Happy Localized Temporal Flux!

Which is briefer – Planck time divided by infinity or its inverse?

As I write this soon-to-be-anachronistic piece, it is already the “new year” in various places around the world. For instance, in Hong Kong it is 12:04 A.M on Sunday while it is only 11:04 AM Saturday here (east coast U.S. time).

The truth is far more complicated and far more interesting to consider.

First of all, there is the notion of sidereal time—time relative to a fixed star‘s position. It is used by astronomers, who cannot rely on our own sun’s position as our positional relationship to it is not fixed. As a matter of fact, starting in the 19th century it was noticed that the “fixed stars” are not fixed either. They are just distant enough that they are far more fixed than our local star seems to be. All sorts of calculations can be sorted out to use a non-fixed distant star or bright astronomical object as relatively fixed, but I neither understand these calculations nor would you (I suspect) find them particularly interesting. So, the bottom line is sidereal time is in constant change here on earth. If I am standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you, we are in different sidereal times. Sidereal time has no respect for time zones. Time zones are useful in that it would be a nightmare to discuss the time it actually is if we were not to bunch time together in chunks like we do.

Second, time is not really measured in chunks like hours, minutes, and seconds. One really has to consider the fastest event in the universe to consider time more accurately, if not more usefully. The shortest time is the calculated Planck time, which is 5.39×10-44 seconds (in other words there are 1.9×1043 tP in one second—roughly 2 followed by 43 “zeros”—an incomprehensibly large number of events on the “standard human time scale (SHTS).” It is the amount of time it takes for a photon in a vacuum to pass through a Planck length, which is also very brief, distance-wise.

I’ll just let you go to other sources for more information, m’kay?

The thing about Planck time is that it is a time derived from a physical standard calculated by Planck, so although useful for physicists, there’s something a little incestuous about the whole business. Various elements have layers of electrons probabilistically scooting around their nuclei at mind-bending rates of speed, while also changing their quantum energy levels from their lowest energy levels (aka ground states) to a variety of higher energy levels. These electronic transitions have been studied and are variously known to behave themselves in very dutiful ways. As they are in constant motion between energy levels and motion takes time, even on the atomic scale, the distances and times are very tiny. Cesium atoms, for instance, experiences 9,192,631,770(±some variation) transitions between energy levels per second. The atomic clocks based on this cesium transition are so accurate that they are calculated to lose only 1 second in 100,000,000 years (one hundred million years!) or so.

Part of the work that scientists do is involved in never being satisfied with a “good enough” answer; they are always looking for increased, accuracy, precision, measurement stability, always looking for a more refined “truth” than that which has been understood before. If you were a professional runner, for instance, and you just achieved a personal best, you would not go home, pop open a bucket of ice cream and settle in for the rest of your life. The next time you ran, you would try to better your personal best. Same with scientists, except the standards are set by nature and the tools we have to achieve better outcomes are constantly in the process of improvement.

Cesium has been the standard for measuring seconds for some years now but has just been displaced from its throne by an ytterbium-based atomic clock that “ticks” 518,000,000,000,000 (518 trillion) atomic events per human second. This allows a crazy level of stability that makes the mere 9 billion mark previously set by the cesium atomic clocks seem like sundials. The following video is a National Institute of Standards and Technology scientist discussing this improvement on video, along with explanatory text.


If all of this weren’t disconcerting enough for you, these atomic clock scientists have found that time varies with altitude as well. In experiments using aluminum atom atomic clocks, they have been able to demonstrate that these variations in time have an effect with each foot of elevation, meaning that our feet are in a different time zone that our heads (does this explain clumsiness? it’s at least a better excuse than “I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time!”). Over a 79-year lifespan, the difference would only amount to about 90 billionths of a second, but it is there all the same.


The whole point is that while we usher in the new year, we might give pause to remember that what we are celebrating is a not entirely accurate astronomical event. The earth has orbited around our sun for the past 365 days and will start that process again. In the meantime, sidereal time and atomic time—and Planck time for that matter—are all moving at rates that we can’t even comprehend unless we’re practicing the science of measuring—and improving—on atomic clocks and the electronic quantum transitions that are involved. From a practical standpoint, the next time you look at a second hand on a clock or watch a minute pass, consider the atom and all the changes it has gone through in that time. Consider that, as the earth rotates and precesses on its axis each day, we are each in our very own time zone. In fact, various parts of our bodies are in various time zones, particularly if you’re measuring our relatively enormous selves in Planck lengths.

So, Happy New Year! We have orbited our sun at the rate of 67,000 miles per hour—or if that seems too fast to you, let’s just say 19 miles per second—over the past roughly 365.256 days and yet, knowing these underlying facts, we will all count down to midnight in the enormously large seconds increments “ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one-happy-new-year!” and 6.144 hours later, the new orbit of the earth around the sun will start.

Not to be a party-pooper, but…



Featured image

P.S. My introductory excerpt is not a serious question, it’s just a bit of good-natured trolling…

In Trust We Trust

I am a trusting person.

I am a trusting person. The good news is that there is much to trust in our daily lives.

