Wizards of Oz

"Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless."


Happy 40th, Internet

The Internet is 40 years old today.

The very first host-to-host packet-switched message ever sent over the fledgling "ARPANET", an information network developed by BBN Technologies under a contract awarded by the Pentagon's "Advanced Research Projects Agency" (today known as DARPA), was sent 40 years ago today.

At 10:30pm PDT on October 29th, 1969, a UCLA student using an SDS "Sigma 7" host computer sent the word "login" to an SDS 940 interface message processor (IMP) 300 miles north at the Stanfurd Research Institute. Though the system crashed after only the first two letters were transmitted ("lo"), the remote IMP login was accomplished an hour later.

The original 1822 protocol, which was designed for reliability and assurance (i.e., the host would be able to tell if a message was lost), was later replaced with the Network Control Program (NCP) that allowed simultaneous message sharing between different hosts. The modern Transfer Control Protocol / Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) was adopted by ARPANET in 1983.

ARPA, the world's 200 million plus blogs thank you.

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Moon + 40

40 years ago today, I was a toddler living in southwest Michigan with a second birthday coming up. My first recollection of our nation's space program was watching the APOLLO-SOYUZ linkup as an almost-seven-year-old waiting in a hospital lobby in Jacksonville, Florida for my 2nd major ear surgery.

The APOLLO 11 landing was the culmination of an ambitious vision laid out by President Kennedy some seven years prior -- a speech asking imponderable questions like "Why climb the highest mountain?" and "Why does Rice play Texas?"

While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin deserve all of the accolades of being the first humans to walk on another celestial body, my personal hero is Michael Collins: the pilot of the Command Module COLUMBIA and designer of the mission patch who could only watch from above as his two colleagues' names became forever etched in the nation's memory.

And why was he stuck in the Command Module? One reason: to perform unscheduled maintenance. That, and his personal disdain for geology.

Congratulations to the entire crew of APOLLO 11 for inspiring our world, and making the Universe seem just a little bit smaller!

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60 Years Ago: Secret No More

The city of Oak Ridge, founded solely as the site for enriching the fuel of the world's first nuclear weapons during the Manhattan Project of World War II, was a cloistered community where residents had to wear identification badges outside of their homes and visitors needed security clearances.

All of that changed sixty years ago, on March 19th 1949, when the "Secret City" of Oak Ridge was opened to the world at a "ribbon burning" hosted by Vice President of the United States Alben Barkley. Today's commemoration featured the contemporary peers of the dignitaries from that day (with the exception of VPOTUS): Gerald Boyd, Manager of the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge Office, for John Franklin, the 1949 Manager of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's Oak Ridge Operations; Dr. Thom Mason, Director of ORNL, for C. Nelson Rucker, the 1949 Director of X-10; Mayor Tom Beehan, for 1949 Town Council Chair W.A. Swanson; and Rev. Mark Walton, 2009 Pastor of Glenwood Baptist Church, who delivered the same invocation as Rev. Roy Arbuckle, the 1949 Pastor of Glenwood Baptist Church.

In the 1949 "ribbon burning", following remarks by Fred Ford (the 1949 U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Director of Community Affairs), George Felbeck (who led the K-25 gaseous diffusion purification plant for Carbide) made a 13-word telephone call to the operators at the Graphite Reactor in X-10 (ten miles away in Bethel Valley, today's Oak Ridge National Lab) to initiate the energy pulse that would burn the ribbon and officially open the Secret City to the world. While the 10,000 onlookers on that day had to wait nearly three minutes for the capacitors to charge and the ribbon to burn, today (after city historian Bill Wilcox's identical call), we only had to wait about 40 seconds:

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AMSE and Neighbors

Today I took the older kids (two plus visiting friend Jake, who was Shelby's Baby Hui pal way back when in the 1990s) to the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge. AMSE is the best museum deal we've found, with a family membership for only $35 and several pages of reciprocal museum listings worldwide.

This week is the 60th anniversary of both the founding of AMSE as well as the "opening" of Oak Ridge, so admission was just a quarter (yep, $0.25) per person.

Jake showed how to levitate (with the help of a floor-to-ceiling mirror), while (below) Shelby tried the Van der Graaf generator and Jarrett worked in the Y-12 style glove box.

After a quick stop at the Razzleberry Ice Cream Lab, we walked down the hill for a "farewell party". Dozens of neighbors and friends came to wish us safe travels -- a bittersweet evening!

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Civilian Control of Nuclear Weapons

Oak Ridge National Laboratory's "History Room" is a veritable treasure trove of insights into the early days of the Cold War and the transition from the Manhattan Project to a civilian-led Atomic Energy Commission. Since 60% of the entire Manhattan Project budget was spent here in east Tennessee, it's a fitting and appropriate role for the lab (formerly known as "X-10") to play.

Last year a retired lab chemist named Ellison Taylor passed away at the age of 94. The executors of his estate provided the History Room with a box of his personal papers. Buried within his research notes was a carbon copy of a letter dated 18 March 1946, signed by fifteen Division-level managers from X-10 (including future Laboratory Director Alvin Weinberg, who would later chair a commission for President Kennedy that sowed the seeds for increased transparency in government).

This letter was addressed to Sen. Brian McMahon, Chair of the Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy and author of the forthcoming Atomic Energy Act of 1946. At issue was the manner by which nuclear weapons research would be managed within the federal government.

On the one hand, MG Leslie Groves deftly left the Manhattan Project to a swift and favorable conclusion of World War II. The "establishment" logic, embodied in the Vandenberg Amendment to the proposed Atomic Energy Act, which would have created a governing military board with "veto" authority over the proceedings of the Atomic Energy Commission.

The scientists had work
ed side-by-side with soldiers for more than four years. Their opinion was that "... that military control would ... increase immeasurably the very dangers that we wish to avoid."

This paragraph summarizes the civilian scientists' sentiment for "The Army Way":
The delays produced by the army system of compartmentalization, denying the research men on the atomic energy project access to facts that are necessary for their work, the procrastination in releasing results of highest value to the medical and biological sciences though these results are of no military importance, show that it is only detrimental to place the power of censorship into the hands of persons who are in no position to judge the facts.
The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 was passed -- without the Vandenberg Amendment. And civilian control of our nuclear arsenal, a model complementary to our nation's civilian control of its military forces, was assured.

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"Secret City's" 66th Year

Today (Friday, September 19th) marks the 66th anniversary of the formal designation of East Fork Valley in east Tennessee as the site of the "Secret City". It was on this day in 1942 that Major General Leslie Groves, U.S. Army (and Director of the Manhattan Project) stood atop Elsa's Ridge on the east edge of East Fork Valley, near a sweeping bend of the Clinch River, and declared that this valley would become home to the city that would house the bulk of the Manhattan Project.

