Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Things I've Been Reading

  1. Can we future-proof against another financial crisis?

    (PhysOrg.com) -- On the day that the UK emerges from the recession, an Oxford University study warns that by continuing to test and future-proof individual banks without considering the resilience of the financial system as a whole, we run the risk of making the same mistakes again.

  2. Dartmouth researchers help secure the power grid

    Dartmouth researchers are part of the national Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid team that has been awarded a five-year $18.8 million grant from the US Department of Energy with contributions from the US Department of Homeland Security. This represents continued funding that started in 2005 with support from the National Science Foundation.

  3. Close Encounter with Mars

    It rises in the east at sunset, pumpkin-orange and brighter than a first magnitude star. You stare at it, unblinking. Unblinking, it stares right back. It is Mars.

  4. Engineered metamaterials enable remarkably small antennas

    In an advance that might interest Q-Branch, the gadget makers for James Bond, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and partners from industry and academia have designed and tested experimental antennas that are highly efficient and yet a fraction of the size of standard antenna systems with comparable properties. The novel antennas may be useful in ever-shrinking and proliferating wireless systems such as emergency communications devices, micro-sensors and portable ground-penetrating radars to search for tunnels, caverns and other geophysical features.

  5. In Organic Cover Crops, More Seeds Means Fewer Weeds

    (PhysOrg.com) -- Farmers cultivating organic produce often use winter cover crops to add soil organic matter, improve nutrient cycling and suppress weeds. Now these producers can optimize cover crop use by refining seeding strategies, thanks to work by an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientist.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Food Fight with Hugo Chavez

Looks like we are in for a food fight....

Soldiers told to stop handing out food - USATODAY.com

Hugo Chavez has accused the USA of creating the earthquake in Haiti....

Apparently in reaction to his criticism the US military has stopped handing out food to Haitian refugees. The military is allowed to dispense water but that makes one think this is a change without a difference. If one wants to hide the military presence, handing out water on a daily basis does not accomplish this goal. Why not hand out food as well?

Chinook Diplomacy

I was reading a report on Pakistan ("Chinook Diplomacy") and they love the sound of that "thump thump" of the Chinook helicopter. (Listen to audio of Chinook.) During that terrible earthquake in Northern Pakistan (October 8, 2005) the only way aid could reach them through the snow-bound passes was via US military helicopter. That sound meant help was coming and that help was coming from the US Military. Now in almost any context that "thump-thump" sound brings a smile.

Context is everything. Military helping out in a disaster is welcome by all. Why are we acting as if we are ashamed of something?

(A hat tip to Robert for pointing out the USA Today article to me.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Starfish and the Spider

I just finished a book worth reading, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. From the dust jacket (in part)...

If you cut off a spider's head, it dies; if you cut off a starfish's leg it grows a new one, and that leg can grow into an entirely new starfish. Traditional top-down organizations are like spiders, but now starfish organizations are changing the face of business and the world. [...] The Starfish and the Spider explores what happens when starfish take on spiders (such as the music industry vs. Napster, Kazaa, and the P2P services that followed). It reveals how established companies and institutions, from IBM to Intuit to the US government, are also learning how to incorporate starfish principles to achieve success.

I was inspired to read this book when I saw worries pop up in the press about the Tea Party movement lacking a leader (“Rifts Threaten Tea Party Movement”). Having no leader seemed OK to me. Glenn Beck (radio talk show host and Fox News host) has inspired many Tea Party members through The 912 Project but every time someone labels him a leader he back away from it. In fact he is not leading it. The movement is a leaderless organization. The Tea Party organization is a “starfish.”

Tea Party Starfish

One Tea Party group had an idea about a April 15th protest followed by a March on Washington. Other groups were inspired to join them. No grand plan. No requirement to go. Even Glenn Beck expressed reservations at first, but since he was not leading the group (rightfully so) the people soon were loading up the buses and heading for Washington!

This is an advantage of autonomy. No permission needed to act. No need to coordinate unless another group wishes to join in. Like the arm of a starfish, a local Tea Party drags the rest of the organization with it. There is no overall leader to make a decision or to guide it. There are coordinators but no commanders. This is somewhat inefficient, but what a starfish loses in efficiency it gains in long-term durability. You can lop off an arm but another will grow to take its place. Attacking a starfish this way makes it even harder to attack the next time.

