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Sunday 22 June 2014

Plotting Real Fukushima Data Because I Can

Gunning Fog Index = 12.49

More nerdly fun with data from the EPA radiation monitoring database. It took me a while to make this plot but I find it fascinating.


Not only can you see a Be-7 spike in the month after the Fukushima disaster, you can also see the effect of EPA budget cuts starting in federal fiscal year 2010. We lack what would have been truly significant data because of the budget wars - data that has implications for the health and safety of all citizens. It's not that I'm saying all budget cuts are bad but I do opine that indiscriminate budget cuts or cuts aimed at an agency disliked by powerful special interests can hurt us. Not all regulation is bad and not all businesses act in the public interest, as that great Republican Teddy Roosevelt would have said if he were still alive today. Well, that's my opinion, for what it's worth.

Why am I playing with Fukushima data? Partly because I'm sick and tired of looking at faked Fukushima data on the internet that's designed to scare and panic people. I know where to find real data and I'm not afraid to use it.

As a scientist, what I find really sad about this data is that clump of intense sampling for the month and a half just after Fukushima with no monthly sampling before or after. For a radioisotope like Be-7 which has well-known seasonal and solar-cycle variation cycles, the lack of before and after data makes that clump of post-Fukushima data almost useless because the signal of the Be-7 variation cycles now can not be accurately removed to show the magnitude of the Fukushima pulse.

Plotting Chernobyl Fallout

Gunning Fog Index = 11.17

Today we explore the EPA's radiation monitoring database, not because I caught someone wrong on the internet but because I had insomnia last night and occupied myself by playing with data until I could sleep. So here's a plot of beta decays vs. time before, during and after the Chernobyl disaster. Beta decays are a decent proxy for the non-actinide fission products created in a Uranium-fueled reactor. I only plotted two detector locations because they both had fairly robust and continuous datasets for both before and after the reactor failure and they show what I wanted to see, i.e. the evidence of trans-Atlantic fallout in the eastern half of the US.


How bad is the contamination on this plot? Actually it's way less than it looks. The EPA considers less than 4 pCi/liter very low risk which requires no intervention or action (based on radon; ref: The highest value in the data I used was 1.06 pCi/m^3. To convert to pCi/liters, divide by 1000 to get 0.000106 pCi/liter. Ignoring the fact that radioactivity and dose are apples and watermelons, a quick back-of-the-envelope calc reveals that we're talking micro rems here in terms of equivalent dose. You get exposed to around a thousand times more than that from just watching TV. (Yes, yes, yes, this is really pushing it in terms of evaluating dose but rigorous dose calcs are such a pain in the butt when all I wanted was a good qualitative arm wave. I won't stop anyone who wants to bust my chops over this from doing their own calcs and posting those as a comment...)

The beta decay measurements in this plot are for particulate matter trapped in air samplers. It would not be unsound to postulate that some of that particulate matter was true honest-to-pete fallout because the Soviets did not built a robust reactor containment around the reactor vessel - so when the reactor went critical during the accident, the explosion vented to the atmosphere. FYI - most of the rest of world builds robust reactor containments, which is why Fukushima isn't anywhere near as bad in terms of airborne contamination despite its more complex nature and the presence of multiple meltdown bodies.

I'd love to get some real beta decay data like this for Fukushima but due to Tea Party/Republican attacks on EPA funding, the radiation monitoring program was gutted starting in federal fiscal year 2010 through to mid-fiscal year 2012 (the federal fiscal year starts in October) and then again during the Sequester. We lack a lot of meaningful data for the crucial before-and-after periods of the Fukushima disaster. Mind you, that's just a personal opinion so YMMV!

Saturday 14 June 2014

They Paid Me To Write This - Part 2

They Paid Me To Write This - Part 2

Gunning Fog Index = 11.44

Did I really say in early May that I'd have part 2 on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station done in a few days? Well, once again I was wrong on the internet! Now that a month has gone by and I'm busier than ever, it's time to finish up this topic. I already have two new topics on the waiting list which I haven't tackled yet because I promised myself to finish this topic first.

In part 2, we are going to look at the last three out of seven assumptions which were detailed in part 1. Please go read part 1 now if you haven't already done so. You can find it at: .

The remaining assumptions are:

5. The 11 March 2011 Tohoku earthquake event was not really an earthquake but was actually a nuclear bomb explosion based on seismic signature evidence.

6. The nuclear bomb detonation was a covert act by the United States which took place in the deep sea fault where the Tohoku earthquake was alleged to have originated.

7. The secret nuclear bomb detonation by the USA is part of a plan by the Illuminati to destroy humanity and all other life.

California Slipping Into The Sea

So let's discuss earthquakes. Imagine you're in coastal California where the San Andreas is part of your life. The San Andreas Fault System includes the San Andreas itself and many parallel faults, all of which accommodate the northward motion of the Pacific Plate as it slides past the south-bound North American Plate. Here's a USGS figure that shows the tectonic plate motions around California:


Just give up any notions you have of California slipping into the sea – it's not going to happen, folks. What's really going on here is Los Angeles trying to move to San Francisco. It's not as crazy as it sounds. For example, there are rocks that were originally in the neighborhood of the Grapevine on I-5 that have been moved by the San Andreas Fault just north of Santa Cruz (1, 2). If you take out a ruler and measure that, you'll find a displacement of 350 km, which is around 220 miles for those of you who aren't in the habit of thinking in SI units. Mind you, at the rate that tectonic plates move, it took a while for those Grapevine-neighborhood rocks to make that commute to Sant Cruz – almost 30 million years (3).

Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Pismo Beach, Big Sur, Monterey, Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay are all sitting on the northward-moving Pacific Plate. Most (but not all) of San Francisco is on the North American Plate so all those Pacific Plate cities and their suburbs are making one really slow commute towards San Francisco and points north. Other than mudslides on California's infamous steep unstable slopes, the state is in no danger of slipping into the sea.

I believe the whole “California slipping into the sea” gig comes from a book that was quite popular in its day and is still worth a read now. The book is The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California by Curt Gentry, originally published in 1967. If you've never read it, find a copy and read it – especially if you've been brought up and lived east of the Rockies all your life. It's about three quarters California history and current events from when Reagan was Governor of California mixed in with about one quarter fictional narrative of the state slipping into the Pacific Ocean. I got handed a copy the day after when I moved to Northern California from Connecticut – and for this born-and-bred blue-blooded New Englander (complete with the requisite Colonial Puritan ancestors), it really enlightened me to all things Californian – and yes, enlightened is the word I want here. It was a well-known book in its day and it's fascinating reading.

Unlike a lot of my family, I really love California. Most of my family have fixated on things that are utter weirdnesses to a New Englander: buying bottled water, concrete-lined river beds in the Los Angeles Basin, the brown-dominated landscape of Southern California and the Californian deserts, the necessity of irrigation, western-style sprawl, Botts dots. To someone accustomed to the intense green of the northeast, with its decidious forests that grow like weeds, its copious rain, its narrow winding roads and its big wide rivers, most of California is a shock. But you can't grasp California if you don't look beyond the dry landscape and the urban sprawl. That's why I recommend Gentry's book. Though I did a master's degree at Caltech in Pasadena, I didn't really begin to grok the reality of California until I read The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California. It's an entertaining read and you'll even learn something!

Well, now that we have gotten the obligatory tangential subject out of the way, you should all know by now that California is not going to sink into the ocean.

Now in order to address assumption #5, we need to inquire whether nuclear explosions and earthquakes behave the same way. If earthquakes and nuclear explosions can be distinguished, then we can test assumption 5 quickly and easily; in order to do that, however, we need to do a little seismology lesson and that's going to take up a lot of column inches – but the result will be worth the while. So please stick with me while I cram a couple weeks of intro seismology into your brains. I won't invoke any nasty math so you should be able to follow the science even if you did bomb multi-variable calculus.

Strike and Dip

The plate tectonic motion between the Pacific and North American Plates is that of two plates sliding past each other. Geologists call this sort of motion “strike-slip.” That's a funny term, isn't it? It makes more sense if you know what strike is to a geologist. In geology, strike is the direction of the line formed by the intersection of a fault, bed, or other planar feature and a horizontal plane. Now I don't usually try to push the readership into picking up concepts that are specialist knowledge in one narrow subject, but I'm going to make an exception for strike. If you really want to understand the difference between an earthquakle and a nuclear bomb explosion, you need to wrap your brain cells around the concept of strike.

Strike is really easy if you're into alpine skiiing. A horizontal traverse on skis travels along the strike of the ski slope.


If you don't ski, then just think of strike as a direction. Any planar feature in three dimensions can be uniquely described using strike and dip – which is why strike is so popular with geology types. If you've ever noticed inclined rock beds in a road cut, then be assured those rock beds have been mapped by a geologist and strike was used in their description. Look at the following diagram:


Here are some inclined rock beds. The horizontal line is strike and the angle that the beds make with the horizontal is the dip. This system of describing planar features in space works at all scales and for all kinds of rocks and landforms. It works for the rock beds in the above diagram and for slopes like the diagram below. If you put a skier traveling along the strike line on that slope, it should be easy to see that strike here is once again the skier's horizontal traverse.


Strike-slip and Dip-slip Faults.

Please look at the diagram below:


In this figure, the earth moves in a way that pulls geological strata apart. This is extension. At some point, the stresses pulling on the rocks will exceed the rocks' ability to stretch and they will break apart. The down-dropped block is called a graben, which is a vocabulary word you will seldom find outside of geology. The only other use for the word graben that I know of is that it's the name of one of the two main drags through the center of Vienna's first district, where all the fancy stores are congregated next to Vienna's cathedral, the Stephansdom. It's not important to know what a graben is though you may get some mileage out of it if you remember it and use it at the next cocktail party you go to.

A graben is not the only form you can get from extension. Half-grabens are also common:


One can find half-grabens throughout the Rockies and the tectonically-active Basin and Range, which is the region of extension between the Wasatch Mountains in Utah and the Sierra Nevada in California. Salt Lake City is built on a half-graben formed by motions on the active Wasatch Fault.


On the above diagram of Salt Lake City, the fault plane dips to the west though the strike of the fault is a horizintal line oriented approximately north-south. Motions on the Wasatch Fault are up and down on the inclined fault plane. Since these motions occur parallel to the direction of the dip, this kind of fault is categorized as a dip-slip fault. Dip-slip faults can also form from compression, where one side of the fault overrides the other. The three types of dip-slip faults are shown below:


Not all fault motions are dip-slip. The direction of fault displacement can also be parallel to strike as seen in the following figure. It's a no-brainer that these sort of faults are categorized as strike-slip faults. The most famous of all strike-slip faults is the San Andreas.


Most fault motions are not perfectly up-and-down or horizontal; most dip-slip motions include a bit of strike-slip and most strike-slip motions include a bit of dip-slip. Faults where both dip-slip and strike-slip occur in near equal amounts are called oblique-slip faults.

Let's review what we know so far: faults are planar features where rocks on one side have moved with respect to the rocks on the other side. The motion along a fault is along strike (strike-slip) or along dip (dip-slip) or both (oblique-slip). What I've laid out here is only the bare minimum needed for this blog. The USGS has a nice s review webpage on this stuff at (accessed 12 June 2014) and American River College has good detailed webpage you can refer to at (accessed 10 June 2014).

Earthquake Ground Motions

Before we get too deep into earthquakes and their ground motion, we need to discuss P waves. Every earthquake event creates several different kinds of ground motions. For our purposes here we are going to ignore everything but the first motion recorded on seismometers. The first motion of an earthquake wave train is a longitudinal wave which is either a compression or a dilation. It's called a P wave because it's the first or primary motion you felt or recorded during a seismic event. Though it's not the most energetic part of an earthquake wavetrain, the information we get from the P wave will tell us what kind of earthquake we're dealing with as well as the orientation and location of the fault involved.

Earthquakes involve relative motions between two sides of a fault. This two-sided motion on a fault plane means we are dealing with something called a stress couple. It's useful to look at how a stress couple works along a strike-slip fault like the San Andreas.


In the above diagram, which is a map view of a strike-slip fault, the stresses on either side of the fault are equal and opposite. Let's make the top of the map north and the bottom south for the sake of convenience. Since we're looking at the ground from above in our map view, all we can see of the fault is its strike which is a line oriented approximately north-south. If the fault is locked rather than actively creeping – as discussed in part 1 of this blog post - then stress will build up on either side of the fault plane until it breaks, resulting in a sudden displacement. On the left side of the fault, the sudden motion sends a compressional wave (a push) northward and a dilational wave (a pull) southward. The motion is the opposite on the right side of the fault where a compression wave travels southward and a dilation wave travels northward. These seismic waves are technically acoustic waves, i.e. waves which compress or stretch molecules as they travel. A useful analogy is light: if these waves were light waves instead, then an observer to the south would see the left side as red shifted and the right side blue-shifted.

We can make a diagram of these opposing wave pairs by drawing a circle in map view and coloring compressions black and dilations white:


The result is a quatered circle in map view with alternating black and white quarters.

Instead of a strike-slip fault, let's look at the motion of a thrust fault. In the figure below, we're looking at a cross-section of the earth where there's a thrust fault.


The two sides of the fault are being pushed together such that the rocks on the left are being thrust on top of the rocks on the right. When an earthquake occurs, the overthrust rocks on top of the fault are compressed since we're squeezing them after all. Once again, the rocks that see a compressional wave are colored black and the rocks that see a dilation are colored white. If we superimpose a circle around the fault, we see a similar pattern of black and white quarters like the ones we saw for the strike-slip fault. Now the quartered-circle diagram for the strike-slip fault was a map view of the fault but here we see the quartered circle in a cross-sectional view for the thrust fault. What's important is that both these views are perpendicular to the plane of the fault. No matter how the fault plane is oriented in the ground, if you look at a fault perpendicular to the fault plane, you will always see this pattern of a quartered black-and-white circle of compression and dilation from an earthquake.

Here's the sticking point: earthquake motions are recorded at the earth's surface, which may or may not be perpendicular to the fault plane with its nice stress-couple quartered pattern of compressions and dilations. What we actually measure in the real world is the response of seismometers on the ground during an earthquake. So we need to know what the pattern of compression and dilation looks like on the ground in map view for different fault types. That's not hard to do. In the thrust fault figure, I've indicated in the cross-sectional view where compression and dilation occur at the earth's surface. In the bottom half of the figure, I have plotted the areas of compress and dilation using an overhead map-view circular diagram similar to one for strike-slip faults.

This next figure, below, shows the same thing, except this time we're looking at a “normal” fault, not a thrust fault.


A normal fault is the kind of fault you get when you're pulling the ground apart in extension. Why these aren't called extension faults is a mystery. I've been doing geology professionally for most of my life and I have never quite figured out why extensional faults are called normal faults. Go figure.

Regardless, for an earthquake caused by extensional stress, you again get a quartered circle in the cross-sectional view - which is the view perpendicular to the fault plane – except the quarters switch places so dilation is on top. In the beach ball-like overhead-view circle diagram, the colors flip again showing that the ground immediately above the earthquake is in dilation - which is what you'd expect when you pull things apart.

The take-home nugget here is that regardless of the orientation of a fault, the paired compressions and dilations of earthquake motions are the signature of a stress couple. This seismic signature is important for dealing with assumption #5, which will become apparent as soon as we tackle the seismic behavior of explosions.

If you followed all of that, then you now know more than most people on the planet about earthquakes and how scientists plot and display them.

Beach Ball Plots

Here's a nice summary figure from the USGS on beach ball plots and how they relate to earthquakes on the different types of faults we discussed. I should mention that structural geologists do make a distinction between thrust faults which have shallow-dipping fault planes and reverse faults which are thrust faults with steeply-dipping fault planes. But I'm a lazy borehole geophysicist and volcanic stratigrapher and I tend to get a little sloppy about such terminology.


Now that every one reading my blog is an expert on reading seismic beach ball plots, here are some real world examples:


The figure above is a map of the California central coast and the Bay Area to the north. Other than the coastline, the black lines on the map are the San Andreas plus its splays and other major strike-slip faults in the San Andreas Fault System. While the San Andreas if the biggest baddest strike-slip fault in this hemisphere, it doesn't take all of the motion between the North America and Pacific plates. The subsidiary faults in the San Andreas system include the Hayward Fault, the Calaveras Fault, the Elsinore and San Jacinto Faults down by Los Angeles, and the Walker Lane-East California seismic zone just to name the major faults. There are many other smaller parallel faults in the San Andreas Fault System which would take up too much space if I listed them all. The point is that while the San Andreas Fault is the actual plate boundary, the motion between the plates is spread across a region that is actually tens of kilometers wide.

You should notice that most of the beach ball plots of past earthquakes in California show that distinctive quartered-circle pattern associated with strike-slip motion. This is not surprise since the San Andreas and subsidiary faults are strike-slip faults. In addition, I can spot 7 earthquake focal mechanisms which a compressional signature and 2 with extensional signatures. Since there are compressional ridges and mountains plus some pull-apart basins along the San Andreas and related faults, seeing some compressional and extensional events is not at all strange.

Now before we embark on a discussion of the Tohoku-Oki earthquake, I'm going to pause briefly to point out that any earthquake magnitude you read about in the news in NOT measured on the Richter Scale. The Richter Scale is obsolete and hasn't been used for decades. The problem is that journalists and the general public aren't aware of this. I've written a blog post on this very subject since it's a pet peeve of mine, which you can peruse if you want at

Now let's look at the focal mechanism for the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake that was responsible for the tsunami which flooded the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The Japan Meteorological Agency, which publishes all of Japan's official earthquake info, described the earthquake as a “Reverse fault type with WNW-ESE compressional axis,” which was sited at 38° 6.2′ N, 142° 51.6′ E 130 km offshore at a depth of 24 km with a magnitude of 9.0 on the Mw scale (4). The USGS placed the Tohoku-Oki earthquake at 38.308° N, 142.383° E, with a magnitude 9.0 on the Mw scale (5), at a depth of 30 km (6). Here's a look at the USGS focal mechanism solution from (5):

11/03/11 05:46:23.82
Epicenter: 38.308 142.383
MW 9.0

11/03/11 05:47:47.20

Principal axes:
T Val= 4.57 Plg=58 Azm=306
N -0.05 5 208
P -4.52 32 115

Best Double Couple:Mo=4.5*10**22

NP1:Strike= 29 Dip=77 Slip=  95
NP2: 187 14 68


The USGS calculated that:

“the fault moved upwards of 30-40 m, and slipped over an area approximately 300 km long (along-strike) by 150 km wide (in the down-dip direction). The rupture zone is roughly centered on the earthquake epicenter along-strike, while peak slips were up-dip of the hypocenter, towards the Japan Trench axis (7)."

One group of researchers (8) calculated that the timing and propagation of the fault motion took approximately 100 seconds from start to finish, which if you know anything about earthquakes is an amazing number, a lot longer than your usual garden-variety California magnitude 7. The 1989 7.0 Mw Loma Prieta earthquake took 7 seconds as did the 1994 6.7 Mw Northridge earthquake; the 1983 7.0 Mw Borah Peak earthquake lasted 9 second and the 1992 7.3 Mw Landers earthquake took a long 24 seconds (9).

I need to be honest here and admit to a little slight-of-hand since if you look up duration for the handful of other really absurdly huge earthquakes, like the 1960 Chile earthquake, you'll find the magnitude 9 earthquakes can last more than 100 seconds. Regardless, the duration of the rare magnitude 9+ events puts your everyday ho-hum California magnitude 7 quake to shame. One hundred seconds for the Tohoku-Oki event is still a mega-big number for an earthquake. The Japan Meteorological Agency says that it is the largest earthquake recorded in Japan ever (4).

The Energy of the Tohoku-Oki Earthquake

We can calculate the seismic moment Mo, i.e. the work done by an earthquake (in Joules), using the seismic moment equation (10):

Mo = µAD , where µ is the shear modulus in Pascals, A is the area in square meters of the fault plane that slipped, and D is the the slip amount in meters.

How much energy is a Joule? A lit 100 watt light bulb uses 100 joules of energy per second. A 1000 watt microwave uses 1000 joules per second to reheat your leftovers. Picking an orange off the floor and putting it on an adjacent table is approximately 1 joule of work. One joule is not very much. What's a lot of energy in joules? Your average bolt of lightning carries approximately 5 billion joules of electricity - that's a lot energy!