During World War II, the project was known as the "Clinton Engineering Works" -- and housed at its peak more than 75,000 workers and their families. The Uranium-235 that powered the LITTLE BOY bomb on August 6th, 1945 came entirely from the Y-12 site in Bear Creek Valley (just across Pine Ridge to the south), while the crown jewel of Dept. of Energy National Labs lies one more valley to the south (Bethel Valley, across Chestnut Ridge from Y-12). And at the extreme west end of town, between East Fork Ridge and Blackoak Ridge, the K-25 site was a cornerstone of our nation's nuclear deterrent until its shutdown in the mid-1980s.

Happy Birthday, Oak Ridge!

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LHC: Game On!

The most powerful particle accelerator in the world, CERN's Large Hadron Collider, was turned on yesterday. And we're still around to talk about it! (So no, the fabric of the spacetime continuum was not breeched by the power of the beam -- though the marketing spin citing the 'power of the Big Bang' is a bit over the top...)

Hadrons are particles comprised of bound quarks, such as the protons and neutrons that make up all of the elements on the Periodic Table (as compared to "leptons", or "light particles", with no quarks -- such as electrons). At full power, this 27-km diameter synchrotron will accelerate protons in opposite directions to 99.9% the speed of light -- then shunt them into a collision chamber to see the results. Some are expecting to see the "Higg's Boson", the last of the "Standard Model's" predicted particles yet to be observed. The Higg's Boson would help explain why some massless particles (like photons) can cause other particles to have mass -- which can in turn help us understand "mass" far beyond Einstein's famous relativistic formula "E=mc^2".

I strongly recommend you check out Jorge Cham's brilliant comic strip "Piled Higher and Deeper", in particular his most recent three strips describing his "Tales from the Road":

Tales from the Road: CERN Pt 1
Tales from the Road: CERN Pt 2
Tales from the Road: CERN Pt 3

Stay tuned to this journey of discovery into the very essence of matter!

UPDATE: For an even more humorous spin (pun intended :-), check out Randall Munroe's strip "xkcd" from yesterday on the same topic. Bonus points for those who can find the six quark names hidden in the strip!

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Sensor Fusion in Baton Rouge

The Melton Valley-SensorNet project has come to Baton Rouge, Louisiana - home to the greatest concentration of chemical refineries, barge traffic and storage facilities in the United States. We showcased our project in conjunction with the Baton Rouge Area Mutual Aid System (BRAMAS) conference to the HazMat chief from Baton Rouge Fire Department, as well as representatives from Army Research Office's Chemical Sciences Division, regional FBI and other first-responder representatives.

Oak Ridge National Lab has developed an ingenious sensor mash-up that integrates real-time sensor data with response plans/policies, meteorological data, and predictive models in order to inform First Responders and other decision makers. The sensor package shown above is a chemical sensor developed by SeaCoast Science, Inc. of Carlsbad, Calif.

In this video, Magnus Oding of Scan Pacific Northwest, LLC of Mukilteo, Wash. launches the sensor via a pneumatic line thrower along the levee in downtown Baton Rouge. These sensors, when integrated with the communications architecture developed by Oak Ridge National Lab (that correlates space-time information with real-time sensor readings and predictive dispersion models), will provide enhanced situational awareness to any decision maker who has to make high-consequence, time-sensitive decisions to protect people and property.

Web 2.0 capabilities merged with sensing capabilities and predictive models create a next-generation "toolbox" for emergency management and disaster response.

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New Oak Ridge High School

Five years of community planning and fundraising, eighteen months of construction, over $60 million dollars and the newly renovated Oak Ridge High School is open for business.

I have never seen a community come together in such a moving and powerful fashion as Oak Ridge. With the leadership of UT-Battelle (manager of Oak Ridge National Lab) and their $2 million donation, the Oak Ridge Public Schools Education Foundation (of which I am honored
to be a part) and the community (through donations, sales tax increases & QZAB bonds), this school of 1,400 is now home to:

  • A science curriculum second to none
  • Five Career Academies integrating communications, math & science
  • A Center for the Arts
  • Technology labs for every department
  • State-of-the-art instructional facilities and libraries

In a very moving dedication ceremony, Principal Chuck Carringer "presented" the school to a panel of students drawn from across all Oak Ridge schools -- one student from each grade, pre-K through 12th grade:

This is a great day for Oak Ridge, and for excellence in science education among any school - public or private. And it is our biggest regret in our upcoming move to Colorado: that my kids will not get to be students in this extraordinary place.

(Donor Wall with Astrolabe)

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Guest Post @ MountainRunner

Matt Armstrong, Sage of Public Diplomacy and administrator of the popular 'blog MountainRunner, has indulged me with a guest post. Check it out.

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Climate Change: Reprise

Back in September I wrote a post entitled "Climate Change: Yes, But Why?". My premise was that, while "climate change" is clearly occurring, the issue of causality needs more attention.

After that post, I asked some members of the Oak Ridge National Lab staff (including one of ORNL's corporate fellows, Dr. Tom Wilbanks, who was part of the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) to share their perspectives. Tom was able to point me in the right direction regarding infrared absorption of various molecules (e.g., H2O, CO2, etc.).

This month's WIRED (16.06) has a great point-counterpoint cover story (which, in the URL, is referenced as "heresies"). Among their proposed "heresies" are Embrace Nuclear Power, Carbon Trading Doesn't Work and China Is The Solution. I think these are great points -- points that hopefully will shift the dialog from impassioned proselytizing to rational decisionmaking. (However, a cursory glance at the WIRED comments section shows this to be a vain hope....)

The WIRED piece has motivated me to renew my own research into the causal relationships between solar radiation (which has been on a cyclical increase, with a corresponding decrease in sunspot number), natural phenomena, and human influence. I finally found a graphic that I find compelling:

This graphic (h/t Thomas Everth's GreenBlog in New Zealand) shows total atmospheric absorption of various frequencies of electromagnetic radiation, as well as individual absorption spectra for ozone (O3), water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2).

It also overlays the distribution of incident solar radiation (most of which is between 200nm and 2μm wavelength, covering the visual spectrum of light as well as the near-infrared band) as well as the Earth's outgoing thermal radiation (covering the infrared-C band from 3 to 80 μm wavelength). Note that the x-axis (wavelength) is a logarithmic scale, going from 0.1 to 1, 10 then 100.

The red line shows the absorption of O2 + O3 (ozone). As expected, the left side of ozone's absorption spectra (wavelength below 200nm, in the ultraviolet spectrum) shows nearly 100% absorption. Our natural defense against harmful ultraviolet radiation is the ozone layer (which is depleted by chlorofluorocarbons, but that's for another post).

The blue line shows the absorption spectrum of water. While some have claimed that water vapor is the real culprit behind global warming (usually with some reference to how much warmer we are when there's a cloud layer), this plot shows that water's absorption spectra drops where the outgoing thermal radiation increases. Therefore, water is nearly transparent to the infrared-C radiation between 5 and 20 μm wavelength. This too is expected -- otherwise Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) wouldn't work on humid nights or with a high water vapor content in the air.

