You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Current Events’ category.

 

Some questions regarding the internet and the problem of hacking.

I wonder to what extent hacking problems via the internet could be suppressed if we had a bit less connectivity or a bit less compatibility? Who decreed that critical systems like the power grid or banking or corporate enterprise systems be connected and compatible in a way that can be entered from outside? Why not trade in some convenience for greater security? Another approach would be to have intranet systems that are incompatible with internet protocols. Who is calling the shots here? Cisco? Microsoft? Fresh MBA’s wanting to implement the latest thinking from B-School?

A separate, air-gapped and incompatible system for intranet use in key infrastructure might be quite effective in blocking access to control systems from the outside. An electronically isolated conventional internet system would allow the public or vendor access to a store front site.

I’m sure there is ways a clever intruder who can cause some kind of trouble in this scenario, such as the intrusion of Stuxnet into the Iranian nuclear processing facility. So you epoxy the USB ports shut or remove the CD/DVD drives on as many computers as possible. Supervised data transfer could occur via numbered CD disc drives issued to employees temporarily for security. Again, cash in some flexibility for security.

But the basic question remains: Why should there be internet access to system wide locations. Who says it should be this way? Some IT/MBA enthusiast drunk on the idea of IoT?  C’mon. Why?

The local school board has recently voted to spend $482,000 to purchase iPads for a high school. “If we don’t do this now, and are already behind, we will get swamped. Instead of buying for a grade level or a school, it’s going to have to be for every kid in the district,” stated the board president. Chiming in was the superintendent who said “It’s not the wave of the future, it’s here now,” Mr. XYZ said. “It’s about the digital world we’re in more than it is about the device. We just have a device now that allows us to do that. The struggle now is getting everyone up to speed.”

There is utterly nothing novel or surprising about these sentiments among educators. The eternally open door to the brave new world beckons educators to outfit their classrooms with the latest and greatest. This is a healthy and vital impulse that I hope we all value.

From where I sit as a 59 year old industrial chemist, the image of new iPads holding a key to mending our educational woes seems like only the latest false prophet to pass our way.  Am I just grumpy or quietly jealous of the lucky young pups getting their iPads? Well, I am prone to grumpiness. Jealous of the students? No. I have declined the issuance of an iPad at work.

I think part of what we see is FOMO: Fear-Of-Missing-Out. To be sure, iPads or other brands are popular for a reason. They’re a wonderful tool for finding information about nearly anything and they are just plain fun to monkey with. So, as a resource to students, the iPad will obviously provide an ever widening portal to the world’s treasure of information. For this it has merit.

Two things can happen to those who frequent cyberspace. First, we find information through the use of search terms that lead us to a great many sources to choose from. But which are the most credible sources? Are they out dated?  Eventually, if civilization holds up long enough, we’ll relearn the importance of rigor in publishing. Secondly, and critically, when we find some information will we understand it? Searching and finding is not equivalent to substantive understanding.

A psych prof once related to me that true learning requires struggle. In my experience I have found this to be a fairly accurate truism. In my college teaching years I always conveyed to students that part of the secret to success in chemistry was to read the text several times and strive to understand the reasoning in the example problems.  Just as importantly, always do the assigned problems. Freshman chemistry is heavily weighted in quantitative concepts and math problems. In fact, freshman chemistry can often morph into a math class for many students.

Being an organikker I taught sophomore organic chemistry. Chemistry is highly vertical meaning that successive course work depends on content from previous classes. Organic chemistry is a bit different in that much of it is qualitative and heavily weighted with new vocabulary and the symbolic language of reaction mechanisms. I used to say that sophomore organic was the year of 10,000 structures. An important part of learning organic is the rote mechanical-tactile brain activity of drawing structures by hand. We chemists are just crazy about structures. Drawing pictures helps to seal the connection between vocabulary and structure. Being asked to draw structures correctly and adding functional groups forces one to associate symbols with composition and vocabulary, but also to acknowledge the 3-D aspects of molecules. Like freshman chemistry, organic requires a good bit of struggle.