To calculate how much energy was expended by the Tohoku-Oki earthquake, we will use the seismic moment equation. We will use 3 giga-pascals for the shear modulus of rocks in the deep crust, 300 km by 150 km for the area (after converting to square meters) and 30 m for the displacement. After we plug in the numbers and crunch, we get:

Mo = 4.050 E+22 Joules

If you're not familiar or comfortable with scientific notation of large numbers, we can write the quantity out as:

Mo = 40 500 000 000 000 000 000 000 Joules. Now that's a lot of energy! If we expressed this energy in units of lightning bolts, the energy expended by the Tohoku-Oki earthquake is approximately equal to 8 trillion lightning strikes.

Just to double check our numbers, the relationship between seismic moment Mo and the Mw magnitude scale is:

Mw= 2/3 log(Mo) – 10.7

Unfortunately, the above Mw equation is in ergs, not Joules; however, the conversion between Joules and ergs is easy since 1 joule is 1E+07 ergs, so 4.050E+22 Joules is 4.050E+29 ergs. Now we can plug and crunch and the answer is:

Mw = 9.03 - so now we know that the USGS seismologists in ref #7 did their calculations correctly!

The Behavior of Explosions, Nuclear or Otherwise

In terms of stress, explosions are rather simple beasts, much simpler than the double couples of earthquakes with their paired lobes of compression and dilation in three dimensions. The thing that characterizes explosions is the uniform rapid expansion of a material, either through chemical conversion, phase conversion or through combustion or some combination thereof. You don't necessarily have to have heat involved to have an explosion, but thanks to Hollywood, most people have the sight of great burning balls of expanding gases stuck in their heads as the epitome of things that go boom.

Forget all those dramatic fireballs. It's the sudden expansion of material that makes an explosion. Now if you've ever watched aerial fireworks, which are nothing more than cosmetically-pretty explosions at altitude, it should be no surprise to you that exploding materials expand in all directions simultaneously. You've seen this happen every time fireworks go off. If no significant external forces act on the exploding material, then the expansion is a perfect spherical wavefront of compression. Here's a YouTube link to a really wonderful short video where you can see the spherical shock wave of an explosion:

As someone who used to sneak off into the woods after high school let out and blow stuff up, I find videos like this are salve to my nerdly soul! Now the video you just watched only shows the upper half a compression sphere because we can't see the compression wave travel in the ground. To get a feel for an unimpeded spherical wavefront from an explosion, here's a short video clip of several upper atmosphere nuclear explosions at altitudes greater than 80 km:

It doesn't matter if an explosion happens surrounded by water, air, the vacuum of space or deep in the ground: so long as the explosion is surrounded by a uniform material, fluid or solid, the first energy felt and recorded will be a compression that expands in all directions equally as a spherical waveform. Now, if you bury a bomb in the earth and then surround that bomb by seismometers, every seismometer will record a positive P wave as the spherical compression wavefront travels past. There are several different things that distinguish explosions from earthquakes, like the rapid decay of energy and much higher frequency content, but the initial arrival of that positive P wave (i.e., a compression) expanding out in all directions is the biggie. If you used a “beachball” diagram to record compressions and dilations associated with an explosion, the “beach ball” would be completely black. Why? Because every first arrival of the expanding compression wave would be positive. That's the most distinctive seismic signature of any explosion.

During my short time at the Seismology Lab at Caltech many decades ago, there was a set of old fashioned seismograph drums in the hallway outside the instrument rooms where all the telemetered data was recorded for the Southern California Seismic Network. They were a popular spot to linger because one could hang out and watch earthquakes as they happened in real time. Everyone always knew when there was an underground test of a nuclear bomb at the Nevada Test Site because every first arrival P-wave arrival on the seismograph drums was positive no matter where the receiving seismic station was located. The same principal applied for quarry blasts out at a quarry south of Riverside in San Bernadino County, except the explosions were much smaller so the positive P waves only showed up on a handful of seismic stations.

By now, I expect folks have already figured out that assumption #5 is false because the seismic signature recorded for the Tohoku-Oki earthquake has the stress couple signature for a thrusting event on a beach ball plot. If a nuclear bomb blast was being mistaken for as an earthquake, then the beach ball plots would be uniformly black because every first arrival P wave on all the seismometers would be positive due to expanding compressive wavefront in all directions. An experienced interpreter of seismic waveforms would likely recognize some of the other telltale signs of an explosion like the higher frequency content and the rapid decay of seismic energy. Compared to explosions, nuclear or otherwise, earthquakes - especially big ones - have some distinctive and well-known low frequency waves like the 20-second surface waves. Earthquake wavetrains do not quickly decay like explosions do; instead, the waves that follow the first arrival P wave are much larger and much higher in energy compared to the first-arrival P waves.

The Energy Released by Nuclear Bombs

One can make a good case that the Tohoku-Oki earthquake was a true fault displacement event on a deep thrust fault based on the pattern of paired compressions and dilations recorded worldwide; however, there is another line of evidence in support of earthquake activity based on the energy released of this magnitude 9.0 event. We've already dicussed how much energy was involved in the Tohoku-Oki earthquake based on the energy expended to move a 300 by 150 km area of a fault plane in a thrusting motion of 30 m displacement, i.e. 4.050 E+22 Joules, or if you prefer, 8 trilion lightning strikes. The question we need to look at now is how this earthquake energy compares to the explosive force of nuclear bombs.

The bible in the English language on nuclear bombs effects is The Effects of Nuclear Weapons by Glasstone and Dolan (11); and the conversion for joules to nuclear yield found therein is 1 kiloton yield equals 4.18 E+12 Joules. The largest nuclear bomb design ever built was the Soviet 100 megaton “Tsar Bomba” which was tested in 1961 using a down-graded lead tamper tertiary stage to limit the yield to 50 magatons (12). Even the reduced-yield version of the Tsar Bomba design had measurable physical effects as far as 1000 km away. A 50 megaton nuclear bomb is 50000 times larger than 1 kiloton, so the energy release of such a weapon would be 50000 x 4.18 E+12 Joules = 2.09E+17 Joules. This is a far cry from the seismic moment of 4.05E+22 Joules for the Tohoku-Oki Earthquake. In fact, if we plug the nuclear yield energy into the moment magnitude equation, the result is Mw = 5.5. Now a 5.5 magnitude earthquake is not exactly trivial and can do a great deal of damage to houses, masonry, dishes and bookshelves not bolted to house frames – but it's no Tohoku-Oki with its near 30000 death toll and entire towns being swept away.

The bottom line here is that no known nuclear weapon can match the huge energy release of the Tohoku-Oki earthquake, making this a second line of evidence that the nuclear bomb allegation of assumption #5 is false.

Planting Nuclear Bombs in Faults

Assumption #6 is that the alleged nuclear bomb from assumption #5 was planted in the “deep sea fault” associated with the Tohoku-Oki earthquake. This is very easy to disprove. The deepest boreholes to date are the Soviet Kola corehole project drilled in 1994 to a measured depth of 12262 m (13); the Qatar Al Shaheen oil well drilled in 2008 to a measured depth of 12289 m; and the Exxon Neftegas Sakhalin-I offshore oil well in the Okhotsk Sea, drilled in 2011 to a measured depth of 12345 m (14). There seems to be a depth limit for boreholes which varies between ~9000 m and the current maximum depth of 12345 m. This limit is imposed by borehole temperatures and current drill bit technology because drill bits will perform poorly at temperatures over 250° C and will fail to cut at temperatures in excess of 300° C.

Given the current state-of-the-art for drill bits, it's safe to say that ~12 km is the practical limit for drilling depth. There is no drill rig on Earth right now that can reach the published depths of 24 to 30 km for the Tohoku-Oki earthquake. Assumption #6 is false because drilling a hole 24 km deep is currently impossible.

Illuminati Plot to End All Life on Earth

Assumption #7 alleges that a USA nuke placed in the Tohoku-Oki earthquake fault is part of a plot by the Illuminati to destroy life on Earth as we know it. This allegation can be refuted on the grounds of self-interest. Destroying life on Earth would also destroy the Illuminati themselves and no one in their right mind would do that. Evil masterminds plot to take over the world, not destroy it, though frankly it's even doubtful that the Illuminati really exist.

Of course it is possible that the Illuminati paid me to write this as a smoke screen to conceal their evil plans. In such a case, it would be part of my strategy to obscure all Illuminati goals with this reasonable-looking blog post. You'll just have to believe me when I assert that there is no Illumnati plot behind the Tohoku-Oki earthquake. The sudden increase in my bank balance is really from seling off some excess property for the business that I own and manage. The Illuminati have nothing to do with the sudden infusion of money into my checking account. You believe me, right?

Parting Shots About Tsunami Size

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station had a protective berm around reactor units 1 through 4 to prevent flooding by ocean surges. The Tsunami height on 11 March 2011 at Fukushima was 14 m which flowed over the 10 m berm to swamp all the emergency diesel generators.

It's known that the Mw 8.6 earthquake of March 2, 1933 produced tsunami waves along the coast of Japan that were as high as 29 m. In light of the known and documented 1933 tsunami height of 29 m, what kind of funny green tobacco were the TEPCO facility designers smoking when they used a berm height of just 10 m? Somebody blew it big time when designing that inadequate berm.


All websites were accessed on 10 June 2014 unless stated otherwise.

  1. Dibblee, T. W., Jr. (1966), Evidence for cumulative offset on the San Andreas fault in central and northern California, in Bailey, E. H., Ed.:Geology of northern California, California Div of Mines and Geol. Bull. 190, p. 375-384.
  2. Hill, M. L., and Dibblee, T. W., Jr. (1953), San Andreas, Garlock, and Big Pine fualts, California – A study of the character, history, and tectonic significance of their displacements: Geol. Soc of Am. Bull., v. 64, p. 443-458.
  3. Atwater, Tanya, 1970, Implications of plate tectonics for the Cenozoic tectonic evolution of western North America. Bull. Geol. Soc. Amer., v. 81, p. 3513-3536.
  4. Japan Meteorological Agency, /2011_Earthquake/Information_on_2011_Earthquake.html
  5. U.S. Geological Survey, /eqinthenews/2011/usc0001xgp/neic_c0001xgp_cmt.php
  6. U.S. Geological Survey, /eqinthenews/2011/usc0001xgp/#details
  7. U.S. Geological Survey, /eqinthenews/2011/usc0001xgp/#summary
  8. Ide, S., Baltay, A., and Beroza, G. C. (17 June 2011), Shallow Dynamic Overshoot and Energetic Deep Rupture in the 2011 Mw 9.0 Tohoku-Oki Earthquake. Science 17 : 332 (6036), p. 1426-1429. Also published online pn 19 May 2011: DOI:10.1126/science.1207020
  9. Earthquake Country,
  10. U.S. Geological Survey,
  11. Glasstone, S., and Dolan, P. eds., The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, 3rd ed. U.S. Department of Defense & U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration, 1977, Table 1.45, p. 13.
  12. Sublette, C. (2007), Nuclear Weapon Archive: Tsar Bomba,, accessed 11 June 2014.
  13. International Continental Drilling Project,
  14. Wikipedia,

Monday 5 May 2014

They Paid Me To Write This - Part 1

Gunning Fog Index = 12.75

Today's target for someone being wrong on the internet is really special! It's so special that I have to share the entirety of today's target first before diving in and analyzing its various statements. I know that writing the commentary on today's target is going to be difficult so I will beg some indulgence in advance for any uncalled for sarcasm, irony, parody, satire or condescension in which I might inadvertantly engage. I feel I must say this upfront and in advance just because today's target is just that special.

It's also apparent to me that I'm going to have to break my commentary into two parts, because there's really that much to say. The normal amount of arm waving isn't going to suffice this time around. What you're reading now is the first of two parts.

Today's offering is from a blog website whose URL is The offering itself is from the comments following a blog post (1) on the alleged sinking of the building housing Fukushima Daiichi Reactor 4. I was thinking of writing a post on the alleged subsidence of the Reactor 4 Building until I found today's target in the comments that followed. I suspect I might return to the Reactor 4 sinking sometime in the future but I think you will agree with me that the subject of today's blog post really should take precedence here. After all, I do think it is of the upmost importance to give my readership my considered and dispassionate determination as to whether the Illuminati are really trying to destroy Mother Earth.

So here's the comment (2) by one "Astraelia" on 24 Oct 2012 to the Reactor 4 subsidence blog post on Since we may be dealing with the potential destruction of life as we know it, I urge you all to read this comment carefully and reflect on this might imply for our future existence our planet:

FUKUSHIMA – the SECRET TRUTH: A ILLUMINATI SABOTAGE OPERATION IN THE ENGINEERING OF THE GENERAL ELECTRIC DESIGNED REACTORS. These GE General electric reactor design is from the USA, and was BUILT TO FAIL on the event of an emergency that required to urgently cool the nuclear reactor. All the safety valves where non operational by design, and could not be activated when after the Tsunami, the operators tried to cool down the nuclear core. It is not ignorance or incompetence, but systemic, on purpose technical sabotage from the conceptors of this USA General Electric nuclear generator. The emergency cooling valves engineering have been covertly manipulated to neutralize all attempts of opening these cooling valves to lower the temperature of the nuclear reactor in an overheating emergency scenario. There is 30 others such nuclear bombs plants in Japan, and over 30 in the USA. Over that, almost all nuclear plants have been located on purpose on seismic fault lines. The seismic signature of this earthquake does not correspond in any manner to the profile of earthquakes, but exhibit the exact profile of a nuclear explosion. This proves that it was not of natural origin, but was the result of a US covert operation of exploding a nuclear bomb right inside the deep sea seismic fault line. Almost ALL the Nuclear Plants in the world have been built ON PURPOSE on seismic fault lines. It is a concerted plan of destruction of humanity & life by the enemies of life that have taken complete covert control of our ancient paradise planet. The Illuminati have put these time bombs disguised as nuclear reactors all around the world with this on purpose secret technical sabotage.

I'm not making this up, you know. This is a real comment on a real blog and I can prove it! If I created the above comment text myself as a gag, I would have created the website, website blog contents and blog commentary and then would have posted about the above commentary on April 1. First, if you run the whois command on the URL, you will find that the website does not belong to me, which is proof #1. Second, today's date is not April 1, demonstrating that this is not another of my infamous and elaborate April Fools gags, like the journal article I created on the discovery of pages from Dr. Dee's copy of The Necronomicon in the Vatican's Secret Archives (3), so this is proof #2. The blog comment is real, I kid y'all not!

Let's just pause for a moment to define the one essential abbreviation for today's blog post. The abbreviation is "BWR" which stands for "boiling water reactor." Most commercial reactor designs in use in the United States and Japan are in a design class known as "light water reactors," which are further divided into BWRs and "pressurized water reactors," or PWRs for short. In case you're wondering about why this design category is called "light water reactors," it's because there's also a design class known as "heavy water reactors" which use deuterium-rich water, which is also known as heavy water since the deuterium isotope of hydrogen is twice as heavy as normal hydrogen. A early popular reactor design used in Canada was known as the Canadian Deuterium reactor or "CANDU" reactor. But we can save discussion of different reactor designs for some other day. Now back to today's topic...

It is apropos at this point to make a list of the various claims alleged in the above blog commentary. Those allegations are:

  1. All safety valves were designed to be non-operational in the event of an emergency where cooling the reactors was necessary in order to halt or prevent overheating.
  2. The design of the built-to-fail safety valves was a covert act of sabotage by General Electric, the United States-based vendor of the reactor designs used at Fukushima Daiichi.
  3. There are 30 reactors with these built-to-fail safety valves in Japan and over 30 in the United States.
  4. Almost all nuclear electric power generation stations worldwide have been intentionally sited directly on top of seismic fault lines.
  5. The 11 March 2011 Tohoku earthquake event was not really an earthquake but was actually a nuclear bomb explosion based on seismic signature evidence.
  6. The nuclear bomb detonation was a covert act by the United States which took place in the deep sea fault where the Tohoku earthquake was alleged to have originated.
  7. The secret nuclear bomb detonation by the USA is part of a plan by the Illuminati to destroy humanity and all other life.

Let's now look at each of the claims that were made and consider them rationally. Since this is part one of two parts, today's blog post will deal with allegations one through four. Part two, which will follow in a few days, will deal with allegations five through seven. Allegation five is going to take some hard explaining, complete with lots of beach balls - no, really - and that will take a bit of work to put together.beach balls

Seriously, there will be pictures of beach balls, I kid you not. Discussing the science of earthquakes vs. explosions requires lots and lots of beach balls. Serious seismicity means serious beach balls. And maybe even one or two pictures of jello. I learned this at the Seismo Lab at Caltech. No kidding. I'm 100% on the level here. I'll even post a picture of my diploma from Caltech if needed. But you're going to have to wait for part two...

One: Built-to-Fail Safety Valves

This claim is actually easy to dismiss. When the Tohoku earthquake happened on 11 March 2011, Japan's reactors all had early earthquake warning systems which successfully shut down all the operating reactors in the country, including reactors 1, 2, and 3 at Fukushima Daiichi; reactors 4, 5 and 6 were already offline for maintenance operations (4). All the valves on all the cooling cycle circulation systems worked as designed despite the loss of electric power from the grid: Fukushima Daiichi had back-up diesel generators which fired up and started producing power as designed when grid power was lost. Those diesel generators worked flawlessly right up until the tsunami arrived approximately an hour later. The tsunami swamped the diesel generators and their power distribution control panels, and all power and control was lost. Without electricity, the reactor operators could not operate the pumps and valves of the cooling systems, which is the contributing cause of the nuclear accidents that followed over the next few days. The valves worked as designed. The nuclear accidents did not happen because of an alleged covert design flaw in the Fukushima valves, but rather because the idiots who designed the inadequate seawall and oceanside reactor buildings went and placed the emergency diesel generators and their power distribution panels in basements that were flooded by the tsunami. The seawall between reactors 1 through 4 and the ocean was 10 meters high; the maximum tsunami height at Fukushima Daiichi was 14 meters (4).

Actually, of the 12 emergency diesel generators at Fukushima Daiichi, one actually stayed operation and was responsible for keeping reactors 5 and 6 cool and safe by providing electricity to run the pumps and valves and such. That's because someone had the brains to locate it on the top floor of the building for reactor 6, not the basement. It and its electric distribution control panel didn't get flooded and so never failed.

I am tempted to say that one should never attribute to vast international conspiracies for world destruction circumstances which can be simply explained by incompetence - but that would be way too sarcastic for the dispassionate and objective tone I would like to maintain on this blog, so I won't.

Two: GE Covertly Designed Valves To Fail

Again, this claim is also easy to dismiss on the grounds that after the earthquake and loss of grid power, the valves and the rest of the coolant circulation systems operated as designed up until the loss of the emergency diesel generators. Fukushima Daiichi Units 1 through 4 were damaged because the tsunami flooded the diesel generators (4). Valve design had nothing to do with the Fukushima Daiichi accident.

Three: 30 Japanese reactors and >30 American reactors have built-to-fail valves

The author of today's target wasn't clear about which reactors have covertly flawed valves. I'm going to extrapolate and assume the author was writing about all GE-designed BWRs, not just the Fukushima ones. The numbers alleged by the author then make sense if the author believes all GE BWRs have built-to-fail valves. The author's numbers are approximately correct: there are 31 GE-designed BWRs in Japan, of which 25 are operating and the 6 at Fukushima Daiichi are either damaged and shutdown (5). There are 45 BWRs in the US at 33 power stations, of which 35 are operating, 4 are dismantled and 6 are mothballed (5). While the author implies these additional BWRs have built-to-fail valves, there is reason to doubt this since the author was already wrong about the valves at Fukushima Daiichi.

Four: Almost All Reactors Are Sited On Top Of Seismic Fault Lines

I think we have to begin here by looking at the author's implicit assumptions apparent in the above claim. I opine that there are two such implicit assumptions and believe that they reveal more about the author's ignorance about science than anything else. The implicit assumptions seem to be that all faults are active and that all active faults are capable of building-destroying earthquakes. Neither of these is true.

