This Blog Is Obsolete! Here’s where to go:

It hasn’t been updated since 2011. If you want to read my writing, go instead to:

My Google+ Page, +YonatanZunger. Yes, G+ is still a thing – and it’s where I post the most pieces, and have the most active conversations. Follow me here if you want all the things.

My Medium Page, @YonatanZunger. Where I put some long-form essays.

My Twitter Account, @YonatanZunger. Where I put some very random things, and sometimes rant.

You’re free to subscribe to this blog, but you will find it very, very, boring.

Published in: on January 30, 2017 at 17:46  Comments (1)  

Books of the Year, 2011

In 2010, I kept a log of the books I read, and ended with a “Books of the Year” post. This was remarkable fun, so I did it again this year, and once again I have some recommendations and some anti-recommendations.

First, the obligatory lump of statistics: Only 61 books read this year, down from 101, but many more partially read but abandoned. Of the ones fully read, 18 were science fiction, 15 fantasy, 6 lit fic, one thriller, 14 non-fiction, 5 YA, 6 middle-grade. (The ones not fully read were, alas, mostly low-grade) Three were re-reads, and (a different) three were anthologies of short fiction. Out of this, I found 18 that I can recommend, about the same fraction as last year, and one (of the ones I finished) that deserves an anti-recommendation. Fortunately this one is merely unexpectedly bad, rather than something which ought to be set on fire at the soonest opportunity.

The recommended list is much more non-fiction–heavy this year, including two extraordinary books about the United States which I think every American should read as soon as they can get their hands on them.

For the “writers to read everything by them the moment it is available” list, I’ve got one addition, or rather the removal of a caveat – I think that I can safely recommend the entire corpus of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work without hesitation, at this point.

So now, to the details!


Lots of good fiction this year. I’ll start off with science fiction, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book Galileo’s Dream. This is the story of how Galileo was secretly and repeatedly kidnapped by time travelers; but far from a romp, it’s a beautiful, complex, and serious book, mostly a (very historically based) life of Galileo, deeply meditating on faith and reason, science and religion, and the balance between the emotional and intellectual life. One quote from it which particularly struck me, and which I think illustrates the style and tone:

“We all have seven secret lives. The life of excretion; the world of inappropriate sexual fantasies; our real hopes; our terror of death; our experience of shame; the world of pain; and our dreams. No one else ever knows these lives.”

Highly recommended. Equally good was Félix J. Palma’s The Map of Time, the first of his novels to be translated into English. This book attempts to explore, as far as I can tell, every single major approach in literature to time travel, as well as the meaning of story and writer, and does so with such wit and passion that you can’t stop reading it. H. G. Wells is one of the main protagonists; elaborate Victorian frauds are a major plot element. If this doesn’t grab your attention, I don’t know what will.

Another extraordinary book I read this year was an older one, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Sarantine Mosaic. (Warning to readers: This was published in two volumes, “Sailing to Sarantium” and “Lord of Emperors.” The covers will not warn you that these are a single book, not a book and a sequel; there is no ending point between the two. Publishers do this sometimes and it annoys the piss out of me.) Following his tradition of writing quasi-historical fantasy (he has an interesting essay on why he writes this, rather than straight histories) this book covers the later years of the reign of Justinian and Theodora in Byzantium, told through the eyes of a Roman mosaicist commissioned to cover the ceiling of the great cathedral, rebuilt after the Nike Riots nearly destroyed the city. I don’t know if I can do justice to this book in a paragraph; he manages to make a chariot race seem like the most exciting thing in all creation, he brings the glory of this world and of its infamous politics so much to life that you are seeing gold before your eyes for a week afterwards, and you will feel that you know the protagonist like a brother by the time the story is out.

A different take on the ancient world comes from Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey. This is postmodernism at its best: each chapter retells some part of the Odyssey, but changed in some way: perhaps from a monster’s perspective, perhaps with the story mutated. You walk through a garden of delights, realizing only partway through that it is actually a maze, and that you will never be able to know exactly which story is true. (Fair warning: This book is a lot better if you know the Odyssey well. [If you don’t, my favorite translation is Fitzgerald’s] This is also definitely a lit-fic experience, so if that isn’t your thing, this book might not be, either.)

And now for something completely different: Habibi, by Craig Thompson, is perhaps the most important new graphic novel of the year. It tells the story of two child slaves somewhere in the Middle East (perhaps North Africa?), bound to each other by what little love they have known as circumstance tears their life apart. This book succeeds on many levels: as a novel, it tells a compelling story; as a graphic novel, Thompson’s use of visual metaphor and structure is really stunning. Islam plays a very deep role in the story, and the ways in which stories and prayers from the Qu’ran mix in with the text (and with the art! Always, with the art!) are subtle and will leave you pondering connections for hours. This book made me wish I read Arabic, so that I could understand all of the subtleties. (And incidentally, Thompson is neither Arab nor Muslim; his previous major work, Blankets, was rooted in his own fundamentalist Christian upbringing. Now I’m waiting for him to write a book about Judaism in the same way; if it’s half as good as these, it would be splendid)

And following up on the religious theme, I picked up and re-read one of Heinlein’s later works, Job: A Comedy of Justice. This book was surprisingly good, and survived a re-read many years later far better than I would ever have guessed. It’s a parable about a rigidly fundamentalist preacher from a rigidly fundamentalist world, who finds himself unexpectedly transported into a completely different world – and then another, and another – until he suspects himself to be a modern-day Job. The book is a sharply pointed satire of hypocrisy of many sorts, and I actually suspect it to be one of his best-written works. (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is better, but a very different kettle of fish) In retrospect I’m surprised that this book isn’t better-known, and that it isn’t considered one of the most controversial things about his career; his satire is not gentle at all, and by the end of it Satan himself is one of the protagonists. If you are up for such a thing, it’s quite a good use of your time.

More science fiction: Robert Charles Wilson has a new book out, The Chronoliths, which is simply first-rate science fiction, on a par with his earlier Spin. One day in Thailand, an enormous monolith celebrating a military victory sixteen years in the future suddenly appears; soon more start to come. The question is how the world is to cope with the knowledge of an incomprehensible war in its near future.

