Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Atomic Randomness

Over the summer, I had the pleasure of team-teaching a course with a mentor and colleague of mine. As luck would have it, it was the same course he had team-taught with another some 20 years before, and in that classroom was a young, know-it-all La Professora. The course was War and Peace. This summer I used a book titled The Ethics of War and Peace by Paul Christopher, in which was the discussion of whether or not it is ethical to use various types of weapons, including nuclear, to achieve a military and/or political goal.

On August 6th, 1945, the US made a significant step toward securing peace in the war with the Japanese, yet took an even larger leap into making the world a little less secure. That day, at 8:15am local time, the B-29 commonly known as the Enola Gay released "Little Boy". Weighing 9,700 pounds, it had the explosive power of 20,000 tons of TNT.

The choice of city was not random. Four cities were selected as potential targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Nagasaki, and Niigata. The committee set up to select the target decided that the first bomb must be dropped on a city that was relatively untouched by previous bombing runs on the country. Thus Tokyo, the much bombed capital, was off the list. The reason was simple: if the city was nearly pristine, the impact of the weapon would be more measurable, and thus the importance of the weapon immediately seen by our enemies and the allies alike.

There was another reason for selecting Hiroshima: it was the headquarters for both the Japanese 5th Division and the 2nd Army. The port was also an important communications center. However, it was known that the explosive power of the bomb was too vast to be limited to targeting military bases. Civilians, even those not involved in the war effort, were expected to perish.

Scientists had believed that the civilians would hide in bomb shelters and thus expected the loss of life to be much lower than the 80,000 or more people who died instantly. However, the single B-29 did not cause the people to fear a bombing, so most carried on with their activities. Because the uranium-235 bomb had not been tested, the US decided not to tell the Japanese about the impending bombing, in case it malfunctioned.

As the weather was reported to be clear over the primary choice of Hiroshima, the go-ahead was given to target the T-shaped Aioi Bridget in the middle of the city. Due to crosswind, the bomb detonated 1,900 feet above the Shima Surgical Clinic, some 800 feet from the targeted bridge.

The destruction was massive. The immediate damage caused by the blast wave, felt from 37 miles away, destroyed buildings within a 1 mile radius. Witnesses more than five miles from 'ground zero' reported seeing a fireball 10 times the brightness of the sun. The heat from the blast, which reached a temperature of over 7,000 degrees F, caused anything made of paper or cloth to instantly ignite, and the resulting fires damaged or destroyed buildings within 4.4 miles of the blast, effectively destroying two-thirds of the city. The exact number of dead will never be known as the records of the city were incinerated.

Further damaging the city were the winds caused by the blast. It is believed that, as close as one-third of a mile from the center of the explosion, ground wind speeds were about 620 mph, generating roughly 4,600 pounds of pressure per square foot. By the time the winds reached one mile from the blast, they had decreased to 190 mph, which is still fast enough to generate over a thousand pounds of pressure per square foot. To give a sense of what that must have been like, a Category 5 hurricane has sustainable winds speeds of 155 mph or more. Katrina, which hit New Orleans, was only blowing winds of 125 mph when it made landfall, making it a strong Category 3 hurricane at that point. The winds of Hiroshima were strong enough drive broken glass deep into concrete.

Those who survived the initial blast and the resulting fires and winds but were exposed to the massive gamma rays suffered from radiation poisoning. Due to the location of the target being so close to the city's hospitals, 90 percent of the medical personnel were dead, and the remaining medical facilities lacked the ability to handle such a massive number of victims.

To complicate matters, the vacuum caused by the heat's updraft sucked up massive amounts of radioactive dust which rained down 30 minutes later on parts of the city that had been left relatively untouched by the blast wave. One-fifth of the population died within 5 years due to exposure to radiation. Nearly all of those within a half-mile radius of 'ground zero' who survived the initial blast and the fires died within 30 days due to radiation poisoning. Nearly half of those in Hiroshima who died of leukemia and about 10% who died of cancer had their disease as a result of their exposure to radiation.