In the past I was involved in public outreach with the science of astronomy. Having racked up many seasons of observing and studying the topic I was conversant enough to give star talks and usher visitors for a chance to peer through the 18 inch Cassegrain in the dome. I did this for some years but finally tired of it. What wore me out was that the public rarely had more than superficial interest in the topic. They were just happy to see the moon. It was infotainment and I had been an infotainer. What I finally realized was that to truly appreciate the wonder of astronomy and the mechanisms that grind the universe forward, a visitor would have to sit down and grapple with a lot of physics and new phenomena. A person has to be willing to commit to some struggle to gain the wonderful insights. My hard won knowledge offered to visitors just washed over them for the most part. It was a show and I was a performer.

So let me close the loop by connecting struggle with educational technology. It is my fervent hope that curriculum does not confuse learning to operate a device as evidence of subject knowledge. Most devices are designed to be easy to learn. What is crucial in K-12 education is that a groundwork of basic facts and knowledge of systems and processes are absorbed by students. A basic knowledge of geography facts, government facts, history facts, math facts, grammar and vocabulary facts, sciency facts, etc. are still necessary to have to build upon in the future. Any notion that facts can be left by the wayside in favor knowing where to look for them is a tragic mistake. Eventually people have to draw upon facts to properly search Google. After all, facts have names and to dig deeper into a topic, the user must supply the right search terms. The wrong synonym in a given search may not take the searcher to what they are looking for. Facts in your brain are still very necessary.

 

The recent news footage out of Syria showing victims of a chemical attack is haunting. When I first saw it I couldn’t quite comprehend what I was looking at. But after a minute of increasing discomfort I began to grasp the horror of the situation. Victims lying on the ground in puddles of water or in the midst of being flushed with a stream of water, gasping for air and limbs quivering in wide-eyed disbelief and fear of what they were experiencing. Others were unconscious or dead. Rescuers were moving around the victims not knowing what to do beyond rinsing off the bodies. Those handling the water, I’m sure, were grateful to be giving some kind of aid no matter how small.

It is interesting to see how people, myself included, react to this kind of news. I mean, this shouldn’t be happening. After all, the world has international conventions and treaties banning the use of chemical and biological agents in warfare. Humanity has gone to some length to bar the use of war shots designed to release toxic gas or aerosols over anyone anywhere.

When we shudder and express sincere horror at the barbarity of a chemical attack on civilians, along what track is our thinking guided? What kind of decision process might lead us to believe that a sarin attack is a higher level of depravity than a bomb blast? Could it be true that people who release chemical agents are actually guilty of a higher crime than those who send bombs in the direction of a civilian neighborhood or even just 50 caliber bullets?

Explosives are chemicals that unleash kinetic and thermal violence for a few seconds per explosion. Nerve agents move like the wind, breathing lethal aerosols or gas as they flow and leaving who knows how much contaminated … everything … and for how long. Bombs can be aimed, a gas cloud not so much. Bomb violence is much more common than death by acetylcholinesterase inhibition, yet our attention is always drawn to chemical violence.

We have an industry called show business that exploits bomb violence in its entertainment products. And we the viewing audience have become desensitized to the horrific effects of explosions by sheer repetition of highly staged portrayals. Perhaps it is the very novelty of a chemical attack that captures our attention. If you survive a bomb blast, there is a chance that you can be sewn back together again. If you receive an exposure to sarin, well, what do you do to stop the inhibition of an enzyme? Find a dose of atropine if possible from someone who knows it’s in stock somewhere.

The acceptance of explosives but not chemical agents as legitimate weapons of war is at best a false dichotomy. But, we are a world of men and women and weaponized conflict. If a ban on chemical and biological weapons can be negotiated faster than a ban on the use of explosives, then we take what we can get. But let us not get desensitized to high explosives and the horrific tragedies they produce.

Oh, one pet peeve. They’re not ‘explosive devices”, they are bombs. The former may infer skillful and clinical dispassion. The latter suggests dumb, blunt force. The latter seems more to the point.

A lot of science is about trying to find the best questions. Because the best questions can lead us to better answers. So, in the spirit of better questions here goes.

By loosening environmental regulations aimed at pollution prevention or remediation, the mandarins reporting to POTUS 45 have apparently made the calculation decided that some resulting uptick in pollution is justified by the jobs created thereby.