Genevieve Valentine’s debut novel Méchanique is a strong step onto the literary stage; it follows a travelling circus in a post-apocalyptic world, whose ringmaster has modified most of her members mechanically. The strains between the troupe are balanced by the conflict with the “government man,” who wants this technology for military purposes. Science fiction with a steampunky feel.

I finally got a chance to read Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children, and I think that it’s a very worthwhile piece of serious SF. (Especially alongside Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects, one of my recommendations from last year; it’s almost impossible not to read these books as being in dialogue with one another) Plot synopsis: Humans have gone extinct, but the robots they created have colonized the Solar System. Some robots, though, are now permanently out of place; e.g. our protagonist, created to be a sexbot, and now trapped in political intrigue. What could be a light romp instead takes on subtle meaning, because the book takes a classically Asimovian premise (the humanoid robots have succeeded us and improved on our works), and adds the same insight Chiang discusses, that the only way to make a robot which thinks like a human is to raise it like one; but then it mixes in the harsh reminder that “robot” comes from the word for “slave,” and if we are creating robots to be our tools, and these robots have sentience, then we are raising and training slaves, with all the moral consequences which that entails. (Like many of Stross’ novels, the worldbuilding and the ideas are superb, the plot is well-fashioned, but the character development is somewhat weaker; YMMV)

Another book by Charles Stross, or rather a series, are his Laundry novels: The Atrocity Archives, The Fuller Memorandum, and The Jennifer Morgue. These are not serious fiction at all. They are the stories of the civil service agency which is in charge of dealing with Lovecraftian horrors, and it is often hard to tell which is more alarming: the mind-shattering things with tentacles, or the office politics. (These often interact) I read these while sick and have to say that they make excellent mindless reading. (You’ll want at least a passing familiarity with Lovecraft if you read these)

And these make an excellent intro to the light reading section of our recommendations.

Michael Swanwick finally published a Darger & Surplus novel, Dancing with Bears; for those unfamiliar with the characters, they are a pair of con men (well, strictly speaking Surplus is a bioengineered, uplifted con-dog) travelling a world which has long since rebuilt itself after the apocalypse. Their short stories are great fun, and apparently they handle the transition to novel-length with ease.

Lavie Tidhar has a very enjoyable book out this year called Camera Obscura. Sure, it’s got the lizard royalty of England battling against the secret council of men and automata which rule France over control over an alien artifact with the power to animate the dead and open gateways between worlds, but at its heart, this is really a Wu Xia novel, and it’s kung fu (and the occasional Gatling gun) which saves the day. This makes for something surprisingly awesome.

And finally, one thing which is not like the others: I read L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables this year. While the target audience for this book may have been ten-year-old girls, something which I have never been, I can’t help but thinking that this is one of the most extraordinary books ever written for children. It radiates an outlook on life which is fundamentally so hopeful, and so passionate, that you can’t help feeling better about the world after reading it. So if you’ve never read this book, go do it.


The first two books I would like to recommend are about the US, and will really be of interest only to those who live in the US or who are passionately interested in it. But I’m going to give them an unusually strong recommendation: If you do live in the US, these are books that you should read. Neither of them is something you would obviously pick up in a bookstore.

The first is American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell. This book is a deep analysis of how religion shapes, and is shaped by, our society. It is based on a number of large-scale studies (the General Social Survey, the Pew Religious Landscape Survey, Gallup data, and several other sources) and was written by people who understand statistics deeply and who know how to draw every last valid inference out of data; but this is not a book of statistics and has no math outside the footnotes. What it does have is a wealth of surprising insights into how our country works. Some examples:

  • Starting in the late 1970’s, American politics, and particularly partisan affiliation, started to become tied to religion. The leading driver of this was a reaction to the sexual revolution, and the key determinant of people’s politics was their attitude towards sex. More recently, politics has begun to determine religion; people started to choose their churches based on their political views, rather than the other way round. This in turn led to a significant rise in the religiously unaffiliated; people who generally have faith, most of whom believe in the existence of God, but who do not associate themselves with any particular religion. (And yes, they provide convincing evidence for the causal arrows)
  • People in the US orient themselves by their friends first, by their politics second, and by their religion third; that is, they choose their politics based on what their friends think, and their religion based on the church which matches their politics.
  • Some social changes have deeply pervaded society: for example, the graphs of attitudes about women’s rights over time look shockingly similar (apart from starting from different points) across all religions and levels of religiosity, and notions of gender equality are actually widely accepted by all but the most religious few percent. Other changes fractionated sharply along denominational lines, e.g. attitudes about abortion. Interestingly, attitudes about the rights of gays and lesbians are following the first curve: acceptance is spreading uniformly across denominations.

These are just a few snippets. This book has almost 700 pages of this sort of stuff.

The other book you wouldn’t expect to read is John R. Vile’s Essential Supreme Court Decisions. (Now in its 15th edition) Unless you’re as much of a geek as I am, this book won’t seem so appealing at first: it simply goes through the most important decisions of the U. S. Supreme Court (several hundred of them), divided up by subject matter and then by chronology, giving for each a summary of the question at hand, the decision and reasoning of the court, and any noteworthy dissents.

What’s really extraordinary about this book is the way that the subject-matter grouping shows you how the country has evolved and what the real distinctions it sees are. For example: You read through the famous school segregation cases; then you read through the gender segregation cases; and then you encounter very similar cases about social class, and the court treats it very differently. Suddenly you see how Americans view this as so different from all other distinctions, and a lot of our current politics makes a new kind of sense.

(There’s a third essential book for Americans to read, which I didn’t read this year and so is technically not part of this list – but it’s Amar’s America’s Constitution: A Biography, which studies how each part of the Constitution evolved over time. I have never learned so much about the underlying nature of our country as while reading this book; two particular gems were the evolution of the understanding of the second amendment during the Civil War, and finally understanding why the 3/5 compromise and the Electoral College were really insidious.*)

So long as we’re on the subject of politics, another fascinating book I read this year was Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. Fukuyama studies a range of civilizations and studies how political orders emerged. I don’t agree with everything he says,** but he has a number of interesting arguments. A key one is on how the rule of law emerges: “True freedom tends to emerge in the interstices of a balance of power among a society’s elite actors.” It’s worth reading and pondering if questions like these at all interest you.

