Archive for the ‘Events’ Category

The Problem With Not Having a Manned Space Program

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

The United States has the worlds most accomplished manned space program.  Not only has the US sent men to the moon, but for decades the United States was the most capable space-faring nation, launching several missions per year and leading the world in manned space capabilities.  Even the Space Shuttle, for all its expense and flaws, was a highly capable spacecraft.

Today, however, the US has no ability to send humans into space.   China has a limited manned spaceflight program and Russia is now the primary space program for crewed spacecraft.  The US, however, does own a large portion of the International Space Station and is under treaty obligation to provide crew and support to the space station.  To fulfill its need to send crew members to the Space Station, the US must pay the Russian government tens of millions of dollars for a seat in a Soyuz space capsule.

Obviously, this is a pretty embarrassing place to be.  Just 20 years ago, it was NASA coming to the rescue of a floundering Russian space program, when, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia found itself unable to support a full roster of missions to its own space station.  Now the tables are turned, and the US is starting to look more like a fallen superpower.

But there is a more practical and problematic issue that arises with the dependence on Russia for space transportation.  When international tensions flare, as they now are, things become highly uncertain for space access.


Via NBC News:

Russia Crisis Raises Space Station Questions, But NASA Has Options

OUSTON — Thanks to its reliance on Russia, NASA is once again confronted with the nightmare of a diplomatic roadblock in a project originally made possible by diplomacy: the U.S.-Russian partnership in space exploration.

And if Russia’s confrontation with Ukraine and the West turns into the worst diplomatic crisis of our generation, as feared, it could have equally profound and disturbing consequences for space exploration.

This month’s comings and goings at the International Space Station highlight the interdependence of the U.S. and Russian space efforts: Next week, NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins is due to return from the space station aboard a Russian capsule, alongside two Russian cosmonauts. A couple of weeks after that, NASA’s Steven Swanson is to ride another Russian Soyuz craft up to the station, again in the company of two Russians.

Under the current arrangement, NASA astronauts cannot get to and from the station without Russian help, due to the retirement of the space shuttle fleet. The ticket price for each astronaut is $70 million, payable to the Russians.

The United States and Russia are not just “joined at the hip” on the space station. Numerous other rocket projects rely on either Russian or Ukrainian space hardware and services. Even U.S. national security satellites are powered into orbit on an American rocket with a Russian-built rocket engine.

What if the Soyuz spacecraft suddenly became unavailable for use by American astronauts, contract or no contract? Would it be the end of U.S. human spaceflight? Would it kick off a new round of extortionary price-gouging, both fiscal and diplomatic?

Well, maybe not.

Moving away from co-dependence

It’s cold comfort that the Russians rely on NASA almost as much as NASA relies on the Russians. If Russia monopolizes up-down transport, the United States essentially controls the only space destination: Russia’s orbital hardware couldn’t function without U.S. electrical power and communications services.

However reluctant the partners may be in such an awkward “space marriage,” it has until now provided an astonishing degree of robustness and flexibility.

Recent developments have brought the space station closer to the point where it could be operated without Russian involvement if necessary. The current crisis provides good reasons to accelerate that shift and even to push for one crucial near-term capability: crew rescue.

Already, two U.S. commercial cargo delivery projects — SpaceX’s Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule, as well as Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule — have replaced the justifiably retired space shuttle. European and Japanese robot freighters can also resupply the space station. Even though some parts of the Antares come from Ukraine and Russia, and even though the European cargo freighter must dock at the Russian end of the station, Russia’s cargo monopoly has been broken.

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Kevin Trudeau Jailed (Again)

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

Hopefully for a reasonably long stay, this time.   His jailing was not directly for the fraud he has perpetrated, but rather for failing to comply with a judge’s order.   Still, I’ll take it and be happy he’s put away.   Someone as dishonest as Trudeau was bound to burn himself again.

Via the Chicago Sun Times:

Infomercial king Kevin Trudeau thrown in jail after lavish spending
For years, the feds say, he lived in the lap of luxury even as he claimed he was broke and ignored a court-imposed $38 million fine.

But two recent $180 Vidal Sassoon haircuts; a $900 cigar bill; $1,000 in high-end meats; a $900 liquor spree, and an $800 grocery bill from Whole Foods were luxuries too far for silver-tongued Oak Brook infomercial king Kevin Trudeau.

