could throw away his crutch, Bob Cratchit salt away an elephantine four-storey manse in the Hamptons. At the closing bell it would be a Merry, Merry Christmas with a capital M as in Money for all, ad infinitum. Scarlet O’Hara would never go hungry again and lead the Thanksgiving Macy’s Day Parade, a trend setter in the march on obesity.

Then came the ooops point in the lauded equation, where the factor for risk, which had been by self-deceiving mathematics allegedly been reduced to zero, was...guess what? Not. And despite a common sense among investors who would never leap into a backyard swimming pool without checking the water with their toe, everyone closed their eyes and took the plunge on faith. In the end this is what economist offer: faith, the one intangible need without which no one could continue.

It takes bizarre forms. Fashioned after Gordon Gekko, that politically seduced maven of economics, Alan Greenspan, overturned years of good judgment in order to remain at the apex of the ape order, announcing to all the “Debt is good,” even while the ghostly tag team of Maynard Keynes and Adam Smith chalked their cold, dead hands for Black Friday Night Smackdown. Also lining up in the booster show for the likes of Kenny Boy Lay and a weekend with Bernie Madoff were pundits whispering their nonconcern as the 2008 market began a downward tail spin that audibly whined with the plunge.

For every increasing woe, the amateurs turned to the filtered religion of free market guys. To wit, what was happening post Lehman brothers was just a mild downturn, a much needed market correction that would soon rebound, like New Orleans after Katrina, stronger than ever before.

Faced by the incontrovertible error of retirement accounts that had been flattened by more than three trillion dollars in irrecoverable losses (these people are, remember, retired; they counted on this money to live) and faced with carrying foreclosures on and abandonments of houses that were deeper under water than the Titanic, Alan Greenspan finally had run out of corners in which to hide and confessed, too late to save anything, that he “had been wrong.” Then, as the most respected expert in the field of economics declared, “Nobody knows what’s going on. The old rules don’t seem to apply.”

The dismal science gets darker.

But to use the word “science” for economics is oxymoronic. Economics repeatedly fails the most central litmus test of quantitative sciences like physics and chemistry, which is: If given an initial set of measurable parameters and a valid mathematically expressed theory, the final situation is always determinable, and the result experimentally confirmable anywhere on Earth.

In economics, for all of its quantities of price/earnings ratios, capital reserves, liquid debt, losses from law suits and quarterly profits from new products, there is not a single economist in the history of their putative science who has always predicted correctly.

In their hemming and hawing and feeling sorry for themselves and – yes – basic arrogance and greed, economist have eternally taken refuge in the excuse that the systems that they deal with are vast, complex and dynamically interactive, forbidding accuracy in anything more than trends.

If true, this would be a great excuse, since their followers would not have lost their shirts, wallets and hopes – per Scarlet O’Hara – of never going hungry again. But, as often in economics, this is a flimsy excuse.

In other systems vast, complex and dynamically interactive systems, true sciences have often defined and controlled outcomes. An illustrative example is the separation of recoverable fissile and fertile isotopes from discharged nuclear reactor fuel. Aside from the mechanical shearing and dissolution of the discharged reactor fuel, itself a triumph of efficiency, the process following chemical reaction and dissolution requires the transfer of the resulting solution into mixed phase pulse separation solvent extraction columns, multiple streams using multiple pipes and simultaneously operative re-run systems, to several continuous unit operations including recovered product purification and waste stream for storage and eventual treatment.

The complexities only begin with estimating the composition of the discharged fuel as a function of – right again – its radiation history, an estimate that may be supported by measuring radiation levels but is largely a function of complete understanding of what occurs to uranium dioxide when it is exposed to a continuous high energy neutron flux. The equations used allow an accurate estimate of the isotopic composition of the fuel, so accurate that the rest of the process has a good chance of working.

These operations are vast, the size of several football fields in area and four-deep in floor, containing hundreds of thousands of yards of piping designed to be accessible to remote robotic repair. They are complex in that the following parameters are continually changing as the dissolved material flows: (1) the chemical identity of the elements present, due to the radioactive decay of the fuel material, which requires that (2) the chemical composition of the solvents and phases needs to be continuously adjusted to create the proper reactions that allow the dynamic separations into various streams which (3) if incorrect by gauged measurement are diverted in whole or part to re-run stations to add chemical reactants that are themselves undergoing continual decomposition by radiation, meaning that (4) the chemicals themselves must be regenerated or added fresh and (5) their decomposition products removed and recycled in highly acidic solutions where corrosion and acid attack on the pipes themselves must be known and compensated, all within a system of piping that must accommodate the dynamic coexistence of solids dissolving or undissolved, liquids decomposing, corroding or reacting, and gases, like radioactive xenon, that must be captured and stored in a way that does not interrupt the continuous operation of other solvent recovery systems in a total array in which everything needs monitoring and measuring to ensure occupational safety.

Yes, this has been done, and even done using several chemical methods, each and every one capable of handling the size, complexity and dynamic nature of the system. So, please, Dr. Economics, no hand waving excuses. Complexities of any number or nature can be accommodated if and only if the behavior of each contributing aspect of the system can actually be expressed in a valid mathematical way.
If the composition and exposure of the irradiated fuel is known, so will be half lives are of the isotopes entering the reprocessing stream. From this the number and type of daughter radionuclides are knowns, as well as their time-variable contributions via alpha, beta, positron and x-ray emissions, determining what shielding is necessary for workers, machines and instruments, and how solvents decompose. The fact that hot nitric acid is an oxidant and likely to react under radiation with the tri-butyl phosphate in the organic phase of the pulse columns and on and on is known, each simultaneously occurring reality recognized and accounted for in a system that works each and every time, exactly the way it was designed by scientists and engineers different from economists. The difference is that they really understand what is going on, down to the last isotope of the last trace element in the waste stream.

Prediction is possible and reproducible because understanding is comprehensive and real. Only in economics and meteorology can the “experienced” shamans reappear with a cumulatively crushing burden of repeated error, lacking the honesty to say, “In my line nobody really has any idea of what tomorrow will bring. In a system with two few regulators, and without management support to meaningfully punish offenders, nothing is really ever transparent, because knowledge is power and free information distributes knowledge rather than concentrating it. What I actually do is a lot of hand-waving and mumbo-jumbo using concepts that are unproven and equations that are unreliable. The truth is that if you want to get rich on the market, you need to be an insider trading on information that is concealed from or delayed in arrival from the investor. The investor is just a way of finding a large number of sheep willing to be fleeced, who come blindly back hoping that the pot of gold will be a little brighter and more visible next time. The investor community is a ship of fools piloted by a crew of cutthroats, and if the crash of 2008 failed to convince you of that, then you deserve to lose every penny you invest from now on. Any other questions?”

But then we would all learn the truth, which is often a tough nut. In the global economy, nobody knows much more than the fact that the Chinese are holding all the bananas and that the American service industry, the only industry we have, is outsourcing to Bangalore. And yes, that oil futures is a good choice, even if it’s one that will certainly kill the planet. Why not? An underused, undepreciated planet has no place in any profit-driven economic system that is likely to be pandered.

Yes, you heard that right. Pandered. What else did you think we were doing between 1929 and 2008? History has in common with economics this: no one wants to remember the inescapable lessons could otherwise spare us repeating disasters. Read More 
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