I trust that sometimes around the time I wake the sun will have risen—or will soon rise—in the east. I trust that the weather will vary during the day and although I may be oblivious to it the weather will vary during the night as well. I trust that a year will pass in a series of days and those days will pass in a series of hours, minutes, and seconds. I trust that time will not reverse in this process and I will become older, not younger. I trust that seasons will bring changes to how the world appears, at least in my part of a large planet full of differences.

I trust that I survive each day because the invisible stuff that surrounds me contains oxygen and that some of this oxygen ends up bound to my hemoglobin and myoglobin proteins and will end up servicing core and peripheral functions of my body. I have never seen an oxygen or any other gas molecule per se but I have seen hemoglobin data modeled out using physical probes and understand that hemoglobin is transported in red blood cells (aka erythrocytes), which I have seen through photomicrography recorded by others. I trust that when I drink and eat a whole series of enzymatic processes will turn the foods and beverages into energy, some used immediately, some stored for a nomadic existence that has long ceased to be relevant for many. Some of what was once delicious will cause me to get up when I don’t want to get up and do things which are among the least dignified activities any of us will perform on a regular basis. On the other hand, we have no choice, so why complain?

I trust that most of the people I see on any given day will behave themselves within acceptable parameters… except when some of them are driving, at which time this subset will take actions that they are told by the motor vehicle and people licensing authority are not acceptable… yet they do these things anyway. You’ve probably seen them do these things wherever you are and you may see them do worse things that I shudder to even imagine. I trust that, while most of the people I see are behaving appropriately somewhere, someone is not doing all that well in this regard. Oh, and that the “someone” to whom I refer is accompanied by others who are also not behaving. These behaviors take place in all towns, cities, and countries and by all people, regardless of wealth (presence or absence thereof), country of origin, employment status, religion, ethnicity, gender. Both well-intentioned behavior and its opposite are aspects of human existence. While other creatures on our planet do violence to each other on occasion, we are the only species that participates in violence and its correlates so pervasively and still find a way to live with each other (for the most part).

Sometimes, I look up a word before starting in on it. It seems to have roots back to the early state of languages called Proto-Indo-European (aka PIE (not π)). For a phenomenal map of what languages are derived from which others, please go to the site provided under the following version:




I’m just going to drag something over from the Wiktionary page to get into how trust is linked to some very fundamental human values:

From Middle Englishtruste ‎(trust, protection), from Old Norsetraust ‎(confidence, help, protection), from Proto-Germanic*traustą, from Proto-Indo-European*drowzdo-, from Proto-Indo-European*deru- ‎(be firm, hard, solid). – https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/trust

“Protection,” “confidence,” “help,” “be firm, hard, solid.” This is what we associate with the meaning, although we don’t necessarily think through that the word is from Old Norse and Middle English, or that it is related of “confidence” and thus to the Latin fides, which meant trust, faith, and belief and is responsible for fidelity and bona fides. Interestingly, the Wiktionary page also points the reader to derivation of the words “true” and “tree.” “True” seems explicitly related; one wonders if the concept of trust and truth both came from an appreciation for the confidence, help, protection, firm, hard, solid virtues of houses built from the readily available (far more then than now) tree.

It is also interesting that the ideas of faith and belief are concepts that grew simultaneously with the concept of trust. I wonder, though, whether these meant something far more alike to trust when they were conceived than they do now.

While I trust in all of the experiential, reliable events that I cited in the first couple of paragraphs (with some elaboration from the sciences, admittedly), I do not need to have faith in them or believe them to be true. They simply are trustworthy and true. When I listen to politicians tell us to have faith in them or believe in them, I start wondering where I left my wallet and whether my bank has secured the accounts against hacking. I understand why they want my belief but I will give it when their actions measure up to their words. I will believe them when I trust them but I will not trust them until I believe that they have achieved what they promised.

It is also interesting that the word “truss” meaning a structure that supports or stiffens a building is phonetically related to “trust,” as that is the function it is intended to convey to the building. It makes the building, no longer made of trees, one that you can have confidence in entering. Your faith will not be tested, your belief shattered. Well, unless the weather gets really bad. And I trust that it will on some days.

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Something is Going Well Around Here!

The 1,000 “like” road marker disappearing in the rear view mirror…

The WP auto-post function just told me that I have accumulated 1,000 “likes,” which are all because the imaginary “you” have been appreciating what I’ve been pouring forth since June 22nd. It hasn’t been four months yet and I have so many “likes!” Who knew?!?

I’ve logged 87 posts (one was a repeat, so doesn’t really count and one was a reblog in respect for a new WordPress-induced friend) in 111 days, meaning that I’ve hit about 78% of the days between start and present. Not bad. Could be better. Let’s see if I can pick up the slack.

Thank you, everyone!


When Sounds Became Stories

The bear went over the mountain…

Most of our fellow critters surrendered to geography at some point in their evolution. One rodent species gets broken up into two species when barriers separate them and the factors that supported their initial growth (e.g. predator species or nutrients) are differentiated between the two locations. This is called allopatric speciation but is just a notion to ponder while following the rest of the post.