The 50-year-old convicted fraudster was jailed Wednesday by U.S. Judge Robert Gettleman, who finally lost patience with Trudeau’s repeated claims of poverty.

“This is not an infomercial — you can’t talk your way out of this” Gettleman told Trudeau after the TV pitchman made an impassioned plea for his freedom.

The judge held Trudeau in civil contempt for violating orders that required him to stop spending on everything except necessities and to cooperate fully with court-appointed receivers trying to get to the bottom of just how rich Trudeau really is.

Gettleman told Trudeau to “search his soul” and come clean about his wealth.

The Federal Trade Commission had presented bank statements showing Trudeau’s latest extravagancies and made allegations that Trudeau hid an Australian bank account containing $20,000 from the court just days after a July court hearing at which he was threatened with jail if he didn’t cooperate.

Trudeau’s continued “dissembling” shows that only jail has the power to coerce him into revealing the full extent of his foreign business interests and secret offshore bank accounts, the judge said.

Trudeau’s lawyer Thomas Kirsch begged Gettleman to reconsider, telling him that Trudeau truly doesn’t have the $38 million he was ordered to pay five years ago for flouting a court-ordered ban on making false claims in his diet book infomercials.

“There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Kirsch said.

And Trudeau told the judge he was forced to use the bank accounts the court had frozen because “I had no money for food,” adding that he wanted to comply with the court’s orders and “wasn’t thinking” when he mistakenly got the pricey haircuts.

But Gettleman told Kirsch, “I’m asking for his honesty, and I haven’t got it yet.”

He ordered Trudeau to meet with the receivers and return to court on Thursday so that the receivers can tell Gettleman if Trudeau is being more forthcoming.

Trudeau has been in hot water for some time over the books he has sold on television, such as “Natural Cures They Do Not Want You to Know About.” He claims these books contain secrets that are oppressed by the medical mainstream and can cure everything from cancer to the common cold. He has sold similar books claiming cures for debt.

Trudeau had previously gotten in trouble for fraudulent products and thus had turned to selling books and information. This made prosecution more difficult because of freedom of speech concerns.

My argument against it:
Admittedly I am no lawyer and I can’t quote you the cases where constitutional rights have come into play during prosecution, but I believe a simple and logical argument can be made against protecting Trudeau due to freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech is important and nobody wants it protected more than me. Being able to speak openly about how you feel about politics, policy, social issues and really, anything, is part of having the open exchange of information in a society. However, there is a limit to it, when it comes to products you are selling.

Freedom of speech does not allow you to lie about a product or service you are selling. If I am selling cars and I tell you a car has 300 horsepower, was made in 2007 and has air conditioning, and then you buy the car and find it was made in 2002, has no air conditioning and a 100 horsepower motor, then I am both in civil and criminal trouble. Civil, because you can sue me, and criminal because the district attorney can prosecute me for fraud and I could go to jail.

What I have done by misrepresenting the product is committed fraud. In fact, I have committed theft by deception. I stole your money by tricking you into thinking you were trading it for a product you wanted. In fact, you gave me the money and received no such product. You received a misrepresented product that is not what you had been told it was.

Books are information. Information is more than just an academic or intangible thing. Information can be a tool and can have function. This is, after all, the entire basis of the software industry. When you buy software, you are buying information, literally ones and zeros encoded in pits on a CD surface or even as impulses of electrons or photons that are transmitted over the internet. But that information has function. The software can “do” something. It can edit photos or scan for viruses or help you design brochures. If it did not do what it was advertised to do, it would be fraud. If someone charged thousands for a 3D CAD program and the CD contained hundreds of pictures of cats, that would be clear cut fraud.

This is what Kevin Trudeau is doing. He says the books can allow you to do something by virtue of the information they contain. He says if you have cancer, that cancer can be cured. He says to cure it you just need the proper knowledge of what “natural” substances will make that cancer go away. When you buy his book, you gain this critical knowledge and you can now cure your cancer.

This is a lie and fraud. The man belongs in jail.

With the Dust Barely Settled, Conspiracy Theories Abound

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

I am sure that I do not have to tell readers that there was a bombing, which occurred near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.   Two explosions occurred, in relatively rapid succession, resulting in three deaths and more than one hundred injuries.   At the time of writing, there are several people in critical condition and it is possible more will die.  Some of the injuries confirmed include spectators who lost one or more limbs.

