Thursday, October 23, 2014

Teller Ulam - Rube Goldberg Meets Doomsday

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Surprisingly, the inner workings of an atomic bomb are not terribly complicated. There's the 'gun design', where a 'bullet' of highly enriched uranium is fired with conventional high explosive into a matching 'target'. On high velocity impact, the Uranium becomes a single, critical mass and a fission explosion happens, because physics. Sure, adding some neutrons with a polonium/beryllium initiator is nice, but assembling a weapon like this isn't rocket science. And just like that, you lose a city like Hiroshima. Alternatively, if you can get your hands on 20 kilograms of Plutonium-239, the design is even simpler. You cast the plutonium in a sphere, surround it with high explosives, set fast detonators all around the sphere, with timers configured so it all goes boom at the same instant. The plutonium is compressed to critical mass, and once again you get fission, a few grams of matter is converted to energy and, once again, you lose a city, this time Nagasaki.

What you may not realize is that nobody uses these designs anymore. Atomic bombs are SO fifties. Even as the rubble in Japan was still cooling, physicists were looking for a more powerful, energetic weapon. If fission is good, then adding a little fusion to the mix must be even better. Virtually every nuclear warhead deployed today is a thermonuclear device patterned after the original "Teller - Ulam" device. And good lord, it's the scientific equivalent of a madman's ramblings on full yellow legal tablets. Except, to the best of our knowledge, the damn thing seems to work.

The details? Where to start? Teller Ulam is a multistage weapon. It starts with a conventional explosive that initiates a fission explosion. And that's where things get dicey. The fission explosion, even if it is a 'boosted' fission explosion, isn't enough. So the goal is to use that initial fission bomb to create a fusion reaction. The challenge is that from the moment that fission is initiated, you have only milliseconds to create your fusion reaction before the whole thing is vaporized. You are essentially creating a complex chain reaction inside an atomic bomb in the process of detonating.

The idea is that you use a typical first generation atomic bomb (as crudely described above) to focus a blast of X-Rays on a 'secondary' - a target that, under the right conditions will initiate nuclear fusion. You focus the x-rays, you reflect them with a 'tamper' and you enhance them by surrounding the secondary with a fissionable shell. If all goes according to design, for a very brief moment you get nothing short of a miniature star - a hydrogen fusion reaction. Of course, to understand the engineering challenge this represents, you have to go back to the very first step. The whole process was kicked off by detonating an atomic bomb. And everything that happens afterward, the whole complex set of steps and processes, all happens inside the casing of the warhead in the microseconds before that initial atomic blast vaporizes the whole kit, kat and kaboodle.

The part that nobody outside of the nuclear weapons community is clear on is precisely the mechanism by which the secondary is compressed enough to begin a fission reaction. We know that the X Rays from the primary are somehow 'focused' across the 'interstage' section of the weapon, and by some process (there are several competing theories, any or all of which may be in use), those X Rays initiate a fission reaction in the secondary. The most likely method is one where a very secret formula 'foam' surrounds the secondary, and the X Rays from the primary convert the foam into a highly energetic plasma that compresses the secondary, which fissions and compresses the Lithium Deuteride fuel to thermonuclear temperatures, initiating the fusion reaction.

The term 'hydrogen bomb' is a bit of misnomer. It's true that the entire device is designed to produce hydrogen fusion, but most of the energy released is from good old fission. The fusion reaction's primary purpose is to add enough energy to greatly enhance the efficiency and output of the fission reactions. The original bomb designs were less than ten percent efficient - that is, they needed to contain a large amount of fissile material so that getting 10% of it to fission before the whole thing was vaporized would result in a large enough yield.  Now, despite the unlikely complexity of the modern thermonuclear device, you get much more energy out of a given amount of fuel than you did before. Which is ironic, because the modern warheads such as the W-88 are designed to have a maximum yield of just a few hundred kilotons, while the earlier weapons often yielded 10 megatons or more.

There's a few lessons to take away from all this. First, even though the first Teller - Ulam device was tested in 1952, and despite it's rather unlikely design, nobody has figured out how to improve on it or replace it. There's also a lesson here about letting the physics and math dictate the engineering. In order to make something work in the real world, you sometimes might have to compromise on the most elegant applied science to get the desired result. But most of all, it's kind of bizarre to consider that human culture could be ended for all time by these goofy, Rube Goldbergian bombs.
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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sing For Your Supper

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What is a song worth? How much should a consumer expect to pay to listen to a specific song? How much should the artist expect to be paid when the consumer listens to one of their songs? A few years ago, this was a question with an easy answer. You bought a cassette, or a CD, for $15 or $20 dollars. A dozen or so songs, widely varying in quality and even genre, on a flimsy plastic playback platform. Everyone had a sense that this was way too expensive, but the alternative was listening to the radio. Sure, that was free - you had to listen to the commercials, that was part of the deal - but you had no control over what was played, and when.

