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Imagine the gritty world of Blade Runner, with all of its fantasy and science and punk vision of society. Now change the setting from a future Los Angeles to Victorian-era England.  Now take the replicants and hovercars and weaponry and imagine if they were all powered by pressurized steam instead of electrons.

That’s the way I’ve been able to understand the subgenre of steampunk.

I’ve been curious for some time about the allure of this science-fiction/fantasy subgenre, from buzzing on the internet to the plethora of costumes at events like Dragon*Con. When authors and podcasting giants Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris released their new novel, Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences: Phoenix Rising, I decided to take the plunge into the world of cogs, corsets, and airships.


The story itself is rather simple and linear, but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite refreshing for what is essentially a spy novel, complete with action, suspense, and a hearty degree of intellect. Modern espionage tales try to layer double-crosses and intrigue to the point that all those plot twists shroud the very essence of the plot. I never felt that Phoenix Rising was trying to mislead me or confuse me at any point.

The tale focuses on our two heroes, Wellington Books and Eliza Braun, both secret agents in a clandestine branch of the Monarchy that investigates the peculiar, be it the occult or the supernatural. I thought of it as Indiana Jones and the Torchwood Institute combined with Her Majesty’s Secret Service from the James Bond series.

Agent Books is the embodiment of Q, a master of gadgets and gizmos, working as a librarian—pardon me, Archivist—in the bowels of the Ministry. Agent Books doesn’t seek action or adventure because he finds it in the case files he meticulously organizes like clockwork, nine to five, Monday through Friday. He’s prim and proper head-to-toe, armed with a dry wit, and sips a lot of tea. On the surface, Wellington Books is a rather boring guy.

Books is balanced with the spirited Agent Braun from New Zealand, who is the James Bond of the story. Quite honestly, she starts the story as more of a Daniel Craig than a Sean Connery. She goes into action like she’s a one woman wrecking crew, armed to the teeth while wearing a bulletproof corset, and takes no prisoners. She loves her drinks and loves her job, but she’s scarred by the loss of her former partner and her methods get her in trouble with her boss.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Crown’s fate rests in the hands of a renegade and a librarian.

The story revolves around a secret society that threatens the sanctity of the Empire. Eliza has firsthand knowledge of the case because it was what drove her former partner—with whom she was incredibly close—to become a permanent resident in the local asylum. After her scolding for the events of the first chapter, she’s relegated to the less action-packed Archives to learn about the other side of the Ministry from Agent Books. While there, she discovers that the case that claimed her partner is still unsolved and that both she and Books are linked to the happenings. The plot elegantly progresses from there.

The story shifts into high gear from the very beginning and stays there for 400 pages. Tee and Pip swap chapters, bouncing points-of-view from Books to Braun while including very deep character development and growth. The story is also presented in more of the proper British English format, keeping the U in “flavour” and really immersing readers in the Victorian setting. It also keeps the reader in the same mindset as the protagonists, discovering each clue as they do. The only breaks from that formula are the short chapters that expand on the antagonists and their shadowy machinations. These interludes also lay down hints and threads for potential sequels, which are rumored to be in production now.

For my first foray into steampunk, I’m very impressed. I’ll definitely be picking up the sequels as they arrive.




Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences: Phoenix Rising is available in bookstores everywhere in both physical and digital formats. This review is based on a personally-purchased copy.

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I'm back on the podcasting bandwagon!  I’ve started working with The Chronic Rift, a pop culture podcast based on a New York public access show of the ‘90s. Every week I’ll be recording The Weekly Podioplex, where I’ll cover the weekend box office results, the week’s upcoming films, the newest DVD and Blu-Ray releases, and a little news too.

The first episode is now live, so please give it a listen and let me know what you think.

See you at the theater.

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Fresh from today’s inbox:


There I was sitting at the bar staring at my drink when a large, trouble-making biker stepped up next to me, grabbed my drink and gulped it down in one swig.

“Well, whatcha’ gonna do about it?” he said menacingly as I burst into tears.

“Come on, man,” the biker said. “I didn't think you'd cry. I can’t stand to see a man crying.”

“This is the worst day of my life,” I said. “I'm a complete failure. I was late to a meeting and my boss fired me. When I went to the parking lot, I found my car had been stolen and I don't have any insurance.   I left my wallet in the cab I took home.  I found my wife with another man and then my dog bit me.

 “So I came to this bar to work up the courage to put an end to it all, I buy a drink, I drop a capsule in and sit here watching the poison dissolve; then you show up and drink the whole thing! But enough about me, how’s your day going?”

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You know, I’ve had my e-mail address since 2004. In all those years, I’ve never known it to do anything rash or crazy. Now I find out that it’s going out after dark and playing the lotto in England...


(Click the picture for full size)

Spammers really need to try harder.  Of course, the tech-savvy are not their target audience.

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“In Flanders Fields”
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD, Canadian Army (1872-1918)

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.





History of "In Flanders Fields" via Arlington Cemetery

"Poppies in the Sunset on Lake Geneva" by Eric Hill, under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license via Wikipedia

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Now, I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the world, there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: Sat-Chit-Ananda. The word “Sat” means being. “Chit” means consciousness. “Ananda” means bliss or rapture. I thought, “I don't know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don't know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.” I think it worked.

  –Joseph Campbell

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The debate over the Star Wars Expanded Universe is a tale of us versus them that’s been raging for some time, but only recently has it exploded within fandom. The Expanded Universe (EU) matters greatly to me for reasons I’ve previously discussed, but in particular because the novels were my major gateway into Star Wars fandom. Unfortunately, that segment of my fandom has fallen under attack from people I trusted.