Of course, despite the death toll being relatively light, the event was shocking, due to the bombing happening at a public event that is high profile and because the attack seems to have come out of the blue, at a time and place that had not been suspected to be at risk.

It is important to note that at the time of this writing, the person or persons who perpetrated this.

While there is no solid information on who was behind it, what is currently known seems to indicate that this was an attack of relatively low sophistication which would not have required a large group or resources to carry out.  The explosives were low velocity and not especially difficult to obtain.  The bombs were likely contained within pressure cookers and surrounded by shrapnel made from commonly available items, such as ball bearings and nails.

The image to the left shows a portion of the bomb’s casing, which was recovered shortly after the blast.  It has been identified as the lid to a pressure cooker.  The results of analysis of bomb residue has not yet been made public, but it is known that the explosive was of the low velocity type, which is more easily obtained than more powerful explosives like TNT.

At this point it could be anyone.   Islamic terrorism is one possibility, although no group has claimed responsibility.  Political terrorism or domestic groups is another, although there were no claims of responsibility or political messages included.   It could certainly have been a “lone nut.”  It could have been a doomsday cult.  It could have been a right wing group or a left wing group.  It could have been related to tax day, but it might not have been.

There is, however, no reason to believe that this attack would have required anything like the resources of the Federal government.  Nor is there any evidence to indicate that it was part of a massive conspiracy.  If nothing else, there is no obvious gain to any grand conspiracy by committing an act of this type.

That has still not stopped conspiracy theorists from coming out of the woodwork, literally within hours.

Here’s what pathological nutball Alex Jones had to say, within just hours of the bombings:

Our hearts go out to those that are hurt or killed, But this thing stinks to high heaven #falseflag.

Wow.  Really?    It takes the government now to stuff gunpowder into a cooking pot.

Jones went on to post a video, which you can see here.   His rambling claims include stating that he had predicted that the government was preparing to attack Americans before the explosion even happened.  That might seem amazing, except he says that every day.

Even more ridiculous are claims that the show Family Guy contained references to the planned attack.   This is based on two clips from the show, edited together.  In one episode, the main character wins the Boston Marathon by using his car to plow through runners.   In another unrelated clip, from the same episode, the character starts hanging out with a Muslim man, only to discover he was a terrorist. Conspiracy theorists claim this is foreshadowing of the planned attack and go on to point out that the World Trade Center was also featured in a number of television shows and movies.   Well, yes, that is true, it was a prominent place.  But how that relates to anything, they do not explain.

Others have said that the bombing was a complete hoax, perhaps with nobody killed or injured.   At least one has claimed that a video shows that the blood seen after the bombing is fake.   In one video, it is claimed that the blood disappears when a man walks by in the video.   It’s hard to say what is happening, however, as the video is extremely low quality and the station’s logo obscures much of the area in interest. Another video (WARNING GRAPHIC) shows an image of a victim who had literally had most of their leg blown off, with bone sticking out from the gaping wound. It claims that the proof of the hoax is that there is no blood seen. Of course, the victim was not at the location where the injury occurred and had a tourniquet applied to stop the bleeding.

A large number of conspiracy theorists have latched onto the presence of bomb-sniffing dogs as evidence of a government conspiracy.   Their observations, however, seem to indicate a lack of understanding of how bomb sniffing dogs are used.   For example, it is not surprising that the dogs would not have found the bomb, since, given their small number, they cannot inspect every single area of an event, and because the best current evidence is that the devices were planted shortly before detonation, making it less likely that the area in question would have been inspected in time.  In crowded events, dogs trained to sniff explosives are a valuable, but far from foolproof tool. It is also not unusual that the dogs were training at the event, as large events are often used to train bomb dogs, something which was announced before the bombings.   In order for bomb dogs to be effective, they need near constant training and practice.

This site helps explain the facts about the bomb dogs seen at the event.

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Iranian “Space Monkey” May Have Been Faked

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

Last week, Iran announced that they had launched a monkey into outer space and returned it safely to the earth.   They claimed that this was a major milestone in Iranian aerospace technology and paved the way for human space launches.

The stunt was stupid, pointless and proved nothing.  For one thing, the rocket barely went into space at all.   The payload did not make it to orbit or even achieve an altitude sufficient for orbit.   It was a simple up-down ballistic flight.  The rocket reportedly reached an altitude of 75 statute miles.  That’s hardly a major technical achievement.   The Germans were launching missiles to similar altitudes back during World War II and any reasonably sized short range ballistic missile can reach such altitudes.   Just point a scud missile straight up and fire it to maximum altitude and this is what you get.