Political Starfish and Spiders

Most organizations are spiders. They have a CEO, a president, a boss who makes the decisions and calls the shots. It is a hierarchy with one person at the top, a few people below him, many more below them and so forth. Information travels upward and commands travel downward.

Remember that comedy movie “Dave”? When Dave is impersonating the President of the United States he is taught “how the federal government works”. An organizational chart shows him at the top, above the Congress and Judiciary, but the Constitution requires power to be shared equally by Congress, the Judiciary and the President. They are co-equal branches of the federal government. (The States are a different entity and they are handled differently.)

The Founders designed the federal government to be a starfish organization but many people are uncomfortable with that model so the federal government has been morphing into a spider organization over the years. In essence the people have opted for a king/subjects model. This is common but a disappointment. As the Prophet Samuel pointed out: the people want a king and G-d is disappointed. See a discussion of why this disappoints G-d at “A Crash Course in Jewish History, Part 16 King Saul”. Note that G-d is not objecting to a king per se but rather He was disappointed in the reason why the people wanted a king: “[to] go out before us, and fight our battles.” I Samuel 8:20. The request betrayed a defect in the character of the people.

Why should anyone care?

If you are a Tea Party member, you have a target painted on your back. The establishment is looking to knock you off so anything that you can do (or not do) to defend yourself and even to better your offense should be considered. I'm a big proponent of “Don't fix something that is working.” The Tea party seems to be working well as a starfish.

Centrally-controlled organizations are vulnerable to certain kinds of attacks. "Spider" organizations can be destroyed or weakened considerably when the head is lopped off so when some Tea Party members clamor for a leader, they are wondering why our “spider” has no head. It doesn't need a head. While such an organization is difficult to move to action, one can be sure that when it does move it has the support of the membership.

Summing Up

The book is easy reading but not as clever nor as strong as Super Freakonomics and books of that ilk. It is a meta-treatment of the strengths of diffuse networks as compared to top-down organizations with their command-and-control structure. It is inspirational to think of where starfish organizations could go and it makes me wonder whether it isn't time to return the federal government to its original starfish formation. When decisions are spread amongst many equals, it becomes very difficult to push them all into a single direction unless it is a very good idea. Those few things that require a quick and decisive action are already vested in the Executive Branch. During a terror attack you don't want to turn over the decisions to committee. You need a President to make decisions and make them right now. But over the long run if an extended conflict seems inevitable, input from the grand committee should be required. That is what is called for in the Constitution... the quintessential starfish document.

Strong central government makes the argument that the old system is inefficient and that a “czar” can reduce these inefficiencies bringing the world into fair compliance. But it never works out that way. No one person nor central committee, no matter how intelligent, well-meaning and benevolent, can track all the elements of a situation to bring about fairness across millions of people. It is logistically impossible to do in any timely manner. That applies to the the politics of a government-guaranteed healthcare at the scale of the federal government these days, the politics of government-guaranteed fairness applied across society and even fairness guaranteed by government in capitalism. Government can't make good on such guarantees not because they don't want to but because they can't do it. When they make such guarantees, it lulls the citizenship into a sense of false security and this leaves us all vulnerable when the central government has its feet knocked out from under it and the individual is left to fend for himself, often utterly unprepared.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP)

The Discovery Channel produces a show called "Future Weapons". This re-run "Future Shock" included a description of EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse). They reproduce an EMP with a special device hung from a tower but I've seen devices on the Internet that can produce the same effect. Essentially, a large pulse of energy creates a sympathetic wave in one's electronic equipment and destroys it. For equipment designed to handle large current it is usually not a problem, but semiconductor electronics such as your electronic ignition won't work. Your on-board computer will be dead. It will need to be replaced. If a pulse occurs over the USA most modern cars will roll to a stop and remain dead until you replace the parts if any parts are available. Not likely. If you are driving your grandfather's F-150 pickup truck or a pre-1968 Volkswagen you will probably be OK.... for awhile.

What is EMP?

EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse) is an energy wave that includes visible light, radio waves microwaves and can induce magnetism. This is how electric magnets work, antennas work and why a electricity is generate by passing a wire through a magnetic field (otherwise known as a electric generator). EMP is a pulse of this energy that overwhelms the designed limits of certain types of equipment (most often semiconductor electronics) and destroys them.