Then came the 90s, the internet and Napster. Now there was an alternative - not only was music suddenly free, but you could get just the songs you wanted. For the next decade, the record labels fought their customers tooth and nail for the right to make millions from music sales. And eventually, just as the download model killed the CD, streaming services (mostly) killed the download model. Whether subscription based or ad supported, streaming services pay the labels and the artists a great deal less than they made in the days when music consumers had no choice but to buy that $15.00 CD, even if they only liked one song on it.

Artists should definitely be able to make a living making music - the question of whether they would quit making music if they couldn't get paid at some level, as is often suggested, strikes me as the wrong question to ask, and unlikely in any case. But how much should any musician realistically expect to make? Prior to the rise of rock n roll in the late 1950s, musicians made a living. They could devote their lives to making and performing music, and in return they could expect to be paid. It was a blue collar, working class way to get by, but for people who felt the need to make music, it was a perfectly fair deal. Then came Top 40 radio, gold albums and sold out arenas, and at least a subset of artists (and their record label partners) became fabulously wealthy. They were millionaires with their own airplanes and an unlimited supply of drugs and groupies. Even if you weren't in that rarefied company, every rock n roll band knew they were just one number one hit away from paradise.

But is that what music is worth? Does it make sense that a band should make millions? It seems that we've been through an anomalous period in time when the limits of the distribution format allowed music to be artificially priced at irrational and unsustainable levels. Successful bands will always make a lot of money - in a tightly connected world where anything can go viral in 24 hours, the demand for a 'hot' band or performer will provide nearly instant wealth. But the system, the music industry, the streaming sites, the $0.99/song downloads, internet and terrestrial radio - these distribution formats have to work in such a way as to support the vast working class mainstream of musicians, singers and songwriters. The record labels have lost their cash cow, but they were never necessary to the process anyway. They were the parasite, sucking much of the lifeblood out of a relationship between artist and fan. That they should end up with nothing is a particularly satisfying form of justice.

There is a kind of free floating assumption that because musicians have become unimaginably wealthy in recent decades that this is some kind of norm, one that we must find a way to preserve. But that seems almost certainly wrong to me. So let's start with this - median household income in the US stands at a little over $50,000/year. I don't think anyone would begrudge a performer making 50K. Is there some reason that performer should expect to make MORE than that? How much more? More than a welder, a truck driver, a software engineer? Are musicians so much more valuable to society that they should expect to make twice the median income? Four times?

I don't know the answer. My gut tells me a musician with a decent following is going to make at least a hundred grand, and that's very much as it should be. I can't for the life of me understand why a musician should expect to make tens of millions of dollars anymore - the market can no longer generate that much cash. In looking around today, it looks like the whole system is settling into a functional equilibrium. Some viable mix of ad-supported streaming, subscription streaming, paid downloads and live performances, along with the other commercial opportunities available to talented artists, should make it possible for a musician to make a decent living doing what he or she loves to do, and while the era of the millionaire performer might be fading, that's still a pretty good outcome.
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Monday, October 20, 2014

Right to Exist

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Sounds good. What's it mean?
One of the primary political/diplomatic debates of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is the discussion around Israel's 'right to exist'.  This is a curious construct, and one that deserves a great deal more consideration than is typically given. There really isn't this kind of debate over any other nation. Even in the case of controversial nascent nations such as Kosovo or South Sudan, there is no question of their 'right to exist' - merely a question of international recognition of that existence. Indeed, what entity can even grant a nation such a right? And wouldn't a Palestinian nation have a similar 'right'?

But Israel isn't appealing to some international body to vouchsafe its right to exist - it demands that its adversaries - Palestinian groups like Fatah, Hamas and Hezbollah and regional nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia - concede simply that it has such a right. But the belief in a nation's right to exist is influenced by all manner of external and domestic political considerations. Did Great Britain believe the United States had a right to exist in the early decades of the 19th century? China certainly doesn't believe Taiwan has a right to exist. Does Kurdistan have a right to exist? How about Azawad?