Putting a monkey in the nose-cone of a short range missile is also not very impressive.  It has no real scientific value, either.  Back in the 1950′s, when the US was sending monkeys and chimps into space, and the Soviet Union was sending dogs and guinea pigs, it was not known if mammals could survive he stresses of launch and extended periods of weightlessness.   Of course, it’s now known that they can and that humans can indeed function in space, so there’s little knowledge to be gained from sending a monkey into space for a few minutes.

It’s not a huge technical feat either.  A ballistic flight to those altitudes will not result in a huge amount of reentry heating or stress on the payload.  There’s no need for precise de-orbiting burns or control of where it lands (since it will invariably land in the general vicinity of the launch).   The only thing needed to assure the monkey makes it back alive is a capsule that is air tight and parachute system to deploy as it falls back to earth.

Yet simple and unimpressive as putting a monkey on a scud may be, numerous media reports have begun to question whether Iran is being honest about what happened.   For one thing, while video of the rocket launch was quickly publicized, there has been no video provided of the recovery of the monkey.   That seems strange, since recovering the payload and showing that the monkey is fine would be every bit as important as launching the rocket.

Additionally, the images shown of the post-mission monkey look considerably different than the photos of the monkey before launch.   The most obvious difference is that the monkey purported to have been  launched on the rocket has a mole above its right eye while the monkey shown after the launch has no such mole.   Beyond this, the facial features seem slightly different, the fur distribution is not the same and the color is also noticeably different, although this could be the result of camera and lighting conditions.

Since this discrepancy has come to light, Iranian officials have responded by stating that the photos do indeed show two different animals, but that this was simply a mistake in their release.  One of the monkeys is the actual monkey that was launched into space while the other was an archive photo of one of the other monkeys that was part of the program.   Iran has stated that they had five candidate monkeys ready for the flight.

It’s possible that this is the case, but there is still some reason to question the validity of this claim.   The post-launch monkey is clearly the one that Iran has claimed was on the rocket, as pictures of the monkey being shown to dignitaries and presented publicly have been shown.   Yet no pictures of that monkey seem to have been published before the launch.   The pre-launch monkey (the one with the mole) appears in numerous pictures including those of the monkey strapped into a harness for launch.   It’s possible that this was just part of the testing and training protocol, but it’s still a bit strange that many pictures of the same monkey could be mistakenly released.

If the photos were indeed faked, with a stand-in monkey intentionally used for post-launch photographs, then the most likely explanation is that the monkey did not survive the trip.   It’s entirely possible that the parachute recovery system on the capsule malfunctioned or that the capsule failed to separate from the rocket.  It is also possible that the capsule either lacked sufficient breathing air to keep the monkey alive or was not recovered before the supply of fresh air was depleted.

Such problems are not uncommon and indeed the United States lost six monkeys during rocket tests in the late 1940′s before one finally survived the trip.   One monkey died due to lack of oxygen in the capsule.  One died when the V-2 rocket exploded and another three died as a result of parachute malfunctions.   Finally, in 1951, a monkey was launched on a US rocket and made it back alive.  In 1959, the US suffered a high profile loss when a monkey named Gordo died, again, due to a parachute malfunction.  Yet another monkey died when an Atlas rocket exploded.

If Iran did indeed fail to recover the monkey, it seems perfectly in line with the general culture of the Iranian government to try to cover up the loss.  Iran is not prone to admitting failure, even when there is strong evidence to indicate so.   Failing at such a basic and relatively easy technical feat would certainly be an embarrassment.

On the other hand, if there was a genuine photo mixup and Iran manage to launch a monkey on a rocket, it really does not prove anything.   This kind of achievement might be groundbreaking in the 1940′s, but today it’s nothing more than a stunt and not a very impressive one either.  Iran had already claimed to have launched rats, worms and turtles into space on a similar rocket.  Launching a monkey is no more of an accomplishment.   In fact, it could just have easily been a brick.