Faults are roughly planar features where the earth materials on either side of the fault have moved with respect to one another. The amount of that motion is termed "fault displacement." Opposing forces on either side of a fault determine how much fault displacement takes place. Large forces, like those found at tectonic plate boundaries, cause large fault displacements, and smaller forces, like the ones seen when a reservoir is filled or ground subsidence occurs, cause smaller displacements. But not all fault displacements cause earthquakes. Earthquakes occur when fault displacement occurs all at once - but some fault displacements occur continuously and never cause the jarring catastrophic ground motions of earthquakes. Continuous fault motion is called seismic creep and if you live in the Bay Area of California, you can find several places locally where you can actually observe fault displacement due to seismic creep along the Hayward Fault, like three houses down from the house I lived in north of Berkeley.

Earthquakes, the sudden displacement of ground on either side of active faults, happen when faults lock up and seismic slip is prevented. This happens because faults are planar only to a first approximation. In reality, most fault surfaces have irregularities and there's a lot static friction present on a lot of fault surfaces which prevents peaceful seismic slip. For a locked-up fault to move, the forces on either side of fault have to overcome the static friction present in the fault.

Small earthquakes happen all the time and can occur just about everywhere, even far from tectonic plate boundaries, because the earth is never really still even though it may seem that way to us. For example, filling large reservoirs can set off seismic spasms of many itty bitty earthquakes for months afterward but these are usually small enough that most people aren't even aware of them. And far from active tectonic plate boundaries, the mostly stable strata of continental interiors slip only a little along small faults or fractures due to events like subsidence from the withdrawal of oil in the ground or compaction of underlying rocks - and the small earthquakes from such ground motions are again hardly noticed except by those who actively monitor seismic networks.

You can site a nuclear reactor on top of an old inactive fault in a place where there are no strong tectonic forces acting on either side of that fault and nothing catastrophic is going to happen. Inactive means just that. Most of the mapped faults on the earth are these old inactive faults that no longer move because the stresses that originally created them are long gone. Faults do not cause earthquakes. Stresses in the earth cause earthquakes and earthquakes create faults. We shouldn't be freaking out over every little mapped fault near a reactor. Most of those faults are just scars, most of them very old. The thing to worry about is the state of stress in the ground, which is the thing that creates faults. In areas near tectonic plate boundaries, the forces that act on those plates are the big concern for reactors and any other kind of structure that will cause a disaster in failure, like petroleum storage tank farms, oil refineries, chemical plants and natural gas pipelines. Concern over faults without looking at whether an area is tectonically active is putting the cart before the horse.

To be frank, you don't even have to site a reactor on top of an active fault in a tectonically-active area to be in danger, since any nearby large earthquake will cause damaging ground motions throughout a region and not just at the surface expression of a fault. Granted, already existing faults are where earthquake displacements will most likely occur, especially in tectonically-active regions, but sometimes the forces active in the earth will create new faults where none existed before.

Basically the comment author's allegation that almost all reactors are sited on top of faults is moot because earthquake damage depends on more variables than just the surface location of a fault. (The citations for all the content of this section thus far are refs 6 and 7.)

Still, we can test the author's allegation at face value too, regardless of its lack of scientific merit as outlined immediately above. We can do so by starting with the list of BWRs and looking at their locations with respect to any nearby mapped faults or other seismic hazards. "Nearby" as I'm using the term here means within approximately 10 miles. The choice of a 10 mile proximity as "nearby" is entirely arbitrary. I picked it because it's a conventient scale for looking at the USGS seismic hazard maps.

So here's a list of BWRs listed by the nearest town to the power generation stations:

  • Browns Ferry, AL: 3 BWRs. Power plant site is located between two buried inactive faults of age >500 million year, located 2 miles and 5 miles respectively from the plant (8).
  • Brunswick, NC: 2 BWRs. No known nearby surface or buried faults though the plant is located on the perimeter of the South Carolina earthquake Quaternary liquifaction zone (9).
  • Clinton, IL: 1 BWR. No known nearby surface or buried faults (10).
  • Richland, WA: 1 BWR. No known nearby surface or buried faults (11).
  • Brownville, NE: 1 BWR. No known nearby surface or buried faults (9).
  • Morris, IL: 2 BWRs. The late Paleozoic Sandwich Fault Zone is approximately 10 miles north. This is a mostly buried fault which has not been active since before the advent of the dinosaurs (12).
  • Palo, IA: 1 BWR. No known nearby surface or buried faults (9, 13).
  • Baxley, GA: 2 BWRs, No known nearby surface or buried faults (9, 14).
  • Frenchtown Charter Township, MI: 1 BWR. No known nearby surface or buried faults (9, 15).
  • Port Gibson, MS: 1 BWR. No known nearby surface or buried faults (9).
  • Lower Alloways Creek Township, NJ: 1 BWR (next door to 2 PWRs at Salem Nuc. Power Plant). No known nearby surface or buried faults (9).
  • Oswego, NY: 3 BWRs. No known nearby surface or buried faults (9).
  • Ottawa, IL: 2 BWRs. No known nearby surface or buried faults (16).
  • Limmerick, PA: 2 BWRs. Chalfont fault approx. 10 mi ENE of reactors; splays of the Ramapo Fault System approx. 10 mi west of reactors; plus some small local faults associated with volcanic dikes within 2 to 3 miles of reactors. All faults are Jurassic to Triassic in age and have been inactive for at least the last 100 milliion years (17, 18, 19). A trend of infrequent small to moderate shallow earthquake epicenters map along the surface expression of the Ramapo Fault in New Jersey 50 to 100 km NE of the reactors and are thought to be the result of intraplate stress accommodation in the North American Plate taking place in the complex system of fractures associated with the Ramapo Fault opportunistically. It is not currently known if the trend of minor seismicity along the Ramapo Fault System may indicate that this feature might be capable of a large earthquake, which are very rare on the east coast but not unknown (20).

At this point, I'm going to end making this list of BWRs and their proximity to faults. The above list covers approximately two thirds of the all BWRs in the US. Chasing down the remaining third isn't going to change the trend that's already apparent in the data of this list: none of the above reactors are sited on top of faults and most reactors aren't even within 10 miles of a mapped fault. Testing two thirds of a sample population (in this case, of boiling water reactors) is way past the point of statistical validity. I'm pretty sure based on statistical theory that any further sampling of commercial reactors in the US will merely confirm this trend we've just seen in the data: reactors don't tend to be sited on fault lines - not that that's really germane if you followed the arguments in the previous section on why the location of a surface expression of a fault is not the issue that matters. The real issue is whether an area with a reactor is one under substantial tectonic stress, with a subsidiary issue of whether there's an active fault near a reactor that's locked up instead of seismically creeping in a area of known large tectonic stresses.

Bottom line: the author of the comment got this allegation wrong. It appears, at least if we look at US reactors, that no one is going out of their way to site reactors on top of faults. I suspect, though I have not confirmed, that a survey of reactors in other countries will show similar trends in nuclear facilities not being located on top of known fault lines, active or inactive.

In a few days, I will have part two finished, just as soon as I'm done with getting all my beach balls ready for our serious lesson on how to differentiate earthquakes from explosions. You have to wait but it will be worth it.


  1. Huff, E. A. (16 Oct 2012), "Ground Under Fukushima Unit 4 Sinking, Structure On Verge Of Complete Collapse," as reposted at (21 Oct 2012),, accessed 5 May 2014.
  2. Astraelia (24 Oct 2014), "Fukushima - the Secret Truth" (Commentary),, accessed 5 May 2014.
  3., accessed 5 May 2014.
  4. Corrice, L. (2012), Fukushima: The First Five Days, Amazon Digital Services, ASIN B008GFLTK6. Also,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  5., accessed 6 May 2014.
  6. Stein, S., and M. Wysession (2002), An Introduction to Seismology, Earthquakes and Earth Structure, Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 978-0865420786.
  7. Richter, C. F. (1958), Elementary Seismology, W H Freeman & Co, ISBN 978-0716702115.
  8. Geological Survey of Alabama, Alabama Earthquakes,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  9. United States Geological Survey, Interactive Fault Map,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  10. Illinois State Geological Survey, Fault Systems of Illinois and Neighboring States,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  11. Washington Department of Natural Resources, Washington State Fault Map: Open File Report 80-02,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  12. Kolata, Buschbach and Treworgy (1978), The Sandwich Fault Zone of Northern Illinois, Illinois State Geological Survey Circular 505,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  13. United States Geological Survey, Iowa Seismic Hazards Map,, accessed 6 May 2014. Also Iowa Geological Survey, Bedrock Map of Iowa,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  14. United States Geological Survey, Georgia Geology,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  15. Bricker, D. M. (1977), Seismic Disturbances in Michigan, Michigan Natural Resources Circular 14,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  16. Illinois State Geological Survey, Faults in Illinois,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  17. Glaeser, J. D., 1966, Provenance, dispersal, and depositional environments of Triassic sediments in the Newark-Gettysburg basin: Pennsylvania Geological Survey, 4th ser., General Geology Report 43,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  18. Schlische, R. W., Geology of the Newark Basin,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  19. Ibid., geologic map of Newark Basin in NY, NJ and PA,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  20., accessed 6 May 2014.

Sunday 4 May 2014

Humor, Memes, and the Historical Roots of Inequality

Be warned that today, I'm going to ramble all over the place.

The News and Internet Memes

There are some items reported in various news media that seem to live lives far longer than what their inital value may warrant. This idiocy of mountainous coverage of mole hill news often appears to be the product of the dreaded "slow news day." Some of it is merely the churn of 24/7 news-on-demand where Andy Warhol's apocryphal 15 minutes of fame means that reporters and editors are obliged to create a metaphorical 24 hrs/0.25 hrs = 96 new news items per day. In a world with such a demand for the latest and greatest news items, it's no stretch to see that some of those 96 daily items of "news" will end up being mostly trivial coverage of mole hills to the detriment of reportage of mountains.

One can certainly find trivial news and its mockery aplenty. Small town newspapers abound with such items as:

"12:47 p.m.-- A resident of High Street reported that someone came into house while she was gone, shaved her dog and took her cell phone charger" (1)

Items like this often live far longer than is justified simply because they are humorous to just about anyone other then the soul who made the original report and now live long lives on the internet, passed in unnumbered Facebook and Twitter "shares." I have to wonder if the persistence of this particular item lives on because it evokes that episode of the cartoon Courage the Cowardly Dog where the Fred, the deranged barber pursued just about everyone but Muriel to give them a buzz cut (2).


The reduction of trivial though funny happenstance into memes on the internet has become as cliche as "all your base are belong to us" (3). The celebration and perpetration of the humorously trivial in the news by such venues like no doubt will be the subject of many anthropology and sociology dissertations for years to come. Sometimes it's not even the churn of news that sends such unimportant items into perpetual orbit on the internet. Back in 1994, back when web pages were really in their infancy, Compuserve still existed, USENET newsgroups were the rage and one could buy "Internet in a Box," someone passed a mimeographed page of church bulletin bloopers around in choir practice at my church in St. Louis. This venerable collection has since found its way onto the internet where one can find its several permutations on many church related blogs and websites (4, 5) where can one discover such gems like:

"Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. there will be an ice cream social. All ladies giving milk will please come early."


"The sermon this morning: Jesus Walks on the Water. The sermon tonight: Searching for Jesus."

Spreading harmless humor on the internet might arguably be one of the best uses. It is tempting to say that the proliferation of needless and trivial news might one of the worst, but it is not in comparison to the truly criminal uses of the net such as fraud, con jobs, sexual stalking of minors, and the like. In a world where every amateur blogger can pursue delusions of being a real journalist, items like

"Miss Charlene Mason sang ‘I will not pass this way again,’ giving obvious pleasure to the congregation"

don't seem so bad.

Mountains from Mole Hills due to Politics

There are some items pursued in the news media that while newsworthy, do garner attention far beyond their worth. The Keystone XL Pipeline is one such item. Given the reality that there are hundreds of pipelines transporting both raw and refined fossil fuel products, the stink over the Dept of State Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed pipeline is unbalanced. Why this one pipeline and not others? Frankly, all pipelines present some risk of leakage, and while dilbit crude from tar sands is a bit nastier than light crude, any given natural gas pipeline is vastly more dangerous. A simple internet search on natural gas pipeline accidents vs. liquid fossil fuel pipeline accidents will bear this out.

I believe the persistence of this item in the news is likely that the Keystone project has become an example, a scapegoat target of environmental activists who object to not just one pipeline, but all pipelines and all activities related to products derived from tar sands. By deriding one project, they believe they are able to cast aspersions on all similar projects. While there are few unbiased websites detailing the Keystone XL Pipeline project; a half-way decent chronology of the project and opposition is up on Wikipedia and a relatively neutral examination of pros, cons and claims can be found at the reputable (6).

Frankly, given a choice between scaremongering about Keystone like

"this pipeline could devastate ecosystems, pollute water sources and jeopardize public health" (7)

and a recirculated church bulletin blooper like

"At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be ‘What Is Hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice"

it's easy to see why many people eschew political dead horse beating on the news for laughs over the inanity of monorail cats (8)

Leonhardt's New York Times Article of 4 May 2014

Well, sooner or later, I am obliged by my own self-imposed rules for this blog to discuss someone being wrong on the internet, regardless of the appeal of church bulletin bloopers like

"The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of every kind. They can be seen in the church basement Saturday."

Today's subject is an article in the New York Times Magazine on a subject that really should have died weeks ago, namely the publication of Professor Thomas Piketty's book Capital In The Twenty-First Century. The article is by New York Times journalist David Leonhart with the title of "Inequality Has Been Going On Forever...but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Inevitable" (9)

New York Times Magazine articles are often pages and pages long, though there's often something in every one that's good. For example, I remember first reading about the murders, forgeries, and prosecution of the now infamous Mark Hoffman, in the pages of the New York Times Magazine. In contrast to the usual land and in-depth articles that usually grace the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Leonhardt's piece was really short, less than a page. The gist of it is that Leonhardt didn't grok all of Piketty's math on inequality trends so he called Piketty and asked him to explain. Piketty obliged.

Leonhardt then sums up some of Piketty's main points, namely that wealth inequality is growing, and has been getting worse with time and with the introduction of the tools and technology of modern productivity. According to Leonhardt's take on Piketty, wealth inequality was not as bad back in the pre-industrial days of agriculture because the basis of wealth, i. e. land, was static. With the introduction of modern tools and technology, that is not longer the case: the means of creating wealth, i.e. tools and technology, has been increasing since the industrial revolution and this results in both the creation of more wealth and more wealth inequality.

Granted, as I said in an earlier blog post, I have not read Piketty's book and probably will not do so until I can score an inexpensive copy. So I don't know what Piketty really said vs. what Leohardt thinks he said - though given that he actually bothered to call Piketty, I'm willing to give him more credence than a lot of other articles I've seen on Piketty's book. So on top of everything, you have to rely on my understanding of what Leonhardt said Piketty said, which may or may not be accurate - but Leonhardt's article is short so if you're interested, go read it for yourself.

What's important here is Leonhardt's statement based on Piketty's book that the wealth inequality gap is increasing and has been been doing so since the transition from agrarian to modern industrial societies. He goes on to say that such a trend is not inevitable and that Piketty's now infamous solution is to redistribute some of that wealth through a universal excess wealth tax. Given how much I don't like economics, church bulletin humor looks better by the second in comparison.

More Reactions to Piketty's Capital In The Twenty-First Century

Maybe I shouldn't be running on at the keyboard here over a book I haven't even read yet, but the ridiculous obsessing over Piketty's book for the last month is really getting to be a bit much. Granted, a lot of the reaction to the book has to do with conservatives having a cow over the obvious Marxist leanings which are explicit in the book. After all, words like communist, Marx and wealth redistribution are enough to give any American Cold War vet the heeby geebies. McCarthy must be rolling in his grave!

The Economist has published a rather nice little commentary on the reaction to Piketty's book and its longevity thus far in the press because, frankly, it's just a book on economic theory (10). One could make a case that Piketty's book is really just a mole hill that's gotten mountain-status coverage in certain media venues because it contains buzz words and economic proposals that are contrary to American cultural norms of red bashing. American supply-side and monetarist economists, political conservatives, and their political supporters, many of whom probably can't even discuss Marx vs. Lenin vs. Stalin vs. Trotsky vs. Adam Smith, are apt to react to such words that have more to do with political camp than with true economic evaluation. Okay, I concede that I might not be entirely fair in my estimation of the general knowledge of American conservative rank and file.

For a book on ecomonic theory which is full of the kind of economic arm-waving math that I personally have little patience for, I find the reaction way out of whack. Piketty's book in his native French was published in France a year ago and hardly made any waves in Europe. An academic French economist wrote a review for a left-leaning publication in France that criticized the work for not being, well, more to the left (11)! As I noted in my first blog post on Piketty's Capital, the current reaction over the English language publication of this book has more to do with one's politics than with the actual book itself (12).

Just like the treatment of some of the trivial news items on slow news days, the coverage in the English-language press to Piketty's Capital is a mountain in reaction to a mole hill of a book.

Have you ever read the anti-federalist responses to the Federalist Papers? When we read the Federalist Papers or read about them in American History classes, the 85 different articles making up that work look like a coherent collection of essays in favor of the U.S Constitution. What we don't learn, or learn and then forget, is that the Federalist Papers were not a coherent, planned and crafted seamless set. Each of those "articles" was really an editorial in a late 18th century newspaper, published in various cities by different authors over a period of two years (1786-1787). As these articles were printed, rebuttal editorials by anti-federalist opponents were also being published in the early American post-Colonial press (13). The give and take was hardly give and take; the exchange between the two groups was heated and often polite to the point of nastiness. Even accusations of wanting to reestablish some kind of monarchy or tyranny were leveled against the Federalists as well as predictions of robbing the individual states of their sovereign power through the economic evil of one unified monetary supply for all the States. Some of the other anti-federal accusations were just as off the wall.

Some of the exchanges in the modern press in this country remind me at times of the spats in the newspapers of post-Colonial early America between the Federalists and their anti-federal opponents. Tea Party true-believers and "the government is the problem" "starve the beast" Reaganoid conservatives sound a bit like those old anti-federalists to me at times.

Someone Was Wrong on the Internet?

Now that I've rambled from French left-leaning newspapers, the U.S. Constitution, shaving dogs and church bulletin bloopers, I should probably explain what it is about Leonhardt's article that makes it a worthy target of this blog.

First, Leonhardt's title for his article does not actually match the content of his article. His title conveys that wealth inequality itself is not inevitable. The body of the article states that the trend of ever-increasing wealth inequality is not inevitable, and that this is one of the main arguments of Piketty's book and also the basis for Piketty's wealth tax proposal as a means to reverse that very trend.

So what so wrong with that?

To begin, the title is misleading and also, it's wrong. Wealth inequality is an intrinsic feature of civilization. Hierarchy and social stratification are a feature of the Civitas. You don't have one without the other because agriculture, the defining act of any so-called "civilized" state, requires organization and specialization. Where you have organization and specialization, you will have social stratification and hierarchy creation, which lead to the unequal allocation of wealth across social classes.

The transition between primitive societies and the creation of the Civitas - or "civilization" occurs at the hunter-gatherer to agrarian transition. To support these very broad statements, I will now appeal to the work of one of the most prolific and respected encyclopedic historians ever, Will Durant.

Based on studies of Amerindians, Eskimoes, Samoans, Borneans, Amazoneans, Cittagong Indians and tribal cultures where land was not something anyone owned, where crop gathering was supplemental to hunting and organized agriculture did not yet exist, Durant pointed out that the means for survival were shared and differences in personal wealth were trivial. He labeled such societies as being truly communistic both in regard to food and to land. He also considered the members of these societies to be egalitarian though primitive, uncultured, and somewhat lazy. Yes, he really did said lazy, which makes sense for something written in the 1930s, which is when he wrote the passages I'm currently looking at (14). He had no knowledge of Sackett's famous (infamous?) study that settled the hunter-gatherer vs. agricultural work debate that raged for almost 50 years, showing that people do less work and have more leisure time in hunter-gatherer societies compared to agrarian societies (15).

When I was reading Leonhardt's article, I noted Leonhardt's paraphrase of Piketty's idea that the static nature of pre-industrial society meant wealth inequality was more or less stable, namely:

"He suggested imagining a hypothetical village from centuries ago in which neither the population nor the economy was growing. Every year, the village produced the same amount of goods for the same number of people to divide — a reality that was typical before the Enlightenment, when material living standards and human longevity barely rose. (The peasants of the 15th century were not better off than peasants in ancient Rome.)"