But maybe they don’t. Maybe you want to read something short and to the point; if so, I suggest John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English. It tackles things which I didn’t realize were considered controversial, like the influence of Celtic languages and the Viking invasions on English; and it is one of those rare books whose brevity feels more like a lack than a mercy. It’s fun, it’s not technical, and can be a very nice introduction to modern comparative linguistics.

And perhaps you want something lighter still. Well, this year Larry Gonick finally published the last volume of his history of everything, The Cartoon History of the Modern World, volume 2: From the Bastille to Baghdad. I’ve been reading these books for more than half of my life at this point, and it’s sad to think of them finally being over (as his history finally reached the modern day); they’re charming, and fun, and generally fairly good history. (NB that the first part of the series is titled The Cartoon History of the Universe, v. 1-3)

* The 3/5 rule wasn’t evil because it counted blacks as 3/5 of a person instead of one; it was evil because it counted them as 3/5 of a person instead of zero. Article 1 section 2 doesn’t give slaves 3/5 of a vote; it gives them zero votes, and gives slaveowners an additional 3/5 of a vote for each slave they own. (Technically this was just at the representation level, but many slaveholding states actually propagated this down to individual votes) This was meant to give the South a guaranteed permanent majority in Congress; the Electoral College was meant to transfer this compromise to also give them control of the Presidency. Not, as is commonly supposed, to protect the power of small states – that was expected to be an issue, but as Monroe’s letters show, it pretty quickly became clear that this wasn’t turning out to be important, and the far bigger threat was that the South wouldn’t sign on to the new Constitution. By his estimate, if the South didn’t sign on, and two separate countries with a large land border were to form, war would be inevitable and the entire American experiment would go down in flames. He may have been right, but this set the stage for a century of spiraling tension as the South saw that it was gradually losing its guaranteed majority to population shifts. It is not a coincidence that the Civil War broke out just as the South finally lost this majority, and a clearly Northern president was elected.

** For example, I think he grossly overstates the significance of Brahminism as an independent cause of India’s development of the rule of law; from his own evidence, I think that the early emergence of the jatis as independent sources of power, balanced against one another, was far more important. But my concerns are at this sort of level of detail, not at the larger scale.

Rotten Tomatos

No year would be complete without at least one utter stinker. This year, the “award” goes to Arthur C. Clarke and Frederick Pohl’s The Last Theorem. This is a bit surprising, since Clarke and Pohl are both extremely respected writers and experienced collaborators, but this book is an unmitigated disaster. It has a generally straightforward and predictable plot, and the characters are shallow, but the real problem is how characters don’t make sense from page to page. The worst example: At one point, the (male) protagonist meets, falls in love with, and marries a woman. She is promptly happily (and without any conflict) ensconced as a full-time housewife and mother, and is asking her oh-so-brilliant husband to explain to her some basic concepts of computer science, so that we have an excuse for a multi-page expositional dump.* The problem? Two pages before, she was a postdoc in CS at Caltech, and one of the most promising researchers in the field. Did she simply forget her entire life’s work the day she got married? Apparently so. The whole book is like this.

So if you were waiting anxiously to read Clarke’s final work… save yourself the pain. Go re-read Childhood’s End instead.

* Note: You do not want a multi-page expositional dump. No, really, you don’t.

Published in: on December 15, 2011 at 12:09  Comments (4)  

Differentiated Instruction

(As an experiment today, I’m actually cross-posting this, rather than linking it; you can see it directly on Google+, where I suspect the conversation may be more lively!)


The NY Times has an interesting debate going today about whether “differentiated instruction” — i.e., putting all skill levels in a single classroom and relying on the teachers to teach appropriately to all of them — is a good or bad idea. If I can boil down the arguments a great deal, it comes down to:

OT1H: If top students are separated into advanced tracks and resources are allocated to those, that will come at the expense of lower-performing students, especially minorities and the underprivileged.

OTOH: Teachers can’t actually provide this level of differentiation; if all students are lumped together, teachers will teach to the middle, or more often, the bottom; and as a result the best students will suffer, and the overall top-skilled group in America will atrophy.

It’s a difficult tradeoff and one which I remember vividly from high school (yes, even after all these years); our district was perpetually fighting over whether the existence of honors classes was “elitist.” It was ultimately resolved by budget: the state had marked money for students with special needs, including both the extreme top and bottom end, but earmarked more than the total amount (!) for the bottom end. It was a political decision, of course, not an inability to do math. Nowadays, the problem is shaped more by testing requirements; since schools have been ordered to ensure that certain percentages of students are proficient in all subjects, the effort clearly needs to go into making students not yet proficient be proficient, and keeping students at the lower edge of proficiency above it. The mandate is clearly to focus on raising the bottom end.

The logic of this is tied somewhat to our economy; we see jobs at the bottom disappearing rapidly (although nowadays, that “bottom” doesn’t mean unskilled labor, it means something far more complicated) and people who lack the proficiencies needed to get jobs outside of those collapsing areas are going to be permanently un- or underemployed. From a societal perspective, we can’t afford that.

But I personally can’t advocate the sort of aggressive grouping, and emphasis solely on the bottom, as wise policy. It’s true that we want to avoid further social stratification and prevent the formation of a large permanent underclass; but it’s also true that the innovations which keep this country being a world leader, and which create all of those new jobs, are coming from the top performers. When we place them in learning environments which basically tell them “sit down, don’t make noise, let us teach the slower students” (and this is very much what they are told) they tune out. Those students who don’t drop off the high-performance track altogether (and quite a few do that; I remember a lot of very smart junkies when I was in high school, all of whom reported “boredom” as their chief problem) don’t get the enrichment required to turn someone initially promising into a leader.

In fact, when you do this sort of grouping, the only smart students who get this sort of enrichment are…. the children of the wealthy and privileged, who can get them that enrichment elsewhere. So this sort of grouping is actually antiegalitarian in an important way: it guarantees that the next generation of leaders will come even more exclusively from the previous generation. And worse, it makes that generation smaller, and picked from a smaller pool, which makes it weaker.

If we want this country to succeed, we need to change our academic goals away from simply making sure that the bottom doesn’t fall. This could be achieved by some fairly simple tweaks: for example, if testing goals focused not only on percent proficient but percent advanced, incentives for schools would be radically changed in an instant.