The Japanese military and civilian leadership were so shocked by the bombing that they denied that the destruction could have been caused by an atomic bomb. Instead, they claimed it must be some new sort of conventional weapon. Sixteen hours later, President Truman sent Japan the message that if it did not offer its unconditional surrender immediately, the US would be forced to repeat its action on another of Japan's cities. Three days after the bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki was targeted. Coming only one day after the Soviets had entered the Pacific theater, it was clear that the US was willing to force the issue quickly.

Overruling the objections of the military, Emperor "Tenno" Hirohito demanded that the country begin the negotiations that would lead to surrender. President Truman suspended all further atomic attacks on the Japanese mainland. That did not, however, end the conventional bombing of Japan. As the military and civilian leadership of Japan dickered over the terms, aerial bombing of Tokyo resumed. To further force the issue, the US dropped leaflets on the population that explained the terms that had been offered. On August 15, the citizens of Japan heard for the first time the voice of their emperor, recorded so that there would be no question as to his "divine" will, as he read the country's acceptance of the terms of surrender. Citing the fact that "the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb", he acknowledged that continuing the war was not to Japan's advantage.

The nuclear weapons genie will not return to its bottle. In viewing the destructive power of Little Boy, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, Captain Robert Lewis, uttered the immortal words, "My God, what have we done?". Some have argued that the death caused by those two bombs are outweighed by those that would have been caused on both sides by a conventional invasion of Japan. The projected US casualties due to an invasion were set at around 500,000. The question posed to the War and Peace students this summer was simple: When is is acceptable to resort to nuclear weapons? There's no clear answer to this question.

What I can say is that I've been to Hiroshima and its Peace Park. I've seen the memorials and read the tales. I've touched the "Shadow of Buddha" statue and felt powerful emotional draw that forced my eyes straight upward, to where the hypocenter had been, some 600 yards above me. There are some places in the world where an event leaves a lasting impression. Hiroshima is one such place.

Perhaps having been to see the Peace Park and its museum is the reason I was sadden by the passing in January of this year at the age of 93 of the man who had survived both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. His outlook on life is one we all should take to heart:

"I could have died on either of those two days. Everything that follows is a bonus."

Image Sources: Aioi Bridge:
Hiroshima Before and After:
Atomic Dome: La Professora's personal travel photos.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Taxing the Random

It is hardly a novel idea, but one that is worthy of at least some discussion: Tax the unhealthy stuff in our food.

Last Thursday night, during my lecture on economic and foreign policies in the American Government course, I proposed the idea of providing health care to everyone in the country -- either by assisting citizens in buying private policies or by providing universal health care, pick your preference -- by taxing food based on the ingredients that are causing the various health complications in this country. This is based on the logic of supply and demand. Currently, in this country, 'junk' food is cheaper than food that is good for our bodies and thus our health.

I'm not suggesting that we only eat tofu for every meal -- I've yet to be convinced that tofu is (a) really food, and (b) entirely good for humans.

What I am suggesting is that if junk food were the same price as or more than the wholesome foods, perhaps the demand for junk food would go down. The supply would never entirely go away, but perhaps it would be naturally curtailed and be considered more of a luxury item rather than a necessity it is currently be perceived as by American society.

How we go about achieving this transformation is through a tax on the harmful ingredients. This has been proposed before, with very little success. The so-called "Twinkie Tax" didn't make it much beyond the press blitz that politicians engage in to make the populace think that something is being done. In 2009, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 67% of Americans were overweight -- half of those, 34% of the total, were obese. An additional 6% were extremely obese, for a total of 73% of Americans having a Body Mass Index of 25 or higher.