The ForceCast has become the podcast where there is no fan left behind unless they disagree with your particular version of fandom, in which case they will publicly mock and shame you on their program.

That’s why I have no choice but to stop listening.



Continue reading by clicking here. )
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Local news station CBS Atlanta ran a story about a DeKalb County teacher who resigned from his job after journalists investigated his checkered past. You see, CBS Atlanta has a segment they call “Tough Questions” in which they (appropriately enough) ask tough questions about what they consider to be possible problems in the metropolitan area. They have investigated problems with the water supply, code violations at local day cares, gang problems, and sex offenders.

It seems only fitting that they should level their aim at Lester Caldwell, who was arrested after being accused of inappropriate sexual contact with two students, including intercourse with a cheerleader. Atlanta Public Schools fired him following the accusations, but CBS Atlanta was tipped off that he has been rehired in 2008 to teach at an elementary school. After all, he does have a valid teaching license, so he should be able to work, right?

Apparently not.

After the accusations in 2004, Caldwell’s case went to trial. The prosecution relied on the testimony of the cheerleader who had reportedly admitted to school officials that she and Caldwell had sexual relations. She refused to testify, the charges were dropped, and Caldwell’s license was reinstated. In short, he was never convicted of the crime. Now, I see two reasons why the cheerleader wouldn’t testify: (1) She and Caldwell were indeed engaged in no-good and she was pressured not to testify for fear of physical or social repercussions, or (2) she was lying and Caldwell was innocent. Either way, the legal system did its job, and he was cleared.

CBS Atlanta found out that Caldwell had been rehired to teach in Atlanta, and they started asking questions. A spokesperson for the school district told journalists that they did know about Caldwell’s past, including the dropped charges, and decided that since he was never proven guilty, he was safe to hire. Sounds reasonable to me, but not to CBS Atlanta. They kept pressing the matter until the district launched an internal investigation to audit the hiring process, and Caldwell resigned.

Let’s consider for a moment the legal principle of Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat, commonly known as the presumption of innocence. You know it better as “innocent until proven guilty”. Basically, the burden of proof in any legal case rests with the prosecution. They have to gather and present enough compelling evidence to defend the accusations and convince a judge or jury to convict. It’s so important that it is written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, although not written directly into the United States Constitution, is established by precedent in the Supreme Court case Coffin v. United States (1895).

In Caldwell’s case, the prosecution failed to gather and present enough evidence to prove his guilt. Therefore, he is presumed innocent under the United States legal system. He lost his job once in a tough economy, was reinstated, and then was essentially forced from his job again because a local news organization wasn’t satisfied. Is it possible that Caldwell did do what he’s accused of? Sure, and if he did he should be prosecuted.  But until the proof comes to light, he’s not guilty. That’s part of who we are as Americans.

I consider what CBS Atlanta to be doing as a crusade, and potentially vigilante justice. They are punishing a man who is presumed innocent by the government by harassing him to the point that he has to surrender his job to alleviate the pressure. The fact that he resigned does not mean that he is guilty of any crime, despite what tribal knowledge would suggest. Quite honestly, being dragged through public legal proceedings and having my face in the media next to the title “child molester” would certainly be enough for me hide from a potential repeat performance. But CBS Atlanta isn’t happy at a dismissal of charges, and insists on dragging this man around by his heels.

Maybe someone should ask them some “tough questions” about their policies and reporting.

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“The prequels have been made. They exist. There is literally nothing you can do or say to make them go away. They may not be your cup of tea, but let’s remember: YOU can choose not to watch them! You can pretend like they don’t even exist! But being angry about it forever is going to accomplish nothing. Neither is being disrespectful. My father has done absolutely nothing to earn disrespectful tirades and personal attacks. He is a good man. He is not an evil genius plotting to ruin your life. You are entitled to your own opinions–whatever they may be, but be respectful about it. He may have made three movies you personally didn’t care about, but he was also responsible for three movies that inspired you and millions of others. So, do him and I (sic) the courtesy of having a little goddamn respect.”

–Katie Lucas (via Twitter, 4 May 2011)

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On May 1, 2011, President Barack Obama reported that al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was officially dead. Rumors suggest that SEAL Team Six was the end of the line for the man who planned and orchestrated the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the defeated attack on Washington, DC. The President suggests that this is a turning point in the nearly decade long global war on terror that is no longer called the Global War on Terror, and that this event is long-awaited justice for those innocents killed in what has become known as this generation’s Pearl Harbor moment.

So why don’t I feel like celebrating?

Primarily, because I don’t consider war to be a cheering matter.   When the news broke, there was celebration in the streets, overwhelming chants of “USA, USA, USA” at the White House between rounds of The Star-Spangled Banner, and wave after wave of patriotic and religious praise channeled through networks like Facebook and Twitter. The death of public enemy number one became a reason to frolic and rejoice in the streets because it was justice. But what is justice, and has it been served?

On September 11, 2001, approximately 3,000 people died from all walks of life and spiritual beliefs at the hand of nineteen terrorists. Since then, the highest estimate of casualties has been 1.2 million dead in the fight against terrorism. That number may be conservative – the lowest estimate is just over one million – but will continue to rise as hostilities continue and the delayed health effects of responders to the World Trade Center site start being factored in. On the concept of justice, Wikipedia offers the crowd-sourced definition of a “concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, religion, fairness, or equity, along with the punishment of the breach of said ethics.” It also states that there are five variations of justice, but I believe the one that President Obama suggested would be that of retributive justice: The proportionate response to crime proven by lawful evidence so that the punishment is justly imposed and considered as morally correct and fully deserved. Go a step further to lex talionis, the law of retaliation, which is a military theory centered on reciprocity being equal to the wrong suffered. Are we expected to believe that the life of one man, Osama bin Laden, is equated to 3,000 innocents at a minimum? How about 1.2 million, including innocent women and children who have euphemistically become known as “collateral damage”? Do the scales balance because a Navy SEAL ended one man’s existence in the names of thousands or millions?