Reading this, I thought to myself that Piketty might be a brilliant economist, but he is no historian. In particular, I remembered a passage in Will Durant's first volume in his acclaimed History of Civilization series, a work which - like Gibbon's - is more than just a history. It was a passage that contradicted this view that the economic inequality of pre-modern agrarian societies was static and stable. It took me a little while to find it. You can read it for yourself and see why I contrasted it with Piketty vis a vis Leonhardt:

Perhaps one reason why communism tends to appear chiefly at the beginning of civilizations is that it flourishes most readily in times of dearth, when the common danger of starvation fuses the individual into the group. When abundance comes, and the danger subsides, social cohesion is lessened, and individualism increases; communism ends where luxury begins. As the life of a society becomes more complex, and the division of labor differentiates men into diverse occupations and trades, it becomes more and more unlikely that all these services will be equally valuable to the group; inevitably those whose greater ability enables them to perform the more vital functions will take more than their equal share of the rising wealth of the group. Every growing civilization is a scene of multiplying inequalities; the natural differences of human endowment unite with differences of opportunity to produce artificial differences of wealth and power; and where no laws or despots suppress these artificial inequalities they reach at last a bursting point where the poor have nothing to lose by violence, and the chaos of revolution levels men again into a community of destitution. Hence the dream of communism lurks in every modern society as a racial memory of a simpler and more equal life; and where inequality or insecurity rises beyond sufferance, men welcome a return to a condition which they idealize by recalling its equality and forgetting its poverty. Periodically the land gets itself redistributed, legally or not, whether by the Gracchi in Rome, the Jacobins in France, or the Communists in Russia; periodically wealth is redistributed, whether by the violent confiscation of property, or by confiscatory taxation of incomes and bequests. Then the race for wealth, goods and power begins again, and the pyramid of ability takes form once more; under whatever laws may be enacted the abler man manages somehow to get the richer soil, the better place, the lion’s share; soon he is strong enough to dominate the state and rewrite or interpret the laws; and in time the inequality is as great as before. In this aspect all economic history is the slow heart-beat of the social-organism, a vast systole and diastole of naturally concentrating wealth and naturally explosive revolution.

As I acquired more volumes of Durant's History of Civilization, initially from my father who had several first editions, and then later filling in the gaps from purchases at used book stores, I read them all. It is a theme, subtle but explicit throughout Durant's opus that the inequalities of wealth in pre-modern societies were anything but static and stable. Durant clearly saw a pattern of where the cruelty and/or greed of some elites in certain societies led to inequalities of wealth and privilege so unjustifiable that those with nothing to lose would rebel, sometimes to fail and sometimes to topple their rulers, redistributing wealth and not always equitably. He noted the pattern in the Spartan Helots revolts; the patrician-plebeian class war of the early Roman republic; the Gracchi, Jacobins and Russian Communists mentioned above; as well as the Jacqueries of 14th century France.

Durant saw cycles in history of recurring struggle between the haves and the have-nots. While his initial statements in this area of historical interpretation was limited to economics and did not account for the effects of religion and propaganda in co-opting and coercing the lower classes in their servitude, like in Ancient Egypt to build the Pyramids, his point was made about the patterns of wealth distribution and class warfare. One only needs to look at the historical records to know that wealth inequality was anything but stable and static in the pre-modern pre-industrial agrarian world. Piketty is right in the statement that wealth inequality has been growing since the industrial revolution and Durant agrees with that (16), but Piketty is wrong in considering the wealth inequality of pre-modern societies as a constant. The European peasants of 15th century were likely serfs and probably were much worse off than the free citizen peasant farmers of the Roman Republic of Antiquity, but probably better off than the chain-gang latifundia slaves of the late Roman Republic and Empire. The Devil is in the details.

Wealth Inequality in Perspective

The internet can trivialize even the most profound of great thinkers. There may be a lot more to Piketty than one can extract from too many politically-biased editorials commentaries; for now, however, just a small sampling of Durant's encyclopedic vision across the vast landscape of history is enough for all that internet drivel to seem rather flimsy and much ado about nothing. Frankly, given the bankrupt profundity of politically-motivated biased journalism on the internet, I think I much prefer my church bulletin gaffs:

"This being Easter Sunday, we will ask Mrs. Lewis to come forward and lay an egg on the altar."

References, on the casual side

  1., accessed 4 May 2014
  2., accessed 4 May 2014
  3., accessed 4 May 2014
  4., accessed 4 May 2014
  5., accessed 4 May 2014
  6., accessed 4 May 2014
  7., accessed 4 May 2014
  8., accessed 4 May 2014
  9. Leonhardt, D. (4 May 2014), "Inequality Has Been Going On Forever...but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Inevitable," New York Times Magazine, p. MM23, also, accessed 4 May 2014.
  10., accessed 3 May 2014
  11. De La Gasnerie, G. (18 Oct 2013), "Le manifeste inégalitaire de Thomas Piketty," Liberation,, accessed 3 May 2014: e.g. " il n’est jamais question de domination sociale et culturelle, de violence, de relégation, d’exploitation, d’aliénation au travail, de classes, de luttes, etc." To be completely honest here, I found out about this review from reading the Economist, namely in an commentary piece at, accessed 3 May 2014
  12., accessed 4 May 2014
  13. I had a collection of the Anti-Federalist Papers when I was in high school competing in the American Legion annual oratory competition on the Constitution. I got a lot of good material for my speeches from that book, though alas, I came in second in my state the last time I competed and never got to go to the National level of competition. But that collection of anti-federalist material really expanded my knowledge of the formation of the this country beyond anything I learned at school. You can find a decent selection of the sorts of anti-constitution editorials that were being printed in early US newspapers at (accessed 4 May 2014) if you'd like to see what sort of acrimony was in the air just before the Constitution was written and ratified.
  14. Durant, W. (1935, 2014), Our Oriental Heritage, Simon & Schuster, NY: Chapter 2 Ther Economic Elements of Civilizations, part 3 Economic Organization.
  15. Sackett, R. (1996), Time, energy, and the indolent savage. A quantitative cross-cultural test of the primitive affluence hypothesis: Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA.
  16. Durant, Will (1935, 2014). The Complete Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, Life of Greece, Caesar and Christ, Age of Faith, Renaissance, Age of Reason Begins, Age of Louis ... and Revolution, Age of Napoleon, Reformation (Kindle Locations 621-636). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
  17. Ibid, Kindle Locations 637-639

Saturday 26 April 2014

Biased Journalism and Capital in the Twenty-First Century

It's been way too long since I last posted. The delay was due to my "day job" of running a small business. One can only procrastinate so much when it comes to accounting and taxes. Trying to sort out the needless complexity of federal income taxes is enough to convert anyone into a progressive on tax reform - but I'll save that rant for some other day.

Piketty and his Book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Today's blog offering is about the recent brewhaha over Professor Thomas Piketty's brand new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (we will refer to this book as just Capital for the rest of the post).

There are whole farms of editorial misstatements in this week's and last week's newspapers and sponsored blogs over this book. When I compare op-ed pieces on Piketty's opus, it seems like every editorial or review is about a different book. For example, Capital as read by Nobel-Prize winning economist Krugman ( appears to be a different work compared to the Capital read by right-leaning editorialist David Brooks (, by Wall Street fund manager Daniel Shuchman (, or by engineer and part-time journalist David Auerbach ( I could list more articles on Piketty's Capital, like the ones found in the venerable weekly Economist ( or the American Business flagship magazine Forbes ( It seems like the world has exploded with numerous reviews and commentary on this French economist's book while I was on vacation for the last two weeks.

I have not read Piketty's book and therefore am not in a position to produce my own critique. Regardless of what Piketty actually wrote, I am both intrigued and disappointed that I can predict the overall tone and much of the content of most reviews and commentary on Capital by author or publication for most of the news outlets I visit (with the one exception of Salon, as discussed below). For example, Krugman uses Piketty's analysis of growing income equality to go straight for the jugular of the voodoo economics favored by the modern American neo-con rightwing. But that's Krugman's bread-and-butter for his New York Times column. The man just can't resist taking those potshots at the supply-side economic theories of the American right wing because the former lives in a data-driven universe and latter does not.

Obligatory Tangent: Voodoo Economics

Okay, I admit it - that was a cheap shot. You caught me red-handed. I like Krugman's stuff and therefore must come clean that the above statement may be biased. Let's look at that for a moment before moving on. The term "voodoo economics" was coined by George Bush Sr. when he was running against Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination as the party's presidential candidate in 1980. Voodoo economics was Daddy Bush's label for what is known as supply-side economics or "Reaganomics" on this side of the Atlantic. The lynchpin of Reaganomics is the theory that cutting taxes on capital-based income will create incentives to reinvest this formerly-taxed income in new business development, thus stimulating the economy and creating jobs. The tax revenue lost would be recouped through taxes on the new economic growth, namely the newly-created wages and business profits. By reducing the tax expense for businesses, the money saved would then "trickle-down" to the rest of the economy through new business spending. Deregulation of industry and shrinking the size of government were also part of Reaganomics, on the grounds that removing governmental meddling for both businesses and individuals would also stimulate the economy. The BBC has a nice bite-sized overview of voodoo economics at and the Stern School of Business at NYU has a nice in-depth overview at

Federal deficit reduction has been and still is integral to the current economic philosophy of the right wing; but if you give it a minute of thought, I believe you will realize that deficit reduction is actually a separate issue from supply-side economics. This is important only because right-wing pundits believe that policies which are the opposite of those recommended by supply-side theory, namely increasing taxes, regulating industry and not shrinking government, will lead to recession along with a growth in the federal deficit and in interest rates. The irony here is that the federal deficit exploded under Reagan's and Bush Senior's terms as President with their policies of deregulation and tax cuts, from $40 billion in 1979 to $221 billion in 1986. As to the economic impact of Reaganomics, numbers from the Congressional Budget Office show that the growth in GDP abruptly slowed during the Reagan administration, indicating a drop in economic activity.

In actual fact, the Clinton administration approach to federal deficit reduction did everything that supply-siders hate: taxes were increased while the growth of federal spending was slowed but not reversed. By the start of Clinton's second term, the federal deficit was cut in half. When Clinton left office, he left Bush Jr. a budget surplus of $236 billion. During that time, real interest rates and the growth rate of the GDP were both stable. (Federal deficit data is from the Congressional Budget Office,; GDP data is from the U. S. Bureau of Economic Analysis,

So what's the gig with voodoo economics? Simply that they don't work as advertised, particularly in recessionary economies. At the risk of sounding like Krugman, cutting both taxes and government spending make recessions worse. This isn't arm waving. This is a statement based on data, and more data than just comparing Reagan/Bush Sr., Clinton and Bush Jr. The numbers aren't even exclusively American, especially when looking at the effect of taxes or consumer and government spending on measurements of economic health, namely unemployment, real wages, and prices indices. Krugman covers much of this ground in his 1995 book, Peddling Prosperity (ISBN 978-0393312928) but for an up-to-date look at the failure of supply-side economics, I refer the reader to the 2013 data-intense analysis of Stuckler and Basu in their book The Body Economic (ISBN 978-0-465-06398-7). Don't be fooled into thinking it's a book on public health policy. Read this book for its number crunching of international economic and societal data. Admittedly, the progressive rhetoric of the authors is strident but what they have to say is backed up by data, lots of data, and even more data. I'm a data-driven person and so I recommend this book highly.

To conclude this verbose tangent on voodoo economics, it was no surprise to me that Krugman's op-ed piece on Piketty was really just another another platform for one of his attacks on right wing economic theorists who are long on wind and arm waving and short on real numbers. I don't like Krugman because I'm a liberal because I'm not a liberal. I like Krugman because he pays attention to real-world economic data and eschews theoretical economic models regardless of the political orientation of their supporters. So much for my bias on Krugman.

More Predictable Reactions to Piketty's Capital

David Brooks is one of the New York Times' token op-ed conservatives. Mind you, what I have to say here is personal opinion and that the reader's opinion may be different from mine. I find that Brooks is no Krugman and that most of his stuff is unfocused and underwhelming, though I do enjoy his regular tiffs with New York Times liberal editorialist Gail Collins because of their good-natured humor. Brooks' piece on Piketty is like Brooks himself: full of fuzzy thinking and fuzzy, often incorrect assumptions. Here's an example from Brooks' Piketty article:

If you are a young professional in a major city, you experience inequality firsthand. But the inequality you experience most acutely is not inequality down, toward the poor; it’s inequality up, toward the rich. You go to fund-raisers or school functions and there are always hedge fund managers and private equity people around. You get more attention than them at parties, but your whole apartment could fit in their dining room. You struggle with tuition, but their kids go off on ski weekends. You wait in line at the post office, but they have staff to do it for them.

The first time I read this, my inner smart aleck protested that you'd never see the Wall Street elite at school functions since all their kids are off at Choate or Emma Willard or some other private school. And what's that bit about struggling with tuition? Young professionals I know in New York or San Francisco can't afford private schools for their kids, many of which carry price tags as expensive as tuition at an Ivy League university. Most professionals of my acquaintance, like my sister or my cousins, have to settle for moving to a bedroom community with a good public school system. And somehow, I find his take on inequality really very odd: that Brooks believes that observing the wealthy 1% is more common than seeing the homeless in Union Square or MacArthur Park, or seeing the slums every commuter observes from the windows of the subway or BART or from one's car on the Nimitz Freeway on the south side of Oakland. I have a hard time with that since the signs of poverty are as common and frequent as every person holding a "will work for food" sign at busy intersections and highway onramps, an unavoidable sight unless you live in a gated community that you never leave. This is just one example of why I find Brooks to be a fuzzy thinker and a fuzzy writer.

The quality of the New York Times' conservative editorialists has suffered since the late William Safire retired, sad to say. I do find it interesting that Brooks seems to assume that the reader has already read Piketty's book with its hefty retail price of $39.95 (and only $21.99 on Kindle!) but the devil's advocate in me wants to point out that Brooks' piece is an editorial, not a book review.

Out of the several of pieces from the Wall Street Journal ("WSJ") on Piketty's book, I will use just the one I mentioned above since I find it representative of many of the WSJ editorials I've read in recent years. I have to delineate between the old WSJ and the new because I find the WSJ just isn't what it used to be after Murdoch bought it. The amount of criticism of business and politics on the editorial page has declined and some topics, like racism and workplace discrimination, don't even appear anymore. I'm not alone in thinking the WSJ has strayed from its former standards of superior business reporting and analysis as any search on "Wall Street Journal changes since Murdoch" will show. The discussions on the changes at the WSJ at would be a good place to start for those who are interested.

For me, the new style of WSJ editorials tend to feel like varsity versions of the junior varsity "commentary" reporting at Fox News. Strawman arguments, name calling and other forms of ad hominem attacks never used to show up at the WSJ but subtle forms of these are now not uncommon. Here's an example from the WSJ book review by Wall Street insider Shuchman:

"the author believes that no CEO could ever justify his or her pay based on performance. He doesn't say whether any occupation—athletes? physicians? economics professors who sell zero-marginal-cost e-books for $21.99 a copy?—is entitled to higher earnings because he does not wish to 'indulge in constructing a moral hierarchy of wealth.' "

Wow. Strawman and ad hominem all in one sentence! I'm going to resist the temptation here to ponder whether Shuchman perhaps found Piketty's commentary on exploding executive salaries a little too close to home. Someone please pass me my 6-pack of mice! For myself, I find nothing wrong with Piketty's desire to avoid the creation of a "moral hierarchy of wealth" where one's worth in life is measured only in terms of how much you earn. Despite the common American failing to use wealth as a measure of social standing and personal worth, it is not true that any given physician is a better person than a house wife raising a pack of children, or that a best seller author is a better person a truck driver, or that a Wall Street fund manger is a better person than a bank teller. Methinks that Shuchman doth protest too much.

I find that this sort of subtle nastiness has infected the op-ed pages of the WSJ since its takeover by Murdoch's media empire. As I pointed out in an earlier blog post (, this is the new Murdoch-owned WSJ where one editorialist claimed that:

"Pipelines also tend not to go straight through exposed population centers like Lac-Mégantic."

If you recall, this brilliant example of cluelessness was out of an editorial titled "Can Environmentalists Think?" It makes me wonder if the op-ed page editor was asleep when this was submitted. Unfortunately, this is the sort of snarkiness one can expect out of the WSJ these days. I find it incredibly sad because I used to really love the WSJ with its deep and nuanced reporting on business, which was unique and every bit as good as the Economist but on a daily basis. But things have changed since the buy-out of the WSJ's parent corp Dow Jones and over a hundred journalists fled for other news outlets, which would be a devastating loss for any news organization (ref: I think the only reason I still subscribe to the WSJ is for fodder for this blog. Really.

Moving on to the book review in the Economist, it has everything that one expects from this premier European economic weekly: a good overview of what the book is about, an appreciation of Piketty's attempt to tie economic trends to modern philosophical and cultural trends and a list of both good and bad aspects in Piketty's analysis. Where the WSJ book review ridiculed Piketty's invocation of literature and culture in his analysis of the use of capital in modern societies, including Communist ones, the Economist's review discussed the value of examining economic theory from different cultural perspectives that change over time. This review was comprehensive, nuanced and sophisticated. The unnamed author of the review did not pull punches where he or she saw gaps in Piketty's assumptions or disagreed with Piketty's conclusions, but those criticisms were delivered ever so politely, demonstrating that disagreement doesn't have to be wrapped in nastiness or sarcasm. The review in the Economist makes me want to read Piketty's book for myself. This is the sort of journalism that one expects from the Economist and it's one of the reasons why I adore this weekly. If you have never sampled the joys of intelligent business-oriented news and analysis in the Economist, you should take the time to check it out.

The treatment of Piketty's book by Forbes is interesting and in-character for this maverick of American business reporting. While the article I cited earlier is intelligent and perceptive, it's only one in a whole series of a planned examination by Forbes on the different aspects of Piketty's book. Going over to the Forbes website, a search on "Piketty" returns 15 already-written articles and blogs on his book plus several others discussing Piketty in general or in comparison to other economists of international standing. Well, that's Forbes for you. Like the eccentric and flamboyant members of the Forbes family who founded and ran this magazine, one never knows quite what to expect but whatever it turns out to be, it will be interesting. Given the sheer number of divergent opinions on Piketty reflected in the Forbes articles, I know I have revised my opinion on Forbes upwards.

Red Bashing

Now there's one thing about the Piketty book that I've not discussed yet, and that is Piketty's treatment of Marx. Piketty's specialty in economics is economic inequality and on that subject he apparently takes some of what Marx said seriously. Keep in mind that Piketty is a French economist working and teaching in France, a place where words like "socialist" or "communist" are not necessarily the lies of Satan straight out of the Necronomicon. Since he doesn't have to worry about the American tenure system for academics, examining the theories of Marx with something other than condemnation does not carry the risk of career suicide that it would be in the U.S. of A. Apparently, Piketty makes some very un-American suggestions to combat what he believes is an irreversible run-away spiral of wealth inequality a la Marx, like a world-wide 80% tax on income from capital gains - well, that's the impression I get from that pile of informative Forbes articles. David Brooks at the New York Times was dead on the money for once when he wrote that such a global wealth tax was the product of a utopian idealist.

Now saying that something in Marx might be right is enough to invoke a lynch mob in these parts. Only one of the Piketty reviews (Auerbach at Slate) noted that not only did Piketty agree with some observations by Marx but that he also had lots to say about where Marx got it wrong. This left me wondering about the potential lack of balanced reporting on Piketty's book and about possible trends of pinko commie bashing in Piketty book reviews and editorials. So I made a completely unscientific random survey of reviews and commentary, and my results are listed below:

  • New York Times - Krugman: no mention of anything like Marx or commies (
  • New Tork Times - Brooks: offhand neutral remark about Marxism (
  • Wall Street Journal - Shuchman: red bashing (
  • Wall Street Journal - Paletta: no mention of Marx (
  • National Review - Pethokoukis: red bashing (
  • Slate - Auerbach: neutral observation on Piketty's treatment of Marx (
  • Slate - Weissmann: offhand neutral mention of Marx (
  • Economist - anon.: neutral mention of Marx's theories (
  • Forbes - Winship: neutral mention of Marx's theories (
  • American Enterprise Institute - Hassett: neutral mention of Marx's theories (
  • Salon - O'Hehir: rightwing conservative bashing (
  • Salon - Donovan: rightwing conservative bashing (
  • New Yorker - Cassidy: neutral mention of Marx's theories, neutral observations on Piketty's treatment of Marx (
  • Rush Limbaugh Show - Limbaugh: red bashing squared (
  • Bloomberg - Crook: minor neutral mention of Marx (
  • Naked Capitalism - "Rumplestatskin": no mention of Marx (

This list is interesting. I was surprised by the lack of red bashing from Hassett at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. Pethkoukis, a career red basher at the the National Review also publishes stuff through the American Enterprise Institute and he seldom passes up the opportunity to spout anti-commie utterances. I guess this means that the American Enterprise Institute doesn't insist on red bashing but they don't ban it either.