This didn’t stop humans, though. For whatever reason, when our ancestors encountered barriers they went over the mountains and deserts, crossed the rivers and seas (and oceans!), and kept on going. Why? The most probable reasons are disputes with family members (intra-tribal disputes), the inevitable inter-tribal disputes that arise after familial separations (because we have a hard time letting go), resource limitations (depletion of hunter-gatherer “raw materials), weather fluctuations (e.g. drought), and good old curiosity (“to see what we could see”).

This is a complex map more fully explained here. It follows differentiation in Y-chromosome DNA over a few million years. In this map, the earliest known DNA originates in western African, roughly where Cameroon is located. Also interesting is the first migration is southwards towards Namibia, where the Khoi-san people are thought to still speak one of the original human languages (it is sometimes known as the “click” language – and don’t you dare snicker – their people have been communicating far longer than yours).

Why these peregrinations resulted in different languages is a mystery to me but as we wandered I am sure we developed new words. Perhaps our oral word stores (our familiar/tribal/personal lexicons) just changed by dialect creep and then by lexicon differentiation. There was little need for inland valley people to develop a word for seabirds or dolphins. People who fished the oceans didn’t develop a rich thesaurus for describing desert weather.

As this diaspora continued and time passed (we’re talking , those dialects and these needs to discuss various matters must have changed so much that the initial language and the resulting branches just diverged. There were words that remained the same or similar (compare Germanic and Scandinavian words for “day;” numerous examples in other languages abound) and those that were new and unrelated to any previous word.

The stories they all told to each other diverged as well. The Ur-Cameroonians had different origin myths, different sun and moon myths than the Ur-Namibians (n.b. “ur” has the meaning of “proto” or “early” or “primitive” when added as a prefix), and so forth as the people traveled and developed their own stories about how “it” all works. They passed these stories on down to their children as they did for theirs.

Eventually, the Ur-Cameroonians and Ur-Namibians probably didn’t even know what the other was saying anymore. They could learn to understand but their languages had diverged to the point that they  were distinct (or perhaps these two sets of folks could understand each other well but make no sense of what the pygmies said in the Congo rainforest). It is novel in itself that although the languages diverged they could still be learned; the brain could do both things—make new words and learn other (in a way older) words. Pretty neat stuff!

There are two breakthroughs here: the creation of language and (for it would be a long time before it happened as far as we can tell) the creation of written language and the implicit creation of storage media and engraving tools.

As far as we can tell, it is the Sumerians and Egyptians who first engraved their thoughts into clay and stone using the cuneiform and hieroglyphic methods in roughly 3400 to 3200 B.C.E. But cave paintings in various regions predated these folks by tens of millennia, perhaps as much as 40,000 years ago in Sulawesi. Surely, these were a way for the elders to assist themselves in their duty to tell stories. Once the wall was embellished, it was an artifact of the elders. It is likely that their children saw these initial paintings as revered lessons of the ancestors and that the paintings themselves became part of the story.

Today, we download books through the æther and consume them seconds later. This may have all started because the Ur-Cameroonians went walkabout and forgot their initial language. And that their children eventually came up with ways to depict their stories on bark or cave walls or clay tablets and eventually paper. And these letters you see before you, which aren’t before you at all but are on a server that you are mining for information just as I am doing the same.


A 25.5 to 27.5 thousand-year-old cave painting from a southwestern Namibian cave

Featured image: Khoi-san cave painting from the western cape of South Africa, roughly 3,000 years old. It is more common to see representations of people in African cave paintings than in the European cave paintings (e.g. France, Spain).

Consumer Algorithms

Ours is not to reason why, ours is just to get our data mined, sit back, and enjoy it?

I visited my Amazon app last week and was amazed to find the entire scroll packed full of thoughtful recommendations for what women’s apparel I should consider purchasing that day. While I entirely understand that this may have its appeal—and totally support whatever self-identification individuals make in their lives—the simple truth for this aging boomer (me) is that (1) I am (as the saying goes) heteronormative with (2) no fetishes that I have detected to date. But there were all these clothes on my Amazon app and they were 100% women’s items! I’ve been shopping with Amazon since 1997, have never purchased a single item of this type (nope, never secretly wanted to either), and you’d think that with nearly two decades of consumer purchasing data from me directly—information I have given them because I like using them for books, CDs, computer equipment, some bulk or hard to acquire foods, the occasional pair of men’s pants or a definitely male UA workout shirt—I could be spared this bombardment of off-kilter suggestions.

But there they were. And there I was, wondering why I had been provided this menu of stuff I was not going to purchase—ever—and definitely not wear—ever—and that my cat (the wonderfully talented eating, sleeping, and pooping home entertainment center known to me as Emma and known to herself as some derivative of “meow,” I assume) was too small to enjoy, although she is a female and would probably enjoy sleeping on them and eventually rip them to shreds with her inadvertent claw catches (how, by the way, since I’m here, is it that cats are so agile and intelligent in so many ways but can’t seem to figure out how to unhook their claw(s) from my shirt or pants fabric or the chair cushion, etc.?).

It is equally mystifying on Netflix. I log in and there are the films and TV shows they recommend, most of which I wouldn’t watch if they paid me (full disclosure: they don’t; I pay them) and would not recommend to my least intelligent acquaintance (or our state’s governor—same difference).