It is well documented that President George W. Bush took to this war based on what he determined was a calling from God. Inherent to the concept of lex talionis is the principle “an eye for an eye”, which appears numerous times in the Bible and other religious texts, and it seems that many of the social celebrations to yesterday’s event focus on one deity or another bestowing blessings upon the American people for exacting lex talionis.


Now I lay me down to sleep, one less terrorist this world does keep.
With all my heart I give my thanks, to those in uniform regardless of ranks.
You serve our country and serve it well, with humble hearts your stories tell.
So as I rest my weary eyes, while freedom rings our flag still flies.
You give your all, do what you must; with God we live and God we trust.

–various sources on Facebook


Martin Luther King, Jr – paraphrasing Mahatma Ghandi – once said, "Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral.  It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all.  The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.  It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding." While this war is not about racial justice, is about justice based on matters of faith. Al-Qaeda did not declare war on the United States because they hate our blue jeans, fast cars, tall towers, or apple pie. Al-Qaeda is based on an extremist interpretation is Islam, and that faith is what drove them to attack us because our diversity of faiths makes us inferior to them. Despite protests to the contrary, this fight is one of religion and whose god has a bigger piece of the pie. It’s not a new battle – the Crusades and the Inquisition show us that – and it has no easy solutions, but I feel that the word racial in Reverend King’s quote can be substituted by religious along with any other form of justice. I’m not so sure that justice has been served in this case, and I certainly do not feel that it is a moment of celebration or victory.

What people don’t seem to understand about this conflict is that we don’t have a distinct enemy to fight against. When Adolf Hitler was declared dead – interestingly, on May 1, 1945 – the Nazi armies surrendered the very next day. This demoralization isn’t the case with al-Qaeda. We’ve taken out significant chunks of their command structure before, and like the mythological hydra, two new heads would grow back in the form of a person to take the place of the fallen and new tactics to avoid making the same mistake again. The fall of Osama bin Laden doesn’t mean that the war is over, nor does it mean that our troops are coming home. In fact, I would venture that al-Qaeda will only become stronger or, at the very least, more cunning in its methods. I agree that we should be happy that one powerful avenue of hatred and violence has been eliminated, but I greatly fear for what darkness lies at the bottom of that Pandora’s Box. What has bin Laden’s death unleashed upon us in retaliation for what the enemy will likely see as another murder perpetrated by the western terror?

Another source of contention has been the disposition of the body. While Muslim death rites are somewhat shrouded in secrecy, it has come to light that the body must be buried within 24 hours to hold with religious tradition. While morbid and disgusting jokes of stuffing the corpse so every American can take a whack at it like some macabre piñata have surfaced, some have taken this as an offense to those killed since 2001. I firmly believe that, no matter the evil perpetrated in life, any person’s death should be respected. If they took our corpses and burned them in effigy or fed them to a pack of wild dogs, we would be livid. People, including those of deep religious and spiritual faith should consider that before calling for desecration of a corpse in the name of revenge.


“The rabbis say that, as the Israelites celebrated the death of the Egyptians, so did the angels. But God stilled them and ordered them to stop their rejoicing. ‘But why?’ the angels ask. ‘Look what they did to Your children.’ And God answered, ‘These too are My children!’”
Harry Danziger


What I don’t doubt about the death of Osama bin Laden is that it will be a source of morale for a country weary of war. After a decade of gains and losses that effectively cancel each other out, this marks a moment where something substantial has been accomplished. If maintained, this momentum can be harnessed to usher in a new era of support for both politicians and fighting forces. Having been in the uniform, I understand the need for morale boosts in providing purpose for your efforts. But, remember that war is sterile only from the safety of the armchair. War is a bloody, disgusting, destructive mess, and I have yet to meet a veteran who was proud of what he or she had done in theater. They are usually proud of having contributed to peace, but I don’t recall any pride or joy stemming from pulling a trigger, sending a round downrange, and becoming the messenger of death for another human being.

If I have to be proud of killing a terrorist, I have to be proud of every time one of our enemies has died in the name of stopping terrorism. That means I have to be proud of the terrorists who die in allied bombing runs that kill innocents, and that is something I cannot support. War is necessary because politics and diplomacy cannot solve every social or cultural difference in the world, but that doesn’t mean I have to celebrate it or be proud of it. I don’t see anything to celebrate in killing another human being, and I certainly don’t see justice even if you look beyond the "eye for an eye" version Americans seem to crave. I think we need to remember that revenge is indeed a dish best served cold, and this doesn’t make me un-American or unpatriotic or even an enemy sympathizer. Killing Osama bin Laden has not restored the 3,000 lives taken ten years ago, and it certainly has not restored the 1.2 million lost since then. The scales cannot be balanced exclusively by steps such as these, but this is one more step toward a possible peace.

Peace is something I can celebrate.

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Last week, podcaster and Chicago radio producer Jimmy Mac covered the topic of being called a nerd on The ForceCast. His position was that the term nerd is derogatory and shouldn’t be used to describe fans of Star Wars. I couldn’t disagree more. 

The crowd at Wikipedia have defined “nerd” as “a term that refers to a social perception of a person who avidly pursues intellectual activities, technical or scientific endeavors, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests, rather than engaging in more social or conventional activities.” That got me thinking. Based on that, why shouldn’t we embrace the term nerd?