What I find compelling is the green line showing CO2's absorptive properties. In particular, note the spike in absorption between 10 and 20 μm -- where CO2 absorbs nearly 100% of incident IR-C radiation.

When I first considered the absorption and scattering of radiation by molecules in our atmosphere, I initially discarded it as a cause for concern. My rationale was that the absorbed radiation would be randomly scattered, or re-radiated -- and therefore would balance itself out.

While this is true for incoming radiation from external sources (e.g., the sun), what I failed to consider is that we live exothermic lives on Earth. When we convert fuels into energy, we're also creating heat -- so the outbound radiation becomes the key consideration.

By adding the outbound radiation to the equation, with nearly half of the absorbed radiation being scattered back to the Earth, we can conclude that carbon dioxide is a major contributor to climate change.

What can we do about this? Invest in alternative, renewable energy sources (such as solar, which is getting more efficient in capturing the 1.3kW per square meter peak incidence from the sun; wind, with some models generating more than 6MW per turbine; and better batteries to store energy). Travel less (thanks, Internet). And save.



Chernobyl + 22

22 years ago, on a late April evening near the city of Pripyat in northern Ukraine, Reactor #4 at the V.I. Lenin Memorial Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station exploded. This disaster, the only instance to date of a "Level 7" on the International Nuclear Event Scale, resulted in a complete breach of the containment dome accompanied by a severe nuclear meltdown. (By comparison, the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania was a Level 5: "Accident with Off-Site Risk".)

The four reactors at Chernobyl were each GigaWatt-output "reaktor bolshoy moshchnosti kanalniy" (Reactor-High Power-Channel Type, or RBMK). Together, these four reactors provided 10% of Ukraine's electricity.

RBMK reactors rely on light water (i.e., non-deuterium or tritium hydrogen in the water) for cooling, and graphite rods for moderation (akin to the world's first-ever nuclear reactor, the Graphite Reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee). Given the size of RBMK reactors and the methods for moderating fast neutrons, they can use natural uranium (vice enriched) for fuel. This also makes the design prone to instability, where boiling coolant can create a very large void coefficient: coolant that is supposed to act as a neutron absorber is boiled away, which increases the reactivity of the core, creating more energy in a positive feedback loop. The added energy can quickly lead to a "Loss of Coolant Accident", which in a large system like the RBMK leads to a catastrophic failure. (BTW: The word "scram" -- which Webster's defines as "a rapid emergency shutdown of a nuclear reactor" -- is actually an acronym coined by legendary physicist Enrico Fermi.)

In late April 1986, while Chernobyl's Reactor #4 was shut down for maintenance, technicians decided to test the ability of the reactor's turbine to power the safety systems should external electrical power be lost. The key question was whether or not the turbines, as they wound down from the reactor, could power the reactor's water pumps while the backup diesel generators came online. Though earlier tests had failed, the technicians wanted to check if recent modifications were sufficient to achieve positive results.

Before the reactor power had been decreased for the test to be conducted, a regional power station went off-line. The grid controller from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev asked that further power reductions from the reactor be postponed to allow sufficient electricity to meet evening demands.

But the night shift was not informed of the postponement. So, when the Kiev grid controller allowed the reactor shut-down to continue, the technicians at Chernobyl instead followed the original test protocol and powered down too quickly. This led to a build-up of Xenon-135 -- a highly-effective neutron absorber that can "poison" a reactor.

Technicians who began to increase the reactor power for the test saw far less power than expected. Unaware of the Xe-135 build-up (and commensurate "burn-off" as neutron flux increased), they removed the graphite rods to increase the reactivity. The increased power and decreased moderation from the graphite rods created steam bubbles in the coolant -- increasing the void coefficient described above. And though the technicians began to "scram" the reactor at 01:23:40 local time, the spike in energy caused the control rods to fracture and jam.

At 01:23:47 local time, as the last of the Xe-135 was burned off, the reactor jumped to 30 GigaWatts thermal: more than twenty times normal operating output. The fuel rods began to melt and the build-up of steam pressure created an explosion that blew off the reactor lid, resulting in a surge of oxygen that caused the graphite to ignite. The loss of containment and the graphite fire exacerbated the spread of radioactive debris throughout the region.

Today, Pripyat and the surrounding area (within a 30km radius of the reactor) is abandoned. Chernobyl has been shut down. However, there are still several RBMK reactors in operation in the Former Soviet Union (in St. Petersburg, Kursk and Smolensk).

Having spent this week at a 5-day "Team Leader Training Course" for the TapRooT Root Cause Analysis methodology, I have a new appreciation for the consequences of "human performance difficulties", particularly with highly complex systems. (Maybe Vinay Gupta and John Robb have a point re: "Resilient Communities" and "simple solar"!)

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REVIEW: Taleb's "Black Swan"

After resting comfortably in my "anti-library" for many weeks, I recently plucked The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb from my dusty nightstand. Since I was embarking on cross-continental flights (albeit with kids), I was looking forward to punctuating the drink-and-peanut monotony of Southwest Airlines (an airline woefully unequipped for flights longer than 90 minutes) with Taleb's insights.

Since my days as a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy, where I evolved from an aspiring systems engineer to a "Science Advisor" to a manager leading the "Red Team" at U.S. Joint Forces Command J9, I have been fascinated with the prospect of "adversarial surprise". Like most analytical efforts under the loose employ of the Pentagon (which has roughly one government civilian employee [tail] for every two active duty soldiers/sailors/airmen/Marines [tooth]), this was a cottage industry.

Taleb's insights echo many of our observations in the Joint Experimentation program, particularly regarding the hubris of intellectualism. His skepticism of inductive logic, his emphasis on the importance of context in perceiving information, and his lionization of Doktor Prof. Sir Karl Raimund Popper (whom I had the pleasure of driving from leland stanfurd junior u. to Cal some 20 years ago in my Nissan Sentra) as well as Henri Poincaré are worthy of note.

However, his self-referential anecdotes are reminiscent of a Tolstoy novel, and his clear disdain for planning (née prediction) creates a scotoma that pulls him into the same abyss of solipsism that consumed David Hume.

The depth of his criticisms can be summarized quite succinctly as:
Don't use quantitative methods for qualitative questions.
Nature is benign, so we can ascribe a comfortable level of determinism to our observations. New data, often obtained through technological innovation, requires modification of obsolete theories (e.g., the Ptolemaic model of the universe to the Copernican; Newton's Laws of Motion to Einstein's Special Relativity; etc.). Key to our understanding (though Taleb would probably insist we understand nothing) is the selection of appropriate parameters -- and to not get too enamored with your own theories, especially if it involves any vestige of "free will".

Fallible? You betcha! Yes, we are inclined to fool ourselves. Yes, we try to cram too many variables into our formulae in some vain hope that we'll "get it right". And yes, our institutions -- particularly financial ones -- tend to reward the wrong kinds of behavior (q.v. Prof. Clay Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma, in which Clay digs into corporate failures vice successes, finding that Wall Street rewards bad behavior). But Taleb's diatribe against the folly of "epistemic arrogance" has created another confirmation bias that only casually addresses the issue of scale when considering complex topics.