There’s a flaw here, and it’s purely a policy flaw. I think we should change it.

Published in: on October 3, 2011 at 11:11  Comments Off on Differentiated Instruction  
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What I’ve really been up to: The Google+ Project

So, I can finally tell you all what it is I’ve been working on in so much secret. For the past few months, I’ve had the honor of being chief architect for Google’s social systems, and today we launched the Google Plus Project at last. This isn’t a final thing — as its name implies, it’s going to be evolving and improving very rapidly. As the news stories say, the purpose is to make sharing more social; to make it match the way we actually relate to our friends in the world. And it has some amazing other features, like Hangouts, Huddles and Sparks, which just make it lots of fun to work with.

To find out more, check out our blog post, or this news story, which I think really got it. And of course, visit to find out more.

Published in: on June 28, 2011 at 11:04  Comments (21)  
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bin Laden, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the value of disproportionate response

I’d like to do something very unusual in this post: argue that a policy of George W. Bush, and not just any policy, but his policy of starting land wars in Asia, may have had a good effect.

I’ve been thinking this week about the death of Osama bin Laden, and in particular how it profoundly changes the narrative of the American military presence in central Asia over the past decade. Prior to this, there were plenty of stories about “the US is only there for their own interests” (which is undoubtedly true, and continues to be so) as well as a story about bin Laden as a sort of terrorist Robin Hood: he smacks the Americans in the nose and gets away with it, escapes to fight another day. Now, his political capital has greatly eroded over the past decade; after the disassembly of his logistical infrastructure in Afghanistan, and perhaps even more so after his faction’s behavior in Iraq (both their bloody-mindedness towards Iraqis and their inability to function against direct, prepared American resistance), he has long-since ceased to be a figure of much veneration, even among the bulk of the radical lunatic community. So his “Robin Hood” points are mostly evaporated.

But in the context of last week’s raid, there’s a new story: if you pick a fight with the United States, they will hunt you down. Even if it requires an absolutely absurd expenditure of human lives and resources, even if it means starting not just one but two wars which frankly make no logical sense. And this story has tremendous value to the US, quite independently of bin Laden’s actual significance; it’s the threat of disproportionate response, the visible reminder that the US has a truly tremendous range of assets which can be brought to bear on any potential enemy. And in an era when people may have believed themselves to be immune to such response because of their small size or non-state nature, while still capable of causing asymmetric harm by means of modern “force multipliers,” the vivid embodiment of that warning may have a powerful effect on the next few decades of our history.

Am I recanting my earlier opposition to these wars? Only in small part. There has been tremendous mismanagement of these wars at the policy level, and I shudder to think how many more people were killed than needed to be. There are going to be many other long-term consequences of these wars, such as increased regional power for Iran, which may be considerably greater in scope than we can guess today. But as time progresses and more consequences fall out, our analyses of these events will have to change, and of their rightness or wrongness in retrospect.

Perhaps more to the point, what we’re seeing here is the notion of the “enforcer” in repeated games. (See Boyd et al., “Coordinated Punishment of Defectors Sustains Cooperation and Can Proliferate When Rare,” and Posner, “Social Norms and the Law: An Economic Approach,” two classic papers on the subject) Humans seem to have evolved such that a certain fraction of our species is prone to disproportionate reaction in response to “cheaters” (i.e., violators of norms); even though these enforcers tend to win less on the whole than the average person, because of this tendency to spend more energy than they rationally (individually) ought to, the society as a whole turns out to win considerably from the presence of a certain number of such people. It’s the deterrence scheme of the madman; you never know when they might flip out and kill everyone in sight.

Our system of government seems to have found a unique method of amplifying this in political or military situations; when something sufficiently severe happens, the enforcers in society raise an outcry, and everyone else’s attempt to mute this is tepid or restrained at best. As a result, even if the sitting president isn’t an enforcer by nature, he will find himself under pressure to become one – or rapidly be replaced by someone who is. It’s a way of pulling enforcers to the fore on an as-needed basis, which acts as a tremendous boost to the credibility of the threat.

But there’s a problem, of course. To have the deterrent that the leader of the United States just might be a violent madman and capable of anything, you need to have (at least occasionally) as leader of the United States a violent madman who is capable of anything. Enforcers are fairly specifically chosen for their irrationality, not for their ability to make wise or reasoned decisions; and they tend to wrack up a tremendous body count (of their own people) in the process. The fact that we had an extreme enforcer already in office at the time of 9/11 actually strikes me as somewhat alarming; he went off for the right reason, but even so did it in far from the wisest way, and we as a society will be paying the consequences for a long time to come.

A side benefit of the fact that Obama was the president who ended this is that he isn’t known as an enforcer; he was hailed from the moment of his election as a wiser, more understanding (and more rational!) president. The signal that even if a “calmer” person is in office, the rules of an appropriately timed disproportionate response are still in play, is an extra and valuable booster to this policy of deterrence. Waiting for someone else to come into office is not a good strategy. This is a nuance which is particularly commonly seen in Israel; every time a new PM comes to the fore, Hamas &co. start trying some terror attacks, to see if this one will be easily pushed around. It never works, but it gets tried every time nonetheless.

With all this said, there was a deep and significant victory achieved this past week. It wasn’t a victory over a particular terrorist; it was a victory over hostile state and non-state actors as a whole. It wasn’t just the victory of the team that did it, and it wasn’t even the victory of one administration or the other; it was a victory for our society as a whole.

And with that I can say, to all those who sacrificed for this moment – in their lives, in their families, in their economies – this sacrifice has bought our country, and our world, something of great value which could not have been bought in any lesser way.

(Addendum: It occurred to me after posting that I should have mentioned that the fact that Iraq was completely irrelevant to 9/11, bin Laden, etc., doesn’t affect this reasoning. It’s the fact that the President might go off and lay waste to two countries which just happened to be in the wrong area, and to have pissed off the wrong people, just in order to make the point which is the deterrent. We live in a strange world.)

Published in: on May 6, 2011 at 21:28  Comments (3)  
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He’s dead, Jim.