To further complicate matters, a nation's right to exist in no way conveys any kind of protection, or guarantee of longevity. There was no real question of the Ottoman Empire's right to exist, right up until it ceased to exist and its territory and holdings were gobbled up by other powers. And all the years of my life, right up until that day in 1991 when it no longer existed, I never heard anyone question that the Soviet Union had a right to exist. Indeed, it seems that the reality of a nation's existence - along with the political, diplomatic, economic and military strength required for enforcement of said existence - is all that is required for the international community at large to assume that a nation has such a right.

One must assume that the goal of the Israeli leadership is to create a condition where their adversaries are not officially committed to Israel's ultimate destruction. And that would certainly make negotiations simpler, even if it makes no sense for an advanced, modern nuclear power to take seriously the aspirational goals of the decades old founding document of a ragtag rebel paramilitary. But when considered in broader terms, it seems an odd demand for the Israeli leadership to make. If, for example, Hezbollah was to announce tomorrow that they would accept Israel's right to exist, but continue to resist the occupation, does anyone for one minute truly think that would change anything? Would Israel accept that statement as Hezbollah's true goal? Iran has insisted for a decade, from every level of government and clergy that they do not want and would not develop nuclear weapons, and yet Tel Aviv has disregarded these repeated statements as lies and attempts to 'buy time' to develop nuclear weapons. For better or worse, they are not prone to take seriously any claims from their adversaries that run counter to their own institutional beliefs.

So to summarize. It's hard to understand what a national 'right to exist' might even mean. There is no body that can grant such a right. There is no effective way to deny that a nation has a right to exist. Some new nations don't receive universal recognition or diplomatic relations, but their existence is never discussed in terms of a right or lack thereof. A nation's existence itself constitutes its right to exist - that right is not granted by other nations or organizations acceptance, the right to existence is contained within existence itself. If it was any different, then we would be having this discussion about more than a single nation.
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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sweden vs. the Submarine

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Not the Loch Ness Monster
OK, nobody knows much, and what they do know they aren't saying, but this is just too good to pass up.  A few days ago the Swedish navy overheard a distress call - in Russian - from a vessel in the waters off Stockholm. The immediate assumption was that the vessel in question was a submarine, probably involved in some sort of of clandestine intelligence gathering mission. In the days that followed, the Swedish government claimed there had been at least 3 'credible sightings' of foreign underwater activities offshore, including the now infamous photo of a submersible craft on the surface taken by a civilian on the shore.

During the cold war, it was very common for the Soviet and Swedish navies to play a deadly game of cat & mouse in the waters of the Baltic Sea between Stockholm and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad in Southern Lithuania. The Swedes were not know for playing around, and made liberal use of depth charges as they chased these subs from around their shores. In case there is some doubt about what the Swedish navy was seeing, in 1981 a Soviet Whiskey class submarine loaded out with nuclear weapons was stranded on a bar off Karlskrona in southeast Sweden, causing a massive diplomatic incident. After more than a week of tense negotiations, Swedish surface ships towed the submarine into deeper water where it was permitted to go free. More recently, a pair of Russian SU-24s penetrated Swedish airspace in what was seen as an intentional probe of Swedish air defenses. The Russian fighters were intercepted and escorted back to international airspace.

What would a Russian submarine be doing in the Baltic off Stockholm? Nobody's saying anything, but the unspoken assumption is that the major powers use specially equipped submarines to tap underwater fiber optic cables in order to intercept digital telephone and internet communications. The US has famously been doing so since the USS Halibut took part in Operation Ivy Bells in 1971.

At this point, if the Swedish navy hasn't found anything, they probably won't, but it's clear that some foreign entity is operating intelligence gathering submarines in the Western Baltic for purposes that the Swedes find suspicious or downright hostile. While all the indications - and the history - indicate that this is Russian activity, there are other nations, particularly the US and UK that could be operating in those same waters for the same reasons.
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Saturday, October 18, 2014

And Then There Were Two

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The Giants Win The Pennant
Steroids stopped mattering in Major League Baseball in 2009. In 2010, baseball began to adjust to the post-steroid era. If you no longer can have a couple of sluggers who will hit 40+ home runs, what would the game look like? Some teams thought a return to team speed was in the offing. But they never noticed that team speed never really mattered either. What would replace the PED imbibing muscled up home run hitter? Surprisingly, it turned out to be the bullpen.

A few things have remained constant over the years. Starting pitching, solid defense, and depth. But when every team is effectively even, what wins games? Previously, it was the guys with the PEDs and the muscles and the giant heads who could hit balls out of any park in prodigious numbers. Take that away, and teams needed to figure out how to build, not just for the 162 game regular season, but for the short, brutal sprint of the post-season.