I understand that I am straying far from the "anchor" of many blogfriends (John Robb, Art Hutchinson, General of the Hordes Subadei, ARHerring, zenpundit, Chet Richards) who have offered glowing praise for The Black Swan. Perhaps it's my naïveté (or perhaps that I'm a product of the California public school system), but I honestly don't see our civilization marching toward "Extremistan". Quite the opposite: While our awareness of remote events has increased, and our networks have grown exponentially, I believe that the diffuse topology of our networks actually dampens the impact of an extreme event.

Consider the "Butterfly Effect". Do you really think a butterfly flapping its wings in Jakarta is going to eventually cause a hurricane in New York City? Or do you think the minor perturbation is absorbed locally without cascading into some kind of resonance? Yes, there are examples that illustrate the dire consequences of unplanned resonance. Taleb (who waffles at the end of his book as half hyperskeptic, half intransigently certain) abandons the Gaussian bell curve, yet -- with only a single mention of Albert-László Barabási -- firmly embraces Power Law scale invariance as normative.

Despite Taleb's too-casual treatment of scale, I think he would agree with George E.P. Box's statement (c. 1987) that "...[A]ll models are wrong, but some are useful." Abandoning our dogmatic devotion to certainty is essential in any creative, innovative enterprise -- and can reveal hidden opportunities, and hidden abilities.

This requires that we reexamine how we define "success". In my adopted hometown of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the best Calutron operators (the electromagnets that separated Uranium isotopes for the LITTLE BOY bomb at Y-12 during the Manhattan Project) were not the scientists from Berkeley who designed them, but seamstresses with no scientific training. And how many Americans would consider Tommy Franks or Norman Schwarzkopf as the most successful U.S. commanders in the Mid-East? What about Tony Zinni (who didn't win a major theater war, but may have demonstrated even greater skill by avoiding one)?

While many of us point to 9/11 as a "Black Swan", I can say unequivocally that it had a far less dramatic effect on my life than Continental Flight 196 on March 6th, 1993. Could I have predicted when or how I would meet the woman that would be the mother of my children? Of course not.... But was I open to the possibility, and adaptive enough (when jabbed in the ribs by Helen from Purchasing to move up one row on that flight) to take advantage of this blessing?

That may be the best value of Taleb's Black Swan: to jar us out of our collective comfort zones, to remind us how ignorant we truly are, and to encourage us to "Be Prepared!" Good advice, regardless of whether you live in Mediocristan or Extremistan.

Update: Überblogger Zenpundit has graciously linked this review -- and will have his own review posted this weekend. (Thx Zen!)

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Scale and (Over)Simplification

Following up yesterday's post on "Complexity and Scale", and the alarmist notion that society is bound to collapse because of its increasing complexity, let me turn the tables and describe a worrisome trend: that of oversimplification in the face of complexity.

Prof. Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Insitute (NECSI) has done pioneering research into the dynamics of complex systems. The first textbook on the subject was written by Yaneer in 1997, and a more-accessible (i.e., less math) introduction on applying complexity science to real-world problems (Making Things Work) followed in 2004. One of the most fundamental concepts in complex systems is the trade-off between complexity and simplicity when related to scale. Greater complexity at a large scale means greater simplicity at a fine scale, and vice versa.

Where we get into trouble is when we ascribe simple models that are inadequate for the complexity at a given scale. For instance, a hierarchy is limited in its inherent complexity to the complexity of its leader. Yet we persist in building simple hierarchical organizations (e.g., CPA and its successor organizations in Iraq) when the dynamics of the environment call for a more modular, diffuse network of organizations. Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety (c. 1956) asserts that, for a system to achieve stability in the midst of perturbations, its number of control variables must be greater than the number of possible states in that system.

Therefore, the most efficient organization in a dynamic, complex large-scale environment is not a Napoleonic hierarchy with a single overarching authority -- but rather a distributed, loosely connected network of specialized subnets that are empowered to act in response to system perturbations. Pop quiz: does the latter statement better describe the organizational paradigm of the coalition forces in Iraq, or of the various other force structures there (Mahdi, Badr, AQI, etc.)?

It is interesting to note that General Odom's recent Senate testimony (h/t Abu Muqawama) associates the decline in violence since General Petraeus's " ... reflects a dispersion of power to dozens of local strong men who distrust the government and occasionally fight among themselves. Thus the basic military situation is far worse because of the proliferation of armed groups under local military chiefs who follow a proliferating number of political bosses." Increased complexity at a higher scale due to the diffusion of military authority to lower scales.

The implications for the conventional force structure of the U.S. security infrastructure are profound. To borrow terminology from Tom Barnett, not only does this mean "Leviathan" can't do "SysAdmin" -- it means that the idea of a centrally-organized SysAdmin is doomed to failure.

Now that the study of self-organized criticality is 20 years old, which describes when a critical point in a dynamic system acts as an attractor, perhaps we will see commensurate change within our organizational models. For instance, the "Incident Command System" of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (which was derived from interagency evolution in response to wildfires, which was in turn derived from the military's deliberate planning process) defines standards to facilitate rapid organization, information sharing and decision-making.

Organizational models that facilitate effective (and appropriate) exchange of information, and -- most importantly -- allow the organization's evolution in the face of cooperation and competition are more effective in contending with the complexity of our world.

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Complexity and Scale

A post on KurzweilAI.net last week caught my eye. It excerpted a recent article in NewScientist entitled "Why the demise of civilisation may be inevitable", which declares that society's increasing complexity also increases its fragility -- and the energy needed to sustain it. What the gang at KurzweilAI.net missed is the nature of scale in complex systems dynamics.

In fact, this is the second time in a month that KurzweilAI.net has come up short. The other time was a report on a pandemic influenza detecting chip -- conveniently appearing just prior to a Pandemic Influenza Tabletop Exercise I recently participated in. But their report was wrong about current capabilities: first responders can identify various strains via an emergency polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test in 2-3 hours, not "days or weeks" as reported on their 'blog.

KurzweilAI's alarmist reporting on social complexity -- and the concomitant "solution" of "reducing" society's complexity by reengineering our institutions at a smaller scale -- shows scant attention to the essential role scale plays in complexity. To wit, if a phenomenon appears random or unpredictable at a fine scale (e.g., turbulent flow), it can be predicted at a large scale. Conversely, phenomena that are unpredictable at a large scale (e.g., ethnic violence) can be predicted at a fine scale. [The link is to the Ethnic Violence page at the New England Complex Systems Institute, and to a paper published in the journal Science last September presenting their models. These models showed a 90% correlation between single-parameter predictions (after wavelet filtering) and reported incidents in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and even higher correlations in India.]

The underlying assumption of KurzweilAI (and Ms. MacKenzie at NewScientist) is that complexity is directly proportional to scale: the larger the scale, the greater the complexity. Similarly, the smaller the scale, the less the complexity.