How does EMP Fry Electronics?

Semiconductor electronics (transistors, computer chips) in such appliances as televisions, cell phones, iPods and even electronic ignition and speedometers in cars are designed to take only a take very, very small flows of electricity to run. If a sudden spike of electricity if forced through them, they will react badly either producing unexpected signals (corrupting data) or burning out the path the electricity takes rendering the device useless and must be replaced.

If you watch the video at Future Weapons on EMP you will see Mack driving a car while an EMP device goes off. Suddenly the car engine dies and he rolls to a stop. He feels nothing. The car seems fine other than the engine no longer runs. But what is not obvious is that the car is totally dead. It doesn't work and it will never work again until the electronics are replaced... a very expensive proposition and time consuming in any case.

What Happens Next?

If you are caught by an EMP while driving between towns, you are looking at a very long walk. No one will be coming to get you. You can't call. Your cell phone is dead. They can't get to you in any case. The tow truck is probably dead too.  The only cars running will be those that have only a mechanical distributor, usually car made prior to 1968. In 1968 the pollution standards changed in the USA causing manufacturers to use electronic ignition and other electronic sensors to monitor and adjust engine timing and fuel via computer.

As you walk home you'll notice all the lights in the city are out. Most power stations are not properly shielded to survive even a solar flare event so they are less prepared for a deliberate EMP attack. In the 1960's, when folks were really worried about such issues, less than 10% of power stations were shielded (according to a fallout shelter preparedness pamphlet I read). The electric lines above ground act as an antenna sending a pulse not only to the power station but to every home it services (depending on how much power is in the pulse).

Once you reach home, your phone lines will run for a few days until the batteries at the phone company run down. They are not prepared for an extended power outage. Civil preparedness plans seems to work under the assumption of a short-term event, localized damage, followed by restoration of power using resources from surrounding areas. If damage is widespread (and dead cars are blocking every road) trucking in resources will become problematic to say the least.

Gravity-fed waterlines will lose pressure but should work for awhile. Once the water towers have drained no more water will be available because the water towers can't fill unless the pumps are running. If your family is prepared, they can fill the bathtub with water. You can also get water by draining the hot water heater. (There is a drain value on the side of every tank.)

How can you know what the consequences of an extended loss of electricity at home will be? Walk over to your power panel and flip off the big switch.

[One Second After]
A good "what would happen if" book on EMP is the novel "One Second After" by William R. Forstchen. He goes step-by-step how a man who has retired to his country home with his family finds that the power has suddenly gone out. It is eerily quiet because the traffic noises have stopped. The phones are out, the water has stopped and the only thing that seems to work is an old radio he had stuffed in an ammo box in the closet. Yet as he tries to tune in a station he hears only static. All the radio stations are gone and he wonders when the power will come back. It is a few days before he realizes that it's not coming back and he has a number of problems to solve before it is too late.

How Likely is an EMP?

The mostly likely event is a lightening strike bringing down power stations (the Power Grid). This happened in 1977 when a few lightening strikes knocked out key power stations causing the New York City Blackout. The blackout was followed by "city-wide looting and arson". It lasted for less than two days but after supposedly "fixing" this problem, it happened again in 2003 when trees fell against some power lines suddenly taking a power station off the Grid. The resulting cascade brought about The Northeast Blackout.

The next mostly likely event would be a large solar flare that would knock out power stations, disrupt radio transmissions and endanger air flight. The Sun has been unusually calm in the last few years but in 1989 the largest solar flare in history hit the Earth causing 6 billion dollars in damage and brought about the Quebec Blackout.

Other possibilities are a HERF gun used against your car or computer by a prankster. I also remember worrying when North Korea launched a test rocket toward Hawaii that it was possible he could have set off an EMP device in the upper atmosphere. Evacuating Hawaii or even supporting it with basic food and water would be overwhelming had there been such a device on board.

How Do I Prepare for EMP?

You can set aside some electronic equipment in special storage boxes you can make or you can buy and adapt. See video below.