Newtown Connecticut Shooting Spawns Conspiracy Theories

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

The shooting that occurred in Newtown, CT took the lives of 27, plus the shooter himself.  Most of the victims were young children.   For a small town in a small state, the loss and grief is enormous.   In time, the event will fade from the headlines, but for the community, the tragedy will linger much longer.  It will likely be more than a year before the town even begins to return to normal and the shooting stops dominating the lives of those who live in the area.  Of course, for those who lost loved ones, things never really will return to normal.  The grief will be life-long and time will only dull, but never remove the sense of loss.

Unfortunately, the process of recovering from the horrible tragic events of December 14 has only been made worse by the rise of conspiracy theories and the invasive and disrespectful actions of conspiracy theorists and self-pointed “investigators.”

The conspiracy theories basically claim one of three things:

  1. Adam Lanza was somehow under the control of the government or that his actions were the result of government influences
  2. Adam Lanza was not the murderer.  He was just a scapegoat and the deaths were actually purported by the government.   Some claim Adam Lanza was not even a real person or that he had died some time ago and the identity was assumed into the fictional character created to be the perpetrator.
  3. The shooting never happened.  It was all staged.  The victims may not even be real people at all, but just characters made up for the false story.

The motives put forward for such a conspiracy are predictable: that the massacre would result in an outcry for more school security, more gun control and more law enforcement powers and that this would allow the government to take away rights from the people to a degree that would not otherwise be accepted.  Some claim that other recent shootings, such as the one in Aurora Colorado are proof that the government has begun a program of planned or staged massacres with the intention of convincing the public to submit to greater government authority, ultimately leading to all out fascism.

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Newtown Shooter Adam Lanza’s DNA to be Analyzed for “clues”

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

I was absolutely floored to read that the Connecticut state medical examiner’s office has asked scientists at the University of Connecticut to study the genetic makeup of Adam Lanza, the 20 year old who killed 26 in Newtown.  The University of Connecticut has a highly respected human genetics department and has been involved in numerous groundbreaking studies.  In this case, however, the value of genetic testing for both science and investigation is, at best, extremely dubious.

Via the Daily Mail:

DNA of Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza to be examined for ‘evil’ gene in first study of its kind ever conducted on a mass murderer

The study will be the first one of its kind and will evaluate any genetic evidence for the mass killing of 20 first graders, six members of staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School and his own mother.

Scientists have been asked to study the DNA of Newtown school killer Adam Lanza to see if has an ‘evil’ gene that led him to carry out the massacre.

The study, which will look at any abnormalities or mutations in his individual DNA, is believed to be the first of its kind ever carried out on a mass murderer.

Lanza slaughtered 20 children and six adults in one of America’s worst ever school shootings on December 14, 2012.

The 20 year old also shot dead his mother Nancy before taking his own life as police closed in on him at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut.

The massacre prompted President Obama to look into new gun controls and banning assault rifles such as AR-15 Bushmaster used by Lanza in his rampage.
The study of the killer’s DNA has been ordered by Connecticut Medical Examiner H. Wayne Carver who carried out the post mortems on all the victims.

He has contacted geneticists at University of Connecticut’s to conduct the study.

Not all the press reports have been as sensational as the Daily Mail. Business Insider reports that “Plans To Study Adam Lanza’s DNA Splits The Scientific Community,” and Smithsonian states “Adam Lanza’s DNA Will Tell Us Nothing.” Other press outlets are just reporting that the rests were requested by investigators.

The first problem with this idea is that it seems to presume that there is something extremely unique about Adam Lanza that set him apart from the rest of humanity or made him uniquely evil.   That may be a comforting thought – to believe that only a corruption of nature could result in a human being deciding to unleash gunfire on a classroom full of innocent children, but it’s just not true.

While the shootings in Newtown Connecticut may stand out in terms of the sheer number of deaths and the tragically young age of the victims, the level of violence displayed is hardly unique.  The desire to cause great harm to others and commit acts of violence without hesitation is not really as uncommon as we might want to believe.  Shooting sprees have happened before.  Most have not been as deadly, but that is certainly not for lack of effort or desire to cause as many deaths.  There are, no doubt, even more individuals who would be capable of committing acts as heinous as those of Adam Lanza, but have not, either because they expressed their violence and anger by some other means or because they did not have access to firearms or because they were somehow stopped or thwarted before they could commit such an act.  Rather, the actions of Adam Lanza were the result of a combination of a disturbed individual, an environment which did not control him and the opertunity to exact great harm.