However, when you decouple scale from complexity, you begin to see a better fit with our observed reality. Conventional military operations (à la Schlieffen Plan, the Fulda Gap, and OPLAN 1002, to name a few) entail massive amalgamations of forces for the express purpose of simplifying the commander's perspective. Rather than drowning in the minutiae of individual soldier movements (or even platoon or company-level engagements), theater commanders -- with the helpful MIL-STD-2525 symbology, similar to NATO APP-6A -- are able to think in terms of Corps and Division elements (and, lately, Brigades -- the primary warfighting organizational element of the U.S. Army). Therefore, large scale -- but low aggregate complexity.

When the battlefield loses its conformity, though, the scale decreases -- while the complexity increases! Consider which of these two scenarios are more "complex":

1) U.S. Army V Corps blocking the Soviet 8th Guards Army in the Fulda Gap, or ...
2) U.S. Army V Corps serving under the Coalition Ground Forces Commander in post-OIF Iraq.

Many have described the inherent complexity of loosely-coordinated small forces combating a monolithic adversary, most notably the contributors to the Small Wars Journal, John Robb, and the gang at Defense & the National Interest. Perhaps the Kurzweil crew would benefit from paying more attention to these "ideas at the intersection".

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San Francisco Travelog

We're spending the weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area. Posterity of Oz (who too-quickly adapted to Pacific Daylight Time, which will make returning to school on Tuesday morning quite problematic) enjoyed visiting the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39. The photo above is in one of the "tubes" beneath a school of anchovies, and at right they are petting a skate.

We also paid a visit to the USS HORNET (CV-12) Museum at Alameda Point (the former Naval Air Station), but were deterred by their preparations for a conference of more than 3,000 machinists in the hangar deck. On our way off post, we saw the French maxi-catamaran GITANA 13 -- the sailboat that is shattering records around the globe. The crew of 11 had just set a new record for the Route de l'Or (New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn), breaking the old record by more than 14 days. (Yes, *days*.) They should embark for Japan later this week, where they hope to add the trans-Pacific sailing record to their growing list of accolades.

No visit to the Bay Area is complete without a stop by the alma mater -- and, this time, a trek up Strawberry Canyon to the Lawrence Hall of Science. Their special exhibit this month is "SPEED", with throttle-driven drag racers that risk stalling due to slipping wheels, a side-by-side ski slalom simulator, and a build-it-yourself Lego derby track.

But the main purpose of this weekend was to honor (and thoroughly roast) my mom, who retired last Friday after more than 32 years of service to the Alameda County Health Services Agency. More than 140 colleagues, friends and family came to honor her, while I had the privilege of co-MC'ing -- and laying the blame for the soon-to-be-bankrupt Social Security Trust Fund squarely on her shoulders for leaving the workforce. Truly an enjoyable trip.

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Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

Science fiction author, pundit, pioneer and visionary Sir Arthur C. Clarke passed away this morning in his adopted home of Sri Lanka. His short story The Sentinel (1948), which inspired his 1968 novel (and later one of my all-time favorite films) 2001: A Space Odyssey, demonstrated his keen insight into the perils of "artificial intelligence" and technological advancement.

Most notable was Clarke's professed skepticism of humanity and our inclination for self-destruction. A persistent theme in his Odyssey series (both the Space Odyssey as well as his later Time Odyssey trilogy) was the essential role "godlike" aliens played in creating -- and regulating -- sentient life in the Universe. His application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (that entropy increases over time) and the implicit justification of his aliens' "regulation of life" to postpone the ultimate heat death of the Universe is a compelling syllogism.

Sir Arthur's creativity gave us a glimpse into our own souls, and the cosmic implications of our folly. For that we owe him our gratitude, and our well wishes as he today embarks on his own Rendezvous with Rama.

Update: Other tributes from Sharon @ Danger Room, Kingdaddy, Jason S., Jay M., Soob and Cheryl R.

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Beakman in Oak Ridge!

The inestimable Beakman, the King Kong of Knowledge, was at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge today. Man-cub, announcing "I like pie!" (or was it, "I like pi"?), was dubbed "Pi-Guy" by Beakman -- and got to go on stage as a volunteer answerer with a crazy wig:
We got to see Beakman make a bat appear out of thin air, watch "Beakman Bucket" spew (with audience participation as the three elements of the pharyngeal process) and observe Bernoulli's Principle with the aid of a paint roller, a leaf blower and a roll of toilet paper.

Great fun!

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Space and Cake

All the banter about the U.S. Navy shoot-down of a failed spy satellite distracted me from the lunar eclipse last night. Thankfully the local Fox news affiliate made mention of it at the top of the 10 o'clock (EST) hour -- plenty of time for me to set up the 5" Maksutov-Cassegrain and snap this photo through the clouds. The moon (well above the horizon) looked like a dreary, rising harvest moon -- even the big crater Tycho was hard to discriminate.

As for tonight, Eldest of Oz decided she wanted to bake her own birthday cake (with assistance from Man-Cub) for tomorrow's party:

Big changes ahead in Oz -- I hope to post more by early next week.

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Osinga Roundtable: Boyd's Evolution

In an October 1939 radio broadcast, Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union as “… a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The same can be said of the late Colonel John Boyd, whose prowess as a fighter pilot and whose lectures on the relationship between energy and maneuverability revolutionized the U.S. Air Force – but who published no books. Rather, his legacy was left in a stack of acetate vu-graphs (thankfully digitized by Chet Richards) and reams of personal papers. For his studious review of the latter, distilling the mind of Boyd into book form, Col/Dr Frans P.B. Osinga deserves our gratitude. He has played Clausewitz to Boyd’s Napoleon.

In Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, Osinga presents us with a fascinating “deep dive” into the evolution of a brilliant thinker – a thinker who devoted his life to applied learning and teaching. Though it is unfortunate that Boyd did not see fit to publish his theories in book form (unsurprising given his professional environment far from the Ivory Towers of academe), it is evident from his 1,500+ presentations that he rigorously developed and willingly shared his ideas. Boyd’s stamina (both mental and physical) to lecture for more than a dozen hours at a time is testament to his devotion and his determination to succeed.

Osinga nicely complements the work of Boyd biographers (most notably Coram, Hammond and Richards) by dedicating the preponderance of his 300+ pages to how Boyd’s thinking evolved – describing his intellectual influences from the expected (Sun Tzu, Clausewitz) to the unexpected (Popper, Kuhn, Polanyi). Particular attention is given to the influence of classical physicists (Newton) as well as quantum theorists and mathematicians (Heisenberg, Gödel).

Boyd embodied the now-popular notion of the “Medici Effect”, a horizontal thinker who integrated perspectives across multiple, seemingly-divergent disciplines into a cohesive whole. His insights have proven applicable to a wide array of topics, and foretold of the emerging science of complexity theory (though I dislike Osinga’s use of the composite term “chaoplexity”, which undermines the distinction between “chaotic” – i.e., non-linear and seemingly random – and “complex” – i.e., a large number of interrelated properties or parameters). Given the swagger of the fighter pilot who bested the “best” in air-to-air combat in forty seconds or less, there is no doubt that Boyd – were he alive today – would be a prolific ‘blogger, and a Chicago Boyz contributor whose inputs would outweigh all of our Roundtable writings combined.