Having one of your cars being a pre-1968 car would help but might not be practical. Alternatively you might have special replacement parts for your auto stored as the video above suggests and then do your own mechanical work to get your car going again. Either way seems expensive and might not be the best use of your efforts if you are already situated at home. If you are already prepared for an extended grid-down situation then you aren't going anywhere soon. You might prepare for staying in place first before spending money on expensive replacement parts for a vehicle. In that case, having a pre-1968 car available makes more sense because it is useful even if no EMP emergency occurs whereas storing expensive replacement parts for my car that I hopefully will not use seems less efficient use of my preparation dollars. Alex Shrugged
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Friday, January 8, 2010

Refusing Orders

"Senior ranking retired military rabbis have called on Israel Defense Forces soldiers to refuse orders that go against Halacha. In an unprecedented statement released Wednesday,"  See the story at Ynet News...Military rabbis: Refuse orders that go against Halacha - Israel Jewish Scene, Ynetnews

Such articles always go for a misleading headline, but essentially most Americans and many Liberal Jews do not understand Jewish Legal principles Jewish Law is Halakhah [hah-lah-CHAH (with ch as in loch or Bach)]. Halakhah restricts what a Jew can do in certain circumstances just as the speed limit on the road restricts how fast a driver can run his car. If you exceed the speed limit, you are breaking the law. However, people in an emergency situation or civic service personal in the course of their duties can violate the speed limit. Thus if my mother becomes sick, I can load her in the car and speed to the hospital, breaking the speed limit and within reason running stop signs. Will the police object? Yes, but once I present my case to the judge I will be absolved. I did right by violating the speed limit because in an emergency (within reason) there is no speed limit.

The same goes for civil and military people. In the course of their duties, they can also violate the speed limit or stop signs, but if all a policeman is doing is making a donut run, running stop signs and violating the speed limit is against the law even if he is on duty... even if his captain ordered him to do it. So if his captain tells him to make a donut run and violate the speed limit, it is the duty of any police officer to question his orders. Once it is explained to him that the captain is a diabetic and needs quick sugar or he will pass out, then yes. He ought to rush. Otherwise.... no.

Now we come to the statements of the rabbi who suggested that observant military should question the orders if they violate Halakhah (Jewish Law). If there is a good reason, such as an emergency or security issues within the scope of duties then they can violate Halakhah, but if the captain orders a private to pick up the trash in the yard on Shabbat (Sabbath) then it seems reasonable for the private to ask the captain why he is being ordered to violate Halakhah. (The violation is the prohibition on doing certain types of work on the Sabbath.)

From the prepper perspective in an emergency one is allowed to violate normative Halakhah within reason, but an emergency does not become blanket permission. Once the immediate danger has passed, one is then bound by the Law again. Like the man who speeds to the hospital to save a life, he is forgiven for breaking the law while performing a live-saving task, but once he reaches the hospital, he is not allowed to break the traffic laws while heading home. Once the immediate danger is over, the law kicks back in. I am willing to listen to an argument where one would suggest that a few laws could be violated after the immediate emergency was over so as to not discourage taking care of the basic emergency itself. Too much thinking may cause hesitation and thus a life might be lost. I'm not sure, but clearly during an emergency, in order to save a life, one is allowed to violate Halakhah.

The principle for this is "pekuach nefesh" [peh-KOO-ach NEH-fehsh (with ch as in loch or Bach)] (פיקוח נפש, "saving of human life"). This applies in all sorts of situations such as when flying in an airplane. If ten or more Jewish males are in the airplane we are obligated to gather for prayer at the proper times, but obviously in such a confined area, it becomes a serious safety issue. Many a stewardess at El Al will whisper "pekuach nefesh" into the ear of a man who attempts to organize such a prayer group while the plane is preparing to land. Once she says that (as a designated flight official) the man is thereafter obligated to sit down and pray at his seat. Saving a life (including his own whether he likes it or not) supercedes the religious obligation.

There are exceptions to the rule where one must be willing to die rather than violate the law, but frankly it is rare and obvious. For example... if someone forces you to murder someone else, you are obligated to die rather than violate the prohibition against murder. Why? It is the principle of no man's blood is redder than another's. You cannot take someone else's life in order to save you own.

As always... seek a competent Halakhic authority for a proper opinion. I'm just a guy on the Internet shooting his mouth off. I'm bringing up ideas to think about and prepare for.

Alex Shrugged.

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Unlimited Fuel Cars

GM’s Concept Car: The 2010‘Obama-wagen’

The "Green Hell" Blog pokes some fun at government running the car industry on "hot air" and I found it hilarious. Whether you agree with what the government is doing with mandates or not (I do not) it is clear we are moving to smaller and and thus more dangerous cars. Smaller cars means less metal. Less metal means less protection and thus more preventable deaths.