“May we remind you, kind customer, that our completely useless comedy series starring the nearly always awful Adam Sandler is available for your viewing pleasure?” I suppose you may but I sure wish you knew me better through my long history of NOT choosing Adam Sandler in anything other than Punch Drunk Love as I think he is an unfunny pillock of the worst kind (has anyone else in the U.S. noticed that the British are WAY more inventive with their insults than we are? Their lists just go on and on and we should purloin them to our version of the language as quickly as possible! Note to the wary: some of them already have alternative meanings in “American” and should not be used here or may result in a kick to the yarbles (not British slang but a word created by Anthony Burgess, so kind of British anyway).

To be clear, my film tastes tend to go towards serious drama topics, including well-done period pieces, dramas about demographics I know little about (films from other countries and social strata, here or elsewhere, etc.), really dark British detective series (Happy Valley, Luther, Line of Duty, in which almost all of the characters are having troubles at work and home), in other words, stuff I can think about, mull over, learn stuff from in one way or another. These are NOT areas that are best summarized by the two nouns Adam and Sandler. I also like some comedy (the sillier the better (e.g. W1A, Red Dwarf, Monty Python), some stand-up (e.g. Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Ali Wong, Iliza Schlesinger, Louis C.K.) some others that don’t spring to mind (all of these get down and dirty, btw)).

This kind of thing happens with social media platforms as well. Many of us are dutifully entering our personal likes and dislikes into these things. Our information is harvested, transmogrified into values of some type, sorted into the demographic to which we unwittingly belong, and ads are summoned up that are supposedly tailor-made for our eyes only. To misquote both Robert Oppenheimer and the Bhagavad Gita, “Now we have become data, the destroyer of worlds” (Q1: does one place misquotes in quotations? and Q2: is it wrong to take such a serious quote and make it about “Big Data?”).

It would be one thing I suppose if our data doppelgänger would provide endlessly useful, on-point suggestions. It is another thing altogether when our data are so incredibly misinterpreted as in the couple of examples I’ve provided above (the link on data doppelgänger is a legitimately interesting article on the topic I am whining about today; please read).

The behavior of search engine algorithms is at least as odd as the results described heretofore. I search for appropriately odd images for my posts and select “labeled for reuse” through Google as many of you do. I searched for an image for “A Cold House” recently and was immediately presented with the following item (I’ve given her a little cover as she was a bit too revealing for my imagined readers):




Why would this be an image suggested by the search phrase “A Cold House?” There were many similar images provided as suggestions that day but even on days where the thong-enhanced buttocks of a sailor are not among the suggestions, there are many suggestions that make absolutely no sense at all! These Google suggestions are not in the same realm as those provided by Amazon or Netflix but there should be SOME correlation between the search string and the results, shouldn’t there?

(To be a tiny bit fair, Google seems to have refined their algorithm since my initial search and although this young lady is still offered up as “a cold house” for some reason, many other scantily clad women who initially appeared have made their way elsewhere.)

I am puzzled every time I do such a search and am presented with random stuff that does not meet my needs. This time, the prompt gave me an opportunity to vent a little. It’s a little rant-y and I have no useful suggestions, except that jobs for data-mining large data sets, i.e. jobs focused on “big data” seem to be on the rise and this suggests that developing skills in whatever that all is might be useful… until they aren’t.

Given that virtually any article you read about Amazon, Netflix, or Google touts their ultra-refined customer and/or search algorithms, you would think that better results would be forthcoming.

That has not been the case for me.

Featured image (to be fair once more time, this illlustration is about a computer science algorithm problem called the dining philospher’s problem that may or may not have anything to do with consumer algorithms).

I Was Nominated (and Accept)

Confabler nominated me for a Sunshine Blogger Award!

My distant, yet close friend Confabler has nominated me for the Shiny Shiny Sunshine Award. I love her imagination and sense of whimsy; she lets her muse du jour lead and she follows. There’s a wonderful freedom to that which is (1) difficult to allow in the rational process of “writing” and (2) enjoyable to find.

1. If you were to choose an insect that would take over the world after human extinction, who would that be?

It sort of depends on our route to extinction. If it involved an epidemic, the population of flies might see a giant uptick. This would be a good one:

Gauromydas heros

If it is a slow process, then I nominate the Japanese Rhinoceros beetle because it would be awesome if creatures  with such improbably fashioned protuberances were to be the alpha species (Megasoma and Titan beetles would be acceptable alternatives):

Allomyrina dichotoma

 If our extinction took all other terrestrial life along for the ride, I would like to see this enormous isopod (a relative of our terrestrial roly-polies) rule the seas (note inclusion of actual human hands for sense of scale):

The underside of a male Bathynomus giganteus, a species of giant isopod captured in the Gulf of Mexico in October 2002.

2. How old were you when you first read Harry Potter? And your favorite author of course?

I was pretty old when I read my only Harry Potter book (the first one). I didn’t enjoy it enough to complete the series, although I’ve seen all the films and enjoyed them well enough. In the period I read that first one, I was typically reading a lot of history and didn’t find that it was a good use of my time. When I was really young, I read the Classics Illustrated versions of novels, which were quite good at introducing a curious young mind to the wonders of literature without having to do the work (sort of illustrated CliffsNotes (I didn’t use these in school though), if you will). When I was a little older, I read Robert E. Howard, Sax Rohmer, John Carter of Mars, H. Rider Haggard, Stanley Weinbaum, George McDonald fantasies, etc.