It was believed by many, inside and outside of this country, that the reason why Americans are so overweight in comparison to the rest of the world is that we eat too much. Yes, we do -- too much junk food. It is easy to see how the general perception of our overeating was created. Not too long after moving to this country, a friend was treated by La Professora to a dinner at a restaurant. The friend -- I'll call her Miss M -- had been warned by family and friends in France that she should be careful, that living in America would make her fat. So, to prevent this, Miss M ordered a salad. When the salad arrived, her eyes become huge -- to match the size of the plate of greenery. We ate and chatted, and ate some more. It soon become clear that Miss M was no longer enjoying her salad, but was continuing to eat it. I pointed out that if she was full, she could take the rest home in a "doggy bag" -- thus introducing her to yet another Americanism. She wondered at the idea of taking the extra home -- in France, one only orders that which one can eat at the restaurant -- so I explained that Americans like the idea of getting "value" for their money. What that means for the discussion here is that in the mind of American consumers, lots of cheap junk food is better than a little good food at the same price.

Thus the way to get Americans to eat better is to give healthy food more appeal, pocketbook-wise. Even the most liberal of Americans would howl at the idea of more farm subsidies, which totaled $7.5 billion last year -- in 2005, the total was $16.4 billion. If farm subsidies for the producers of healthy food is out, then taxation for the producers of junk food should be considered.

The aforementioned proposed Twinkie Tax was for a 7 to 10 percent tax. The idea was based on the 'sin' tax on cigarettes. Driving up the price, it was believed, would cause people to think twice before purchasing the sugary, fattening food they crave. That low tax might not be enough, but it certainly would be more effective than some sort of subsidy. In a recent edition of Psychological Science, researchers exploring the question of taxation versus subsidy found that women who did the grocery shopping would buy more healthy food, as measure by a calorie-for-nutrient value, when the unhealthy food was taxed at either 12.5% or 25%. On the subsidy side, the researchers found that when the price of the healthy food was lowered and the unhealthy food remained the same, the women would buy some of the healthy food and then 'spurge' on the unhealthy food with the money saved on the healthy -- thus not decreasing the number of overall calories.

The researchers' methodology of measuring the calorie-for-nutrient value seems a bit complicated, but it did show a change in consumer behavior. The proposal I gave my students last week was much more simpler than the CFN calculations: tax by percentage of the Daily Value.

The federal Food and Drug Administration plans to cut down on the amount of salt that the average American consumes by setting limits for the various foods. This is both too complicated and prone to fudging as the various industries lobby to set their own limits. The fact that the trade group representing the soda industry spent $5.4 million in the first three months of this year to keep lawmakers from limiting exposure of sugary drinks to children is evidence that the various food corporations do not have Americans' health in mind.

No, the solution is a tax based on the amount of the Daily Value percentage for sodium, sugar, and fat listed on the Nutrition Fact label on each item. Take the label for a generic bag of barbeque potato chips to the right. The total sodium percentage of the Daily Value is a whopping 62% and the total fat is a mind-blowing 99% -- eating one serving of 7 ounces of these chips means that the rest of the day's food must be truly fat-free and nearly sodium-free. In my proposal, this 99¢ item would be taxed at 161%, raising the price to $2.58, which would give pause to even the most drugged out pothead with the munchies.

Exempt from the tax would be foods that are not processed beyond the necessary sanitation and packaging. Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt would be exempt; meats that are merely butchered and packaged would be exempt; fruits and vegetables in their natural state, either fresh or frozen, would be exempt.

Now comes the question of how much would such a tax raise to help cover the cost of health care. Colorado is considering ending the 2.9% sales tax-exemption on candy and soda. It is believed that doing so would increase state revenue by $17.9 million next year. That's just for Colorado, imagine how much would be raised across all the states at a much higher rate than a mere 3%. Maybe, once everyone has health coverage, we could start paying down the national debt too.

Of course, when everyone starts to avoid the high priced junk food, there would be less tax revenue for the health care coverage plan. Instead, the increase in better eating would mean that more people would be healthier and thus cutting down on the need for costlier health care coverage. A win-win around the political spectrum.

For those on the right who decry such a taxation policy as an infringement on personal responsibility, I say that this is hardly the case. The government would not be telling people what they can and cannot eat, rather it would be putting a more immediate cost on choosing to eat unhealthily. Further, it would create more jobs. Yes, as demand for the processed food decreases, jobs in the automated food processing plants would go down in number. However, jobs at farmer's markets and industries providing healthier food would increase. Likewise, healthier people are 3 times more productive, taking far fewer sick days, and making significantly fewer errors on the job. More productivity means a better economy, which in turn decreases unemployment.