What really surprised me was Salon, which I have liked over the years. A double whammy of conservative bashing was not what I expected but the facts are staring me in the face: Salon does not ban the bashing of conservatives and conservative ideas. My opinion of Salon has been revised downward. Sic transit gloria salon.

Biased Journalism

My big point in this digression is that a review or commentary of someone's controversial work can be more reflective of the person who writes it or the publication in which it appears than it is of the work being discussed. This idea popped into my brain after I read Krugman's column and Brooks' column back-to-back. Neither column told me much about Piketty's book but each spoke volumes to me on the signature writing styles of these two columnists. I then visited several other newspaper and magazine websites to test my hypothesis. To a first approximation, I think my observation is correct with one caveat. Here's the caveat: the shorter the review or commentary, the more likely it reflects the opinions of its author or publisher and the less likely it is to inform the reader about the content of the work under discussion. But don't take my word for this. Run your own test of this hypothesis and make up your own mind on this matter.

I think it's good to test this hypothesis on a subject you don't care much about or on a issue where you don't already have a strong opinion formed. Like me this morning, if you know nothing about the celebrated international French economist Thomas Piketty, then run your experiment on his book Capital. If you are already informed about Piketty's Capital, then pick a different subject you don't know much about. Next, make a list of news outlets and/or authors along with your own evaluation of whether they are liberal vs. conservative and cursory vs. detailed. Then visit each news outlet or author on your list and look at the political orientation for each article you find discussing your chosen subject. The gig here is not whether you agree or disagree with the opinions you find, but rather what the political orientation might be for any author or news outlet. Also look at each piece of reporting as to whether it delivers facts and observations and whether it resorts to arm-waving, grandstanding, ad hominem attacks and other opinion-manipulation tricks like strawman arguments. Be aware that any given piece of writing may include both factual content and rhetorical tricks. The purpose of the exercise is to measure factual reporting vs. political bias. You might learn something new about who does a good or bad job reporting the news. I certainly did.

Post Script 1:

I haven't read Piketty's book. At $22 for an ebook version, I find the price a bit too high. I'll wait for the library to get a copy or will pick up a copy in a few months for a few bucks at a used book store. While I will slap down $40 for a good science book, like the American Chemical Society overview on the chemistry of paper that I just picked up, I find that most tomes on economic theory are tedious and uninteresting. Molecules are much more engaging that monetary supply and macro-economibarf. I dropped the one economics class I tried in college. I'd rather decline verbs in Latin or wash dishes. So no, I'm going to pass on reading this tome of economic theory until I can borrow it or buy it cheap. That's why this post is about bias in the journalistic reactions to this book and not about the book itself.

Economics. Blech!

Post Script 2:

Of all the articles I've read on this book, John Cassidy's review in the New Yorker ( is by far the best: balanced, detailed and interesting. I almost bought a copy of Capital in the Twenty-First Century after reading this review before sanity reasserted itself.

Economics. Blech! Just because I sometimes write about economics doesn't mean that I like economics.

Notes on References: all the URLs listed in this blog post were accessed on 26 April 2014.

Thursday 26 December 2013

The Last Imperial Russian Ball - 1903 or 1913?

I came across a Facebook post by a friend with a link to a lavish blog from Russia that was pure drooling eye candy, being a layout of photos of the costumes for a costume ball held by the court of the last Tsar of Russia in 1903. It really is worth a look-see. You can find it at: (accessed 24 Dec 2013). My only complaint is the title, which is: The Last Ball of Imperial Russia.

When I first saw the title, I was somewhat confused. Here's why: the second- and third-to-last scenes in the 2002 film The Russian Ark are touted in the literature on that amazing film as a complete reenactment of the last ball of Imperial Russia, held in 1913 in the Winter Palace of St. Petersburg.

Suffering from the disease of leaving no discongruent fact unresearched, I had to solve this conundrum, lest I spend a fretful night unable to sleep due to terminal curiousity. Here's what I turned up:

There was a ball in 1913 at the Winter Palace, so I rembered that correctly. The ball was held in honor of the Tercentenary of the Romanov Dynasty. I found a pinterest webpage of memorabilia of the Romanov Tercentenary at (accessed 23 Dec 2013). Translating the invitation on the pinterest page into English, I did not fail to notice that the invitation was issued on the authority of “The Grand Marshal and the Marshals of the Nobility of the Province of St. Petersburg.” In other words, the impression is that the nobility of St. Petersberg are the folks holding the ball, regardless of the venue being the official residence of the Tsar, though in reality his family didn't really live there. They much preferred to reside at a palace in the countryside less than 20 miles to the south called Tsarskoe Selo, though they did occupy the Winter Palace on those occasions when the business of the realm and court demanded they do so. The relationship between the Winter Palace and Tsarskoe Selo is somewhat analogous to Buckingham Palace and Winsor Palace today.

The 1913 Tercentenary Ball was the last imperial ball of the Romanovs, though to be absolutely fair, the claim on the Viola blog for 1903 ball and my assertion on the 1913 ball can both be considered not incorrect, depending on how you split hairs. The ball in 1903 was the last formal ball where there was an involved codified protocol manged by the court, with invitations from the Tsar which were essentially royal commands to show-up (ref: The Court of the Last Tsar,: Pomp, Power and Pageantry in the Reign of Nicholas II, by Greg King, 2008, John Wiley & Sons Inc.). After 1903, there appear to be no balls at the Winter Palace whatsoever until 1913, as far as I can tell from a day or so of searching through reliable reference materials available in English.

One could claim, on splitting hair grounds, that the 1913 ball at the Winter Palace not really an official imperial ball because it was not held by the Romanovs per se - it was held by "the nobility" in honor of the Romanovs on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Romanov dynasty, as part of a half-a-year's worth of celebrations starting in St. Petersburg and then extending across Russia. A careful reading of the text on the invitation makes it clear that the ball was not held by the Romanovs but for the Romanovs. It certainly did not follow the old codified schedule and set-up of the old formal imperial balls; however, the wording of the invitation shouldn't be taken at face value. The celebrations and ceremonies of the Romanov Tercentenary were a Romanov state production, and the subset Winter Palace ball was held in the official residence of the reigning Romanovs, a function planned by the Romanov court along with a complicit Romanov Tsar. An official painting commemorating the event was completed by the artist Dmitry Karnovsky in 1915 and hangs in the Hermitage Museum on the grounds of the Winter Palace complex today (a good online image is available from the Hermitage at (accessed 26 Dec 2013). A brief account of the event can be found in Baroness Sophie Buxhoveden's 1928 biobraphy of the Tsarina, The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, which you can read online at (accessed 23 Dec 2013). The aforementioned book on the court of Nicholas II by Greg King contains a sad, poignant and detailed account of how the Romanovs totally blew their last good opportunity presented by the Tercentenary to generate some positive PR for their failing reign, well worth the reading if you have access to this fine and deeply-researched book.

So, the 1903 was the last official formal imperial ball held by the Romanovs at the Winter Palace. The 1913 ball was the last imperial ball at the Winter Palace, held in honor of the Romanovs at their Tercentenary celebration. The distinction is a hair-splitting one since the 1913 ball certainly could not have been held without the approval, input, planning and cooperation of the Tsar and his family; and the Tsar, Tsarina and the two oldest grand duchesses attended it.

Post script

If you haven't heard of or seen the 2002 film Russian Ark, consider seeing this gem. It's the only feature length film ever shot in one continuous take, on site at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It's a near-surreal journey through different scenes from Russian history that occurred in the Winter Palace filmed in the very rooms where they happened, narrated by an unnamed narrator and the early 19th century French diplomat Marquis de Custine. The dialog is available only as English subtitles to folks like us but it's a visual and historical feast nonetheless. The first Catherine the Great scene is funny and the second is touching and kinda sad. The Tercentenary Ball scenes will blow your mind – they look just like the Karnovsky painting and the orchestra plays the music that was played at the affair in 1913. (My source for this is off the film notes flyer that came in the DVD box of my copy of this film, plus the extra feature on the DVD on the making of the film).

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Herodotus and the Etruscan DNA

Today's installment of someone being wrong on the internet is the consequence of watching classic silent movies three evenings ago. I couldn't help but notice the really beautiful lorica segmata worn by the rank and file Roman soldiers in the MGM 1926 silent film version of Ben Hur. On the viewing agenda, Ben Hur was followed by the 1914 Italian silent classic Cabiria. Being one of those people who notices the sins of Hollywood, as one might put it, when it comes to accuracy in historical costuming, it did not escape my notice that the armor in this earlier film didn't match the quality in Ben Hur. The Roman armor looked to me to be later in style than the second Punic War, the conflict around which the plot of the movie revolves. Now, not being up on my armor for Carthaginian armies, I started looking stuff up on the internet for descriptions of the armor worn by Carthaginian and Numidian armies at the time of the second and third Punic Wars.

One website I landed on was a blog at, which as far as I can tell has its ownership hidden from all whois and other DNS type searches. I find this suspicious since the layout and art on this “blog” are eye candy to make renowned military artist Angus McBride weep - that's how good the production values are on this website. Most of the illustrations look like they walked right off the pages of an Osprey book. In fact, I have already identified several illustrations on this site with ones in Osprey Books. After looking carefully at the site and searching for any ownership or attribution info, it appears that many of the articles on this blog have been “reblogged” from other sites. In other words, the contents seem to be “borrowed” from other military history sites, though direct attribution is copious missing and the only attributions on the “reblogging” that I can find is hiding deep down on the right hand column after scrolling down many many many feet. I could have said inches but using “feet” here instead is actually not an exaggeration – no kidding!

Since it is a site with a commercial sponsor in Australia, and since it has prominent links to several websites like Osprey and several wargaming companies, it's possible that there is some behind-the-scenes arrangement between this “blog” and these companies. Regardless, it's still a site conspicuous for its lack of attribution. It's quite scary. The site seems to claim that it's been around since 2005 which makes me really wonder. Something doesn't compute here for me. All the text is well written and the art is lovely. It really is eye candy. It's a website that is begging to be read. I certainly spent a while roaming around on it.

I sorted out all the “blog posts” indexed as “Roman” ( , accessed 21 Dec 2013) and browsed through them looking for stuff on the Punic Wars. On my way through the material, I noticed the following post from November 6, 2013 titled Early Etruscan-Roman Wars ( , accessed 21 Dec 2013) posted by one Mitch Williamson. This is even more disturbing since I have identified that the text of this article is actually out of a book called the Dictionary of Wars, 3rd Edition, edited by one George C. Kohn, published by Facts On File Inc. of New York City, c. 2007. There's a list of 9 contributing writers to the Dictionary of Wars. Mitch Williamson isn't one of them. The text in the blog article and the Dictionary of Wars are an exact match. There is no acknowledgment whatsoever of where the text came from.

Regardless of attribution problems, someone was wrong on the internet. The beginning of the Etruscan blog post, which is the same as part of the entry on Etruscan wars in the Dictionary of Wars, is where the mistake lies. It's a mistake as old as Herodotus. Well, to be frank, it's debatable if there is a mistake per se. It's one of things that's not a settled matter, as I will attempt to explain. It's an item that's still the subject of active modern debate.

Okay – here's the text from the blog and the Dictionary of Wars:

About 800 B.C.E., migrants from Anatolia (Turkey) brought to Italy the high culture of the Bronze and Iron ages. Named Tyrrhenoi by the Greeks (whence, Tyrrhenian) and Tusci by the Latins (whence, Tuscany), they called themselves the Rasenna. We know them as the Etruscans.

Yep, the above text is today's example of being wrong on the internet. It's a lovely little story but its veracity is in doubt, but for reasons that you probably don't expect, which strangely enough have everything to do with the scientific method and creation of scientific consensus. But our starting point is in the middle of the first millenium B.C.

As far as anyone can tell, the first person to claim a tie between Anatolia and Etruria was Herodotus. Herodotus's connection was seconded by Vergil a few hundred years later. This account is at variance with somewhat confused connections between the Etruscans, the Attic Pelasgians and the island of Lemnos mentioned by Thucydides, his contemporary Hellenikos, and Sophocles. To add to the confusion, the first century B.C. Dionysus of Halicarnassus, who specifically disagreed with both Herodotus's and Thucydides's claims; instead he argued that the Etruscans were an autochtonous people. As we look as these accounts from classical antiquity, keep in mind that the Greek name for the Etruscans was the Tyrrhenians, give or take a letter here and there for minor variations of time and place.

The story starts with Herodotus in one of those tangential asides that pepper his Histories. The tangent in question is about a famine in the country of Lydia and how that led to the migration of the Etruscans. Lydia was the name of a country in east central Anatolia. In the early first millenium B.C., before the rise of Athens, Sparta, Macedonia, or Rome as powers, there were a number of small kingdoms like Lydia which were eventually gobbled up by the formation of Cyrus's Persia.

Here's Herodotus's account (Histories 1:84) which I swiped from the excellent Perseus website of classical sources at Tufts University:

The customs of the Lydians are like those of the Greeks, except that they make prostitutes of their female children. They were the first men whom we know who coined and used gold and silver currency; and they were the first to sell by retail. And, according to what they themselves say, the games now in use among them and the Greeks were invented by the Lydians: these, they say, were invented among them at the time when they colonized Tyrrhenia. This is their story: In the reign of Atys the son of Manes their king there came to be a grievous dearth over the whole of Lydia; and the Lydians for a time continued to endure it, but afterwards, as it did not cease, they sought for remedies; and one devised one thing and another of them devised another thing. And then were discovered, they say, the ways of playing with the dice and the knucklebones and the ball, and all the other games excepting draughts (for the discovery of this last is not claimed by the Lydians). These games they invented as a resource against the famine, and thus they used to do:--on one of the days they would play games all the time in order that they might not feel the want of food, and on the next they ceased from their games and had food: and thus they went on for eighteen years. As however the evil did not slacken but pressed upon them ever more and more, therefore their king divided the whole Lydian people into two parts, and he appointed by lot one part to remain and the other to go forth from the land; and the king appointed himself to be over that one of the parts which had the lot to stay in the land, and his son to be over that which was departing; and the name of his son was Tyrsenos. So the one party of them, having obtained the lot to go forth from the land, went down to the sea at Smyrna and built ships for themselves, wherein they placed all the movable goods which they had and sailed away to seek for means of living and a land to dwell in; until after passing by many nations they came at last to the land of the Ombricans, and there they founded cities and dwell up to the present time: and changing their name they were called after the king's son who led them out from home, not Lydians but Tyrsenians, taking the name from him. (ref: , accessed 22 Dec 2013)

Yep, that's Herodotus for you. Not only is he accounted as the first historian, a claim probably makes Thucydides roll in his grave (see , accessed Dec 24 2013), he is also one of the first exemplars of rambling unfocused prose and the father of all tangential asides. Now compare Herodotus with Thucydides's take on the Etruscans (Peloponnesian War 4:109), again swiped from the Perseus site at Tufts:

In the same winter the Megarians recovered their Long Walls which had been in the hands of the Athenians and razed them to the ground. After the taking of Amphipolis, Brasidas and his allies marched to the so-called Actè, or coastland, which runs out from the canal made by the Persian King and extend into the peninsula; it ends in Athos, a high mountain projecting into the Aegean sea. There are cities in the peninsula, of which one is Sanè, an Andrian colony on the edge of the canal looking towards the sea in the direction of Euboea; the others are Thyssus, Cleonae, Acrothoi, Olophyxus, and Dium; their inhabitants are a mixed multitude of barbarians, speaking Greek as well as their native tongue. A few indeed are Chalcidian; but the greater part are Pelasgians (sprung from the Tyrrhenians who once inhabited Lemnos and Athens), or Bisaltians, Crestonians, Edonians. They all dwell in small cities. Most of them joined Brasidas, but Sane and Dium held out; whereupon he remained there for a time and wasted their territory. (ref: , accessed 23 Dec 2013)

The above accounts should be compared to their critique by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in his Roman Antiquities, which I swiped from Bill Thayer's eclectic but still marvelous Lacus Curtius website of primary and secondary classical sources, once hosted at classics department at the University of Kansas, but now hosted by the University of Chicago:

I am persuaded that the Pelasgians are a different people from the Tyrrhenians. And I do not believe, either, that the Tyrrhenians were a colony of the Lydians; for they do not use the same language as the latter, nor can it be alleged that, though they no longer speak a similar tongue, they still retain some other indications of their mother country. For they neither worship the same gods as the Lydians nor make use of similar laws or institutions, but in these very respects they differ more from the Lydians than from the Pelasgians. Indeed, those probably come nearest to the truth who declare that the nation migrated from nowhere else, but was native to the country, since it is found to be a very ancient nation and to agree with no other either in its language or in its manner of living. And there is no reason why the Greeks should not have called them by this name, both from their living in towers and from the name of one of their rulers. The Romans, however, give them other names: from the country they once inhabited, named Etruria, they call them Etruscans, and from their knowledge of the ceremonies relating to divine worship, in which they excel others, they now call them, rather inaccurately, Tusci, but formerly, with the same accuracy as the Greeks, they called them Thyoscoï. Their own name for themselves, however, is the same as that of one of their leaders, Rasenna. (ref:*.html, accessed 22 Dec 2013)

As you can see, Dionysius of Halicarnassus ripped the theories of both Herodotus and Thucydides as to the origins of the Etruscans, a.k.a. the Tyrrhenians, preferring instead to argue that the Etruscans were autochthonous based on the dissimilarity of their language and culture to any other he knew of.

I find it rather amusing that the great authorities of classical antiquity could find no grounds for agreement as far as the Etruscan were concerned. Regarding the passage from the Dictionary of Wars vis a vis the disturbing “blog,” when one takes a look around the internet for evidence of a modern consensus or body of arguments on this matter, a superficial look at any given internet search seems to favor an Anatolian origin for the Etruscans on the basis of recent ethnogenetic research. For example, a Google search on the words “Etruscan origin” turned up the following top level picks, listed here in order with my personal evaluation of each link:


Etruscan origins - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia -

A very brief and not comprehensive review of origin theories which appears to be balanced – though leaning toward the Anatolian origin theory early on - until you get to the last section, which is on genetic research citing three academic journal articles from 2004 and 2007 arguing for a genetic tie between Tuscany and Anatolia. The stacking of these journal articles in the very last section of the Wikipedia entry leaves an impression that the Anatolian origin theory has a basis supported by newly-published research. The existence of other recent research that argues against the Anatolia origin theory is not mentioned at all.

Etruscan civilization - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia -

Contains a brief and balanced outline of various origin theories without favoring any.

Origins of the Etruscans - San Jose State University -

A somewhat rambling account of various origin theories which ambles around to a favorable presentation of the Anatolian origin theory through mentioning – not properly citing – the two 2007 genetics papers already cited in the Wikipedia origins article. I support my admittedly snarking stance on the failure to properly cite on the basis that the author of this web page is a faculty member at San Jose State with a Ph.D. in economics. Though history is not his field, with his credentials as a university professor he has no excuse for putting such a poor example of citation practice up on the web. Though I admit this is personal opinion, and while I myself don't always follow strict formal form for my own citations on this website, I have to note that one of the mentions of the 2007 genetics articles on this webpage would have been difficult to find if I did not already have a full citation that I found beforehand through PubMed ( , one of the foremost bibliographic aggregator sites for research on the organic chemistry/biology/medical side of science); at least I follow the rule that any citation must easily lead to source cited, however sloppy with formal citation I may be. I also note that this webpage does cite one source, The Etruscans (Penguin, 1956) by the famous 20th century Italian classicist and archeologist, Massimo Pallottino, a work that leaned strongly toward an autochthonous origin for the Etruscans. (Pallottino was a great Scholar, capital S intended; read his obituary in New York Times:

Origins of the Etruscans: Was Herodotus right? - The New York Times -

This is a 2007 New York Times article that mentions three of the four aforementioned genetics articles. While it does a good job of outlining the general lie of the land for Etruscan origin theories to date, including some cogent scientific criticism of one of the genetics articles, it leans toward favoring the Anatolian origin theory.