My favorite author is Gabriel Garcia Marquez for One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. His writing is so rich, amusing, full of simple wisdom and abundant humanity it is hard to believe he was just a human being writing about the lives he saw playing out around him. I literally would read some passages and have to put the book down as if I had just sipped the richest chocolate elixir in the world and needed to savor it until I sipped again. His Spanish-to-English translators did a good job in getting it right; Gregory Rabassa (OHYoS translator) was even praised by Garcia Marques himself!

3. If you were invisible what is the craziest thing that you would do?

Here’s an odd one: Go and hang around bigots, transcribe their conversations, and publish them for the world to see how terrible people speak when they think no one is listening (but, oh yeah, we have the internet so this already happens). If I could walk through things, which seems fair since I’m invisible, I would go around seeing what it felt like to do that—see if there were different textures to different things on the inside than on their surface.

4.what food makes you feel like a hungry hyena?

This has changed so much over time! These days, I don’t get this kind of urge anymore. In my early adult (late teen?) years… ICE CREAM!!!!

5. A song that makes you dream?

Gymnopedie #1 by Erik Satie

6. Have you ever planted a tree?

Yes. Unasked but answered: quite a few!

7. Choose your man: superman/ Spiderman/ iron man and if he was your best friend one thing that you would make him do?

Can I choose Supergirl? If I can, I would have her take me around to various places in the world, build shelters so I could stay there and visit free, then whisk me off to the next place on “our” list (she would be enjoying the sight-seeing with me, of course! What kind of boor do you think I am?!?!).

8.How much time do you spend in front of the mirror everyday?

As little as possible, which involves shaving and brushing my teeth. I find that shaving my teeth first helps with the brushing.

9.why you started blogging and tell us about the post enjoyed the most making.

I was having a bunch of conversations with people who did not seem to understand the wonderful humility of learning and doing science and wanted to see how well I could write about how science is a discipline that can assist us all in not leaning out too far over our skis (getting ahead of ourselves and pretending we know stuff we don’t). Blogging has become so much more than that since my first post on June 22, 2016, and I have had so much fun writing fiction and revisiting some poetry I wrote several decades ago (and finding them easier to “fix” than I remembered).

I’m not sure which of my posts I enjoyed the most. They’re all my children so I like them all? I probably like the odd bits of fiction that I had no idea were inside me when I woke up and then found them on the page looking up at me. I like The Big Day of these. Of the science posts, I like The Mess: Parts 1 & 2 and the Appendix 1 items best (maybe). Of the historical pieces, I like Risk Management. Of the life pieces, I like Building Blocks the best. Anyone who reads this is encouraged to make up their own mind; I am hopelessly biased.

10. Which social media platform are you addicted to (including WordPress)?

I don’t do much social media except WordPress. I don’t like Facebook at all and deleted my account. WordPress is addicting but in a very healthy way! You get to create something and share it with new friends from all over the world. That’s a great addiction have.

Now the rules:

1.thank the person that nominated you.

Thank you, Confabler. You are a true virtual friend, and I don’t mean that in any Pokemon way either!

2. Answer the questions from your nominator.


3. Nominate fellow bloggers you follow.

Hereinafter lie the following nominees in no particular order (order, of course, being an illusion):

Confabler – it would be completely wrong not to boomerang this thing back at her; how could I like what she writes and like that she nominated me but ignore why we share interests at all?

November_child –  in her poetry, every word is judiciously considered for its various meanings and the images they stir and she makes great short stories that are deep and playful and serious all at the same time

anonymouslyautistic – for doing an AMAZING job of writing about this misunderstood spectrum of living – and for inviting others who share her interest to contribute

English Lit Geek – because she searches the web and her library for poems that communicate her inner soul to us all out here in the ‘sphere and I appreciate this!

Wiser Daily – because this guy writes REALLY well about every single subject he wraps his mind around, because he is not a scientist but writes extremely clearly about science, because he is just a damned good writer!

Breathmath – because they are doing an astonishingly serious job of trying to get the world to see the beauty in mathematics

Sheryl – because she’s written a book, is working on others, has great tips for doing the same, and kindly visits my offerings fairly often

The Nexus – because he writes REALLY well about physics and does a great job of doing what I set out to do, whether I’m doing it on any given day or not

The Biology Yak – because she is passionate about biology and shares her passion in every word on every topic she chooses

afternoonifiedlady – even though I have no idea what it is to be an afternoonifiedlady, I love her rants about living with and without her ex and trying to wrestle with notions of romance – she is very witty and amusingly pissed off!

Yaskhan – for her lovely, succinct way with words

urbanagscientist – because she is at least as worried about the misunderstanding of science as I am

Luke Atkins – because he writes really well about difficult subjects and he writes like the stuff matters a lot, which it absolutely does!

And there are more in my list of 119 writers that I am following but this is enough for now.