My heroes have, for the most part, been largely from the scientific, engineering, and creative communities. Many of them come from the large group of scientists, engineers, and technicians who came together and put a man on the moon in the 1960s. Those same scientists and engineers saved three astronauts when Apollo 13 catastrophically failed en route to the second planned lunar landing.

Even today, the qualifications to be an astronaut include a bachelor's degree in engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics, as well as at least three years of related professional experience (graduate work or studies) and an advanced degree.

Wikipedia continues to explore the etymology of nerdom by describing the term’s origins with Dr. Seuss, Philip K. Dick, and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Dr. Seuss is legendary in his own right, Philip K. Dick developed the concept of Blade Runner and other science-fiction classics, and MIT is a hotbed of scientific and technological research that has produced at least 76 Nobel Laureates, 50 National Medal of Science recipients, and 35 MacArthur Fellows.

Albert Einstein singlehandedly expanded the understanding of our universe with his theories on relativity, progressing on centuries of scientific exploration from intellectual and esoteric thinkers before him. Science fiction as developed by Isaac Asimov (a scientist and writer), Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek), and George Lucas (noted for his technical innovation) is derived from these advances and evolves with the technology explored by today’s science and engineering communities.  Without nerds, I doubt science fiction or Star Wars would exist in its current form.

In a world where some kids idolize movie stars and sports figures, I find great solace in celebrating great thinkers. Nerds – the intellectuals, the scientists, the engineers, those with obscure interests – aren’t considered cool because they don’t get the hot chicks, don’t slug baseballs over the wall 400 feet away, don’t score the winning touchdown, and don’t snort cocaine off a hooker’s butt like Charlie Sheen seems so fond to do. Despite those supposed shortcomings, nerds have very stable lives and help to save others every day. Nerds develop body armor to send to our soldiers, engineer seat belts and restraint systems to keep people safe in moving vehicles, and created pacemakers and artificial hearts to extend and improve quality of life.  Nerds may not be cool, but they're much more useful to society, and the current resurgence in exploring nerd and geek culture is a tribute to that.

Any scientific advance, including those that allow us to explore this very topic, are due greatly to nerds. Nerds may not earn millions of dollars –Bill Gates and Steve Jobs notwithstanding – but the world owes them a debt that can never be repaid.

Money can’t buy happiness, unlike my constantly expanding knowledge of the universe around me. Nerds understand what makes the world go ‘round, and I am proud to be among their ranks.

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The President and numerous experts tell us that the radioactivity coming from Japan will have no health risks associated with it.

How much will the radioactivity coming from Japan affect you?

I'd say less than...

...that luminous LCD wristwatch you’re wearing, which offers 0.006 mrem of exposure per year.

...cosmic radiation from space, which varies from 26 to 96 mrem/year.

...the radiation from the naturally occurring elements in the very ground you live on, which varies from 23 to 90 mrem/year.

...than the exposure from the concrete, stone, or brick building you live or work in (7 mrem/yr).

...than the naturally occurring radiation in your body, including the potassium-40 and carbon-14 that’s been in your tissues since birth or the naturally occurring radon you take in with every breath (240 mrem/yr).

...the radiation from traveling by airplane, which comes to 1 mrem/year for every 1,000 miles traveled.

...the exposure from those porcelain crowns and/or false teeth (0.07 mrem/year).

...the activity from your gas camping lantern (0.003 mrem/year).

...the x-ray machines at the airport (0.002 mrem/year).

...the radiation from your television or video screen (1 mrem/year).

...the activity from your smoke detector (0.008 mrem/year).

...the radiation from your plutonium-powered cardiac pacemaker (100 mrem/year).

...those diagnostic x-rays (40 mrem/year).

...that provided by nuclear medicine, such as thyroid scans (14 mrem/year).

...the exposure from living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant (0.0009 mrem/year).

...the exposure from living within 50 miles of a coal-fired electric plant (0.03 mrem/year).


All told, naturally occurring sources provide you with roughly 300-350 mrem/year. When they tell you there’s no health risk, they’re telling the truth.

So, don’t panic.




Personal Annual Radiation Dose Calculator

Sources of Radiation

Man-Made Radiation Sources

Natural Radiation Sources

Doses in Our Daily Lives

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Yesterday I posted about the situation in Japan. That post can be found here at Creative Criticality and cross-posted to Fringe Scientist. As with most crises, things change rapidly, so I am taking the time to revisit the topic with updates and more level-headed discussion.


What Happened Overnight

Last night, an explosion occurred in the vicinity of the suppression pool at Unit 2. The suppression pool is part of the Reactor Pressure Vessel’s (RPV) cooling system, and the explosion may have damaged a portion of the reactor’s primary containment structure.   Pressure in the suppression pool rapidly decreased and radiation levels rose, which indicates a potential release of fission products (fuel material) outside the RPV. Officials have called this release a “small” one.

Of the 800 staff members that remained at the power plant, all but 50 who are directly involved in pumping water into the reactor have been evacuated due to the radiation.

On top of that, a fire was reported near the Unit 4 reactor building. It was believed to have been from a lube oil leak in a system that drives recirculation water pumps. The fire was extinguished, but the roof of the reactor building was damaged. Units 4, 5, and 6 were shut down at the time of the earthquake, and the fuel was removed from Unit 4 for inspection. The concern was a spent fuel pool, where the used fuel rods are kept before disposal. The fire was assumed to be releasing contamination to the atmosphere, which I will address later on.