Question 1: For any given relaxation in regulations that result in an adverse biological, chemical or physical insult to the environment, what is the limit of tolerable adverse effect?

Question 2: How will the upper limit of acceptable environmental insult be determined?

Question 3: Will the upper limit of acceptable environmental insult be determined before or after the beginning of the adverse effect?

For a given situation there should be some ratio of jobs to acceptable environmental damage.

Example: By relaxing the rules on the release of coal mining waste into a river, X jobs are created and, as a result, Y households are denied potable drinking water. What is an acceptable ratio of X to Y?

Those are enough questions for now. Discuss amongst yourselves.

A grim message from Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland of the US Chemical Safety Board reads-

“The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is disappointed to see the President’s budget proposal to eliminate the agency.  The CSB is an independent agency whose sole mission is to investigate accidents in the chemical industry and to make recommendations to prevent future accidents and improve safety.  For over 20 years, the CSB has conducted hundreds of investigations of high consequence chemical incidents, such as the Deepwater Horizon and West Fertilizer disasters.  Our investigations and recommendations have had an enormous effect on improving public safety.   Our recommendations have resulted in banned natural gas blows in Connecticut, an improved fire code in New York City, and increased public safety at oil and gas sites across the State of Mississippi.  The CSB has been able to accomplish all of this with a small and limited budget.  The American public is safer today as a result of the work of the dedicated and professional staff of the CSB.  As this process moves forward, we hope that the important mission of this agency will be preserved. ”     -posted 3/20/17

I want to voice my support generally for this elite group of accident investigators. As a chemical safety professional myself I am disappointed to see the CSB regarded low enough by the President’s budget writers to warrant being in the proposal for elimination. The job of the CSB is to investigate the cause(s) of chemical, petrochemical, or other facilities that handle materials having the potential to produce serious accidents. Having done accident investigations myself, albeit at much reduced scale from a petrochemical refinery, I appreciate what a difficult job this is and the great value of the disseminating findings to the industry.

The value of any given CSB report is the story of how an accident is initiated, how it propagates, and how it may couple with diverse systems. As a crucial part of the report is a detailed dissection of the relevant operational systems and human/machine interfaces and how they may have coupled to the event. It is educational and very useful for the safety community to learn how unfamiliar failure modes initiate and how knock-on effects may steer the accident in directions that are difficult to predict.

Planning for process safety involves input from the fields of chemistry, engineering and operations. Importantly, it requires imagination because planning safe operations is about predicting the future. Shutting down CSB investigations will deprive the engineering and safety community of a valuable resource detailing subtle or non-obvious ways in which complex systems can fail.

Recall the Apollo 1 fire or the Challenger explosion and how inquiry into those events lead to better appreciation of failure modes and the layers of protection that can be put in place to prevent the failure. If this kind of investigation is kept confidential, the advance of safe system design will stagnate.

Guapo, AZ. The American Greenhouse Association (AGA) released a statement Friday in response to the Trump Administration’s denial that greenhouse warming is not based on established science. The spokesperson for the AGA, Mr. Harlan Stamen, announced that the greenhouse industry has begun a fundamental reexamination of the science behind the greenhouse effect. The AGA was one of many organizations meeting last week at their industry’s annual conference at Pultroon University.

Mr. Stamen, standing before a packed room of reporters, bluntly stated “we thought we understood how the greenhouse effect worked. Honestly, we thought that problem was solved. Then we hear from the new administration in Washington that as many as a few percent of scientists were unsure.” Stamen went on to say that greenhouse researchers were working feverishly to understand how certain substances, CO2 among them, in fact just do not absorb solar energy as believed. “Clearly”, Stamen allowed, “we have to figure this thing out. We have no clue how our greenhouses get warm in sunlight.”

The spokesperson for the White House Office of Inquisitions,  Olivia Gastly, Esq., released a statement saying that the Office is “aware of many individuals in Democrat science who think they understand these issues of climate- I mean, who knew it was so complicated-  but our belief .. our belief … is backed by many years of assurances by the very best people that using fossil fuels cannot possibly produce global warming.”

President 45 has chosen a cabinet, with senate confirmation, that outwardly seems chosen specifically to deconstruct the large scale structure of the federal government. This has come out in the open by admission from the likes of Steve Bannon, but serious dialog about the consequences of this has only just started.