4. Give them 10 questions to answer.

If you wish (and I clearly cannot impose this on any of you, please respond to confabler’s funny questions. I enjoyed them, maybe you will too!

Kind regards, MSOC


It was Generous of confabler to choose me. Now I have to Jump off and do other stuff!

Risk Management

(or the lack thereof)

My father told me that one critical difference between humans and animals is that humans make tools.  I can’t remember when he told me that. I don’t remember the context. It was wrong then and had been wrong for countless millennia when he shared that tidbit. He was an intelligent, well-educated guy. Animal behavior was not in his wheelhouse.

Animals use found tools. Rocks, twigs, branches, sponges, bolas, bits of tile, all have been seen in use by various creatures.  Even exchange tokens have been used by apes under observation. Humans are the only creatures who learned to change tools to improve task achievement.

Anthropologists have found various stone tools in digs around the world. The earliest finds so far are from east Africa in areas dated to 2.5 million years ago. It is easy to see how stones became tools; pick one up, smash something, put it down. The modifications for size, shape, sharpness, use in spears or arrows, came from a human mind holding a rock, thinking about a problem. And the passage of time. The use of bones as awls, needles, harpoon points and fish hooks came later, around 100,000 years ago.

Tools through the early ages of humankind
Tools from the stone age

Let’s leap forward a bit to the invention of a flywheel to help manage thread and fabric making occurred around 8,000 B.C.E. It might have taken another 4,500 years for the potter’s wheel, certainly a related object, to make it into the world in 3,500 B.C.E. as a potter’s wheel. It took another 300 years before someone is thought to use them for a chariot. Mining and farming tools popped in somewhere between the flywheel and the chariot.

Another leap and in 350 B.C.E., we had figured out how to make mechanical gears, then rotary power, millstones, water mills, cement, and roads (200 B.C.E.) in relatively short order. This era also saw aqueducts built to improve agriculture and civic water supplies. It is interesting that all of these innovations occurred so rapidly after a long time gap.

Roman aqueduct near Zaghouan, Carthage, built between 200 and 100 B.C.E.

In the last century B.C.E. arches, bridges, vaults, and domes were created, along with a tool (the dioptra) for surveying land.  Strangely, it was the 7th C.E. before the next leap occurred. Windmills started popping up to mill grain. Canals started using locks to raise and lower boats used for transporting resources and people. The first tower clock was built in China at about the same time Europe was mounting an army to invade the Middle East (late 11th C.). It took another couple of centuries before Europe worked clockworks and put up its first public clocks. This was also about the time that cloth mills became a disruptive technology.

By the mid-15th C., the Gutenberg press had been invented and used to create an innovation in education, previously the realm of the rich and the cloistered. Inexpensive mass printing allowed books to be owned by anyone with some funds and an interest. Domestic clocks made it into homes in the 15th C. This was a liberating technology at the time, making it possible to schedule tasks in a day without relying on a public clock (they weren’t everywhere) or the sun’s circuit.

If you have a clock, you can measure the amount of time it takes to achieve certain outcomes. How long does it take to make a bolt of fabric? How many bolts can be made in 24 hours? The human mind is given a denominator – time – writ large and can ensure that as many tasks as possible are done in unit time (or tasks/time).

The steam pump, boiler, cylinder, and piston were all invented in the first years of the 18th C. Thirty years later, the flying shuttle, used in fabric looms, is invented and eliminates manually casting the shuttle back and forth; a machine does that and a single operator is all that’s needed for each flying shuttle apparatus. Thirty more years and James Watt invents the steam engine, an innovation that speeds the plow, makes trains, steamships, and automobiles possible, and provides a means of generating energy without wind, water, or manual labor.

Around the same time (1764-1779 , Hargreaves, Arkwright, and Crompton invented new ways of making and using thread that increased cotton mill output by huge amounts – and also put more pressure on “the colonies” (India and the American colonies) to raise more cotton through slave labor. The cotton gin came on the scene in 1793, again increasing the pace at which cotton needed to be harvested. By 1810, forty times as much cotton was produced as in 1793. More plantations are built and more slaves are kidnapped from Africa and sold in the new nation of the United States.

Sweeper and Doffer in a Cotton Mill

It’s time for another leap, this time to the early years of the 19th century. Britain was the initial seat of the industrial revolution and this was fed by a set of natural and political circumstances that made it inevitable given the technologies created in the 18th C. Britain had plentiful water, iron, and coal resources. The water was directed into canals, into a force to drive millwork, and into half the raw material to create steam.  The political system had undergone significant changes; the royal powers had been reduced at the end of the 17th C. and inventions that drove increasing prosperity created a middle class of people who would have had no stature in a monarchy but rose due to their contributions to the economy. The unification of Britain and Scotland also created a tariff-free zone, removing a cost for resources.

Manchester and Liverpool, Machester’s closest port, became huge textile cities. Birmingham, with coal, iron, and wood resources in abundance, became Britain’s forge, creating the metal gears, boilers, engines, and tools of all descriptions. A railway line is completed in 1838 between London and Birmingham; what the north forges and mills, London can sell through its ever-increasing markets.