Of course, there’s good reason to believe that Adam Lanza did have mental health issues, and we do know that some of those have genetic roots, but that does not mean that anything will be learned from analyzing his DNA.   There is no single gene or group of genes associated with committing acts of mass murder.  There are genes which may result in a predisposition to anger or aggression, but that in no way explains a behavior as complex and calculated as the Newtown shootings.   For one thing, the evidence of a link to violent behavior is, at best, tenuous.  Additionally, simply having a genetic predisposition toward a hot temper does not mean that a person would act out in such an extreme and callous manner;  It could simply mean that they get are prone to getting into verbal arguments or punching the wall in frustration.

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Rocket Launchers At LA Gun Buyback? Give me a break!

Saturday, December 29th, 2012

This may be going a bit off topic for a science blog, but this kind of thing really drives me crazy and it seems to be happening more and more.  Police and other officials are using extremely scary-sounding items discovered to pat themselves on the back for another victory against terrorism.   It could be “chemicals,” “an unidentified white powder,” “radioactive materials” or just about anything else.  The problem has become so bad that now nearly every police report of potential weapons or dangerous goods seized must be scrutinized with extreme skepticism.

In this case it’s rocket launchers showing up at a gun buyback program.  There is much less to this than it seems.

(For those who might not know, a “Gun Buyback” is an event run by local police with the aim of collecting firearms that are no longer in use or may slip into the wrong hands. They may offer money, gift cards or something else to have the guns turned in. The idea is to reduce the number of guns floating around in the population and potentially available for misuse)

Via NBC News:

Rocket launchers surface during Los Angeles guns buyback
When Los Angeles police moved up their annual Citywide Gun Buyback program to this week, they collected an arsenal that included 75 assault weapons, 698 rifles, 363 shotguns, 901 handguns and — more surprisingly — two rocket launchers.

The weapons, essentially long metal tubes once capable of firing rockets, lacked the projectiles and parts needed to fire them, but even so had no place on the streets, police said.

“Those are weapons of war, weapons of death,” said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, according to the Los Angeles Times. “These are not hunting guns. These are not target guns. … they have no place in our great city.”

Police said the people who brought in the weapons told police that they came from family members who served in the military and no longer wanted rocket launchers in their homes, the Times reported.

LAPD was planning to check with the military to determine the origins of the launchers, police said.

As it turns out, these were not the first launchers to turn up at a gun buyback. Last May, when the event was timed for Mother’s Day, one of these large firearms surfaced in Los Angeles.

I love the way that they say ” they have no place in our great city.” It almost sounds heroic, as if a great evil has been vanquished.

There are two things left out of most of the reports. The first is that it’s completely legal to own these and the second is that if you wanted to kill someone with them, the only way you might be able to do it is by whacking them over the head.

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Some Reflections On The Recent Events In Newton CT

Monday, December 17th, 2012

This blog is obviously primarily about science, science reporting, skepticism and related topics.  However, being a resident of the southeastern portion of Connecticut, it would be impossible to continue on without mentioning the tragic shooting that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown.   Connecticut is a small state to begin with, and Newtown, as it happens is only about twenty minutes drive from my home.  I’ve been to and passed through Newtown many times and I know several people who live in the town.

I did not know any of the victims, but in the past few days I have come to discover just how close I am to this tragedy.  The manager of my congressional campaign has worked for the state as a child advocate.   During a divorce and custody dispute, he was appointed to represent the interests of a young girl.  As is often the case, he became well acquainted with her and her family.  She was one of the victims who was killed on Friday.   My former nextdoor neighbors, who are also good friends of my parents, have a granddaughter in kindergarden at the school where the shooting occurred.  As it turns out, she was absent the day it happened, but no doubt the trauma of losing friends will be difficult for her and the family to deal with.  I have other acquaintances who have children who attend the school or who have lost friends or neighbors.  At my place of work, which, amongst other things, sells flowers, a number of orders were placed for sympathy arrangements for the families of the dead.

While there have been other shootings and tragic events, and indeed, human tragedies happen every day, nothing of this scope has hit quite so close to home and affected so many in my life before.

Of course, there is really no way to respond to such an event that will ever do much to change things.  None the less, some of the responses in the wake of the tragic events have been extremely disheartening.