While many associate Boyd solely with the “OODA Loop”, he has given us far more than just a lexicon – just as Tom Barnett’s work is far more than simply “Core - Gap” and “Leviathan - SysAdmin”. Regardless of one’s willingness to accept his ideas, the sheer effort Boyd invested in his research – and Osinga’s effort in compiling the salient points for us – is an invaluable tool in anyone’s intellectual toolbox.

The motto of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration is Litera Scripta Manet: “The written word endures.” It is ironic that intellectuals tend to revere the commentator more so than the subject on whom they write: Herodotus over Leonidas, Thucydides over Pericles, Clausewitz over Napoleon. If history is consistent, then in a hundred years the name Osinga may be equally associated with the name of Boyd.

Update: Crossposted at Chicago Boyz.

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Bloggers for Nuclear Policy

Überblogger ZenPundit has vectored me to a "group blog request" by Cheryl at WhirledView on nuclear weapons policy. This topic was an early passion of mine, while an undergrad physics major at Berkeley in the closing days of the Cold War, so I am happy to participate.

However, I disagree with Cheryl's premise that current U.S. policy is "stuck in the Cold War"; the National Nuclear Security Administration's just-released "Complex Transformation" plan seems like the right plan for continuing to convert our nuclear stockpile to one that is relevant and sustainable for the 21st century.

Three topics I'll cover in this post:
  • Great Power War
  • Stockpile Management
  • Future Challenges
Living in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (a city founded solely because of the Manhattan Project in World War II), there are daily reminders of the role this city played in bringing a terrible war to an end. The old guard posts still stand on the Oak Ridge Turnpike and Scarboro Road, and the three facilities with cryptic alphanumeric names (X-10, K-25, Y-12) still adorn signs and maps.

One thing that becomes clear, touring the various historic sites around Oak Ridge, is the magnitude of effort needed to manufacture nuclear weapons. This is not something where a couple centrifuges can be turned on in a basement and voilà! you have material to build a bomb. The undertaking is complicated, laborious and time-consuming -- and this is a good thing. The skill sets needed to preserve and maintain a credible stockpile are scarce -- and this is not so good of a thing (I'll cover this in "stockpile management" below).

This creates a taxonomy of "Nuclear Powers":
  1. Those that have it
  2. Those that want to have it
  3. Those that don't want it
  4. Those who can never make it
Obviously, those in the first category want to preserve their "exclusivity" -- because after all, the logic of nuclear warfare is that you can never logically use them. This led to policies like the Baruch Plan after World War II (which the Soviets rejected because, in their opinion, it would have preserved the U.S. nuclear monopoly) and today's proper emphasis on nuclear non-proliferation (a great success to date, in my opinion).

Since "great power war" has faded in likelihood, some nations have active nuclear research programs -- ostensibly so they can join the "great power club" and garner increased international standing. This demonstrates the continued effectiveness of deterrence within the nation-state system (where even the most despotic rulers are still governed by some semblance of rational self-interest).

The fourth category ("those who can never make it"), therefore, is the most worthy of attention. A transnational terror organization lacks the resources to develop their own program, so they would have to resort to theft in order to obtain a weapon. (Note that I am deliberately focusing on nuclear weapons, not the other varieties of "Weapons of Mass Destruction" like chemical or biological.) Therefore, in order to minimize the likelihood of an al-Qa'eda-like organization obtaining a nuclear weapon, we should focus our attention on stockpile management.

Since the end of the Cold War, many old weapon systems have been dismantled in order to diminish the U.S. arsenal -- both to abide by international treaty obligations, and to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. This requires a labor force with the same skill sets necessary to manufacture weapons: not just physicists and engineers, but master machinists, pipe fitters and other skill trades. This is an area where international cooperation should continue to increase -- especially between Russia (which has the largest cache of weapons in the world) and the United States.

Therefore, the three "core values" of a relevant nuclear policy for the 21st century are:
  1. Maintain a credible deterrent (because it's the dominant "control mechanism" in international politics)
  2. Preserve the industrial base (both for demobilization of existing stock as well as for continued research and development)
  3. Continue emphasizing non-proliferation
We can never put the nuclear djinni "back in the bottle". So long as we live in a world ruled by conflicting interests, total disarmament will never be a practical solution.

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First Flight

Wilbur and Orville Wright, the youngest of a Bishop's four sons, grew up in Dayton, Ohio. Gifted engineers and inventors, they (like most of their contemporaries) were fascinated by the idea of "heavier than air" powered flight. However, while their peers built increasingly powerful motors (figuring that the "flight problem" could be overcome by brute force), the Wright Brothers focused on the challenge of control in three polar dimensions: yaw, pitch and roll.

Their engineering acumen came from years of working in their shop with printing presses, motors and bicycles -- the Gary Fishers of the 19th-century. Mechanical skill, coupled with a penchant for data collection (e.g., numerous wind tunnel tests to build better propellers and wings) led to U.S. Patent #821,393: the control surfaces that would later be called ailerons.

Needing a remote place with strong winds, they discovered the Outer Banks of North Carolina. [Ed. note: As one who has experienced the headwinds of Kill Devil Hills, Jockey's Ridge and Kitty Hawk firsthand (on a bicycle during the 2005 "Tour de Cure"), I can testify that Wilbur did good -- OBX is renowned today for it's Kite Boarding!]

On this day, 104 years ago (December 17th, 1903), Orville Wright (below) piloted their plane for a 12-second, 120-foot journey. The brothers made three more flights that day, the final flight (by Wilbur) more than 850 feet in 59 seconds.

Happy flying!

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In Memoriam: Paul Tibbets

Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., USAF (ret), pilot of the ENOLA GAY (the B-29, named after his mother, that dropped the LITTLE BOY bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945) died yesterday. He was 92 years old.

The U.S. Air Force news release is here, the Associated Press report here, and additional photos and information on the man who -- to his dying day -- defended the mission that helped bring World War II to an end is here.

Rest in peace, sir.

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The King of Bombs

Approximately four years after launching the first satellite into orbit, the Soviet Union conducted the largest nuclear detonation in history. "Tsar Bomba" (nicknamed "Big Ivan" by its designers) had an estimated yield of 50 Megatons -- nearly triple the yield of CASTLE BRAVO (the U.S.'s 1954 dry-fuel [Teller-Ulam design] thermonuclear device tested at Bikini Atoll). The test over Novaya Zemlya just before noon (Moscow time) on Oct. 30th, 1961, nearly knocked out of the sky the modified Tu-95 BEAR bomber that carried it. Its blast plume measured more than 40 miles (65km) high.