Everyone wins from a healthier diet. Just don't expect La Professora to eat tofu.

Image credits:

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Randomness as Acts of God

La Professora is the last to belittle anyone's personal religious beliefs, but even I have a hard time defending the latest pronouncement by Marion 'Pat' Robertson. For those of you not paying attention to the news -- and shame on you -- his zealotness announced that the earthquake in Haiti is part of the curse that hangs over that country as a result of "a pact to the devil." While his spokesperson pointed out that the earthquake itself was not a sign of "God's wrath" against the country, he did continue Robertson's theme: "History, combined with the horrible state of the country, has led countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed".

The Haitian ambassador was not amused. In an interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, Ambassador Raymond Joseph pointed out that, if Haiti had made a pact with the devil in order to become independent from France in the 1800s, and if the US was able to secure the Louisiana Purchase as a result of the conflict Haiti had with the French, then American benefited from that so-called 'pact with the devil' by gaining enough territory to create 13 states.

The White House made it clear that Pat Robertson does not speak for most Americans, if any. Robert Gibbs, the spokesperson for the Obama Administration, said, "It never ceases to amaze, that in times of amazing human suffering, somebody says something that could be so utterly stupid. But it, like clockwork, happens with some regularity."

And with regularity Pat Robertson does indeed stick his foot in his mouth. Seems that Robertson and his ilk have regularly exploited disasters and attacks for their own ends. What those ends are is anyone's guess, but I'd have to say it's to promote his vision for the proper American way of religious life. What follows is but a small selection of the idiocy produced by the man.

Let us start with the doozyist of them all: The attacks of September 11, 2001 was the fault of the pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and lesbians, the ACLU, and the People for the American Way. Okay, so it was Jerry Falwell who said, "I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen'", but it was on Robertson's show on Robertson's network, and Robertson "totally concur[red]". Seems that defending the freedom from any religious doctrine that might restrict the rest of their liberties, the above named groups made "God mad" and that's why 19 fundamentalist Muslim terrorists used four planes in an attempt to get America to change its foreign policy toward the Middle East.

After the Katrina tragedy, Robertson had his own theory as to the cause. There are some environmentalists who believe the disaster was the result poor land management. For Robertson, it was clearer than that: the Old Testiment says that those who shed innocent blood will find that the land will vomit them out. His take on the situation was that the abortion of 40 million -- his number -- fetuses made God send a hurricane that killed 1,800 innocent people in the Gulf Coast.

Robertson isn't just in the business in laying blame retro-actively, he also has warned of possible future disasters for failing to live up to his idea of God's standards. For Dover, Pennsylvania, he predicted a vague tragedy as a result of voting out the members of the school board who favored intelligent design over evolution. "I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God. You just rejected him from your city .... I recommend they call on Charles Darwin."

While there was a rumor that Pat Robertson had said Katrina was the result of God's anger over Ellen Degeneres -- a well-known lesbian -- being selected to host the Emmy Awards that year, a rumor that proved to be false, he did 'predict' in 1998 that the Gay Pride Festival flags that Orlando, Florida, had set up around town would result in a hurricane. Specifically he said, "you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes, and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you." I'm only guessing, but there are probably more than one member of the gay community that is rather happy Robertson isn't them.

Yet, he is very clearly against people like Ellen Degeneres. In 1992, he wrote in a letter to raise funds to defeat an Equal Rights amendment to the Iowa Constitution, in which he said the feminist movement wasn't really about getting equal rights for all, "it is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians." Not be out done, fifteen years later, he tells the world that yoga is evil.

Fearing that America was being taken over by secularists, Robertson addressed the need to have more religiously conservative justices on the Supreme Court. "Operation Supreme Court Freedom" was a call to the faithful to pray that John Roberts would get a speedy confirmation to the US Supreme Court. On August 2nd of 2005, his prayer was rather specific: "Take control, Lord! We ask for additional vacancies on the court, and we ask for additional fine people like John Roberts."