If you step back a bit and think about what role the federal government has had in modern US culture, you might realize that the federal governmental superstructure has provided a framework and a shelter for many things citizens and businesses have come to rely on.

Some science oriented services the federal government has provided-

  • Funds for industrial expansion in 2 world wars
  • DARPA, which funds for the development of advanced military hardware, including aviation, communications, orbital platforms, electronics, robotics, computer technology, and more. All of this has spillover benefits to the nation at large.
  • A military establishment that countless young men and women joined that helped them build a career for life after enlistment
  • The GI bill post WWII credited with aiding the formation of the American middle class
  • The FAA regulates the operation of a large scale civilian aviation system, including organizing the airways, aviation safety, air traffic control
  • NIST, which provides for common weights and measures as well as the definition and standardization of many other units of measure for science and industry
  • CDC, which monitors and aids in the identification and containment of diseases
  • NOAA, which provides a large array of satellites and computer capacity for weather forecasting
  • EPA, that agency much maligned by pollution-generating industry, is charged with oversight of surface waters of all kinds as well as the purity of the air we breath.
  • The NIH which serves as an effective national resource for the advancement of medicine in research and in practice
  • The NSF has for many years funded basic scientific research, and in doing so provided many generations of scientists and engineers for industry and academics
  • NTSB is charged with investigating transportation accidents and promoting transportation safety
  • you get the picture …

I am not entirely sure what the slogan “Make America Great Again” really means. It is a brilliant piece of propaganda in the sense that it stirs the emotions of voters, but cannot be pinned down to any one meaning. The image of greatness is in the eye of the beholder.

When I think of this greatness business, my mind naturally goes to the source of our vast science and engineering prowess. The US evolved a unique and effective system of research and development.  The American university/government R&D machine has over many years provided breakthroughs in technology, but also it provides a constant supply of valuable scientific and engineering talent for any and all who need it.

Another benefit of our scientific establishment is the treasure trove of knowledge it leaves behind for posterity. Working in an R&D heavy manufacturing environment, I have at my finger tips the largest collection of international scientific references in the world. This is the CAS registry at the Chemical Abstracts Service and it is in fact national treasure.

I use this resource almost daily to uncover known technology and substances dating back to the late 19th century. A great resource to have because in business, you can’t afford to reinvent the wheel. And a lot of wheels have already been invented. Highly detailed information can be retrieved to provide the knowhow to solve problems encountered in industrial R&D today. Information that is in the public domain. Even better, because of the practice of peer-review, the information usually can be considered highly reliable.

Our government/university R&D complex is the goose that laid the golden egg. It is part of the engine of ingenuity that drives our economy.

Industry benefits from tremendously from a constant supply of talented engineering and scientific talent graduation from the best university research establishment in the world. It is this way in large part because of financial input from federal government funding agencies. Yes, there are monies available from private organizations. But I don’t think it compares in magnitude and breadth to funding from DoE, NSF, NIH, etc.

When I see that the present crew of republican elected officials and their appointees gunning for the large scale teardown of government agencies and reductions in force, I am naturally worried about the future of our education and R&D apparatus. I have trouble believing that the present congressional majority and the White House have the knowledge and intellectual bandwidth to comprehend the consequences of their actions.

This whole deconstruction of the federal government in favor of state control has the smell of a return to confederacy. Ask yourself how a confederate states of America would function when challenged by China or Russia militarily. How would the disunity by strong state control of resources respond in the case of an incremental land grab like the Russian takeover of Crimea. What if China takes over Taiwan and threatens hegemony of the Pacific?

The present political regime in DC threatens to do great harm to a civilization that used to be the envy of the world. Opportunity, wide open spaces, modernity were an attribute of a productive, unified nation. Do a majority of the citizens want what amounts to the libertarian dream of personal responsibility in the form of isolated bubbles of humanity? Does every aspect of our lives have to be a potential profit center for someone? Competition thrives with individual choice. But civilization requires cooperation. I vote for civilization.