Units 1 and 3 are stable and cooling is being maintained through seawater injection. Primary containment integrity has been maintained on both reactors. Unit 2 cooling efforts continue.


Background and Perspective on Contamination and Radiation

Before we go any further, it’s important to discuss the basics and differences between contamination and radiation. The best way to consider it is in terms of perfume.

Consider the bottle of perfume as your RPV. If you have a leak, you get perfume all over the place. That substance is contamination. The smell that comes off the perfume is radiation. A radiac (think Geiger counter) measures the amount of “smell” coming from the contamination. You can wash off the perfume, and that will remove the smell, but depending on the surface the perfume was spilled on, clean-up methods will vary.

Radiation is a transfer of energy through a space. The problem is that the energy can penetrate body tissues and cause damage which can potentially cause cancer or other problems. The effects of radiation can be minimized by spending less time around it, getting further away from it, or blocking the energy with shielding. Any material can act as a shield – some are more effective than others – so even being inside a house will block some amounts of radiation.

Per procedures, residents within a 20-kilometer (12.5 mile) zone around the plant were ordered to evacuate last Saturday. This was due to the hydrogen explosion at Unit 1. That radius has been extended to 30 kilometers (18.6 miles).

Radiation is measured in many units, but you may see “Rem” or “millirem” most often. At its most basic, a Rem – abbreviated as R – is a measure of radiation received. One thousandth of that amount is a millirem (mR). 

A single dose of under 50 R is will typically produce nothing other than blood changes. 50 to 200 R may cause illness but will rarely be fatal. Doses of 200 to 1000 R will likely cause serious illness with poor outlook at the upper end of the range. Doses of more than 1000 R are almost invariably fatal.

The typical value for a normal exposure is 300 mR/year. That includes sunlight, air travel, particulates in the soil, smoking, ingestion in water and food, medical procedures, cosmic radiation, and so on. That value breaks down to 25 mR/month. For comparison, while underway on a nuclear submarine, living within 300 feet of an operating reactor 24 hours a day, I got between 5 and 10 mR/month. Yes, the reactor provided less dosage than living outside in the sun.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has a limit for public exposure due to reactor operations of 100 mR/year. The NRC’s whole body limit for radiation workers is 5000 mR/year. According to the NRC’s guide on health effects from radiation, a 3 mR exposure generally poses the same chance of death as (1) spending 2 days in New York City, (2) riding one mile on a motorcycle or 300 miles in a car, (3) eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter or 10 charbroiled steaks, or (4) smoking a single cigarette.

You can see various effects of annual radiation at this interactive calculator.

The news talked about the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) which is currently operating in the area. The decks and planes had to be decontaminated after some radiation was detected. The commanding officer, a nuclear trained officer, moved the ship as a precaution and an exercise of legal responsibility, and the report stated that the affected crewmembers received a “month’s dose”. I interpret that as 25 mR in one shot, which is not a big deal. Yes, they were exposed, but it won’t kill them.

Also, reports of a large RADIOACTIVE CLOUD OF DEATH AND DESTRUCTION (TM) are exaggerations. While the contamination likely came to the carrier’s decks by way of gas release, this isn’t science fiction.  The gas that moved that little of contamination to the carrier will dissipate long before it hits our soil.

To put this all in perspective with relation to the Japan reactors, the radiation levels at the site have been reported as high as 40 R/hr (ouch!) to a low of 60 mR/hr. After the explosion on Unit 2’s suppression pool, reported radiation readings at the site increased to 96 mR/hr, peaked at a reported 1,190 mR/hr, and are decreasing. As of this writing, they are around 60 mR/hr and lowering.

A measurement in Kitaibaraki, 200 km south of site, was reported at 0.4 mR/hr.

The 40 R/hr dose rate was recorded in a localized area on the site. The evacuation radius should be sufficient to prevent exposure to the populace, so the populace shouldn’t see anywhere near those levels.

Since the contamination is restrained to the containments, there should be no major ecological concerns at this time.


Fire? Fire!

Let’s go back to the perfume analogy. Fire can be looked at as the atomizer on the bottle. If you’ve ever enjoyed a campfire, you’ll understand how bad a radiological fire can be. As you can see from the smoke from the fire, a great deal of matter is propelled skyward. The estimates are usually around 10% of the total contamination being made airborne when exposed to a fire.

That’s a problem when it comes to a fire over a spent fuel pool, but the spread will depend on fire size and duration. Radiation workers will need to investigate and clean the area to know how far the contamination was spread, however I don't believe a fire of this size will put contamination on the U.S. West Coast, so don’t panic.


Why This Is Not Chernobyl – Revisited

Comparisons still continue between Fukushima and Chernobyl. Experts have compared Chernobyl to 1,000,000 Three Mile Island incidents in terms of radiation release. The Three Mile Island (TMI) incident resulted in no detectable health problems, but Chernobyl’s explosion killed dozens and increased the cancer risk for thousands. Fukushima is much closer to TMI than to Chernobyl.

Remember that Chernobyl was sparked by an out of control reactor, and the explosion added to the reaction spewed a huge plume of radiation into the air above the site. All Fukushima reactors shut down at the time of the earthquake. 

Considering meltdowns, even if Fukushima melted all of its fuel and somehow burned through the bottom of the RPV, the resulting slag would be contained within the secondary containment. To compare, TMI only melted half of its fuel, and Chernobyl didn’t have a similar containment system for its explosive meltdown.

There’s also a big difference between a nuclear bomb and a nuclear power plant. The two cases are mutually exclusive. The explosions at the plants are not nuclear explosions.


What Next?