Button Makers in Birmingham
Hundreds of workers punching buttons out of sheet metal in a Birmingham factory

But the quaint countryside that once was is turning into something new and not altogether pleasant. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in his Journeys to England and Ireland (1835), described Birmingham as “an immense workshop, a huge forge,” where one sees only “busy people and faces brown with smoke” and hears “nothing but the sound of hammers and the whistle of steam escaping from boilers.” He wrote the following about his visit to Manchester during the same trip:

“An undulating plain, or rather a collection of little hills… On this watery land, which nature and art have contributed to keep damp, are scattered palaces and hovels. . . . Thirty or forty factories rise on the tops of the hills I have just described. Their six stories tower up; their huge enclosures give notice from afar of the centralisation of industry. The wretched dwellings of the poor are scattered haphazard around them. Round them stretches land uncultivated but without the charm of rustic nature, and still without the amenities of a town. The soil has been taken away, scratched and torn up in a thousand places, but it is not yet covered with the habitations of men. The land is given over to industry’s use. . . .Heaps of dung, rubble from buildings, putrid, stagnant pools are found here and there among the houses and over the bumby, pitted surfaces of the public places. . . . “

Alexis de Tocqueville

With prosperity came squalor and mass violation of the land. With innovation came a new kind of feudal state in which people with great ideas gained status and people with a pair of hands (one would do), two legs and a back (weak or strong), child, senior, woman or man, became the peasants to the industrial “lords” who sped up production, funded mines, or savaged the countryside.

Along with these engines of commerce came billowing smoke from any coal that could be found. A type called “sea-coal” that burnt quickly and produced huge amounts of black smoke, full of sulfur and nitrogen oxides, not to mention carbon particles and the enormously cancerous compounds included in the amorphous group known as combustion or pyrolysis products, darkened the day and mixed with Britain’s cool, wet atmosphere to produce unknown levels of smog.

Collecting sea coal from the beach at Hartlepool in 1888. It is still carried out on a small scale today. (Hartlepool History Then and Now)

Pea-souper” fogs—smog really—had been reported back to the 12th C. due to the prevalence of “sea-coal” available to those who gathered this from shorelines where it was found on the surface. Add this in with the huge coal reserves and the metastasizing number of steam machines and iron forges and a pall hangs over the land, a constant night in which visibility is as little as one foot away.

Leicester, Great Britain “at work”

By 1905, pea-soupers in London had gotten so bad that the public clamored for respite and the politicians started to respond. These pea-soupers would continue through the 20th C. and into the present but were diminished by increasing use of cleaner energy methods and enforcement of scrubber technologies on smokestacks.

Smog was not the property of London alone. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, much of industrialized Europe and the world created this same gloomy mess in their atmospheres. The ballistic increase in coal use in contemporary China, escaping post-WWII from its own feudal system, has created an environmental catastrophe in its major cities. Slowly, countries that could afford to spend on pollution control systems did so. In the ’60s and ’70s, acid rain, a by-product of sulfur oxides from coal plants mixing with water in the atmosphere, was acidifying lakes and streams and killing large swaths of forest across the U.S. Particle and acid scrubbers added to industrial systems reduced this dramatically but only because of environmental activism and the empowerment of a new agency President Nixon signed into being – the Environmental Protection Agency. Industry profits took a short-term hit but found their way forward. People living in smog-infested areas saw marked improvements in quality of life indicators.

The push-and-pull between innovation and human health has been a signature process from the beginning of the industrial revolution. For instance, the Cuyahoga River running through Cleveland, Ohio in Lake Erie, caught fire 13 times between 1868. It took the populace and politicians until the ’70s to correct this travesty and led to the establishment of the Clean Water Act, along with other environmental regulations and agencies.

This kind of thing went on around the U.S. The Love Canal neighborhood in Niagra Falls, New York became so polluted by Hooker Chemical that the neighborhood with its school and businesses became so poisonous that 900 families were evacuated, making a ghost town imbued with organic solvents, pesticides, and lethal carcinogens. The directly correlated health effects resulted in respiratory, liver, blood, and urinary tract diseases, and ultimately leukemia.

(Watch all episodes of this History Channel video available on YouTube)

In 1989, the impaired pilot of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran onto Bligh Reef, resulting in 11 million gallons (77.6 million pounds) of oil coating at least 1,300 miles of shoreline around Prince William Sound.

Attribution: http://www.evostc.state.ak.us/index.cfm?FA=facts.map

From the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council report:

How many animals died outright from the oil spill?
No one knows. The carcasses of more than 35,000 birds and 1,000 sea otters were found after the spill, but since most carcasses sink, this is considered to be a small fraction of the actual death toll. The best estimates are: 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.