So I know that everyone is expecting me to write a long post about bin Laden’s death, and I was planning it, but then I saw this LOLbama (thanks to David Nachum) and it just said it better than anything else could:

Sorry it took so long to get you a copy of my birth certificate. I was too busy killing Osama bin Laden.

Serious kudos (and areté, and timé, though those are not in my power to grant; but they have been earned, indeed) to everyone who was involved in this, from the initial intelligence gathering and assessment all the way out to the strike team that actually did the deed. It really couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy. A few interesting points to mention:

  • Looks like a notably flawless execution. Zero US casualties, and on the other side bin Laden plus three other henchmen dead, two women wounded. For an operation like this, that’s absolutely amazing.
  • Pretty importantly, we recovered the body and buried it at sea. This is actually very important, and tells me that Obama really gets how to play this game; in the Islamic world, funerals are often the initiating points for mass movements, and tombs of martyrs become pilgrimage sites. I had been hoping they would at least do unmarked-grave-in-the-desert; the sea is even better. Top marks for strategy.
  • Obama’s remarks indicated thanks to the Pakistani government and so on, but were notably vague about whether they were notified before or after the operation. Not that I really give much of a damn, but it’s an interesting bellwether of our relationship with Pakistan.

On a slightly more general note, I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff which could be written about America’s changing attitudes towards assassination over the past few decades, going from loud protestations of “oh, we would never do that” to the President coming out to give a press conference about it. But that’s an article for another day.

In other Middle East news, Syria has been continuing to heat up, with protests continuing unabated despite a serious attempt to shut them down (very violently) by the government. al-Assad has signaled that he’s willing to play this one Hama-style, with a siege in progress at Dara’a that could easily turn into a massacre of the entire city. But I heard an interesting report this morning that Hezbollah has decided that the risk is too high, and is voting with their feet — they’ve started to move their heavy weapons stores out of Syria and into Lebanon. This could be a very tempting target, so if you hear that Israel decides to bomb the crap out of some targets in Lebanon in the next few weeks, don’t be surprised.

Published in: on May 2, 2011 at 10:46  Comments (3)  
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What you need to know about radiation (The non-tech version)

I recently posted a copy of my old radiation safety notes. Those were written for young physicists, so they aren’t exactly models of clarity. Since people asked, here’s a completely nontechnical summary of the key things to know about radiation.

Radiation consists of high-energy particles of all sorts. They can injure you by crashing into cells. If they hit DNA they can damage it, and if enough DNA gets damaged then some damage will make it past your body’s bad-DNA-removal systems and turn into cancer. If you get really a lot of radiation, it can kill cells directly, especially in internal organs; this causes radiation sickness and is quickly (and unpleasantly) fatal.

Elements are the different types of atoms which exist in the world. Each atom has a nucleus which is made out of a mixture of protons and neutrons. The number of protons, a.k.a. the atomic number or simply “Z,” determines all of the chemical properties of the element, and so which element it is. (For example, Carbon has Z=6, Uranium Z=92) The total number of protons and neutrons is called the atomic weight, or sometimes “A.” Isotopes are variants of the same element with different atomic weights. (“Uranium-238” is the isotope of Uranium with a total of 238 protons and neutrons) Most combinations of protons and neutrons aren’t perfectly stable; over time, they tend to fall apart (“decay”) and emit small parts of themselves, i.e. radiation. Substances like these which naturally emit radiation are radioactive materials. The more unstable a nucleus is, the faster it will decay; the amount of time it takes half of the nuclei in a sample to go away is called the half-life of the nucleus. This can range from milliseconds to millions of years. Radioactive materials with short half-lives will be very radioactive for a short while, but then stop quickly; radioactive materials with longer half-lives will stay moderately radioactive for a very long time.

Because chemistry only depends on Z, different isotopes of the same chemical will mix thoroughly and can’t be separated by chemical means. This means that if you need a lot of one particular isotope, you have to do something complicated and mechanical. This also ties in to one of the main dangers of radioactives, below. “Low-Z” materials are materials with a Z up to about 20; this includes most organic materials, plastics, and so on. These materials are relatively transparent to radiation, which is why airport backscatter X-rays can’t see explosives. “High-Z” materials include most metals (except Aluminum!), and absorb radiation well.

There are four common types of radiation. Alpha particles, which are light atomic nuclei,  can cause a lot of damage (because they’re relatively heavy, and being made of nuclear matter interact a lot with other nuclear matter). However, they’re relatively easy to block; even paper or clothing offer considerable protection. They can be very dangerous if ingested, though. Beta particles are electrons and positrons, and penetrate more deeply than alphas, though they do less damage. Gamma rays are simply high-energy light (part of a wider category including UV light and X-rays) and are the most penetrating. Betas and gammas are most effectively blocked with a thick layer of high-Z material such as lead, or several feet of concrete. Neutrons are emitted by the decay of certain very large radioactive elements, including those used in nuclear power. They can cause as much damage as alphas, but because they have no electric charge they are much more penetrating. Also, high-Z nuclei tend to absorb neutrons into themselves. This makes them good at shielding neutrons, but in the process they tend to turn into other, often radioactive, isotopes. This means that metals used in neutron-rich environments like reactors tend to become radioactive over time.

The common units for measuring radiation doses are the Sievert and the rem.* This chart can give you a notion of some effects of radiation; section 5.6.3 of The Nuclear Weapons FAQ goes into more detail and talks about acute doses.

Danger levels: For a normal adult, up to 5 rems per year total (up to 1.5 for a pregnant woman) is safe and should cause no adverse effects. Doses up to 50 rems will cause increasing risks for cancer; generally, each 0.01 rems you get is about one “micromort” (a one-in-a-million increase in your chance of dying, about the equivalent to driving 230 miles) Doses above 50 rems can cause acute radiation sickness. Children are more vulnerable because they’re smaller, so they get more radiation per unit of body mass.

Normal levels: By simply walking around and existing, you pick up about 0.3 rems per year, from natural radiation in rocks, from space, and so on. A chest X-ray is good for about 0.01 rems; an airplane flight, about about 0.04 rems; a mammogram, about 0.3 rems. The most radioactive fruit is the banana, which is rich in Potassium. (The radioactive isotope Potassium-40 is about 1% of all Potassium in nature) Eating a banana is good for about 0.01 mrem, or one Banana Equivalent Dose. You can learn how to protect yourself from them here.