Operators continue to work on cooling Unit 2 while Units 1 and 3 are stable. Once radiation levels are low enough, workers can go in and determine if something got out of the Unit 2 containment. If something did, they’ll follow a plan for cleanup.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who are concerned because they don’t quite understand what going on and can’t make heads or tails of the press reports. My goal is to make these types of posts to clear up confusion and alleviate fear.

From what I read, the operators in Japan are doing the best that they can with what they have. I trust that they will get this under control and we will be able to learn from their actions and continue to perfect our own nuclear operations.

I don’t anticipate the United States seeing any rise in radiation or contamination from this event. Seriously, don’t stock up on Geiger counters or potassium-iodide tablets. Also, ignore the acid rain rumors, the false text messages, and the chain e-mails. They’re all fear-mongering crap.

Please feel free to leave questions or comments below.  Please send this to anyone who has questions or fears about this emergency event.

womprat99: (Default)

I’ve come across quite a few people who are understandably afraid of what’s happening with the situation at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant after the earthquake in Japan. The situation is not helped by the media reporting without context to a public that does not understand how nuclear power works. This post is an attempt to break down what’s going on and mitigate some of those fears.


Part I: How it Works

First, we need to understand how the Fukushima reactors work. They are Boiling Water Reactors (BWR), which use pure water to move heat from the core to electrical generating turbines.

The core is built around multiple fuel bundles.



At its most basic, the fuel bundle is constructed of multiple fuel rods. A fuel rod is a metal tube filled with the nuclear fuel which is usually uranium. The fuel bundles are loaded with an assortment of other components into the Reactor Pressure Vessel (RPV), which is essentially a metal can filled with water. The RPV is enclosed in a concrete pit and a concrete and metal containment building, commonly referred to as the Reactor Building. The components inside the RPV can be considered “the core”.


Power generation gets a little more technical and depends on the physics of nuclear fission. Basically, a neutron passes into the fuel and causes a fuel atom to split. When it splits, heat is generated along with more neutrons. The water in the RPV serves two purposes: 1) It removes the heat from the fuel and, 2) slows down some of the neutrons to limit the reaction rate.

In a BWR, the water is allowed to boil, and the steam is collected at the top of the RPV. The steam goes through a drying process, and then goes to an adjacent building with a turbine. The steam spins the turbine to generate electricity, and then is collected and cooled. The cooling process turns the steam back into water, which is then injected back into the core. The whole thing is considered to be a “plant”. In this diagram, the reactor is on the left side.


In a BWR, it is imperative to keep the core covered. Without water to cool it, the reactions will continue and heat will build until the metal covering the fuel rod begins to melt and/or break. This fuel element failure is the beginnings of what is known as a “meltdown”.


Part II: Why it "Stopped" Working

When the earthquake occurred, the reactors all attempted an emergency shutdown by rapidly inserting control rods to stop all neutron reactions. This procedure is known as a “scram”. This procedure worked as advertised. Without reactor power, the plant will shift to using offsite electrical power from the grid to keep certain pumps running to cool down the core. When power generation stops, the core doesn’t just become cool. Think of it like boiling water for tea: After you remove the pot from heat, it still is hot for some time and continues to steam. That continued steaming removes water from the core.

Unfortunately, the resulting tsunami swept away all of the power lines, so the plants shifted over to on-site diesel-powered generator units, just as expected. What wasn’t expected was diesel fuel damage from the tsunami, which resulted in diesel generator shutdown after about an hour. Other methods were used to cool the core and pumps from the Reactor Core Isolation Cooling (RCIC) system were used. The valves were able to operate until the batteries expired after eight hours.

At this point, the plant was in complete blackout with no electrical power at all.

As the core continued to cool, the water inventory continued to shrink and fuel elements were exposed. Portable diesel generators were delivered to the site and power was restored, allowing the operators to start putting cooling water into the RPV.

Pressure was also rising in the containment, so gasses were vented to lower the pressure. The gasses come from the reactor, so they are contaminated with radioactive material, however the radiation was reported to be within safe limits. One other problem was the interaction between heated water and the metal around the fuel rods. As natural oxidation (very, very simply, think rusting or corrosion) occurs, one by-product is hydrogen gas. Normally, it is managed, but during the accident, it had to be vented into the containment building. This hydrogen accumulated and eventually exploded, causing damage to the containment building, however the RPV was reported to be intact.

To continue the cooling process, operators decided to inject seawater into the RPV, which is a backup system designed into the plant but essentially ruins the core.

This situation is the same for the #1 and #3 plants. The #2 plant is similar up to the hydrogen explosion as of this post. Plants #4, #5, and #6 were offline for inspection at the time of the incident.


Part III: Where We Go From Here

The emergency still continues, but even if a complete meltdown occurs, will the world suffer? Possibly, but I don’t think so. Let’s not detract from the seriousness: Any meltdown is a bad event. It requires replacement of the core, RPV, and/or associated reactor components, and is one of the worst things that can happen to a nuclear reactor.

The term meltdown, which is not officially defined by either the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), tends to elicit a great degree of fear because of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and pop culture events like The China Syndrome.

A “China Syndrome” event, where the core gets so hot that it melts through the RPV, containment, and into the earth is highly unlikely. Also unlikely, I believe, is a major release of fuel/fission products to the environment. Let’s remember that the RPVs are all currently intact, and unless they are damaged by an aftershock or a large explosion, any released fission products will remain in the vessel. That also means that there will be no fallout to spread on the trade winds around the world.

Fission product release at Three Mile Island was a result of operator error. The Chernobyl disaster occurred during the scram to shut down the core, and it resulted in destruction of the RPV and the Reactor Building in an explosion that spread contamination around the world and left the area in Ukraine uninhabitable. Neither is applicable here.  Japanese officials are distributing potassium iodine to the local populace in order to prevent thyroid poisoning by radioactive iodine from the fuel elements.