Calling for the death of a political figure is hardly unique for Robertson. Turning his eye to the international stage, he weighed in on what the United States should do to leaders of other nations: assassination. Not having the slightest clue of either geography or ideology beyond his own, in 2005 Robertson stated that Venezuela was going to be "the launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism." Thus, he called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez. "We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability." Being able and being morally and politically justified are two vastly different things.

When it came to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke in 2006, Robertson had an answer for that too. God's retribution for "dividing God's land". The same reason, according to Robertson, explains the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. "...I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations or United States of America. God said, 'This land belongs to me, you better leave it alone.'"

On the theme of Islam, Robertson continues to show his ignorance of others. Claiming that there's no such thing as a report of Christian extremists killing, he insists that the Koran clearly dictates that Muslims engage in violence against others. "Islam, at least at its core, teaches violence ... those who believe it sincerely in their hearts are those that think Osama bin Laden is their great hero." Not only is he wrong about Islam, he's also wrong about there being no such thing as Christian terrorism. He conveniently forgets about any number of terrorist organizations that have some form of Christianity at its base, the best known of which is the Irish Republican Army.

Four years later, after the Ft Hood attacks, Robertson compounds this stupidity by calling Islam a political system on the same scale as communism and fascism, and that America should treat adherents to the "political system" the same as we would members of a fascist group.

Likewise, following any other faith, especially a 'new-age religion', leads to a "severe price" as death is the penalty for seeking enlightenment outside the bounds of what Robertson believes to be the one true faith.

While Haiti may not actually be cursed, America certainly seems to be so -- with a bedeviling man named Marion 'Pat' Robertson.

Photo Source:

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Lost in Random

Fans of "Lost" have lost their minds because the White House set the State of the Union speech for the same night as the premiere of Season 6 of the odd series. They have started a campaign to either get the Obama administration to change the date -- again -- for the speech, or get ABC to refuse to show the speech. After all, the other networks will be showing it, so why not instead broadcast a show that has absolutely no impact on anyone's life. Such fervent fandom brings to mind the uproar caused by the "Heidi" game of 1968.

It is not clear if the above information is something that should outrage the Political Science instructor in La Professora, or if it is merely confirmation of the belief that Americans are dangerously apathetic towards politics. The US Census Bureau reports that there are 225.5 million Americans who are eligible to vote -- 11.7 million between the ages of 18 and 20 -- yet only 64.9 percent of those bother to register to do so. Worse is the fact that 58.2 percent actually did vote in 2008. That means 94.3 million people who are eligible to vote don't bother registering and voting. Of the 18- through 20-year olds, in 2008 only 41% bothered to cast their ballot; meaning nearly 2 out of 3 college-aged citizens did not vote in an election that was supposed to energize the young in this country.

Suddenly, I needed to know just how inane are American preferences. Not only does a large number of the population choose not to exercise its most basic political right and participate in the electoral process, but a quick 'Google' of "Americans would rather" showed that Americans are a sorry lot.

When it comes to TV, the average -- no indication of which measure of central tendency this is -- American watches 15 hours of TV per week. One survey found that 80% of Americans can't live without their DVR. Another study showed that 26% would prefer to spend their evenings in front of the great glowing box. Hardly surprising given that American families spend $660 per year on TV, stereo, and gaming devices. That's just television; there's a plethora of other subjects that make one question the rationality of the American people.

Continuing on the theme of electronic devices. A survey done for Best Buy found that while 60% of those surveyed would choose to give up alcohol for (only) a week rather than to give up their cell phone, 15% would endure having their teeth drilled if it meant keeping their cellphone. A more surprising study found that 46 percent of woman and 30 percent of men would give up sex for two weeks in exchange for keeping during that same time period their access to the Internet. TV fares worse than sex; 61% of women said they'd give up their TV for two weeks for just one week's worth of Internet access.

Yet iPods fare much better; a study done found that 60% of Americans would refuse to give up their magic little Apples even if they knew that it was damaging the environment. That same study showed that only 6 percent would be willing to give up their car, and 7 percent would dump their computer. Cell phones, however, are more quickly abandoned: 21 percent of Americans would forgo the fun of being on an electronic leash if they knew that the device was harming the environment.

