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Strictly Speaking

Fashion vs. Style

FASHION (vs. style)

A person chasing fashion is always at the mercy of continual change, and fearful that he or she will be a step behind the latest trend. Their rapidly discarded choices in self decoration and clothing will accumulate at the back of the closet like zoot suits, flappers, Nehru jackets and leisure suits. From pictures of the fashionable dresser you will always know the approximate year when the shutter snapped.

Fashion is a discipline driven by fear and restrained by budget. By contrast, a stylish person’s closet is neatly provided with a range of attire that is nearly timeless. In pictures taken of fashionable people, you must look for other markers to reckon the year of the photo. The point is that one may be currently fashionable without being remotely stylish. Like any overly intrusive gesture, passing fashion calls attention to itself, ironically directing the desired attention away from the wearer.  Read More 
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Rhetoric and Reality


Here’s another word enlisted not for its accuracy in use, but to create in readers a deep dread of an impending outcome if measures are not taken to reverse it. An exponentiating phenomenon is one described by a mathematical function that grows according to a parameter raised to an exponent greater than one, so rapidly that in only a few dozen iterations the value of the function exceeds it real-world material needs at a well defined functional limit called an asymptote. By contrast, realistically constrained growth of infrastructure is more accurately described by more linear functions. In a world of finite resources, no sustainable base exists for exponential growth. Continuity is possible only with conservation and renewable resources.  Read More 
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How Expert are Experts?


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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Experience vs. Accomplishment


Often taken as the key to a job, or career. So you claim, “Twenty years experience in the hotel business.” But this claim would be equally true if you ran drugs and pushed whores in the Bowery as if you worked as a sommelier at the Rainbow Room. And so there are always better questions to ask, particularly if you are hiring. Get the details. Check the validity. A surprising number of frauds and con men slither in on a pricey suit and a quick smile. Vet their credentials. Often, if it seems too good to be true, it is. Especially in the imaginative and hyperbolic age of the on-line résumé and the on-line diploma. Read More 
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Same as the Brand Name?


Often inclining a cheap purchase with the expectation that the equivalent will look or perform the same as the brand name, beyond a reasonable doubt. But this is a point where reason should intrude powerfully, because just as a silk purse cannot be fabricated from a sow’s ear, a vinyl Gucci look-alike will not bear up like the genuine article. Nor can you complain to the high end manufacturer that their knock-off version has let you down. And if morality enters your calculation, ersatz equivalents violate copyrights, patents, trademark and intellectual property laws.  Read More 
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Ensure or Insure?


Spelled this way, and this way only, ensure means to take measures, actions, employ policies or provide economic incentives of such force and breadth that a desired result occurs. It is quite as different in meaning from insure as it is distinct in spelling. Insure means to offer and indemnity, usually monetary, in the event that an undesired action does occur. One word implies active measures, the other provides a contingency or compensation, an implicit admission by taking out insurance that something can, indeed, happen, in ways over which one cannot control. More often are the British right in the employment of this word, in spoken and written form, than are their American cousins. Read More 
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What Enormity Actually Means


Upon reaching this word, many readers will begin to suspect that the author is running short of misused or misunderstood words, and is now about to annoy or bore me with one that everyone knows.

Or do they?

Certainly as regards the word enormous, there is little common confusion, but some. An object may be enormous if its perceptible dimensions exceed those commonly associated for an object in its class. The adjective may be meaningfully applied to objects according to either size (length, breadth or volume) or mass, or both. While uttered with breathlessness, sometimes fear, the world enormous is more reliably created by the adrenal system of the observer than by any practical value of the object exhibiting enormousness.

That’s right, the property of something being enormous is enormousness. Not enormity. By a strange quirk of semantic refraction, enormity is bent to another significance. Writers and speakers as recently in history as the 1940s scored political capital for the exact mastery and employment of the word enormity. But more — not enormously more but adequately more – on that later.