Nuclear fission is a reaction in which a large, unstable nucleus breaks into two smaller nuclei, generally throwing off some spare protons (and a lot of excess energy) in the process. Only a few isotopes do this. If one of these isotopes is hit hard by a neutron (which is heavy but electrically neutral, so it can get in close to the nucleus) it can be enough to break that nucleus, causing it to fission and emit more neutrons. This can cause a chain reaction; if enough neutrons hit other nuclei, rather than being absorbed or escaping, the total number of fissions keeps increasing. An assembly of fissile material which can do this is a critical mass.** Nuclear reactors work by having a large pile of fissile material, generally a 3-5% solution of Uranium-235, which is just at the level of criticality but no more. These are mixed in with control rods, which are rods of some neutron-absorbing substance like Cadmium or graphite, which can be moved in and out to control the speed of the reaction. Together these form the reactor core, which gets very hot from all this energy release; that heat is used to heat water or some other fluid, and ultimately to make steam which turns a turbine, like in any other power plant.

Nuclear fusion is a reaction in which two small nuclei are rammed together to form a slightly larger nucleus. For certain combinations of nuclei, this will create a net release of energy. Fusion releases more energy than fission, and its result products are nonradioactive.*** This is great for clean energy, but it’s much harder from an engineering perspective.****

At the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant, seismometers detected the earthquake and immediately shut down the reactor by driving the control rods fully in. However, even with control rods fully in and the chain reaction stopped, the baseline radioactivity of the core requires constant cooling. The earthquake knocked out the power to the cooling system, and the tsunami destroyed the backup systems. Plant operators moved on to the next level of backup cooling methods, which involve pumping seawater directly into the hot bits. While the cores of several reactors have melted, the core containment units have held, and so none of the core materials were released. Another problem at the plant was that pressure was building up in the cooling system, because what water was there initially was boiling (and also being decomposed into Hydrogen and Oxygen – water does that at high enough temperatures) and the automatic venting system had lost power as well. This was dealt with by manually venting the steam. Some of this steam was radioactive, and this is where the radiation releases happened. A third problem are the spent fuel rods, which were in temporary (cooled) storage in the reactor as well; their cooling water was not being replenished, and humans have had to go in and assist. All of this has been complicated by problems such as “the building is on fire” and “if hydrogen builds up in an area and isn’t vented quickly enough, that part of the building will explode.” Heroic work by the reactor crew has so far minimized the effects.

At Chernobyl, on the other hand, thanks to a combination of poor design, poor maintenance, and poor operations, the core temperature went out of control and this caused the control rods themselves to burst into flame and explode. This destroyed the core’s containment vessels, and spewed bits of the core itself into the air and the environment. The worst radiation doses in the Fukushima area have been in the ballpark of 0.3 rems per day, for about two days; the worst radiation doses in the Chernobyl area were several thousand rems.

The difference between the two has to do with the amount of stuff emitted, and the chemistry of the stuff emitted. The radioactive steam from F-D got its radioactivity by being ordinary water bombarded by neutrons from the reactor itself. Low-Z materials tend to transform into relatively safe isotopes with short half-lives. (For example, Oxygen in nature is 99.7% O-16, which gets turned by a neutron into O-17 (stable); 0.04% O-17, which turns into O-18 (also stable); and 0.2% O-18, which turns into O-19 (beta source, half-life of 27 seconds; turns into Flourine-19, which isn’t healthy but isn’t radioactive). [You can look this stuff up here] So if you irradiate the oxygen in water, you get a very small amount of a source which decays quickly) The contents of the core, on the other hand, include such exciting isotopes as U-238, Cs-137, and Sr-90. Anything which spews that into the air is likely to be Very Bad.

Strontium-90 is a good example of a dangerous isotope. It’s a beta source with a half-life of 28.9 years. More importantly, Strontium is chemically very similar to Calcium; if you get it inside your body, your body will try to build bones out of it. Radioactive bones, which come with little radiation sources shining straight in to your bone marrow. Cesium-137 is similar to Sodium, although not as much as Strontium is to Calcium; Cs-137 is commonly used for radiotherapy for cancer. Plutonium-239, used in nuclear weapons, is one of the worst; it’s a powerful alpha and beta emitter; it’s chemically a more reactive version of Iron, and so reacts with Hemoglobin to form Plutoglobin, which your body then transports into your bone marrow; and when exposed to air, it forms a pyrophoric oxide which not only burns, it oxidizes itself (think Magnesium) and so can’t easily be extinguished.

So to summarize: Radiation is made of energetic particles which harm you by ramming into cells and damaging them; radioactives are materials which naturally emit radiation. You can naturally heal radiation damage, and block many kinds of it, but ingesting radioactives is particularly dangerous. Some radioactives look like elements used by your body, and so your body will ingest them particularly thoroughly. Others (like those in the steam) are fairly neutral and nonreactive, and so once they stop being radioactive themselves are safe. If you hear about a radiation dose, remember that anything up to a rem per year (10 mSv per year) is not cause for panic.

* The roentgen is a unit of radiation emission. The rad measures how much radiation you absorb; one rad is 0.01 Joules of energy per kilogram of your body mass. (More body = more ability to absorb things) The rem (short for Radiation Equivalent in Man) multiplies rads by a factor which takes the different damage levels from different kinds of radiation into account; betas and gammas are 1, alphas and neutrons (depending on their energy) anything from 1 to 20. The Sievert is roughly 100 rems, but Sieverts use a different table of medical effects. You’ll commonly see milliSieverts (1 mSv = 0.1 rem) and microSieverts (1μSv = 0.0001 rem).

** There are actually two different kinds of critical reaction, prompt critical and delayed critical. The former is used in nuclear bombs, the latter in nuclear power. Achieving prompt criticality isn’t something you can do by accident; nuclear reactors can never undergo the sort of reaction that triggers a nuclear bomb.