A two-minute video from Discovery Channel:

An eight-minute video on YouTube:

What's ironic is that a last-minute switch (replacing the Uranium tamper with one made of lead) was done to reduce its yield and subsequent fallout. If this change had not been made, the yield could have exceeded 100 Megatons.

Increased awareness of military facility locations, coupled with improved accuracy of missile delivery systems, made massive weapons like Tsar Bomba thankfully irrelevant.

More info:

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Review: John Kao's Innovation Nation

Ten years after Prof. Clayton Christensen’s groundbreaking book The Innovators’ Dilemma defined the relationship between “sustaining” and “disruptive” innovation, Dr. John Kao has come out with a Paul Revere-esque “call to arms” for America. The subtitle of Innovation Nation (“How America is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do to Get It Back”) is intended to be a wake-up call to our cultural complacency regarding emergent threats in the world – not just transnational terrorists, but market threats that are eroding the long-term viability of our economy. Since my truck’s personalized license plate is a play on the word “Innovate”, and my own work experience has shown me firsthand our propensity for “outsourcing” the intellectual heavy lifting, I find John’s warning both apt and very timely.

John Kao is a true 21st century “Renaissance Man”. He is a doctor of medicine (holding an M.D. from Yale as well as a Ph.D. in Psychiatry), an entrepreneur (with an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and 14 years on its faculty teaching “innovation”), who has also been engaged in film making (he was a production executive for 1989 hit sex, lies and videotape and Executive Producer for 1992’s Mr. Baseball), and is an accomplished jazz pianist (spending a teenage summer in L.A. recording with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention).

John is perhaps the world’s foremost “innovation advocate”, and a mentor to many Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies (both U.S. and abroad) and international organizations. I have been fortunate to have known John for several years, since then-Major General Jim Dubik (as Director of the Joint Experimentation Directorate at U.S. Joint Forces Command) sent me to San Francisco to check out the guy who wrote a tiny (5cm x 10cm) “innovation manifesto” – tiny because it’s “for very busy people”. Those two-and-a-half hours Kao’s office in the San Francisco Film Centre at The Presidio – an office once occupied by Robin Williams – is perhaps the most inspiring rap session I’ve ever experienced.

He is also a man with a true “long view” – a vision not just for our immediate future, but for this and the next century. In Innovation Nation, Kao describes the evolution of “innovation models” – from individual achievement to today’s “version 4.0” that rapidly adapts best practices across a globally diffuse environment of open architectures and collaboration. America is the “incumbent”, but also seemingly blind to the challenges posed by emergent innovation powers like Singapore, Denmark and Finland.

The book continues with an honest critique of America’s education system, comparing and contrasting our response (in terms of funding, curriculum development, teacher training, school construction, etc.) to Sputnik and President Kennedy’s famous challenge at Rice University in 1962 to today’s sagging U.S. aptitude test scores and lackluster performance in math and science. John compares the high barriers to entry (both literally and figuratively) of our nation’s immigration system to that in global innovation hot spots, along with the perils they bring.

The closing chapters of his book make it “real” by offering prescriptions – from the micro (building personal “dream spaces”) to the macro (crafting a “National Innovation Agenda” and empowered policy-making entities). Although some historical anecdotes are slightly dated (e.g., a reference to Thomas Friedman’s quote that two nations with a McDonalds have never gone to war – the Balkans being the notable exception), the positive aspects of Globalization hold true. And like any prescriptive work that is future-focused, it is here that he is taking the biggest gamble – and will undoubtedly be derided for offering specific solutions that may not stand the test of time. But like the esteemed professor at Harvard Business School who told him everything “useful” about innovation has already been written in the literature, John will take it all in good measure – and continue to be a strident champion for the grease in the gears of entrepreneurialism. I encourage anyone that is serious about cultivating an ethos of innovation in their organizations to study the insights of Innovation Nation.

Addendum: Last night (Oct. 4th) John was featured on The Colbert Report, which used the 50th anniversary of Sputnik to examine the competitive landscape of innovation today. You can see it here:

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Sputnik Day

Tomorrow, October 4th, is the 50th anniversary of the launch of the first artificial satellite into Earth's orbit. While our 20/20 hindsight shows that this bold action had a cathartic effect on the American space program -- and the technical evolutions that accompany richly funded research programs -- the first official report of the launch "was buried deep inside Pravda" and elicited little more than a knowing yawn from Premier Khrushchev that Soviet technical preeminence was intact. [1] Only later, after receiving heaps of praise from foreign nations, did Pravda provide a banner headline.

What was essentially a brash gamble by a daring Chief Scientist Sergei Korolyov (whose identity remained a closely-held state secret until his death nearly ten years later) shifted the Cold War arms race into a higher gear and sowed the seeds for America's current technical prowess. In fact, Korolyov was so convinced the Americans were on the brink of their own launch that he dramatically accelerated his program's schedule. Hence the name "Prosteishiy Sputnik" -- "The Simplest Satellite".

Think about it: just a scant 50 years ago, there was only one satellite orbiting Earth (and that one wasn't man-made). Imagine what the next 50 could have in store for us....

[1] http://www.physorg.com/news110428604.html

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Climate Change: Yes, but Why?

Personal opinion: I believe too many people are accepting what the mainstream media feeds them regarding climate change without digging into the data.

Is climate change happening? Certainly -- the receding polar ice is indisputable evidence of increasing temperatures. Where the train runs off the rails is when we try to ascribe causality.

We too easily accept the conclusion ("accusation"?) that humankind MUST be the cause -- that the increase in alleged "greenhouse gases" must be why temperatures are increasing, so therefore let's cut emissions -- reduce coal burning power plants -- buy E85 vehicles
-- spend BILLIONS on carbon scrubbers and other retrofits to "dirty" systems.

But too few are questioning the models that present that data. Too few are asking about those funky "weighting" factors to make the models fit the data (e.g., why methane gets a 1.1 multiple but CO2 gets a 1.4). I've asked a few climatologists, who have answered they don't know. Which proves the dictum, "All models are WRONG, but some are useful." In fact, one can correlate the data showing Republicans in the U.S. Senate to observed sunspot number. Gotta be a causal link, right?

Then I ask why, if CO2 is the cause, we haven't seen similar increases in atmospheric temperatures at higher altitudes over time. Wouldn't it make sense that the "greenhouse gas blanket" that traps heat would trap more heat at the ambient altitude of the gases? (And don't cite the planet Venus as "evidence" of CO2's infrared transport capacity -- Venus's atmosphere is nearly 90 times as dense as Earth's,with no carbon cycle for surface reclamation of carbon emissions, and their daily rotation is slower than their "year" around the sun.) Same answer from the scientists -- nobody was willing to assert causality when challenged with specifics (instead a couple retreated to "confidence levels", the refuge of the risk averse who don't really know for sure what they're talking about).