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Information on the Explosion at The Marcoule Site

Monday, September 12th, 2011

If you have been watching the news or seen any news sites today you have likely heard about the reports of an explosion at a French nuclear facility. The explosion has repeatedly been reported to have happened at a “nuclear power station” or “nuclear plant.” This is false. Reports of fears of radiation releases are also not accurate since the explosion did not actually occurs anywhere near high level waste material or any nuclear reactor.

Background of the Marcoule Site:

The Marcoule site is a large industrial site that conducts activities related to nuclear technology and nuclear energy. It was first setup to produce and process materials for the French nuclear weapons program in the 1950′s. The last French reactors dedicated to plutonium production for weapons were shut down in the 1980′s and activities related to refining and processing weapons materials at Marcoule ceased in 1997.

Beginning in the 1970′s, the Marcoule site has shifted from weapons-related activities to nuclear energy and nuclear materials-related activities in support of the French nuclear energy program. This includes research and development of nuclear energy systems, fuel fabrication and materials processing, remediation and disposal. In 1995, a MOX fuel fabrication plant opened at Marcoule, making the site an integral part of France’s nuclear fuel reprocessing program.

Activities at the site also include such things as the remediation and recycling of low level materials from nuclear reactors, processing of medical radiological waste and the fabrication of components and materials for nuclear systems. Marcoule is the primary site in France for receiving materials from decommissioned nuclear reactors.

There are currently no active nuclear reactors on the site, although it has hosted some nuclear reactors in years past. The site has three inactive UNGG reactors, which were built starting in 1955. The last of these reactors was shut down in 1984. These reactors are gas cooled, graphite moderated reactors, similar in principle to the British Magnox reactors, though developed entirely separately. Like early Magnox reactors, the UNGG reactors did produce electricity, but were primarily built to breed weapons-grade plutonium. The site is also the home of the Phénix reactor, an experimental fast-spectrum sodium cooled reactor which was operated from 1968 until 2009. Phénix is now in cold shutdown and is expected to be fully decommissioned in the near future.

As an industrial nuclear site which now functions largely for civilian purposes, but which was originally built for weapons material, the Marcoule site may be considered analogous to the Savannah River or Hanford Site in the United States or to the Sellafield site in the UK.

Information On the Explosion:

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Some Observations after Irene and the long Blackout

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

For those of you who do not know, I live In Connecticut. Recently my area was hit by Hurricane Irene, which caused the most extensive power outages in the regions history. Much has been made about how forecasters allegedly over-hyped Irene, because, as it turns out, it didn’t cause much flooding in New York City. While that may be true, it still decimated much of the East Coast and caused massive flooding elsewhere and damage to infrastructure to a massive extent.

In Connecticut, every single city and town experienced some power outages with the Shoreline being hit hardest. In Guilford CT, the town my parents live in and where I am employed, 100% of customers were without power by morning of Sunday, August 28. The damage to the power grid was extremely extensive. I drove down one major street and in a single mile I counted five locations where either power lines were down or trees had fallen and come into contact with power lines. In all, over one hundred of line breaks were reported in the town of Guildford. Many of them were more than simple line breaks. In at least a few circumstances, large trees came down and took down major distribution polls, crushing transformers and ripping wires down from several poles on each side. This is only one town! In the neighboring towns of Branford, North Branford, Madison, Clinton, Old Saybrook and all throughout Southern Connecticut things were just as bad.

Restoration of power was painfully slow, though this is understandable given the circumstances. The day after the storm, power was only beginning to be restored to a handful of customers, mostly in cities. By Wednesday, August 31, power began to be restored to a few of the central areas of the Southern Connecticut suburbs. On Tuesday the 30st of September, power was restored to my employer, which is located on a major road in the downtown area of Guildford CT. Residential areas began to flicker on this same day. Also on Wensday, power came back at my apartment in Hamden Connecticut, a somewhat more urban and commercial area than Guildford. By the end of the week power was restored to the majority of Guildford and the surrounding area, but certainly not all of it. When I went to the bank on Friday the 2nd, they were running off a generator.

My parents home was unfortunate in being one of the last to have power restored in the area. The primary through street that feeds their street power had service by Friday, but a fault was detected in an underground cable on their street. I’m told by a utility worker that water from the saturated ground had found its way into the cable conduit and into a cable splice. The cable ended up needing to be dug up. It was not until Monday the 5th that power was restored to their home.

As of this posting, power has finally been restored to approximately 100% of the state.

Here are a few of my observations from what was the longest outage I’ve yet experienced:

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