*** The stability of a nucleus depends on the difference between the energy of the nucleus as a whole, and the energy it would have if broken up into pieces. If this difference is negative, then the nucleus is stable; if it’s positive, then it’s unstable, and the bigger it is, the more unstable it gets. (Which means a shorter half-life) Energy-producing reactions work by making something more stable and using the energy difference you get. Fission works by taking a big, unstable nucleus, and kicking it so that it breaks into two smaller pieces; that energy difference is released as kinetic energy. But the smaller pieces aren’t guaranteed to be stable, just “more stable than what you started with.” Fusion works by taking two nuclei and combining them into something which is more stable than the originals were; once again there’s a difference, but this time by definition what you’re left with is stable. There’s no “chain reaction” for fusion; you need some way to keep the particles fusing, even though they electrically repel one another, and keeping that pressure up is the hard part. Some techniques are crushing the matter with a nuclear bomb (useful for H-bombs), compressing it with lasers, compressing it with giant magnetic fields, or crushing it with gravity. (Which is how the Sun works)

**** Practical fusion energy is about 20 years away, and it has been for the past 50 years.

Published in: on March 24, 2011 at 09:15  Comments (7)  

The Hazards (and not) of Radiation

Since everyone has radiation on their minds right now thanks to the situation in Japan, and since XKCD was nice enough to post this handy chart, I thought it might be useful to put up a link to my old “basics of radiation” guide from teaching radiation labs to undergrads many years ago.

(PDF Link: Handy Facts About Radiation)

A big thing this doc tries to do is explain the difference between things which will and won’t kill you. XKCD’s diagram is good at showing you the relative dangers of different levels of “primary radiation” — things like gamma rays and neutrons hitting you directly. What it doesn’t talk about is the relative dangers of radioactive substances, which can mostly kill you by getting inside your body and continuing to emit small doses of radiation.

For reference, so far the Fukushima-Daiichi plant has mostly emitted steam with radioactive noble gases in it, which is great from a safety perspective — those decay quickly and bond chemically with nothing, so they’re probably the safest radioactive leak you could ever get. XKCD’s diagram is appropriate for those. If the core were to be breached and spray some of the heavier materials inside there, like Cesium or Uranium, the results would be much nastier.

Also, a footnote: This doc works in units of rems, while a lot of the recent news reports have used Sieverts. 1 Sv = 100 rems.

Published in: on March 22, 2011 at 10:03  Comments (4)  

A few quick Middle East notes

Libya: This post by Barkley Rosser is, I think, bang on. The most likely outcome at this point is partition; Qaddafi will maintain control of the western (Berber) half of the country, based out of Tripoli, while the (Arab) East will separate out into its own country. This may slightly increase the highlighting of the line between the Arabs and the Berbers as you move westward through North Africa, and Qaddafi will continue to be bugfuck insane and bloodthirsty, but that’s not really so far out of the ordinary for the Middle East.

Egypt: The news from Egypt is, I think, positive. True to its word, the Army helped organize a nationwide election about revising the constitution, and the proposal passed what appears to be a fair election with 77% of the vote. However, the support was largely from the countryside, and the measure was backed by a coalition of the old ruling party and the Muslim Brotherhood, and opposed largely by the cities (esp. Cairo and Alexandria) and by the activists who had led the revolution, including Mohammed el-Baradei. Their main contention is that rushing elections will be counterproductive to democracy. I’ll refer back to my previous notes that, if the Mubarak regime were to go away, power would likely flow into the hands of those best-prepared to take advantage of a relative vacuum – and lo and behold, the biggest supporters of prompt elections etc. are the most organized forces. So I’ll count this overall as neutral-positive; on the one hand, I would rather that the election had gone the other way, but on the other hand, I’m pretty happy that there was an election, period. Let’s hope that the resulting government which forms will be committed to maintaining democracy going forward.

Bahrain: This is where I think the most dangerous action is right now. The Saudis sent a thousand troops in to help quell the uprising, but it’s just highlighting all of the problems I mentioned before. 20% of the world’s oil going through Manama, and the 5th Fleet and CENTCOM are based out of there, so it’s very important to the US that it still be run by a friendly regime. That, in turn, makes it very important to Iran that it instead be run by a regime friendly to them. The large Shi’ite population gives Iran a natural means of infiltration and a natural excuse to try to take power, but also gives the Saudis a really good incentive not to let them – the last thing they want is a hostile regime land-adjacent to them from yet another side. Within the country, the conflict seems to be hardening along sectarian lines, much to nobody’s surprise. My guess is that the Arab League (by which I principally mean “the Saudis and whatever other forces they buy”) will come down pretty hard in favor of the regime, and the US and Iran will both play somewhat more subtle games, but that ultimately the old regime will win. And it will be violent.

Elsewhere: Protests have actually started to happen in Syria, and are being met with predictable violence. It’s not yet clear to me if these will gain any traction. Yemen’s president apparently sacked his cabinet, after troops opened fire on protesters and killed 45. This one is going straight to hell in a handbasket, but I don’t think it should come as a tremendous surprise that Yemen is falling apart; its government always struck me as having only nominal control over much of the country. (But, of course, it’s got some critical locations too – Aden is a major port, and Yemen sits on one side of the pinch-point at the end of the Red Sea, opposite Djibouti and Somalia.) (I almost wrote “the Pirate Kingdoms of Djibouti and Somalia” there, those being the first descriptives which came to mind – and although those countries do have nominal governments, this does raise a rather important point about the state of that sea right now)

Published in: on March 21, 2011 at 09:00  Comments (2)  

State of the Middle East Update

So, after all of the excitement, I haven’t posted an update in a few weeks. Apologies; daily life intervened. Quite a bit has happened; not as much as you may think on some fronts, and more than you may think on others.