 

 

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has made clear by his comments that he knows little about science generally, let alone those areas that EPA is charged to oversee. If the Wikipedia site is to be believed, Pruitt’s education and career track in no way qualifies him to direct or make assertions on behalf of the EPA.

I would say that Pruitt does not have the credentials to speak authoritatively on the matter of climate science. This contention should be printed everywhere 24/7.

Plainly, he is the boss man of a wrecking crew for dismantling environmental protection.

 

 

Much as I would like to indulge in witty and ironic commentary about the results of the 2016 general election, it would be yet another steaming load of pathetic word paste gumming up the internet. There are no words or sentences you could construct that would make a meaningful difference in the direction our wobbling American culture seems headed for.

I’m left with the conclusion that only civil disobedience can disrupt the unholy congress of corporate media, banking, energy and the foetid red-light district of governmental-industrial conjugation. After all, aren’t the B-school gurus always going on about disruption? It’s good, right?

Could it be that donors and lobbyists amount to a 3rd house of Congress?

Enormous corporations, it seems, no longer have need of our democratic republic. Fortunes are stashed abroad, sheltered in tax havens lest a slice finds its way into public kitty. Thanks for the use of American infrastructure- you know, public education, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Border Patrol, FBI, FDA, NIH, NASA, NSF, public highways, airways, NOAA, etc., etc. Deregulation is creeping forward. We live in a period of reconstruction. Neoliberal doctrines have taken hold and may be near a critical mass in state legislatures, perhaps to bring a modern constitutional convention.

America has become a big barrel of fish, stunned by the high voltage of short life-cycle electronic marvels and easily harvested. We’ve become increasingly compliant with the tightening harness of ever advancing complexity and the cloying whispers of big data.

Neoliberalism has its flying leathers on and wants to take flight. There are minerals to extract, civic institutions to suffocate and public lands to privatize. Like the quivering desire of a lusty 18 year old, capitalism knows only one thing- that it wants more. Always more and in bigger gulps. The second derivative dollars over time must be greater than zero in perpetuity. Our brains soon grow tired of static luxury and comfort. Satisfaction, like our lives, is only transient.

The invisible hand of the market, we’re told, will surely trickle down a baptism of unexpected benefits to the masses, if only the rotten buggers would let the acquisitive have their way. After all, if your taxes are lower, the first thing a business owner will do is to add hirelings. Yes?

Wait a minute … if business is flat, why add staff? Why not keep the premium handed to you by the 99%?  Hmmm.

The gospel of laissez-faire is practically physics, you know. A force of nature both inevitable and irreducible.

Taking to the streets is a form of persuasion that has rewarded many movements here and abroad. In thermodynamics, power is the rate at which work is done through the transfer of energy resources. Anthropological power lies in the ability to allocate and focus resources on a need or desire. Money is power because for a price, you can persuade someone to get most anything done. There is no shortage of those who would step up to the challenge or sell their souls or accept any spiritual disfigurement for the hefty feel of lucre in their hands.

If the tin ear of corporate media are deaf to the reasoned voices of those who don’t buy advertising, then what is left for us to do? Elect a businessmen? This general election cycle a species of disrupter was elected president. This charismatic fellow can work a crowd like Castro or Hugo Chavez or Mussolini or (add your own dictator)? A large crowd in the spell of a colorful and grandiose orator seeking high office meets the show business definition of “compelling.” If the event results in fisticuffs or tempers flaring like Roman candles, so much the better.

Electronic news broadcasting is really just show business. A key element of a good story is conflict. Look at any movie. The writers take a sympathetic character and do terrible things to them. There is a chase, violence and intrigue, reconciliation and a twisty ending. Sound familiar? TV is made to do this and they are good at it. And it sells. Watch Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.

Civil disobedience, as opposed to picketing, makes meaty footage because there is the possibility of imminent violent conflict. It is compelling. As an exercise in power, though, immediate resolution rarely happens. The power aspect comes to play when and if the establishment is forced to confront awkward questions. Often establishment authority is refractory to public scrutiny. Other times it folds like a lawn chair.