Returning as if by warped space around a black hole to orbit the word enormous, it is fascinating – as Mr. Spock many times said – to note that the use of the word enormous in common usage sees it being applied to things like large sails on relatively small boats (“an enormous spinnaker”), even when the relative weight of the enormously sized object is slight, as it is in boat sails or circus tents. The canopies of circus tents (aka Big Tops) must enclose large crowds of eager rubes, but also be easily broken down into pieces by roustabouts in order for the show to go on. At least as far as the next town.

Objects of daunting size and mass often conjure shock and awe, as with the Wehrmacht’s late-war Goliath tank, a seemingly invincible city-crushing war machine that – despite the fine German engineering – repeatedly broke down and, worse for an army with no producing oil fields between the Siegfried line and the Sudetenland, got less than five millimeters per liter of Romanian-refined gasoline. But how strange it is to call this man-made object enormous and deny the term to black holes, which are not only larger than Goliath tanks but literally billions and billions times as massive.

The trick in application seems to be that the word enormous is denied to any object, however massive, that does not live up to its name by ruling space in a way that creates shock and awe. Galaxies, those scintillating and sprawling and twinkling and spinning gravitational masters of their local space, may be designated enormous. But their central black holes, the objects which along with dark matter – also never called enormous, despite its predominance over visible matter — are often (along a generous halo of dark matter) what have allowed the entire carousels of stars to form in the first place.

Black holes carry a big enough shtick, already, but they like some dying world of TS Eliot’s imagination, speak too softly to our star-eager eyes. During a close encounter of the last kind, they will end you, suck you down into a place where not even the laws of physics as we know them can save you. They can warp space and spark gamma ray bursts and devour careless close-by supergiant stars, as hungry as cosmological Jabbas the Hut, then burping off Hawking radiation, a kind of arrogant “Make my aeon!” dare. Objects placed behind dark holes bend light our ways, arriving like reflections from a fun house mirror. Their original, undistorted natures are taken prisoner by the great cosmic tyrant gravity, it, too, denied the distinction of enormousness, perhaps because we do not live on the planet Jupiter.

On Earth taxes are more crushing than gravity. To date, no one has applied the word enormous as regards taxes. Maybe on the next Rovian pass at voting booths, but so far, no.

First what enormity isn’t. It is not a synonym for enormousness. Enormity is monstrous evil, a departure from restraint and humanity and decency so grotesque that it requires the use of a word, often misunderstood, than can replace an expletive, a sound dignified and thoughtful, and with a finesse too rarely now exhibited in the baboonery of American politics. To the finely tuned ear, enormity can still – on the tongue of a polished speak who does not blink or go cross-eyed, or pound shoes on lecterns, or speak so badly as to have shoes hurled at him – emerge with a force and impact and gravity and articulateness that makes him memorably historic.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a speech often replayed where the intonation of his voice and the fire in his eyes added other dimensions of eloquence to his indictment of “the enormity of the Nazi empire,” with unspoken reference to: (1) primarily to the evil incorporated into laws that allowed Hitler’s thugs to drag away to death camps unpatriotic enemies of the Reich not killed on the spot; (2) to his systematic starvation and exploitation of captured citizens of conquered countries, to systematic euthanasia and medical experimentation programs; (3) to the complete and wholesale destruction of any measure of goodness, kindness and human decency, a wholesale embrace of a nationalized expression of Social Darwinism crystallized around a raving maniac who made Jim Jones’s Jonestown look like utopia by comparison.

FDR cleverly and simultaneously enlisted the commonly misunderstood word “enormity” to conjure and induce a mass fear that if Hitler were not stopped, he would soon hurl V-3s and V-4s and stealth bombers that could attack and destroy Fortress America. Golly, nobody back then wanted to be swallowed up in that kind of Nazi enormity, by God, Country and the underlying practice of democracy, which is decision by everyone, so that a sense was created that he was taking a plea to the people to help him make the right decision.