Let’s start with Egypt. Mubarak stepped down, the Army has stepped in. Democracy in action, right? Well, maybe. So far, the Army seems to be saying the right things – elections in 6 months, new constitution early next week – but several things remain to be seen. First, who will be running in these elections? It’s not like opposition parties have been able to get amazingly well-organized under Mubarak. (But honestly, I think this one will resolve itself; unlike many other dictatorships, this one didn’t completely grind any potential political opposition into dust, it simply kept them from doing anything. People like el-Baradei can exist in Egypt in a way that they never could in, say, Syria) Second, will the Army follow through, or will it try to hold on to more power for itself? (Which is how we’ve gotten most of our secular dictatorships in the past) Some role for the Army isn’t a disaster, necessarily; if Egypt follows the Turkish example, with the Army viewing itself as the guarantor of secular democracy (and if you do anything they think threatens that, they’ll shoot you) you can end up with something at least basically functional. On the other hand, if they follow Mubarak’s example, well…

The big question still on the table in Egypt is the economic one. Revolutions don’t happen in a vacuum, and pervasive poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunity, and so on are rampant; and they didn’t go away when Mubarak did. As a result, protests have been continuing (although not at quite a frenetic pace as the ones from a few weeks ago); the risk is that these could turn into lots of general strikes, and during this interim phase when there’s not much central government, that could start to destabilize a lot of local-level “keep-the-trains-running” sorts of government, which could make things fall apart badly and open the game up for (e.g.) the Army or another dictator to take power.

But that said, I’m still guardedly optimistic about Egypt’s future. The prevailing attitude appears to have been one of the people getting together to fix things, which I think is one of the best predictors of a successful revolution.

For an example of a different attitude, let’s go to the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula, over to Bahrain. Here the protests have gotten violent, with the BDF (the local army) opening fire with live ammunition against demonstrators early today. (I listened to audio recordings from journalists; they were definitely firing freely, and by all accounts aiming low and with live ammo.) No good estimates of casualties yet, but the violence is brewing fast. On the other hand, there are angry counter-protests in favor of the local absolute monarchy. Why? This is a pattern that’s very common in the eastern Middle East (the various emirates, Kuwait, Iraq, etc) with a large, and fairly poor Shi’ite majority being ruled over by a small and fairly rich Sunni minority. The tone of the rhetoric in Bahrain is very different from that in Egypt; it’s sounding like it’s all about the ethnic* anger here, and this could quickly manifest as a bloodbath.

Two things which further complicate Bahrain: the US and Iran. The US Navy has a major base in Bahrain, which is the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet and CENTCOM. This is a key, key location and not one which the US is likely to give up. (It’s the major logistical support point for all activity from the eastern coast of Africa all the way to the Pacific, which therefore also means logistics for Iraq and Afghanistan) The US made deals with the monarchy in order to set up shop there, and so it has a vested interest in the place staying stable.

Iran, on the other hand, learned some very important arts of infiltration and subversion from the Soviets. Every country with a significant Shi’ite population – and several areas without one, such as Gaza – has been set up with a fairly deep penetration by Iranian intelligence, which sets up, trains, supplies and supports local “organizations.” When it’s convenient (as it recently was, e.g., in Lebanon and in Gaza) those organizations take over the local government and set up satellite Iranian regimes. This one looks awfully convenient for Iran, and they would have to be fools not to make a play for it. (And needless to say, an Iran-backed regime would not be friendly to a US naval base, nor vice-versa)

So we have a major regional power and a (possibly overextended) superpower both with serious, and conflicting, stakes in a local revolution which could easily slip into ethnic bloodshed, with all sides having very large volumes of armaments sitting around in the region.

Meanwhile in Libya, it’s even harder to get information on what’s going on, but what we can tell for sure is that there have been large demonstrations in the two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, and the government has cracked down with great force. The numbers I’m hearing (although unconfirmed) are dozens of dead, hundreds wounded, and the situation is escalating rapidly. The “good” news is that this is unlikely to act as a tinderbox for anything else in the region; its three Middle Eastern neighbors are Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, all of which are already part of the situation.

And what about the calls for protests in Syria? They largely didn’t happen, because the military turned out in force, and the Syrians have figured out by now that the al-Assad family isn’t exactly gentle about the way it handles dissent. The Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and the Jordanian government have all managed to keep protest levels fairly low without resorting to quite as much violence, but it’s pretty clear (especially in the case of Hamas) that violence is most certainly an option if needed. Yemen continues its violent protests, and my guess is that the already-weak government will collapse; this is probably the biggest boon to the preexisting rebels (nothing whatsoever to do with the current run of protests, much more to do with Islamist terror groups) who will be able to firmly grab control of… well, whatever they decide to grab control of.

So looking at the map, my current estimate is:

  • The more peaceful Middle Eastern countries – Egypt, Jordan, Morocco – will probably fare the best, with either mostly peaceful regime changes or with existing regimes remaining in power and making varying amounts of concessions. These will be the bastions of stability.
  • Less stable countries which don’t have a deep background of ethnic instability, such as Libya and Yemen, will see more violence, and if their governments collapse the results are likely to be long-lasting and strongly favor the most brutal groups around. At the best they’ll trade one dictator for another; at the worst, they’ll dissolve into failed states.
  • States with sufficiently brutal governments, such as Syria and Iran, will remain quite stable, because anyone who tries anything will rapidly end up disappearing. Along, possibly, with their entire neighborhood. Some less stable countries may decide to copy a page from their playbook in order to keep their status quo.
  • States with a deep background of ethnic tension, especially ones with a deep Sunni-Shi’ite split, will likely fare the worst. Their governments will likely follow the brutal route, but the likelihood of Iranian intervention, and the likelihood of pent-up tension erupting far beyond anyone’s control, will remain high. If the dam breaks in such a country the result is likely to be similar to Iraq in 2004-5, or Bosnia in 1992-5, with localized “ethnic cleansing” (gods, what a euphemism for genocide) and equilibration only after the country has ended up effectively physically segregated.
  • Places with a lot of money (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, etc.) or with key strategic value (Bahrain) are likely to play out a much more complicated game, because outside forces have a lot more reason to intervene, whether they want to or not. Bahrain in particular looks like it could be the first flashpoint for many things, and the way it plays out could easily determine the fate of the eastern Middle East. Serious violence there could easily and rapidly spread up the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, into Kuwait, and thence back into Iraq in an unpredictable way.

Oh, and just to make it more fun? Iran is asking permission to send some warships through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean. Where they would be in an excellent position to support Gazan and Lebanese forces in an attempt to hold on to power. Or in an attempt to invade, oh, I dunno, someone…

Remember when I said the protests in Egypt could turn out very, very badly for the Middle East as a whole? I really wasn’t kidding.

* I really need to make a post sometime about the relationship of ethnicity, language, religion and tribe in the Middle East.

Published in: on February 18, 2011 at 19:00  Comments (3)  
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