The History of Etruria - The Mysterious Etruscans -‎

Presenting a balanced review of origins theories, this is an impressive and well-done site, which appears to be maintained by one Jim Penny who has an Australian domain email address. Whoever Jim Penny may be, his website on Etruria, including a page on Etruscan history with an extensive origins section, is comprehensive and full of mentions of both classical sources and notable Etruscan scholarship; however, the history and origins page lacks any direct citations to the sources and scholars mentioned, which is maddening given how well-written it is. There is a bibliography page for the site ( ) which lists several reputable secondary sources on the Etruscans as well as a list of web links with comments on the websites listed; though it appears there are no references with dates later than 2001, so the site and its content might be slightly dated. Regardless, this is a very impressive site in my opinion, enough so that I bookmarked it for later pleasurable internet grazing.

Who Were the Etruscans? - Ancient / Classical History – Recent work on DNA in cattle suggests Herodotus may have been right -

A favorable take on the Anatolian origin theory.

Dienekes' Anthropology Blog: Etruscan mtDNA origins (Ghirotto et al. 2013) – : Feb 8, 2013 - So, it would seem that the inferred dates are incompatible with a folk migration model of Etruscan origins...

This blog post is a brain buster. To put it in a teacup, the blog discusses a recent 2013 genetics paper on Etruscan origins, which presents some new DNA analysis and argues that based on both results and examination of previous studies, the research of the the past decade does not support that the Etruscans had an Anatolian origin as young as the first or second millenium B.C., as suggested by Herodotus; but that a Anatolian origin greater than 5000 years ago can't be disproved given the current opus of published data.

The enigma of Italy's ancient Etruscans is finally unravelled -

This is a 2007 article on the website for the Guardian News and Media Ltd., a UK media outlet favoring the Anatolian, possibly Trojan(!), origin for the Etruscans, based on the aforementioned four 2007 genetics articles plus one previously unmentioned 2004 genetics journal article.

Latin Alphabet and Etruscans of Turkic Origin !!! - 700 BC – YouTube -

Someone's You Tube “video” (it's really a slide show with music) about how everything Etruscan, Roman, Greek, and all European derivatives since are all the invention of Kazakhstan Turks, and that Western historians are complicit in a conspiracy to hide this from the world! Here's a direct quote: “All the inventions of Turkic Etruscans are today owned by Europeans: Greco-Roman wrestling, the emancipation of women, democracy, architecture, (the) alphabet, horse breeding, metallurgy, craftsmanship, supply of water..., data processing system (sic).” My opinion on this rather entertaining offering is that it is a marvel of pseudo-scientific pseudo-history, complete with emotional appeal, conspiracy theory and subjective validation. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to do one's own critical analysis for why this is so. A decent basic primer on the earmarks of pseudo-science and other pseudo-research can be found at (accessed 23 Dec 2013).

- - - END OF LIST - - -

To sum up the results of this example of an internet search on the origins of the Etruscans, out of the eight sites served up by Google there were five sites accessible to the non-specialist public favoring genetic links between Anatolia and Etruria, two sites accessible to the non-specialist public presenting a balanced presentation of several different Etruscan origin theories, one site presenting a nuanced rejection of an Anatolian origin for the Etruscans prior to 5000 years ago but not accessible to a non-specialist academic audience, and one site offering a You Tube pseudo-science-style presentation that the Etruscans were not only the cornerstone founding culture behind all subsequent European advancements, but they were actually Turks originating from Kazakhstan.

There are days my flabber gets gasted. The You Tube offering succeeded in doing so.

I will also note that every time I do a search on the two words “Etruscan origins” I get slightly different results off of Google, especially with changes in capitalization and plural vs. singular – it's really quite interesting watching the results change from search to search with small word variations and also with time. Try your own google searches on Etruscan origins and see what results you get and how they might vary from search to search.

But back to my search. I find it quite disturbing that two media outlets, namely the often tawdry Guardian as well as the presumably gold-standard New York Times, both highlighted recent genetic research as favoring an Anatolian origin for the Etruscans despite the existence of reputable research disputing such an origin as well as the established arguments against such a tie on both linguistic and cultural grounds. These two articles from the internet search are examples of how modern media outlets can do demonstrable harm to both the public perception of academic findings and to the public perception of the progression of scientific knowledge. By reporting such research as the latest and greatest, ignoring an existing consensus to the contrary, and without any realization that peer review and research still-in-progress can and will modify the results of any research finding, such reporting adds to the lack of public understanding of how the work of modern science progresses. Such reporting adds to the growing lack of public respect for science and other academic endeavors overall. Reporters treat papers like the 2007 genetics papers as NEWS, the LATEST and GREATEST, the NEW REVOLUTIONARY results that will REMAKE EVERYTHING we know FOR ALL TIME!!! The reporting of science usually gets packaged as the presentation of new FACTS – therein lies the rub. A result from a newly published paper may or may not be a new fact. It's really just a new result which may or may not be flawed by a goof in experimental set-up, a mistake made but not yet caught in instrumentation or procedure, a faulty assumption made in analysis, or any number of things that might call that result into question. Scientific publications are littered with the remains of published results that didn't make the cut, even when the result was right and the consensus was initially wrong. The evolution of scientific consensus can sometimes take decades, which is hardly newsworthy.

Until a result has been through the slow mill of scientific consensus, the world of science treats it as just a result to be tested, examined, discussed and argued over. A result from a new paper is really only just a data point in the evolution of scientific consensus. The process of creating that consensus – a nuanced construct that's the product of many researchers usually taking years - is completely invisible to the world of news reporting. To the world of reporting - with its attention span of a toddler - the long slow grind of scientific consensus is seldom news and when it is, it is usually due to getting something important terribly wrong, like the reaction of the scientific community to Wegener's theory of continental drift (, accessed 23 Dec 2013).

But enough with lamenting the state of science reporting in modern media. Let's get back to the Etruscans and their supposed origins in Anatolia. Now when I started writing this blog post, I originally envisioned making my point that the “blog” and the Dictionary of Wars got it all wrong through a list of journal articles on the subject of Etruscan-related genetics, based on searches I did through online science publication indices on the American Association for the Advancement of Science and PubMed websites. The list, as I initially planned, would include papers both for and against DNA-based Anatolian origins for the Etruscans. Life may have proceeded as planned if I had decided to skip the classical origins of the Etruscan origins debate; but the digression on news media articles invoking the validation of Herodotus by modern genetics seemed somehow incomplete without a review of the classical debate - and then one thing led to another. Also, without those classical sources, the parallels between them and the modern debates on Etruscan origins would lose their poignancy. After all, wandering around a topic is one of the prerogatives of having one's own blog. Herodotus would be proud!

And to fill out some of that wandering, it is interesting, at least to me, that there appear to be parallels between the stances of Herodotus, Thucydides and Dionysius of Halacarnassus on the origins of the Etruscans and the various results of modern scholarship on the matter. Paralleling the arguments of Dionysus of Halicarnassus, much of the research on the Etruscans in the 20th century has been linguistic. A consensus appeared rather early on that there were no connections whatsoever between Etruscan and the Indo-European Lydian language of classical antiquity, which sinks at least Herodotus (, accessed 22 Dec 2013). The problem here is that we'd be looking at many more pages if I waded into the 20th century linguistic research on the origins of the Etruscan language. I will venture here only to state that there does seem to be a general academic consensus that Etruscan, like the better-known isolate Basque, appears not to be a member of the Indo-European family of languages (Bonfante and Bonfante, 2002, The Etruscan Language, Revised Ed., Manchester University Press, pp. 49-51; read using the preview feature of Google Books, 22 Dec 2013) (c.f.:, accessed 23 Dec 2013). To parallel Thucydides et al., I will mention in passing that the non-Greek language on the famous Lemnos stele is either considered Etruscan ( , accessed 23 Dec 2013) or in a language related to Etruscan (Bonfante and Bonfante, p. 61); though the aforementioned Massimo Pallottino pretty much sank any arguments that sought to connect the culture of any inhabitants of Attica with that of the demonstrably-unique culture of Etruria. And of course, Pallottino's now famous arguments for the indigenous development of the indigenous Villanovan and descended Etruscan culture parallel the autochthonous arguments of Dionysius of Halicarnassus.

One can argue – and some have done so – that linguistic identity, cultural identity and ethnic identity are hardly a one to one mapping. The uniqueness of both Eruscan language and culture in the Italia of the early first millenium B.C. when taken together reinforce the argument that the Etruscans are their own thing and are clearly unrelated to a migration from to or from any other studied region in classical antiquity. In light of this, any research paper arguing to the contrary should be eyeballed with deep scrutiny to test the strength of its claims. Of course, every additional paper supporting such a result lends credence to it. On the flip side, every paper with findings that argue the opposite will detract. While a simple compilation for or against is a convenient measure for the trend of a current scientific discussion, it completely ignores the more important measures that judge the internal factors of each individual study, such as the statistical significance of the samples studied, the validity of assumptions, and the viability of any comparisons made between population analogs. In the context of the current discussion, examples of these would be the statistical significance of the small sample size of 30 Etruscan remains, the validity of assuming livestock populations will reflect human population trends, and using modern populations for populations of classical antiquity, respectively.

So here's a very brief list (NOT full citations) of all relevant papers I found on PubMed that argue for a connection between the Etruscans and Anatolia during classical antiquity:

  • The Etruscans: A Population-Genetic Study, 2004, - based on comparing DNA of 30 Etruscan bone remains with west Mediterranean and modern Italian gene profiles. (In the abyssal Wikipedia article on Etruscan origins, the sample size is said to be 80, which indeed was the starting number of samples in the study, but 50 were thrown out by the researchers after they identified them as being possibly contaminated – which says something rather positive about the integrity of the researchers, all things considered.)
  • The mystery of Etruscan origins: novel clues from Bos taurus mitochondrial DNA, 2007, - argues for a connection based on the similarity betw* een the DNA of modern Tuscan and Anatolian cattle.
  • Mitochondrial DNA Variation of Modern Tuscans Supports the Near Eastern Origin of Etruscans, 2007, - compared the DNA of 322 subjects in three modern Tuscany towns with * 55 sequenced modern gene pools from “West Eurasia.”
  • The Etruscan timeline: a recent Anatolian connection, 2009, - used 258 samples from 10 known Etruscan areas of Tuscany and Elba to build a dataset which compared favorably to Anatolia DNA datasets; the study also included a succinct rebuttal of arguments over Etruscan to modern Tuscany continuity (see the “against” list of papers below) based on sample size considerations.

So here's a list of all relevent papers I found on PubMed that argue against a connection between the Etruscans and Anatolia during classical antiquity:

  • Etruscan Artifacts, 2004, - a commentary on the first paper in the “for” list, questioning an abnormal and thereby unlikely genetic haplogrouping utilized in that paper plus a questioning of a non-standard and potentially inadequate statistical methodology used for the analysis of results, both of which cast substantial doubt on that paper's conclusions.
  • On the Etruscan Mitochondrial DNA Contribution to Modern Humans, 2004, - another commentary on the first paper in the “for” list discussing that in greater detail the problem with the unusual haplogrouping of the Etruscan DNA in that paper and why it calls into question the results of that paper.
  • Serial coalescent simulations suggest a weak genealogical relationship between Etruscans and modern Tuscans, 2006, - even accounting for genetic drift and influx of new genetic types into a population, any connection between modern Tuscans and classical Etruscan is poor at best, calling into question studies showing connections between Etruria and Anatolia based on modern Tuscan genetic datasets.
  • Genealogical discontinuities among Etruscan, Medieval, and contemporary Tuscans, 2009, - comparisons of robust modern, Medieval and Etruscan DNA datasets supports a discontinuity between populations of the Tuscany/Etruria region at about 1000 AD, which undermines any studies suggesting ties between Etruria and Anatolia or anywhere else based on modern Tuscan DNA data.
  • Origins and evolution of the Etruscans' mtDNA, 2013, - statistical modeling of known DNA datasets of modern Tuscans, Medieval Tuscan remains, classical Etruscan remains, and modern Anatolians does not support a postulated tie between Tuscany/Etruria and Anatolia before 5000 years ago, well before Herodotus's suggested origin period sometime in classical antiquity. This is the same paper as was discussed in the aforementioned Dienekes' Anthropology Blog.

There! That's it! That's all I could find on PubMed: four papers in favor and two commentaries plus three papers against an Etruscan-Anatolian ethnogenetic connection. All of the papers I found on the AAAS/Science index were included in the PubMed results, so I decided to use just the PubMed references since they are both inclusive, appear to be comprehensive on the subject and are publicly available (the AAAS/Science index is available only through paid membership to AAAS, which I belong to). I'm sure I might find one or two other papers on this subject if I were to visit the journal article indices available through research library search engines like MELVYL at the University of California libraries or the URSUS system for State of Maine and University of Maine libraries, to name to such services I've used in the past. If I were working on something to publish in an academic journal, I would certainly go to the extra work such a search would require; but for doing a decent survey of what's out there on this subject in reputable journals, PubMed is more than sufficient to uncover most of the published work.

Based on the above two lists, it should be obvious that there has been a lot of exposure of just a handful of papers supporting a Etruscan-Anatolian DNA connection both in the press and on websites whose authors and readership probably lack the means to understand the scientific arguments and conclusions involved. The big to-do in the press in 2007 went far beyond the New York Times and the Guardian. Articles on the same 2007 article, the one based on modern Tuscan DNA, not the one on cow DNA, was picked up by many other news outlets including the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Science Daily, New Scientist Magazine, Eurekalert - an AAAS breaking science news service, New Republic magazine, the Chicago Tribune... Since 2007, news of the the postulated Etruscan-Anatolian DNA connection has spread all over. Now if you do a web search on word groups like “Etruscan Anatolian DNA 2007” you will get page after page of links to blogs and amateur webpages – and a few academic pages here and there – all discussing this 2007 results linking the Etruscans of classic antiquity to Anatolia, usually with invocations of Herodotus and sometimes Thucydides for all the wrong reasons.

What is also obvious is that there is another handful of papers not considered in the press and only rarely discussed on websites, usually at a level not accessible to a non-scientific public, that argue against an Etruscan-Anatolian DNA connection in classical antiquity – with arguments that appear to be just as strong and well-considered on scientific grounds. It is apparent, at least to me, that this is an issue in ethnogenetics that is still under discussion in the scientific community. The field of ethnogenetics is a very young field. The foundational papers laying out methodology and techniques are around two decades old or less. What works and what doesn't is still somewhat up in the air. The status of things like unusual haplogroups for the characterization of a populations genetic make-up and appropriate statistical methodologies are still being hashed out. None of this has been conveyed any where in the press or on non-specialist websites on the internet.

Here's the punchline that you've endured many lines of text to reach: as far as a possible ethnogenetic link between the Etruscans and Anatolia in antiquity is concerned, there does not yet appear to be a scientific consensus for or against the hypothesis presented as fact in the news in 2007 and by subsequent non-science-savvy websites and blogs since then. Previous research on linguistic and cultural ground argues against such a connection in classical antiquity.

  • Post Script 1

I feel I must admit to some personal bias in the above post since I find the autochthonous origins arguments so beautifully presented by Massimo Pallottino and supported by most modern Etruscan scholars since then to be compelling. If you graze various academic sites you will find there are some reputable scholars who do hold other viewpoints. My sampling of these has not swayed me over to any of the non-autochthonous origin theories, but complete disclosure compels me to note that I did form a personal bias in this issue during the research done for this blog post. As always the Rule of YMMV applies.

  • Post Script 2

I will be contacting Osprey Books and Facts on File Inc. about any connections they may have with the blog. The appearance of possible plagiarism bothers me.

  • Post Script 3

The Hark, a vagrant comic is a delightful send-up of all things erudite and effete in academe and Canadian history. The comic about Herodotus and Thucydides linked in the text is just one example. I also really like the one on Hume, (accessed 24 Dec 2013).

Regardless, the giant ants referred to in the Herodotus vs. Thucydides comic can be found here: (accessed 24 Dec 2013).

Monday 9 December 2013

Gush Lim-Blah and the Poop

Today's title was inspired by the ending to a now very dated satirical webcomic on Rush Limbaugh. A link to it is provided at the end of this blog post. There are so many forms of being wrong on the internet today that I have provided a list.

Today's varieties of wrongness:

  1. Name-calling
  2. Ad hominem attacks
  3. Straw man arguments
  4. Lying with Statistics
  5. Smoke and mirrors word redefinition
  6. Ignorance of the facts

Willful self-congratulatory stupidity just makes me mad, especially when the target of that stupidity is good man taking a stand against the insidious and subtle evils of the modern world. You've likely seen this subject already in the news, but unlike real paid journalists, I just can't drop everything to write stuff in an optimally timely manner. Welcome to the world of amateur blogs.

Let's introduce the players in today's melodrama of being wrong on the internet. The representative of self-congratulatory stupidity, well known throughout the free world as the flag-bearer of anti-intellectualism, is none other than that paragon of bombasticism, Rush Limbaugh. And in the role of the good man is one of the world's foremost professional good men, Pope Francis.

Okay, I admit it. I just slammed Limbaugh with some name-calling. To split hairs, it's not an ad hominem attack unless I use someone's real and/or alleged character defects as part of my argument for why someone is wrong. I haven't done that and I'm not going to do that. The messenger is not the message. All I've done so far is express my dislike for Limbaugh by sharing my opinion that the pundit is as sharp as a marble as far as critical thinking is concerned, based on my personal experience of listening to his radio show. I find he's good to listen to when I'm trying to ward off fatigue on long-distance drives: I don't fall asleep at the wheel if I'm yelling at the imbecile on the radio!

Opening Salvos

For those of you following the news, it's pretty obvious that Pope Francis has been making a lot of smart and smooth moves as covered by the world's news media, which is even more impressive when you consider that just about every thing he's done shines with authentic sincerity. On November 24, he issued his first Apostolic Exhortation called Evangelii Gaudium. The title translates to Joy in or joy of the gospels. For those of you who remember your Latin, you know there isn't an exact one-to-one mapping between evangelii and gospels. The evangelii here refers to the four evangelists, i.e. the four authors of the canonical gospels; the term evangelii can be used to refer to them or to their works. It is in this latter context that the Pope has used evangelii, so the word carries a nuance that is lost upon translation into English. It's really a lovely title with all its Latin nuances, something that only the older generations of Catholics with their exposure to church Latin would pick up on without coaching or explanation. I sometimes feel a little sorry for younger Catholics who missed out on hearing Latin mass as children, who might be forgiven for thinking that Agnus Dei was a sister of Doris whose name had been misspelled. (You can take the gal out of parochial school but you can't take the parochial school out of the gal...)

I confess that I did not bother to read Evangelii Gaudium when it came out. I tried when I was younger to slog through the various writings of Pope John Paul II. For example, I do not doubt the value of John Paul II's catechism (1,2) when it came out, but in comparison to my old Baltimore Catechism, I find the latter is clearer and easier to use. Brilliant post-Vatican II theology is all well and good but your average parishioner needs explanations of doctrine that one can put on and wear for everyday use without struggling for an out-of-reach zipper. I didn't even bother reading Pope Benedict since Benedict is a modern Catholic theologian, and like most traditional modern Catholic theologians, the man is guilty of writing truly treacle-like prose.

My familiarity with Evangelii Gaudium is all Rush Limbaugh's fault. Maybe I shouldn't feel quite so vexed with the man since I would not have sampled Pope Francis's wonderful and simple prose without Limbaugh's extraordinary reaction to it. If you're feeling brave, you can sample Limbaugh's comments on Evangelii Gaudium here: (accessed 07 Dec 2013).

It's forgivable if you give up a third of the way through. Limbaugh repeats himself in a disorganized way; and if you've read the first ten paragraphs, you've really read the whole thing. You can actually listen to the show that this transcript is from since there are links on Limbaugh's website that let you do just that. Given that I didn't need to stay awake on any long-distance drives, I myself opted to read the transcript rather than listen to the recorded show.