The operative assumption is that fewer runs will be scored. Games will be closer, and balls in play start to matter a great deal more. Conventional wisdom has to go out the window - you don't want to see a lot of pitches and get deep in the count. You want to put the ball in play, use the whole field and put pressure on the defense. Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens preaches it every day - a flat swing that stays in the zone a long time, taking what the pitcher is giving you, using the whole field. It's not about a bloop and a blast, it's about a bloop and line drive and a bunt and a fly ball.

But assuming decent starting pitching, the real fight is the bullpens. The bullpens give managers the tools to neutralize rallies, and to shut down the big hitters. Relief pitchers have become professional specialists, and the weapons that managers use to negotiate the late innings and either hold a lead or keep the game close. And even better, we've learned that a disastrous start doesn't have to mean a loss, as a 'long man' like Yusmero Petite or Tim Lincecum can give you six innings and give the team a chance to win that game.

So now we have the very first true post-steroid era World Series. You have the Giants, looking for their third championship in five years. A team built as a reflection of their home field, a place where it's hard to hit home runs. A team built on pitching, defense and a "keep-the-line-moving" offense that feeds off of putting the ball in play and running the bases with intelligence and bravado. And you have the Royals, a team that built a decent starting rotation, a lights-out bullpen and a huge surfeit of team speed. Offenses will be fun to watch, with the Giant's 'ground attack' against the Royals speed on the bases. The Giants probably have the advantage in starting pitching, but the Royals bullpen might offset that. The Royals suffer when they come west, as they'll lose a hitter and have to bat their pitcher. The Giants in KC will have a natural DH for the first time in the last couple of post-seasons, with Michael Morse a natural power hitter off the bench.

The formula for both teams will be to score early and hold that lead. The nightmare scenario is a tie late and long, long extra-inning game like the crazy 18 inning game the Giants played in DC. But just as the real strength of both teams is their bullpen, it will only take one bullpen meltdown to tip the series irrevocably to one side or the other. Live by the sword, die by the sword. This has the potential to be the most intense, exciting world series in recent years. The 2010 series against the Rangers had some hope, but the 2012 sweep of the Tigers was fun, but it wasn't particularly fun to watch. This might very well be something altogether different.
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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Centrifugal Force

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Well I certainly feel better
The nuclear negotiations with Iran went quite well for a long time. Then, like negotiations tend to do, they hit an impasse when the few really hard-to-resolve questions became the only questions left unresolved. In this case, those questions revolve around two issues with large ramifications. The first is around Iran's right to the Uranium fuel cycle. That is, how and how much Uranium Iran is allowed to process and enrich, to what level, and how large that stockpile should be. Much of the negotiation is around a limit to Iran's enrichment capacity, intended to slow down the time required to produce weapons grade fissile material. The problem is the guiding foundational document, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) doesn't include any legal limitations on the fuel cycle. It is assumed that all nations have the right to process and enrich uranium. The NPT deals in detail with the product of that process, fissile material. How it's handled, stored, managed and accounted for is the whole point of the document. So any agreement around Iran's right to the uranium fuel cycle would be outside the purview of the NPT, and should therefore be part of a separate multilateral treaty. But Iran doesn't have any obligation to agree to those provisions, and indeed would be setting a dangerous precedent if she were pressured economically to accept them.

The second unresolved set of issues are around missile research and development. Again, this is not an issue that is addressed by the NPT, although there is precedent for nations agreeing to limit missile capabilities, range and deployment. It is, however, a bit of goalpost-moving by the P5+1 in what was originally intended to be a treaty limiting Iran's nuclear program. There are a lot of different kinds of missiles, and a lot of reasons for countries to build them. At one end of the spectrum they are artillery, while at the other end they are space vehicles. In between are tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and strategic ballistic missiles. In the case of Iran, the concern, to whatever extent it's real, is nuclear capable missiles, and that's problematic on a number of levels. First, the problem of building a nuclear weapon small enough to be mounted on a missile is one of the most difficult engineering challenges in history. In theory, building a 1st generation nuclear weapon isn't particularly difficult, but those early generation weapons tend to be very large, very complex 'devices' that can barely be carried by the largest bombers. The first American atomic bombs weighed ten thousand pounds and were ten feet long. A nation has to have been building nuclear weapons for a number of years before they can achieve that level of miniaturization. And more importantly, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to separate the research on launching an orbital spacecraft from the research necessary to build an ICBM. It just isn't ok to tell a modern nation that you will strangle them economically over their space program.