 

 

 

More than a few people in my meager sphere of coworkers, family, and acquaintances are of a decidedly conservative bent and apparently bathe in the fetid wellspring of the Fox network for their daily ablutions. I recognize this because more than a few use substantially the same phraseology as they express the similar contentions on politics or of some duplicitous liberal miscreant. Most are admitted non-sciency folk and have heard that the current dust-up about AGW, Anthropogenic Global Warming, derives from assertions of a self-serving conspiracy by unscrupulous scientists angling for grants or in service of some deeper, darker purpose.

Like many people I’m trying to follow and comprehend the topic of climate change and AGW. Having taken no more than an undergraduate semester of meteorology and oceanography as well as flight training, I can grasp basic concepts and use some of the vocabulary in a sentence. So, when I’m asked for my opinion I usually just shrug my shoulders and offer a scenario for consideration.

Forget CO2 for a minute. What happens to surface water if the atmosphere and oceans get a bit warmer? It’s safe to say that, generally, there will be more moisture entering the air. It’s a fact that water vapor is a greenhouse gas. Water vapor absorbs infrared energy from the sun. Any influence that manages to cause the atmosphere to hold more water is an influence that will cause the atmosphere to capture more thermal energy and result in warming. Being more buoyant that dry air, moist air can convect to produce clouds.

The change from liquid water to gas is an endothermic process. Energy is absorbed to produce water vapor from surface water. During cloud formation, upwelling air naturally cools and condenses to aerosols and droplets. These may freeze to ice and liberate the latent heat of fusion. This is an exothermic process, liberating latent heat which warms the air causing further convection. So, a parcel of moist air convecting upwards will result in an inrushing of surface air which is drawn upwards to sustain a column of rising moist air. The early cloud building phase of a thunderstorm (cumulonimbus) is characterized by strong updrafts from convection.

So, one might expect storm behavior to change as the relative humidity increases. As the average air temperature rises, the higher latitudes (north and south) might be expected to see some change as well.

In the northern hemisphere one of those changes could be the melting of higher latitude snowpack and glacial ice. Ice and snow pack consists of fresh water. Fresh water is less dense than salty ocean water. As fresh surface water runs onto briny oceanic water, it will tend to stratify according to density with lower density, less briny water tending towards the surface.

The thermohaline circulation, also referred to the Atlantic conveyor, is responsible for the gulf stream current that flows in a northeasterly direction along the Atlantic coast of North America and into the north Atlantic. This current is responsible for delivery of relatively warm water to the north Atlantic. These warm waters are partially responsible for the temperate climate of the UK and northern Europe. One of the most important concepts of climate science is that one cannot separate the oceans from climate. Due to the considerable heat capacity and latent heats of water (relative to air), the oceans are a substantial reservoir of energy capacity in direct thermal contact with the atmosphere.

The gulf stream’s arrival to the cooler north Atlantic where the water increases its salinity and density due to low temperature and evaporation to form a region of sinking water that forms a subsurface current. This current circulates to the Pacific and Indian oceans and eventually back to the north Atlantic in a loop of circulating water. For the north Atlantic, this loop is at the surface and transfers heat back to the north Atlantic in the form of warm surface gulf current water.

The gulf stream submerges between the coast of Norway and Greenland. In doing so, warm water is transferred to the north Atlantic. Should Greenland undergo a sudden warming with subsequent release of melted fresh water, it would be expected that the process of sinking of briny surface water would be suppressed due to the presence of less dense surface melt water from Greenland. The effect would be to suppress the potential energy of descending cold briny water feeding the Atlantic conveyor as well as oxygen transport to the ocean depths. Upwelling water from the deep transports vital minerals to support the food chain. The loss of this upwelling will have a distinct affect on the fisheries.

If it transpires that the loss of heat transport to the north Atlantic results in a general cooling of that body of water to form ice, how is the overall heat balance of the earth affected? Could it trigger another ice age?

The point of this is to offer that a rise in air temperature can lead to consequences that are not intuitively obvious. Talking about global warming should not end with just “warming”. The ramp up to global warming is a disturbance that may have surprising results.

Archives

Blog Stats

  • 504,578 hits

Recent Comments

Philip Rakita on Ferrocene as Insecticide
Tom on Ferrocene as Insecticide
Philip Rakita on Ferrocene as Insecticide
Tom on Ferrocene as Insecticide
Philip Rakita on Ferrocene as Insecticide