Astonishingly, this oil spill is no longer in the top 50 global oil spills, an enormous interactive list of which can be found on Wikipedia or at chartsbin. Here is an interactive map compiled by chartsbin that shows the impact globally (please visit – it is a great data visualization):

On the night of December 2, 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India released at least 30 tons (60,000 pounds) of lethal methyl isocyanate, as well as other toxic gases (there are disturbing photos in this article but it is worth a look). the release was determined to be due to inadequate maintenance and repair of valves connecting various reaction vessels in the plant and inadequate training of on-duty personnel. More than 600,000 citizens were exposed to this gas; the Indian government now estimates that at least 15,000 people died, virtually all of them the poor people who lived around the plant as no one with money would live close to such a plant. There has been no long-term epidemiological research to determine how many miscarriages, birth defects, and other health issues have resulted from this disaster. To this date, the site has not been cleaned up by Dow Chemical, which purchased Union Carbide. Thousands of tons of hazardous waste remain buried at and near the site and toxins are still detectable in area water and ground samples. A settlement of $470 million was paid in 1991 against a claim by the Indian government of $3.3 billion in damages. Various litigation efforts continued after the settlement.

An hour-long National Geographic India documentary (©2014 National Geographic)

Add to these the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear plant disasters, the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, and countless other man-made disasters, large, medium, and small, and you should arrive at an idea that, whatever “we” are doing to prevent these events, “we are not doing anywhere near enough.

A fascinating aspect of this entire problem is based entirely on humankind’s ability to create and innovate tools and technologies. Over the millennia, we have progressed from shaping rocks and bones for simple tasks to developing ever-smaller semiconductors that provide a stunning range of services to much of the world’s population through cell phones and other portable technologies that get less expensive to purchase every day. During this process of innovation, we have also created a wide array of sciences and skill sets that help us understand our world. From the roots of physics, biology, and chemistry, we have developed the environmental sciences field. From economics and engineering, as well as the sciences listed above, we have developed the discipline of risk management. This hybrid area of practice makes it possible to identify, assess, and prioritize risks to communities, businesses, governments, and the planet as a whole. The risks are associated with costs and benefits of various activities and are given with a range of outcomes, from the lowest cost that can be expected to greatest cost to be expected from executing a business plan, an international strategy, or development (and eventual exhaustion) of a resource.

We have developed this marvelous intellectual ability to determine what costs might be and what the probability of various outcomes might be… and then we almost always underfund the effort that will contain terrible outcomes, which quite often occur. Burning sea-coal and other fossil fuels were eventually going to cause overwhelming sulfur, chlorine, and nitrogen acids, heavy metal (e.g. lead, cadmium), combustion product, and particulate pollution. When did the U.S. get around to regulating this? The 1970s.

After the development of nuclear power, an intellectually fascinating effort well-described in Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning epic The Making of the Atomic Bomb, countries around the world developed nuclear energy as a means of generating electricity. To date, the creation of atomic weapons and nuclear power plants has created at least 75,000 TONS (150,000,000 pounds) of high-level radioactive waste – that’s just the high-level stuff! Here’s a map of where some of the nuclear waste is stored – at nuclear power plants – around the U.S. Of the seventy-five sites listed, nine are either decommissioned or in some stage of decommissioning, yet the waste is still there on-site. Why? Because over 70 years after WWII and the conjuring of nuclear power, this country has not come together and agreed on a single consolidated long-term nuclear waste storage site. The principle of “not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY)” rules over rational, concerted behavior in the general good. We created a risk for which we had no plan and we still have no plan. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years, meaning that in 24,000 years the amount of 239Pu presently in storage in the U.S. will drop to only 6.35 tons (12,700 pounds) as there are currently 12.7 tons in various storage systems. In 24,000 years after that, only 6,350 pounds will remain dangerous. Current plans for “long-term” storage take into account a safe storage period of 10,000 years. How is this prudent risk management?

We have a planet. We have created innumerable ways to interact with it, to study it and to change it. We have developed ways to understand the huge risks we pose its well-being so that we can live modern and comfortable lives – or at least so of us can live comfortably.

After developing these ways of understanding our planet, we ignore them as often as we pay attention to what we have learned. Let’s not jeopardize the splendor of our planet and an amazing human legacy by continuing to be stupid while being smart.

Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Sites
Commercial spent nuclear fuel storage sites


Book “Animal Tool Behavior:” http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10565301-animal-tool-behavior

Animal tools: http://www.npr.org/2011/12/23/143833929/myth-busting-the-truth-about-animals-and-tools

Stone tools: http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/stone-tools/early-stone-age-tools

Fish hooks: http://www.nature.com/news/archaeologists-land-world-s-oldest-fish-hook-1.9461

Wheel: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/a-salute-to-the-wheel-31805121/?no-ist

History of Technology: http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab11

Zaghouan aqueduct, Carthage: http://www.roman-empire.net/articles/article-025.html

Industrial Revolution: http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?groupid=1236&HistoryID=aa37&gtrack=pthc#ixzz4I0wyt2V3

A. de Tocqueville Journeys to Ireland, England (1835) http://www.dhr.history.vt.edu/modules/eu/mod01_nature/evidence_detail_05.html

Feudal system: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feudalism

Pea soup fog: https://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/londons-historic-pea-soupers

Cuyahoga River fires: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuyahoga_River

Love Canal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Canal

Exxon Valdez: http://www.evostc.state.ak.us/?FA=facts.QA

Bhopal disaster article: http://www.cseindia.org/userfiles/THE%20BHOPAL%20DISASTER.pdf

Featured Image: http://predicthistunpredictpast.blogspot.com/2013_08_25_archive.html