Reading this wonder got to me. Even without looking at Evangelii Gaudium, I knew there were a number of things where Limbaugh was way off base. Here's an example: Pope Francis's condemnation of capitalism is no great first for the Catholic Church so why is Limbaugh going off the deep end over Pope Francis's version of this? Limbaugh never said boo back in 2007 when Pope Benedict said the same thing (3) about capitalism – and in a rather public way too. For more than a century, several popes have had unkind things to say about modern market capitalism and/or the exploitation of labor (e.g.: 3,4,5,6). This stance is hardly news to your attentive Catholic. What has changed is the Catholic condemnation of communism. One used to hear the Catholic condemnation of marxist communism and its descendents, leninism and stalinism, all the time. Then after John Paul II's Centesimus Annus (4) and the subsequent post-1989 collapse of communist governments, the Church's prominent and rather constant disapproval of communism evaporated with those governments' implosions.

Centesimus Annus was hailed as one of the great all-time critiques of communism, as great as Churchill's if not more so, and its author Pope John Paul II became the darling of the free world. So great was the Church's focus on communism that people missed John Paul II's critique of capitalism in that very same document. The Church's stand on soulless capitalism, the exploitation of labor and the cult of consumerism has always been there but the condemnation of communism drowned it out before the collapse of the iron curtain. Limbaugh's radio rant on the Pope got this wrong. Limbaugh notes what he calls a switch from Catholic condemnation of communism 50 years ago to a condemnation of capitalism today; however, he is ignorant of the facts since popes have been criticizing the abuses of capitalism since at least Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (6). By the way, Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical could be considered the template from which all subsequent papal pronouncements on communism and capitalism are descended, as it employed a rigorous scriptural basis through which it protested the excesses of unrestrained capitalism; urged the intervention of governments to regulate labor conditions and economic inequality; supported unions; and slammed all things with the taint of Marx. It's forgivable for most people not to know stuff like this, since after all, the fine details of what some pope said in an encyclical over a century ago is not everyday fare over breakfast; but for a professional pundit like Limbaugh, getting this wrong through an inability or disinterest in doing one's research is rather shoddy in my book. For someone like Limbaugh this is inexcusable since he can certainly afford to hire professional researchers to prevent this sort of foot-in-mouth blunder.

What Pope Francis Really Said

At this point, it wouldn't be a bad idea to read Pope Francis's apostolic exhortation – or if you're pressed for time, just read chapter 2. It's the economics of chapter 2 that set off Limbaugh and a few others. You can check out Evangelii Gaudium here: (accessed 07 Dec 2013).

Reading chapter 2 of Evangelii Gaudium is a good idea, at least in terms of this blog post. The rest of the Pope's document deals not with economic ideas but with a critique of the internal structure of the Church and with appropriate vs. inappropriate faith-based behaviors for Catholics in the context of the modern secular and technologically-advanced world. To oversimplify the Pope's message outrageously, Pope Francis wants his Catholics to put down the Wii, the iPod and the smart phone and instead become engaged in the upfront face-to-face life of the Church and the ministry of all believers to those in need. One of his main points is that you need to follow in the footsteps of Christ, and that you can't do that if you're distanced from those in need by the isolation of our newly-born technological infrastructure; by the pursuit of wealth or material things; or by hiding behind the dogma, liturgy or bureaucracy of the Church.

The Pope was not at all speaking in theoretical terms. He did plenty of pointing fingers and serving up examples in Evangelii Gaudium. In one example, he is very specific in his criticism of armchair Christians who sit passively at comfortable distances from all forms of human trafficking and exploitation; he pulls no punch in calling such people complicit in the crimes and injustices that oppress the powerless and disadvantaged, and accuses them of having “blood on their hands” for doing nothing. In another example, he asserts that it is not enough to champion the unborn and their right to life without also responding to the disadvantages and hardships of their mothers, and to the unjust social conditions and lack of real workable alternatives that make abortion look like the simplest and easiest solution for unwanted pregnancy and the creation of broken and untenable families.

If you take the time to read Evangelii Gaudium, the global perspective of its author is clear by its end. The Pope invokes specific examples citing conditions in Africa, Oceania and Asia; he cites the failure of Western economic theory by name; and if you're up on your world affairs, you can hear the sounds of the collapsed economies and juntas of Central and South America screaming at you from between the lines. This is the first pope ever with his roots in the New World and the Third World – and those roots are definitely showing here.

What Limbaugh Got Wrong - A Partial List

Now it's a bit of a chore to slog through Limbaugh's disorganized ramblings to distill out his major criticisms of Evangelii Gaudium:

1. Limbaugh believes Catholic Church would not exist or thrive in its present form if it were not for some undefined quality of capitalism, i.e.:

“If it weren't for capitalism, I don't know where the Catholic Church would be.”

This is an interesting statement of Limbaugh's which is unsupported by any sources or real arguments. If you take a few seconds to think about it, the Roman Catholic Church was founded in the Roman Empire, a society whose economics for a half a millenium depended on slave labor, the influx of plunder from foreign conquests, and the economic rape of foreign provinces. After the fall of Rome in the West, the Church flourished for over a millenium under the feudalism, a system based on a form of slavery called serfdom and on wealth based on the finite resource of agricultural land.

Early forms of capitalism were introduced in the 16th century in Europe with the creation of the first stockholder companies, invented to fund the large capital requirements of overseas trade adventures to the East and West Indies, coastal Asia and the Americas. It is noteworthy that Spain, the largest colonizer of the Americas and Oceania, developed its colonies through initial direct investment by the crown followed by subsequent investment funded by plunder; and where colonial government was based on a hybrid feudal system which employed enslaved natives. Like Rome before it, the dominance and power of Spain declined as the influx of silver, gold and slaves from the colonies declined in the eighteenth century as South American mines were mined-out and land available to the crown for land grants vanished.

It is difficult to say when modern market capitalism really came to the fore but the 1776 publication of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations is as good a marker as any: Smith's take on free markets and the creation of wealth marks the decline of colonial mercantilism and ushers in the foundational ideas of modern economic theory. Smith recognized that in market-driven economies, wealth was not tied to finite resources like land, but rather that wealth was created through knowledge, investment, labor and market conditions. Using The Wealth of Nations as our sign post, this implies that modern capitalism based on theories of wealth creation has been around for a bit over two centuries. If we do the math, the Catholic Church has spent a huge 10% of its existence under modern capitalism. For a religion that has survived and often thrived under almost every form of government, including religion-hostile communism, Limbaugh's assertion that the Catholic Church owes its existence to capitalism seems somewhat suspect, especially when no sound argument to support the assertion was given. Saying that something ought to be doesn't make it so.

2. The Straw man argument about the Vatican and money.

Rush stated:

“I gotta be very careful.  I have been numerous times to the Vatican.  It wouldn't exist without tons of money.”

Maybe I should break these three sentences apart into smaller bites for analysis and critique; but I wanted to present them in their original arrangement to give the reader an idea of the incoherent presentation innate in this Rush Limbaugh transcript. Perhaps the first two sentences reflect Limbaugh's concern that the Inquisition may be after him. Maybe Limbaugh should stop making trips to the headquarters of a church to which he does not belong for fear that the papal secret police from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith might disappear him. Maybe Limbaugh should be seeing some professional help for that paranoia of his. Certainly if Rush Limbaugh vanishes off the streets of Rome, we now have a good idea where to start searching for him...

Now about that last sentence: I think it's a no-brainer that the Vatican would not exist without a lot of money. Buildings and their decoration cost money to build, and the Vatican houses the headquarters of the world's largest faith community. Does Limbaugh think this is not the case? Many of the world's most-famous structures were built with the resources and labor of their respective faith communities: the Shinto Temple at Nara, the now-destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan, the Hagia Sophia, the Acropolis of Athens, the Pyramids of Gaza, the Church of St. Peter on Vatican Hill, the Blue Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, the cave temples at Petra... The list could easily fill pages. My question here is what did Limbaugh intend with this statement? That money is more important than God for the inhabitants of the Vatican and the church it represents? That the great monuments of faith are somehow sullied by the wealth used to build and maintain them? Even if Limbaugh the non-Catholic Christian subscribes to the abhorrence of idolatry that's a major theme of American Protestantism, how can he justify a condemnation of adorning the places and objects of worship by the faithful when such practices are described in the Bible itself? Neither Solomon nor Josiah nor Cyrus nor Ezra were condemned for lavishing riches upon the first and second temples in Jerusalem. God himself gave Moses a shopping list of expensive luxuries for the construction of the Arc. It's okay to spend a few bucks to glorify God and adorn his shrines on Earth, so say the scriptures.

Personally, I believe this utterance about money at the Vatican is an attempt by Limbaugh to introduce a straw man argument into his critique of Pope Francis's economic criticism of the modern market economies. How much money there is or was at the Vatican has nothing to do with what the Pope thinks about the soullessness and materialism of modern culture. But that's the beauty of the straw man argument in any debate or argument: it looks related to the matter at hand when in reality it is not.

3. Limbaugh mistakes a secondary report as a primary source.

Limbaugh takes an excerpt from a Reuters wire service article ( , accessed 06 Dec 2013) and uses it as the direct utterance of the Pope rather than the secondary source that it is. Worse yet, he picked it up out of the Washington Post, not realizing that the article was off a wire service. Limbaugh then attacks various expressions from the Reuters article on the assumption they were direct quotes from the Pope when it turns out that the Pope said no such thing. This would be humorous if it weren't so pathetic.

For reference, here's what Limbaugh quotes out of the Reuter's article:

Pope Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as 'a new tyranny' and beseeched global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality, in a document on Tuesday setting out a platform for his papacy and calling for a renewal of the Catholic Church. ... In it, Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the 'idolatry of money.

I think it's worthwhile to compare the above excerpt from the Limbaugh transcript with the original article since the former is cheery-picked. It's instructive to see what got left out by Limbaugh:

(Reuters) - Pope Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as "a new tyranny" and beseeched global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality, in a document on Tuesday setting out a platform for his papacy and calling for a renewal of the Catholic Church.

The 84-page document, known as an apostolic exhortation, was the first major work he has authored alone as pope and makes official many views he has aired in sermons and remarks since he became the first non-European pontiff in 1,300 years in March.

In it, Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the "idolatry of money", and urged politicians to "attack the structural causes of inequality" and strive to provide work, healthcare and education to all citizens.

Okay, the second paragraph doesn't say anything about what the Pope wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, so dropping it isn't fatal in terms of content; however, leaving out the second half of the sentence in the third paragraph makes me wonder why Limbaugh didn't want to expose the Pope's call for politicians to address the very real problems of employment, healthcare and education in many countries around the world.

4. Limbaugh puts words in the Pope's mouth:

This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope. Unfettered capitalism? That doesn't exist anywhere.”

Of course the problem here is that the Pope never said that. “Unfettered capitalism” is from the Reuters wire service article. In fact, if you bother to do searches on the text of Evangelii Gaudium, you will find that the Pope never once uses the word “capitalism” in his text. Not once!

It occurs to me that my point 3, mistaking secondary sources for primary sources, may be the same as my point 4, putting words into the Pope's mouth. It's a good day to split hair so go for it if you want to split this one.

5. Limbaugh does not demonstrate a basic understanding of the economic systems he discusses.

I'm not sure that “discuss” is the right word here for what Limbaugh does. Invoke? Mention? Throw out as pejoratives? I'm open to suggestions.

Limbaugh is correct in recognizing that there is no pure unregulated market economy based on the modern capitalistic concepts of wealth creation. That's not really saying much since there never has been a pure unregulated capitalistic economy anywhere in all of history. Such a thing is impossible, for the simple reason that as a bare minimum every modern market economy regulates at least its money supply. On the flip side, in his next breath, Limbaugh equates the Pope's non-quote about the evils of the unfettered capitalism with pure Marxism.

I have to wonder if Limbaugh knows what pure Marxism is or if he has ever tried to read and understand Marx. After all, if you don't understand the political and/or economic theory of the system that you oppose, then how do you know what it is that you're really against? The simple answer is that you can't. You have to know and understand your opposition in order to effectively oppose them. Calling a criticism of unfettered or unregulated capitalism an utterance of pure Marxism says to me that Limbaugh does not know what he's talking about. He displays no real understanding of what Marxism is, nor does he understand the differences between pre-Marx theories of socialism, communistic vanguardisms such as Leninism or Stalinism, and the many non-Marxist forms of socialism, theoretical or applied such as the theories of John Stuart Mill or the hybrid Doi Moi socialist market economy of Vietnam. If Limbaugh took the few hours it takes to understand the words he uses, he might not have said anything so stupid as equating criticism of capitalism with pure Marxism, assuming that this isn't just a cynical exercise of demagoguery on his part After all, if we take criticisms of unregulated capitalism and put them into the mouths of politicians and economists who made the same or similar utterances, we would have to label Teddy Rooseveldt, Dwight Eisenhauer, and Milton Friedman as persons all guilty of having pure Marxism coming out of their mouths.

I'm all ears, actually if Limbaugh could possibly discuss how the Pope's criticism of unregulated capitalism is the same as the two fundamental concepts of Marx's theories, that 1) the goods and services produced by a society be divided according to both the contributions and the needs of each individual; and that 2) political and economic systems evolve through time, moving beyond primitive systems like superstitious God-shackled feudalism and refining to more advanced forms like capitalism, followed by socialism and finally reaching a pinnacle in communism. Given that Limbaugh seems to know nothing substantial about non-capitalistic economic theories, since he never uses words like Marxism, communism or socialism in ways that might exhibit that knowledge, but rather since he uses these words only as interchangeable pejoratives, I have no expectation that he understands anything outside of the voodoo supply-side economics he espouses – and to be truthful, I have to wonder if he even understands that. The bulk of his utterances over the years seems to suggest that he does know the meanings of the terms he throws around with such disregard, and that he cynically does not care since accuracy and intellectual honesty would not serve his purposes of rabble rousing and demagoguery. Well, to be honest, that's my personal opinion of Limbaugh's purposes; your own take on what it is that Limbaugh hopes to achieve may vary.

There are a lot of people out there on the conservative side of American politics like Limbaugh who are unrestrained in labeling anything they don't like as Marxism or communism or socialism or unamericanism or liberalism; and the reality is that they are using these words as pejoratives in contexts well outside of their dictionary definitions. Frankly, this is a form of intellectual dishonesty which people like Limbaugh exploit and unfortunately, there is no way to prevent this abuse of words so long as the these merchants of cultural discord do not cross the legal line of committing torts of slander and libel. What I find most disturbing is that this cynical shifting of the meaning and usage of words isn't harmless. It actually is a rather effective tool in the practice of propaganda, one that was employed brilliantly by the Nazis, no less. I don't think I exaggerate here. I have several sources on my bookshelf that describe this practice. Two I would recommend are the comprehensive but sometimes difficult Inhumanities, by David Dennis (2012, Cambridge University Press) and the shorter, accessible and beautifully presented State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda, by Susan Bachrach and Steven Luckert (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2009).

6. Examples of Limbaugh's Pejoratives

Here's something interesting and germane from Limbaugh's radio transcript on the subject of what constitutes Marxism:

Now, by the way, in fairness to the pope and in fairness to the Catholic Church, I will admit that communism years ago was much easier to see and identify than it is today.  And the obvious evil that was communism was easy to see.  Soviet-sponsored communism, the gulags, the First World military with the Third World economy, the blustery behavior of Soviet Communist Party bosses, the constant Soviet expansionism into Cuba and Sandinista land and Nicaragua and everywhere. Communism today is much more disguised. Communism today, in large part, is the Democrat Party.  Communism today is in large part the feminist movement. Communism today is found in most of the AFL-CIO-type unions.  As such, it seems just a political point of view.  It's just an alternative political point of view.  It's just the Democrats, and it's a much tougher thing to identify and target, because it can be your neighbor.  It's not some foreign country easily identified as "the Evil Empire."  Communism has a much different face today.  Identifying it is, I think, much more difficult today and takes much more guts to identify it today than in the past. 

Apparently Limbaugh feels that he's above paying attention to what professional economists and political scientists define as different economic theories. Keynes, Mill, and Friedman all would have agreed on the basics of what constituted socialism or communism, or the different branches of capitalism and market economics, but Limbaugh can't be bothered with what the real experts think. According to Limbaugh, if you belong to the AFL-CIO, you're a communist. If you belong to the Democratic Party, you're a communist. If you support anything espoused by the feminist movement, you're a communist. Well, I'm not a member of the Democratic Party and I don't belong to any unions other than the one that's my marriage; but I do rather support equal pay for equal work for women, meaningful maternity leave (i.e., more than a week or two) and affordable child care for working women too, so I guess that makes me a communist in Rush Limbaugh's eyes since all three of those are foundation planks of the so-called feminist agenda. Well now - what a revelation! According to Rush Limbaugh, I must be communist! And here I thought I was an old fashioned William Simon-style Republican, but it turns out I've been mistaken all these years.

Sarcasm aside, the whole communist rant in this Limbaugh radio program transcript is rather sad and pathetic. And it's really another straw man construct on Limbaugh's part since I fail to see how inaccurately labeling unions and the democratic party and feminists as communists has anything to do with any substantive critique of the Pope's comments on economics. It's really lovely classic Limbaugh rabid-dog froth but as a critique communist and marxist name-calling lacks any true substance.

7. It's all about America – NOT.

As I've already mentioned, if you take the time to read Evangelii Gaudium – and it takes a few hours – you will definitely walk away with the knowledge that this is a document that has the whole globe and everyone one on it in its focus. You can't accuse Pope Francis of short sightedness or a lack of perspective from what he wrote here. He doesn't think small.

In contrast to the universality of the Pope's message, here's Limbaugh's take on who the Pope is addressing and why:

Unfettered capitalism is a liberal socialist phrase to describe the United States.

Limbaugh then takes the next twelve paragraphs to discuss how the democrats, the liberals, the progressives and the socialists, who are all communists by the way, are doing everything to regulate, fetter, and control our great American economy, destroy small business, force Obamacare down everyone's throat, prevent anyone from following the American Dream (tm), prohibit anyone for building wealth, etc., etc., etc. He managed to work in some nonsensical statements about how trickle-down economics are the only valid and true economics, how anything else is the tool of the liberals who are the same as democrats who are the same as progressives who are the same as socialists who are not different from Marxists which is same as the communists whose only goal is to destroy the great economic engine of America and destroy everything worth having and working for. Limbaugh didn't manage to work into his rant how regulating American small businesses and the passage of Obamacare threaten mom, baseball and apple pie, but I think he would have if he could have figured out how. Well, okay, maybe not – especially since baseball has been ruined by unions, and unions are a tool of big labor, which is a branch of liberal leftist feminist progressive democratic party, which is run by Godless communists.

Yes, yes, yes...that funny odor you're smelling is the scent of sarcasm. It's so hard not to cave into sarcasm when trying to write intelligently about anything Limbaugh says or writes.

My point here is that Limbaugh criticizes the Pope for spouting “pure Marxism,” misquotes the pope on capitalism, and then dances an allamande to the left on how everything is really all about the left's liberal socialist machinations to destroy the capitalist economy of our great country. That's right, it's all about the United States.

It matters not that the Evangelii Gaudium covers the world with its inclusion of problems, issues and examples from the First World to Africa to Asia and everywhere inbetween. For Rush Limbaugh, it's always all about America, even when it isn't.

I suspect if Botswana declared war on Maurentius over kiwi tarriffs, Rush Limbaugh would find a way to make it all about America.

8. Bogus Unemployment Statistics

There's a certain amount of satisfaction over nailing a pundit for lying with statistics. Rush Limbaugh has earned my awe for the most ridiculous off-the-wall fib using statistics I think I've ever seen. Now remember, this Rush rant is about the Pope spouting Marxism and unAmerican anti-supply-side economics, right? So here's the actual quote where Limbaugh lies using statistics.

We have a president who has attacked the structural causes of inequality, and what's he done?  He's raised taxes on the producers and the achievers for the express purpose of redistributing it.  All he's done is create massive debt.  He has destroyed jobs.  There are 91.5 million Americans not working in America today, 91.5 million not working.   All the while the president, 19 or 20 times, says that he's doing nothing but focusing on creating jobs, but he can't.  No government can create jobs, not in the private sector.