Speaking of running on "hot air"... I was watching the "Planet Green" channel (http://planetgreen.discovery.com/) and they have a show called "The Planet Mechanics". It is like "Ask This Old House" where two guys in a van roam the roads offering to solve problems with "Green" solutions. They visit "true believers" who would pay any price to "Go Green". It is actually entertaining even to me and reasonable to watch for a prepper.

One time they visited a sandwich shop and built a delivery bike that ran on compressed air. Click the link and for a trailer of the episode.

(Air-Propelled Sandwich)

The air-powered bike was a clunky but it worked well enough. However, given the infrastructure required to support it (a large air compressor at the sandwich shop) it was wildly inefficient and expensive. That doesn't make the idea wrong. It simply makes it appealing to a highly specialized market. A more likely market to solve the same problem (air pollution) is electric cars but causing a secondary problem with lead battery disposal. Alternately they could have tried hydrogen-fuel cars but those are a bit futeristic for the Planet Mechanics. They are more concerned with building green with whatever they can lay their hands on right now... including old junk.

From a "prepper" standpoint, an air-car might make some sense because of ease of availability of "fuel" but the effort required to build up enough pressure in the tanks makes this solution impractical in a "grid down" situation. You would need pressures equivalent to "scuba tank" pressures which is fairly high. 

Alex Shrugged


Prepper - Someone concerned with preparation for likely disasters lasting days/weeks/months. This is different from a "survivalist" who is preparing for an extended disaster of a year or more which suggests a fundamental breakdown of society.

True Believer: A book I read a number of years ago that still rings true to me today. Written by a longshoreman, Eric Hoffer goes through the mindset of those people who follow mass movements.

Air-powered car: It actually exists. (See Popular Mechanic review) It runs about as long as an electric car and looks rather flimsy since they are trying to reduce the weight of the car.
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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Jewish Prepper Quote

In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.
-- Pirke Avot 2:6 (Ethics of the Fathers)

Friday, January 1, 2010

Ethics of Saving Prescription Drugs

Regarding prescription drugs I've been slowly banking my medications. I can live without them but my performance (alertness and balance) deteriorate considerably without them. In the initial SHTF ("Stuff" Hits The Fan) situation I'll need all my faculties so I'm setting aside a little at a time.

This seems prudent. I wonder if it is ethical.

Of course, the main ethical issue with prescription drugs is in the word "prescription". One must have a good reason for taking a drug and a certified doctor must agree and write out an authorization (called a prescription) for you to take to the pharmacist.

Who pays?

I have insurance so my insurance company pays. I hand over some money to the pharmacist but I know that in many instances the money I hand over does not cover the cost of the medicine. My money is actually paying the pharmacist for service (like paying an auto mechanic for labor and having the insurance company pay for the parts). So if I am setting aside prudent reserve of medicine, am stealing from the insurance company?

I assume that setting aside a week's worth of medication is not a problem. There is always some overlap between refills. Insurance companies work this into their figures. It is probably stretching things to say that a month is OK, but if one uses care (as I am doing) over a few months of overlap, one could collect a month's worth of medication. I'm calling this a maximum without getting permission from your insurance company.

Why limit it at a month?

I'm not limiting the amount set aside. I am limiting the amount I can ethically expect my insurance company to pay for. Beyond that, I should pay for the additional backup at whatever price I can work out with my pharmacist (keeping in mind that I need to let my doctor know too). Keeping a month's worth of medications will help in a temporary disaster situation such as a tornado hitting our area. (That happened within a few miles of us a few years ago.) Or in case the pharmacy runs out of my medications temporarily which could happen if another hurricane hits our state. We are a main evacuation point so a sudden increase in population will draw down the local supplies of everything including medications.

Some preppers are preparing for a total, long term disaster. Such a disaster has not been my experience but if one is really worried, one will need at least a year's worth of medications and a way of storing those medications over the long term. You will also have to work out something with your doctor so that you can hand the pharmacist something reasonable and pay for it out of your own pocket. You can't expect an insurance company to pay for that without their express permission. That would be unethical.

I'll talk a little about storage of medication in a later posting.

Be well.

Alex Shrugged