Furthermore, the survey found, given the choice between convenience, comfort, or protecting the environment, convenience and comfort were almost tied -- 38 and 36 percent respectively -- while only 26 percent of those questioned would choose protecting the environment. Which, one supposes, is better than none at all. Sadly, a look at the cost / benefit analysis done by Americans shows that their utility bill would have to increase by $129 per month -- $1,500 per year -- before they would motivated to put in the effort to make their homes energy efficient. Which seems odd, given that 45% of those asked would rather pay bills than scrub clean their shower.

One study found that Americans throw out 40 percent of all the food produced in this country. Granted, some of that waste is at the manufacturing stage and the point of sale, but the majority of the waste is from people throwing out that left over Chinese take out they never got around to eating. What that means is, while 6.7 million people are "food insecure" -- a fancy way of saying 'hungry' -- $48.3 billion worth of food is taken to the dump each year. Wasted food wastes other resources as well; 25% of the country's fresh water consumption and 4% of oil consumption is squandered along with that food.

The people of this country spent more money on bottled water in one year than they did on iPods and movie tickets. I have already ranted on the stupidity of bottled water, so it should come as no surprise that the fact that $15 billion was spent in one year by Americans on something that is basically free continues to boggle the mind.

With all the hoopla about health care reform and H1N1 in the news the last few months, one would be forgiven for thinking that the American people are concerned with their health. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case. One quarter of all Americans do not engage in any form of exercise; this matters as some $76 billion in 2000 is was spent on health care for the inactive. Far more scarier is the 51% of people who said they would get on a plane even if they knew they were sick with the flu.

Then there's the weight of Americans. Given their choice, Americans would rather live someplace where there are more McDonald's than there are Starbucks. It is clear that Americans love their fast food. Even in state such as California, the proportion of overweight people is staggering: 42% of women and 63% of men are fat. Nationwide, 31 percent of all adults are morbidly obese. Given the choice between losing 75 pounds or losing their job, well over half of the population chose shedding the weight. Even more chose being thin and poor over being a fat Croesus. However, when given the dilemma of having the perfect body or the perfect mind, only 5 to 7 percent (women and men, respectively) would choose to shed 20 IQ points along with their unwanted weight -- yet another 11 to 17 percent said they would certainly consider it. Additionally, 60% said that they'd rather reduce the likelihood by twenty percent of having their identity stolen than lose twenty pounds.

The country is not without its hypocrisy, however. When surveyed on volunteerism, 93% said that it is important to promote volunteer activities. Yet less that half donate any of their time to charitable organizations. In fact, 51 percent said they would rather spend their time watching television or visiting their in-laws than volunteer; all the while saying that the greatest barrier to volunteering is the lack of time.

It is not just the citizens who are lazy. Politicians are truly representing the constituents. When a news organization asked members of Congress if they were planning on reading the text of the health care reform bill before voting, many of them said they were not. It is no wonder then that 45% of voters believe that a group of people randomly chosen from a phone book would do a better job at running the country than the elected officials.

Let us face the fact that Americans do fit, in the most general sense, the stereotype of fat, lazy, and uninformed. No wonder the "Lost" fanboys have their panties in a twist over having their prized season premiere -- the sixth one, nonetheless -- bumped for something like the president laying out his plan for governing the country in coming year. Politics, after all, requires too much thought. If Americans really thought about what is being done in Washington, they'd know better than to think that 24% of the national budget is allocated to NASA -- the correct answer, by the way, is that a mere 0.58% is spent on NASA projects. And far fewer than the current 58% would believe that 'aggressive interrogation techniques' are necessary for gaining information from Umar Abdulmutallab, the "underwear bomber".

Sad as all this is, 90% of Americans would rather live here than anywhere else in the world. That's the highest for any of the 24 countries studied. I have to wonder if the other 10% are the "Lost" fans who would rather live elsewhere if it meant they got their precious show on the day promised.