Prof. Freeman Dyson, harshly maligned by climate change ideologues, has some good points in A Many Colored Glass that challenge the popular theories. But Dyson's main point is that there are not enough "heretics" in science -- that we need more people to stand up to popular opinion and challenge presumptions, at risk of their own reputations. I'm reminded of the late U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd, who would tell his subordinates that they will come to a choice: they could either be somebody (and fit in the "corporation" with its individual rewards) or they could do something (and make a real difference).

Of course, it's easy to accept as fact the slick presentations of a former-politician-cum-businessman. But ask yourself, next time you see "An Inconvenient Truth", why the preponderance of data shown only goes back 80 years. And why polar caps on Mars are receding at an even faster clip than on Earth. And why there is such intolerance of debate -- especially by noted professionals who suggest decertification for meteorologists who disagree with human-based causality.

Bottom line: we are good at reductionist analysis -- breaking problems into tiny pieces and solving each one in turn. But we are lousy at the complex interactions of billions upon billions of entities. And if you want to see for yourself the paucity of research in the infrared transport properties of greenhouse gases (or any gas for that matter), check out this query from Google-Scholar showing a grand total of six articles -- including one related solely to Venus, and one to financial transactions.

So, take the leap. Remove the veil. And ask the hard questions, rather than simply accepting what the Wizards tell you.


Endnotes: I do not work for the oil industry (or any energy-related industry, for that matter). I have no vested interest in any kind of policy (or lack thereof) regulating carbon emissions. We have over 100 trees on our property, so our calculated "carbon footprint" is negative (and certainly far less than fellow Tennessean Al Gore's, even with his "purchased offsets"). And a hat tip to Dr. Ed Smith Jr., from whom I grabbed the photo at the top of this post -- it's Earth, but it's upside-down and sideways.

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Public Education, Reprise

At this morning's weekly breakfast meeting of the East Tennessee Economic Council in Oak Ridge, hosted at the Y-12 National Security Complex by BWXT/Y-12 President and CEO George Dials, George told the collected community and business leaders that fully half of his skilled labor force (e.g., machinists) is eligible to retire. While there are more than enough physicists and engineers to go around, there is a dearth of master machinists, pipefitters, electricians and other skilled craftsmen to meet the growing demand -- both at Y-12 and in the burgeoning nuclear power industry. George has often said, "You don't want a physicist to fix your plumbing!" (Dr. Thom Mason, Director of the neighboring Oak Ridge National Lab, is a physicist. :-)

So, how many high schools have abandoned teaching "shop" in favor of computer science? Probably too many... (Even vaunted Oak Ridge High School has canceled Auto Shop; that teacher is now teaching Engineering.) My previous post on "Great Public Schools" has elicited a great dialog between some 'blogfriends. In response to an offline question, Überblogger ZenPundit (who has also commented on the previous post) offered the following assessment of education in America. It is reprinted here with his permission:

Speaking analytically and from close to 20 years of firsthand professional experience, the public school system's fundamental problems are an anachronistic orientation (Agrarian calendar, industrial mass production, and Taylorist model, hierarchical control), a breakdown of the home to school social contract and iniquitous, unreliable & irrational funding mechanisms disconnected from the system's legally required objectives. There are other problems, naturally, but those are the major systemic stumbling blocks to wholesale improvement.

That being said, it is not obvious to me that the primary alternatives to public education are any better when measured with identical yardsticks (surprisingly, often they are worse). Those that are (usually idiosyncratic programs of high quality) suffer from a lack of scalability. You just can't set up a top-notch Montessori program for 75 million kids - in fact, it's tough to do so for 75. Anything that is scalable - like curricular reforms and high standards featured by many charter schools - can be done more efficiently in public education for reasons of economies of scale. The only reason it isn't done is lack of political will and budget.

Homeschooling works best when the parents are exceedingly motivated and well educated, and their children are young and intellectually curious. Many home schoolers abandon the effort when their kids hit junior high and high school and the subject matter becomes more specialized - these kids either come to me performing well-above grade level (about 25-30%) or below grade level due to significant gaps in content knowledge because Mom really didn't understand fractions or the Civil War or whatever and skipped teaching it.

Catholic schools vary in quality these days just like public schools because the number of members of religious orders teaching in them (highly educated folks working cheap) has declined severely. In Illinois for example, St. Ignatius College Prep is a top high school but the average Catholic high School here is staffed by secular teachers who weren't good enough to find jobs in the public school system. What Catholic schools offer as a system that public schools do not is a culture, discipline and a sense of identity that some people find valuable (and a leg up in applying to Notre Dame, DePaul, Gonzaga etc.).

Other private schools, military academies etc. tend to be highly specialized in terms of mission.

Essentially, instead of judging which system is best, I'd look at what specific schools are available in your area and select the one that is relatively better than the others. If they are about even, save yourself a bundle of cash and use the public school system - unless safety/discipline is a concern.

Has the pendulum swung too far toward the "knowledge worker", and away from the skill crafts that build the infrastructure of our society? And what can we do to reclaim the "social contract" between parents and educators? I fear that my grandchildren will be left with a non-competitive economy competing against a hungry, agile, cheap global workforce.

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Great Public Schools (Yes, in America!)

While the U.S. collegiate system is the envy of the world, our primary and secondary schools have become punching bags for the media, politicians, and disaffected parents. This week's U.S. News & World Report even has an article on "education consultants" who, for a fee, will help parents find "good grade schools". This same article decries our nation's "sagging SAT scores", with a USA Today-esque graphic helpfully showing the downward trend in Reading (508 two years ago to 502 today), Math (520 two years ago to 515 today) and Writing (497 last year, when this module was introduced, to 494 today). Maximum possible is 800. Überblogger ZenPundit has blogged extensively on the topic of public schools.

This is why we're so glad to live in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Who'd have thunk that one of the best public school systems in the nation would be nestled in the hills of southern Appalachia? In fact, both Newsweek and Expansion Management magazine have consistently ranked Oak Ridge as among the best school districts in the nation -- with Oak Ridge High School garnering accolades from them as well as the Wall Street Journal as one of the best high schools in the country.

Note that these are public schools, paid for by the city (through sales and property taxes), the state (through franchise and excise taxes) and the federal government (through income taxes and other revenues). And even citizens outside of the Oak Ridge district can send their kids to our schools: annual tuition is about equal to what the "education consultants" in the USN&WR article mentioned above charge for simply finding a good grade school.

Is this because of our city's founding as an integral part of the Manhattan Project during World War II (city motto: "Born of War, Living for Peace") and its close proximity to one of the nation's finest National Labs, or because of proactive citizens and School Board members like blogger Citizen Netmom, or because of the forward-leaning Oak Ridge Public Schools Education Foundation? Or some combination of all of those (and other) factors?

This much I know: U.S. test scores may be failing -- but not in Oak Ridge. Our prowess in math and science may be slipping -- but not in Oak Ridge. And as a product of the California public school system (from elementary through undergraduate), I am proud to learn new vocabulary words like onomatopoeia from my 10-year-old daughter.

Click for a summary of Oak Ridge Schools awards and honors.

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