So - two questions, two answers. First, take the missiles out of this treaty - if you want to do a missile treaty, especially around missile technology proliferation, do that under a separate agreement. Then you can talk about whatever limitations on enrichment and the fuel cycle you want, but you're not going to get to zero, and you shouldn't. Just make sure you are monitoring the fissile material and forget about the centrifuges - they don't matter.

The key point, which the P5+1 pretends not to understand, is that the current monitoring regime is wholly sufficient to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapons - something all evidence indicates they don't want to do anyway. From the Supreme Leader on down, they have stated repeatedly and unequivocally that they don't want nuclear weapons and aren't going to build them. Now clearly, even so, they would very much like to have the strategic deterrent that those weapons would provide them, but without the the difficulties and complexities that actually trying to build and test nuclear weapons would create for them. The goal is what's called 'breakout' capability - having the fuel cycle, the R&D and the applied engineering in place so that if a nuclear deterrent becomes necessary, it is a short sprint to build one. But here's the thing - in order to start that sprint, they'd have to kick out the IAEA inspectors and abrogate the NPT, just like North Korea did. So the whole world would know if they decided to build a weapon, and there would be plenty of time to decide what, if anything, to do about it.

Now, much of the negotiation has been around preventing this 'breakout' capability. I think that's clearly counterproductive and shortsighted. As long as Iran is comfortable with her capabilities under the inspection regimen, the status quo is a win. No new nuclear powers, very limited proliferation risk. And if that breakout capacity prevents Israel from unilaterally starting another war, then it has actually served US interests in addition to Iranian interests.  The US should accept the centrifuges, sign the deal, and end the sanctions. The additional crude on the market would further depress oil prices, improving the US economy while further punishing Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and, ironically, Iran. You end up with a diplomatic win, reduced regional tensions and an improved economy.

This just doesn't seem so hard to me.
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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Calling the Balls and Strikes - Literally

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Honestly. He has NO idea what he's doing
It's playoffs season again in MLB, the best part of the most entertaining sport available. The regular season is its own special challenge, 162 games in 183 days throughout the spring and summer months. Then comes the playoffs - 1 elimination game, 1 best-of-five series and 2 best-of-seven series. The first team to win 11 games (12 for the wild card teams) is the champion. It becomes all about pitching and defense, every run is precious and as the fall weather descends home runs become ever more scarce. And more than any other time, the pressure is on the umpires to get the calls right, because one bad call can change the whole outcome. Which brings us to instant replay.

Replay in baseball has been a mixed bag. The whole challenge system is deeply flawed, and will ultimately have to be replaced.  But it has worked out well on the bases, where it's hard for an umpire to detect the very short time intervals between the arrival of the ball and the foot on the bag, and even harder to see precisely where and when a player is tagged. These things are good, because they make certain that the calls are correct, and they force the game itself to abandon lazy assumptions like the area play, where the second baseman need only be 'in the area' of second base, and the assumption that if the throw clearly beat the runner, the runner is out, even if the tag play was ambiguous. But there is one key area that is the greatest source of frustration, of consternation, and even ejections, and that area is absolutely, fundamentally off limits from replay. I'm speaking, of course, about balls and strikes.

The most egregious part of the game of baseball is balls and strikes. There are two fundamental problems with using humans to call balls and strikes. First is they refuse to enforce a standardized strike zone. That's unbearably ludicrous in and of itself. What if every football referee had a different end zone? And second is the wide difference between umpires. The rulebook defines the strike zone, but absolutely NO umpire calls strikes based on the legal zone - note that if they did every hitter would be ejected from the game by the third inning - and EVERY umpire has a different zone. To the point where part of the scouting process before a series is to study and document the way the various umpires on a given crew call balls and strikes.



What strikes me as most odd about this situation is the near universal insistence that calling balls and strikes remain the exclusive province of the umpire, even as an automated technology is on display every day and night on virtually ever game broadcast. Using nothing more than cameras, they can display the precise location and trajectory of every pitch. And if you wanted even more precision, it would be simple to put an RFID chip in the ball and sensors in the ground between the mound and home plate. In other words, the most perfected technology available is precisely the one that is universally rejected, in favor of a disastrous and chaotic human factor.

The point is simply this. The single best thing you could do to improve the quality and consistency of MLB games is to let modern robotic systems call the balls and strikes. Hitters would be able to learn a single zone, pitchers would always know where the 'black' was on the plate, and there would be no more tedious arguing and tantrum throwing over the strike zone. For me, that would make the games much more interesting.
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