There’s also a claim that the released hydrogen will cause acid rain. No, it won’t. I’ll leave that one to the chemists and meteorologists.

The worst case scenario without a breach of the RPV is that the fuel completely melts down and they have to replace the three RPVs as a result.  There may be some limited gaseous release -- hence, the potassium iodine -- but likely nothing more. 

Part IV: Wrap-Up

There are already rumblings that we should put nuclear advances in the United States on hold as a result of this emergency event. I disagree wholeheartedly. Nuclear power plants have been operating safely for decades with the exception of two major accidents, and the operators in Japan are following procedures to the letter and doing their best to maintain safety of the cores. The accident wasn’t a result of breakage from the earthquake, and had the tsunami not affected the diesel generators or offsite power so significantly, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Nuclear power is very safe and much less polluting than other power generation methods. It’s also more efficient than other green methods like solar, wind, or hydroelectric, and doesn’t directly rely on the season.

These reactors aren't just slapped together and brought online.  There's a significant amount of engineering and planning for nearly every contingency and emergency, and people need to remember that.

There’s another simple explanation by Kathy Gill at The Moderate Voice. There’s also a more-detailed explanation at Barry Brook’s blog.

One of the best sources for non-spun up-to-date information on the emergency is the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Please feel free to leave questions or comments below.   Please send this to anyone who has questions or fears about this emergency event.

Part V: References

Nuclear fuel bundle image sourced from Wikipedia via the United States Government and is used under public domain.

Containment building image sourced from Wikipedia via the United States Government and is used under public domain.

Boiling Water Reactor power generation schematic sourced from Wikipedia via Nicolas Lardot. The image is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

womprat99: (Default)

One of my resolutions for the new year was to spend more time writing.  2010, while tumultuous overall, got really busy near the end of the year, and as a result NaNoWriMo took a backseat.

Creative Progress Ticker

Perdition's Progeny:  First draft -- 1,723 words -- (+1,723)
Pro Patria:  First draft -- 47,716 words -- (+2,044)
"Book Three":  Outlining

Elemental:  Researching

Project "Ark":  Concept

Project "John":  Concept

Project "Recursive":  Concept

Project "D Christmas":  Researching

Project "Democ": Concept

Project "Button":  Concept

"Millennium" (Scapecast article):  Concept
Various other Scapecast articles in development

Submitted -- 12,433 words

womprat99: (Default)

“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”    —President Franklin D. Roosevelt

May the 2,402 American military, 57 American civilian, and 64 Japanese military casualties rest in peace.

womprat99: (Default)

I don’t really follow soccer – or football as my international friends call it – but it was pretty big news today to hear that Russia and Qatar won the hosting privileges for the World Cup in 2018 and 2022 respectively. 

As it is with most breaking news, Twitter was ablaze within minutes, although there was something strange about how people were talking about it.



That’s right. The spelling of Qatar, the only country in the world starting with the letter Q, was wrong. Moments after the screen capture, “Katar” started trending as well. Where are these people learning geography?

womprat99: (Default)

I’ve been mulling over this for a while, but a blog post by [livejournal.com profile] elusis  really put me over the top. Her viewpoints near the end of her post really put it into perspective for me.  Do yourself a favor and read it.

I’m not rallying against the Transportation Security Administration’s new guidelines because they offend me personally. Hell, if some TSA agent wants to rub his hands up my legs until he meets “resistance”, more power to him. But there are people out there who find this treatment entirely offensive, whether it be the forced molestation or the government sanctioned nudie pix. For them, I raise the flag and exercise my First Amendment rights.

The TSA was birthed as a result of the September 11 attacks in 2001. Ironically, within the next month or so, Richard Reid attempted to bring down American Airlines Flight 63 using explosives in his shoes. The TSA touted this as a rallying cry, despite the fact that they didn’t stop him. The passengers and flight crew subdued Reid and tied him to his seat while the flight was diverted. Nevertheless, the TSA decided that all air travelers would need to remove their shoes for scanning.

In 2006, terrorists in the United Kingdom used bottles of liquid explosives in an attempt to taking down at least 10 planes. British police stopped that attack, but as news spread, the TSA decided that all liquids and gels were to be banned from carry-on luggage. Shortly afterward, the rules changed to allow three ounces per container inside a transparent sealed bag.

On December 25, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to used plastic explosives hidden in his underwear to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Abdulmutallab got as far as setting his leg and the bulkhead on fire before passengers and flight crew subdued him. Once again, the TSA had no hand in stopping him, even though Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano originally claimed that the system worked. She recanted the next day.

Finally, terrorists tried taking down flights by putting explosives in laser toner cartridges and shipping them on passenger flights. Once again, the TSA had no hand in stopping the attack – Saudi officials tipped off the authorities – but they took a predictable step by banning all toner cartridges over sixteen ounces on passenger flights.

Does anyone else notice a trend here?

First, none of these attack vectors is repeated. They are, in fact, escalating in complexity, and reports state that the terrorists are now resorting to smuggling bombs in their body cavities. Second, each of the preventative security measures implemented are purely reactionary blanket policies. At no point has the TSA, an agency designed to keep us safe, actually predicted that terrorists would move to another vector and cut them off. Instead, they close the barn door after the horses are miles away.