FDR never said that he would be the decider. That would have been an enormity against magnificent potential of language. But then, he didn’t keep reading children's’ books during a fireside chat after he learned that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. The enormity of that infamous moment had transcended child’s play. Nor did FDR feel that he needed to demonstrate his ability to read in order to remove popular doubt. He wasn’t that kind of a president, or a speaker, or a man. Read More 
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A seemingly good word for what the British call a lift. But elevator or lift, its cab carries individuals (and sometimes cargo) both up and down. Because it eliminates the human effort needed to climb stairs, it is more appreciated in elevating, but it also descends. And it descends faster than the stairs down can be walked. For this reason it is actually a verticulator.

In most cases, its cab goes up and down. It does not exclusively elevate. Notably its call keys carry primatologically correct colors. For creatures descended from arboreal species, the up key is green (the colors of leaves that a climbing ape would see) and down is colored red (the color that a splattered monkey would make it if fell).

In honesty, even verticulator fails. In Chicago, the former Sears Tower was built with verticulators that stop half way up and require a change. The reason that the cabs stop half way is that it they didn’t, the bubble of expanding hot air caught below the cab in the lobby would continue to expand, creating a force that would blow the elevator through the roof of the building. And at the half way point, the cabs not only stop rising, but can also run horizontally, so this system is more a people mover, or Cartesian relocator.

The word is included to illustrate that in tribal noise people echo words that they have heard applied to objects, without much thinking about why – or if – that word actually applies.  Read More 
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Economics Re-examined


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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Doubt(beyond a reasonable)

DOUBT (beyond a reasonable)

A century ago, most people believed in a creator, or God, beyond a reasonable doubt. But this conviction wasn’t actually reached by reason; it was an article of faith. If an argument for a creator existed, it was always presented backwards, conclusion first. Like this. The universe was created, therefore there must be a creator.

Currently, the view of reality has expanded to put the entire previously observed universe (a century ago believed to be limited to our Milky Way), at only four percent of our cosmic cocoon. Most of the rest of the universe is dark energy, supported indirectly by several strings of evidence, and dark matter, established by astronomer Vera Rubin as the glue essential to holding galaxies together. The traditional superstition of God has been displaced by the experimental detection of the Higgs Boson, or God particle, from which all else descends.

The evidence and theories debated by modern physics challenge the notion that any permanently valid conclusion can be reached by consideration of evidence, because the hermeneutic framework always affects the way that evidence is interpreted, and ushered toward one conclusion or another. Facts are only facts. They can be enlisted and marched in any army of argument according to the preferences and cleverness of the claimant.

A conclusion that any jury reaches beyond a reasonable doubt is impossible, because the very process of reasoning creates doubt, especially if made with the awareness that to the prosecution a trial is merely a game to advance careers and political ambitions, and that the police will counterfeit or conceal evidence owing to the conviction that they have got the right doer, and that the trial is merely a formality.

The inescapable fact is that with so many convictions prejudiced by the accused’s color, or relation to the victim, or simple pure suspicion that scuttles any true, extensive investigation, then if rigorously applied, the standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt will always exist unless the accused is linked to the victim by fairly gathered, vigilantly protected, untampered with evidence. Unluckily, we are a long way from reaching a collection of skeptics in a deliberating jury. The community always wants to feel safer, the jurors always seek “justice” or “the right thing for the family.” Unfortunately, they do not understand that if it were they, rather than the accused, being tried on so flimsy a case, they would scream to the heavens for acquittal. Unluckily, when the jury door shuts, the heavens are often left standing silently outside.

Off the record, most experienced attorneys will inform you that police departments never conduct a true investigation, one that seeks the perpetrator “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Most often they drag in the usual suspects, conjure an imagined motive, invoke the fear and suspicion of the jurors and attempt to make a case that may seems likely, but generates ample doubt. Often cops go headhunting, wanting a big scalp to hang on their belts. A classic case of this would be the Chandra Levy murder, where the District of Columbia Police aimed straight at her boss, sometime lover and Congressman, Gary Condit. The accusation had all the hallmarks of a badly written National Enquirer headline and collapsed for lack of evidence. While pursuing their instincts, no other line of investigation or suspect was pursued. This is typical, and raises – beyond a reasonable doubt – serious questions about how our judicial system operates.  Read More 
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