Each of these “security precautions” only serves to strip the rights and dignity of travelers at each implementation. From [livejournal.com profile] elusis :

Patricia Calhoun at Westword started reporting on women being singled out for inappropriate groping in 2001, just weeks after 9/11: http://www.westword.com/2001-10-18/news/screen-and-screen-again/

For the next year, I wouldn't fly in anything other than a sports bra. Then the "zealous" screeners at DIA apparently eased off. I started wearing underwires through security again, but not without trepidation.

In 2003 I was almost arrested when I set off the metal detector because I was wearing a garter belt. I was pulled aside for the wand-down, which I didn't object to. I told them they'd get a small positive on the front and back of each thigh from the clips, which they did. The screener then demanded that I go to a "private screening room." "Not until my bags are done being x-rayed," I said, aware that I had a couple thousand dollars worth of technology in my carry-on. "You'll get them afterwards," they told me. I refused to go and asked for the "private screening" in view of my bags, even if that meant in view of other passengers. They threatened to arrest me. I lifted my skirt to show them the garter clips, flashing the entire terminal in the process, and the screener started to grab my arm, but the supervisor waved her off and said "let her go." I grabbed my bags off the conveyor and stalked off.

I have no illusions about what would happen today.

The thing is that nothing about this is new. Private citizens being arbitrarily singled out for intrusive searches and rough treatment by authority figures because of their appearance, their "attitude," or just a momentary need for an endorphin rush by a small-minded bureaucrat? Welcome to the lives of people of color, the phenomenon of Driving While Black, the lives of women, of transpeople, of disabled people.

There are other tales of travelers having their breasts exposed during screenings or being hassled over prostheses.   Insert your own horror story here. Recently the TSA stated that their methods would have stopped the “underwear bomber” and actually turn up some “artfully concealed objects”. Guess what they do with those objects. They sell them on eBay.

Oh, and by the way, those new methods wouldn’t have stopped Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab because they weren’t implemented until after the attack, just like every other security measure, like the equally impotent and overreaching “No Fly List”.

The TSA claims that eighty percent of flyers don’t mind the new security screenings, but they’re not looking at the melanoma survivors, children, or elderly who are subjected to unnecessary radiation by being backscattered. I doubt they’re asking victims of sexual abuse or sexual assault who refuse to fly because being felt up by a stranger will likely trigger a panic attack. Pilots are already refusing the backscatter machines because of the excessive radiation; after all, they get enough radiation from being at high altitude for hours and hours a day.

I agree with [livejournal.com profile] elusis:

When I fly in December, if I'm pulled out for either of the imaging machines, I will adopt the same demeanor and rhetoric I use when a medical person tries to get me to step on a scale: "No, thank you." Polite but firm. "Not today, thanks." I will submit to the "enhanced" pat-down and tolerate having my hair stroked, my labia and breasts touched, my waistband fingered. I will ask to have it done in full view of all other passengers, not in a "private area," and I will ask for a witness, possibly a police officer. And then I will go to my gate and write up my report for the ACLU. And I will adopt this same strategy until the policies change.

After all, even the TSA refuses to address how invasive these “pat-downs” are:

Myth: The TSA pat-down is invasive

Fact: Only passengers who alarm a walk through metal detector or AIT machine or opt out of the AIT receive a pat-down. For this reason, it is designed to be thorough in order to detect any potential threats and keep the traveling public safe. Pat-downs are performed by same-gender officers and all passengers have the right to a private screening with a travel companion at any time.

I don’t believe that the backscatter machines are safe for frequent flyers. Sure, the FDA has approved them, but you can easily find a list of things the FDA approved that were later rejected because they irreparably harmed people. I don’t believe the backscatter machines are incapable of saving images and are incapable of being hacked to make pornographic centerfolds of unwitting travelers. I don’t believe that the TSA is actively frisking their own agents and taking away their camera phones before letting them operate the scanners. I don’t believe the TSA isn’t hiring previous sexual offenders to operate the scanners of perform “pat-downs”. I don’t believe the TSA can say with absolute certainty that less than three ounces of liquids or gels isn’t capable of bringing down an aircraft.

I don’t believe the TSA is capable of keeping me safe on an airplane, pure and simple.

The Boeing 747 carries 550 to 600 people per flight. When I am among those people at 30,000 feet, I assume a certain amount of risk to get to my destination. That plane may crash, accidentally or deliberately, and I may die. Same as with my car or a train, which the Transportation Security Administration has ignored, despite the fact that most building bombings are conducted with vehicles. Furthermore, take it by the numbers: The United States Census reports that in 2007, 14,831 murders were reported nationwide. It also reports that New Orleans, Detroit, and Baltimore had the highest number of reported murders per 10,000 people. So, when do we lock down these cities? More people in a year are killed in these cities than in a year by terrorist activity on planes.

The threat is not severe enough to warrant a police state, which is what the TSA is turning into. Their powers are far too broad without any checks or balances to keep them in line. They claim that by flying, you give up rights at purchase, but I’ve never seen that in the fine print on any ticket I buy.

I am not okay with surrendering civil liberties including the privacy of one’s own body in order to limit the abstract possibility of a terrorist attack. Terrorists operate to paralyze a society with fear, yet they don’t have to work very hard in the United States: We’ve already done that job for them. Our fear has allowed a government agency to strip our liberties to promote their reactionary and impotent agenda of keeping us safe.

But who keeps us safe from the TSA?

womprat99: (Default)


womprat99: (Default)

On the heels of the unsurprising Supreme Court’s decision not to strike down Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), Kenny (@Geekyfanboy on Twitter) made this simple statement:


I couldn’t agree more.  I don't understand why a country wouldn't defend those who sacrifice everything to protect it and its people.

By the way, I'll just leave this related gem here as well:


womprat99: (Default)

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