I really love how Limbaugh stays on topic. (Is that more sarcasm I smell?)

Now if I were to take to task every demonstrably incorrect thing Limbaugh has to say in this quote, I'd be busy for two to three thousand more words. There just isn't enough time in one's life to chase after every lunatic concept out of Limbaugh's mouth. Let me just address that unemployment statistic. I've already done one blog post on how the official government statistics on unemployment will always underestimate actual unemployment (7), something to be wary about for when politicians want to brag about the economy recovering from a recession or improving due to someone's stimulus or job creation legislation. Instead what we have here is Limbaugh arguing that the current president is responsible for 91.5 million American not working while claiming to be focused on job creation. Watch the number, folks: 91.5 million people are not currently working. This is a really beautiful lie because if you go and look at how people are not currently working today in America, you will discover that Rush Limbaugh did not lie. What he did, however, was not tell the whole truth in such a way that what he said was really quite dishonest. Now, 91.5 million is a lot of people, especially when you consider that the population of the United States is currently estimated at just under 320 million people (8). That 91.5 million people not working works out to be 28.5% of the country's population. That's a huge number as far as unemployment goes. And there's the catch. That 28.5% is not an unemployment rate. It's the total number of warm bodies who do not work, including babes in arms, retired folks, the chronically indigent, kids in school, convicts on death row, people who are counted in the official unemployment rate, the long-term unemployed no longer receiving unemployment compensation, the out-of-work self-employed who never were eligible for unemployment compensation, and those out of work who gave up looking after months to years of finding nothing. Given that Limbaugh did not say 91.5 million were unemployed – he used the term “not working” - then he didn't actually lie per se, but he sure didn't deliver the information in an honest manner, because that would show his insinuation about the job situation was unsupportable. If you go and look at the real unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (8), what you'll find is that both the official and unofficial unemployment rates have fallen every year since the official end of the recession in 2009.

It really is a beautiful lie, using a truthful statement to lead his audience to believe the exact opposite, an amazing work of art in prevarication.

Making an End to Limbaugh

I originally intended to say something about Limbaugh's really sorry rant on how millions of iPhones being made in China proved the validity and veracity of trickle-down economics; but in the wake of the Pope's eloquent critique of modern technological materialism, pointing out that Limbaugh completely missed the point just doesn't float my boat at this juncture.

Seriously, since it is obvious that accusing the Pope of Marxism is an exercise in demagoguery through the propagandized misuse of former real words as pejoratives, it probably wasn't necessary to go through all the trouble that I did to nail all the other problems with Limbaugh's rant on Evangelii Gaudium, like putting words in the Pope's mouth, mistaking an article off the Reuters wire service for a papal apostolic exhortation, willful ignorance of the history of published papal opinions on capitalism and communism, and demonstrating a lack of a basic generalist knowledge of economic systems. To be truthful, if I elucidated every problem Limbaugh has with the truth in this radio transcript, I would still be writing. I certainly would have had more spare time to spend on other pursuits if I had just skipped to the punch line about propaganda and pejoratives and left out all the other stuff – but it wouldn't have been anywhere near as fun.

I am hoping it will be a long long time before I feel the urge to detail why Limbaugh was wrong on the internet again. It's just too much work! Life is too short to waste of someone like Rush Limbaugh.

The Post Scriptural

Yes, the bad pun was intended.

Just because today's target was Rush Limbaugh, I went searching for a web comic I read years and years ago, back when people around Sacramento (where I lived at the time) could still remember Rush Limbaugh's annoying put-downs of the little farming town of Rio Linda from the time when he was just a local jerk on local talk radio. Well, the Way Back Machine at has most of the pages of this very early Patrick Farley (of Apocamon fame) web comic and if you're game for a good though dated jab at ole Rush and his talent on loan for God, you can find it at: (accessed 9 Dec 2013). Page 70 appears to be the only page that didn't load for me but all the other pages of this classic take-down of Rush Limbaugh are there. The artist, Patrick Farley, has done some wonderful stuff. Out of all his early stuff, done when he was a kid in high school and college, Rush Eats Everything is the one piece I wish he would put back up on his website, If you decide to check out the Electric Sheep Comix site, I highly recommend his delightful take of the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine meets Pokemon, the unfinished but still worthy Apocamon, at (accessed 9 Dec 2013).

Brief and Sloppy Citations

  1. John Paul II. (1979). Catechesi tradendae. Vatican: Holy See , -ii_exh_16101979_catechesi-tradendae_en.html (accessed 7 Dec 2013).
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd. Ed., 1995, USCCB Publishing, ISBN 978-0385479677, 846 pp. (I have to confess that my first edition personal copy is in a box somewhere in storage and that the citation here is one I found online for the 2nd edition.)
  3. (accessed 7 Dec 2013).
  4. (accessed 7 Dec 2013).
  5. (accessed 7 Dec 2013).
  6. (accessed 7 Dec 2013).
  7. (accessed 7 Dec 2013).
  8. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. (2013). FRED (“Federal Reserve Economic Database”) (Android version 1.0.3, January 30, 2012) Mobile application software retriev... (Data accessed 08 Dec 2013).

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Homeless Myths

My usual gig on this blog is to comment on some of the things that get said on the access-unrestricted internet; however, sometimes what I comment upon has come from a more private social media exchange, like my poor abused friend Dex can tell you after I took him to task on large-capacity magazines. Today's offering is based on a Facebook exchange started by a friend of mine, based on the incident described over the last few days in the news media - including this Salt Lake Tribunes article: (accessed 03 Dec 2013).

There's been a lot of commentary on this incident where an LDS bishop who played the part of a homeless man at his ward's Sunday service. I'm sure he mortified some of his congregation. There's one thing I can state with some certainty, and that is having a homeless man drop in on anyone's place of worship in a middle class neighborhood would be outside of most people's comfort zone. I know it would be outside of mine. In fact, you don't even have to be homeless to cause a congregation discomfort. All that's required is any public display of non-standard behavior, as Howard Storm described so aptly in his 2005 book, My Descent Into Death (ISBN 978-0385513760).

I've been reading the comments of my friend's Facebook exchange with great interest. Many of the comments have addressed concerns about wisdom and safety of women and children in the presence of a homeless male stranger. As someone who has served a lot of "soup kitchen" meals to the homeless and has been separated from them by the huge distance of one plate or bowl, I know firsthand that those concerns are justified. You don't have to be a white-bread-and-mayo middle class churchgoer to be apprehensive over homeless men. At one homeless ministry I worked at, we had a women and children-only seating for lunch a half hour before men were allowed into the dining room because of those very concerns on the part of those homeless women and children.

Oop! Did I just say "homeless children?" Why, I do believe I did! If this were a piece of fiction, that would be called a plot hook.

Now I am not going to fault anyone for having concerns over the unexpected and frightful presence of a homeless man at a Sunday church service. For most people, one's place of worship is a sanctuary and a place of comfort and it's hard when that expectation is violated. I will only note in passing that the original concept of sanctuary was inclusive and included the pursued, the persecuted, and the downtrodden; and that the maintenance of faith is sometimes quite dangerous to the believer.

The reason for today's post is not to condemn or approve of what this LDS bishop did. It's because I spotted several of the common myths concerning the homeless cropping up in my friend's Facebook discussion and thought perhaps that people could profit from having those myths exposed to some facts.

The comment on the Facebook discussion that got me going is as follows:

"The thing about caring for the homeless, is that you DO have to be careful. As any shelter or police officer can tell you, most of the homeless have untreated mental illnesses than can often be dangerous."

While I share the same apprehension toward homeless men - and some homeless women too - the bit about the prevalence of mental illness among the homeless is not correct. Most homeless are not mentally ill.

But before I go any further, let me convey that most of the information I'm about to post is from the National Coalition for the Homeless and I would encourage everyone to sample the website references that I will append to this blog post.

So here are some real numbers. Surveys of the homeless have found that between 13% to 26% of the homeless have some kind of mental illness (1,2). That may look like a lot, especially when compared to the proportion of the general US population with diagnosed mental illness, which is 6%. What's scary, at least to me, is that these numbers are less than the number of children under 18 who are homeless, with estimates varying between 22% and 39% (3, 1). An estimated 23% to 38% of the homeless are members of a homeless family (1,4). If you're reading between the lines like I do, then yes, this does mean there is a non-trivial homeless population made up of children who are on their own.

Some of the demographics of homelessness surprise a lot of people. For example, in any given month, around 45% of the homeless have worked for pay. Approximately half of all homeless have been homeless for less than a year and most of those will be homeless for less than a month and are not likely to be homeless ever again (4). Those numbers change a bit for homeless families: the average shelter stay for homeless families is 5 to 6 months (1). A disproportionate number of homeless families are comprised of a single mother and children.

Real long-term homelessness is actually uncommon. The number of the "chronically homeless" is about 5% of the total homeless population, using the criteria of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (2). Most of the chronically homeless do fit the stereotype of a single person, usually male, with some kind of disability and burdened with an addiction of some type (4); this small group uses a disproportionate portion of homeless aid, with one estimate being as high as 60% of all homeless funds (2).

Homelessness correlates strongly with both poverty and the declining availability of affordable housing (1,4); however, a major cause of homelessness is domestic violence (4) and nearly one half of all homeless women and children are in flight from an abusive situation, the ones brave enough or scared enough (or both) to choose homelessness over physical abuse.

I hope the next time you spare some thoughts for the homeless, you will look beyond the myth of the addicted street bum and the mentally-ill Foul Ole Ron, and include in your gaze the families of the working poor who are almost always an accident or illness away from losing their home as well as the mother and children in flight from domestic violence.

Post Script

If you care to stretch your brain some, an excellent in depth look at the current state of homelessness is the book The State of Homelessness in America 2013, put out by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, available in pdf format at (accessed 2 Dec 2013).

References All websites were accessed on 3 Dec 2013.


Thursday 7 November 2013

The Great Obama Healthcare Cover-Up!

Today's subject is an article by Ann Coulter. Looking at the lead article on her website, Health Care for the Pushy, (, accessed 07 Nov 2013), I could not fail to notice several misstatements.

The premise of Coulter's article is that Obama lied about people being able to keep health insurance they like. Regardless if one agrees or disagrees with Coulter's opinion on Obamacare, she doesn't seem to have a good handle on her facts. For instance, she says:

Eighty-five percent of Americans were happy with their health care before Obamacare, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index -- higher than almost any other product or service polled.

Well, if you go and look at the American Customer Satisfaction Index (, accessed 07 Nov 2013), 72% of people with health insurance in 2012 were satisfied with what they had. If we consider that approximately 85% of Americans had some kind of health insurance in 2012 (ref:, accessed 07 Nov 2013), this means that approximately 61% of Americans had health insurance that they were happy with. I have no idea where Coulter got her numbers - certainly not from the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

In the first 100 words of Coulter's article she cites sources for two statements. The first is simply "Obama lied." Her citation link takes you to the page for her new book, Never Trust a Liberal Over 3, Especially a Republican. That crackling noise you hear is the sound of my mind boggling. I don't think can we hold up Ann Coulter as someone to emulate for her citation style though her marketing style has much to admire.

Coulter's second citation is attached to this statement:

Even without the 2010 Health and Human Services (HHS) report admitting that 93 million Americans would lose their health insurance, anyone with half a brain (which is a pre-existing condition) knew that millions of Americans would be thrown off their insurance plans under Obamacare.

That's quite a statement, and since Coulter was so obliged to provide a link as citation, of course I had to check it out. It turns out that Coulter's citation-by-link takes you not to a government report but to an October 31 article on the Forbes magazine website. The article is Obama Officials In 2010: 93 Million Americans Will Be Unable To Keep Their Health Plans Under Obamacare, in a regular column called The Apothecary by Avik Roy (, accessed 07 Nov 2013).

In the Forbes article, the author cites "an obscure" 2010 study in the Federal Register as support for his contention that:

Obama administration knew that Obamacare would disrupt private plans. If you read the Affordable Care Act when it was passed, you knew that it was dishonest for President Obama to claim that “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan,” as he did—and continues to do—on countless occasions. And we now know that the administration knew this all along. It turns out that in an obscure report buried in a June 2010 edition of the Federal Register, administration officials predicted massive disruption of the private insurance market.

The Forbes article bravely gives the reader a workable link to the study in the Federal Register and even goes so far as to quote and cite the study's contents by page:

The Departments’ mid-range estimate is that 66 percent of small employer plans and 45 percent of large employer plans will relinquish their grandfather status by the end of 2013,” wrote the administration on page 34,552 of the Register.

Have you ever spent time trying to read statutes and regulations issued by the federal government? My sympathy to those, like me, who have had to do so in pursuit of employment. (Frankly, if I never have to see another EPA rule on drinking water standards, I will die a happy camper.) It is well known that federal regulations have off-label uses for curing insomnia and driving mothers-in-law into long-term care in a sanatarium. The Federal Register document cited here is no exception.

If you visit page 34,552 of the 2010 Federal Register, what you will find is a page that's in the middle of an analysis to estimate how many grandfathered employer-provided health insurance plans would be retained or relinquished for new plans as a function of different market conditions. It looked at existing patterns of insurance plan turn-over, the availability of plans with more competitive pricing, annual increases in insurance costs and factors that might lead a small business to drop employee health insurance altogether, to name some of the variables examined.

It's worth looking at this section of the Federal Register document a little closer. Here's the section and sub-section titles:

Estimates of Number of Plans and Employees Affected
  1. . Methodology for Analyzing Plan Changes Over Time in the Group Market
  2. . Impacts on the Group Market Resulting From Changes From 2008 to 2009
  3. . Sensitivity Analysis: Assuming That Employers Will Be Willing To Absorb a Premium Increase in Order To Remain Grandfathered
  4. . Sensitivity Analysis: Incomplete Flexibility To Substitute One Cost-Sharing Mechanism for Another
  5. . Estimates for 2011–2013

In a nutshell, this analysis began by explaining how the estimates would be derived, looked at data from 2008 and 2009 as an aid in making estimates, pushed the data through two different scenarios to test how different market conditions would impact the numbers calculated, and then made estimates based on all of that. Forbes neglected to say anything about the character of this speculative analysis, and in fact, Forbes managed to leave off the first clause of the sentence it quoted directly. Here's the whole statement, including what Forbes left out:

Under this assumption, the Departments’ mid-range estimate is that 66 percent of small employer plans and 45 percent of large employer plans will relinquish their grandfather status by the end of 2013.

Did you catch that? "Under this assumption..." This statement is conditional on an assumption. What assumption is that? Let's the Federal Register speak for itself:

Estimates are provided above for the percentage of employers that will retain grandfather status in 2011. These estimates are extended through 2013 by assuming that the identical percentage of plan sponsors will relinquish grandfathering in each year. Again, to the extent that the 2008–2009 data reflect plans that are more likely to make frequent changes in cost sharing, this assumption will overestimate the number of plans relinquishing grandfather status in 2012 and 2013.

Basically, this document looked at employer-provided insurance plan turnover data from previous years and then used it to extrapolate those rates for 2012/13.

This is a far cry from saying that Obama knew that 93 million people would have their insurance cancelled on them.

Here's the kicker, at least for me - the title of this Federal Register document is:

Interim Final Rules for Group Health Plans and Health Insurance Coverage Relating to Status as a Grandfathered Health Plan Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

Right below this title you will find:

ACTION: Interim final rules with request for comments.

This analysis included in this Federal Register document isn't a "2010 Health and Human Services (HHS) report" as Coulter described it, nor an "obscure report buried in a June 2010 edition of the Federal Register" as it was described in Forbes. This analysis was the internal commentary of the proposed final form of the regulations governing grandfathered health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, complete with a call for commentary to be considered prior to the issuance of the final regulations.

Were there any statements in these Interim Final Rules on grandfathered health plans that the Obama administration knew 93 million Americans would have their insurance cancelled on them in 2013? I think there are two ways to answer that. The first is easy: no, there is no such statement in this Federal Register document. The second is similar: an estimate that approximately half of all employer-provided health plans will relinquish grandfathered status due to market conditions is not the same things as saying 93 million people will have their health insurance cancelled on them. Those statements may look the similar but they are not the same. A citron is not an orange despite the fact that they are both round juicy citrus fruits. And I don't buy the sudden discovery by pundits that the current administration knew the sky would fall back in 2010 and knowingly kept it from everyone. Publication of proposed regulations with requests for commentary in the Federal Register is not at all obscure. In addition, are conservative pundits really so dense that they missed calling Obama out on the keep-your-health-plan comment when folks like took him to task in 2009 for it? Say it ain't so!

The real issue at hand is not the misquoting the Federal Register. The real issue is that President Obama said that people would be able to keep the health insurance plans they liked. The patent absurdity of that statement was blown out of the water in the same year that Obama uttered it, by no less than that great non-partisan debunker of political hyperboles, (see, accessed 07 Nov 2013).

I think Obama is going to regret what he said about people keeping their health care plans. I think it's going to be the greatest foot-in-mouth moment of the Obama presidency, one just as reknowned as "Read my lips - no more taxes" and "I'm not a crook!"

As far as legacy quotes are concerned, it's nowhere as good as "I did not have sexual relations with that woman!"

Friday 11 October 2013

Population and Meaningless Math

In the daily barrage of needless coverage of TV celebrities, I note with vague disapproval the headline announcing that Michelle Duggar, mother and star of the TV reality show 19 Kids and Counting, has made waves this week with her announcement that she and her hubby Jim Bob are working at conceiving kid #20. Why this is even considered newsworthy is beyond me. Maybe, just maybe, if she were actually pregnant then that might be worth a footnote somewhere from the Hollywood press machine. But really now, do we need to know the Michelle and Jim Bob are having a good time making the bed springs squeak? Seriously folks, we know they are married, we know they are in good health; and we can safely conjecture therefore that they are indeed engaged in activities that may lead to pregnancy. We do not need a press release to inform us of that...

Folks with 19 kids usually aren't fodder for my blog. Really, people in such circumstance are more likely to receive my heartfelt sympathy more than anything else, and I have to concede a little admiration for utitlizing the size of their family to make a little money, despite my distaste for the tacky genre of reality TV.

I could not fail to note one statement made by Michelle Duggar in the news coverage that she and Jim Bob are looking to produce little kid No. 20. The article in question can be found at (accessed 10 Oct 2013). Here's the quote:

Michelle tells Celebrity Baby Scoop that she doesn't believe in overpopulation. "We have studied it and I believe that there is a misconception about overpopulation. I think that the whole mindset of overpopulation is really overrated," the Duggar family matriarch explains. "A few years back, we stated that the whole population of the world could be stood shoulder-to-shoulder in Jacksonville. That may have changed a little bit since we've heard that statistic."

I'm going to ignore the CYA pussy-footing around the world's population today vs. "a few years back" and just use current population figures. After all, I probably won't be off more than 500 million, which is less than an order of magnitude error, so let's wave our decent approximation arms in the air and proceed. To calculate how many people we could stuff into an area, I began by gathering population, population density and area data. The US government's websites that provide geographic and population data are down right now due to the government shut down so I had to rely on Wikipedia. For references, a list of all the wikipedia webpages I consulted are appended at the end of this blog post.

The current estimate for the world's population is 7,116,000,000 people. Our first calculation, a very crude one, assumes we can stuff one person in a square foot so long as that person stands with shoulders aligned along the diagonal of the square.

The amount of space needed for the world population is then:

Start with 711600000 people
Assume 1 person = 1 square foot 
So the world's estimated population will take up 7116000000 sq ft of space

There are 27,878,400 square feet in a square mile. 

We divide through by this amount to figure out how many square miles are needed to fit the world population.

7116000000 sq ft of space
divided by 27878400 sq ft per sq mile 
equals 255.3 sq miles

The square mileage of the City of Jacksonville, Florida, is 885 square miles. 

So far so good, right? Michelle Duggar wouldn't mislead her viewing public, now, would she?

Well, allocating a square foot per person is a bit tight. It would be much more reasonable to expand that a bit. The width of an airline seat in coach class is an average 18 inches. That's not a lot since shoulders, waists and arms are usually wider, especially on guys as the following picture illustrates.

Sean with ruler

The hapless victim, played by my talented spouse in the photo, is holding an accordian ruler expanded out to 30 inches. The ruler width just the other side of his left hand is 24 inches. So a more realistic width for making a gridded area filled with people would be 24 inches. Given that squares are not the most effective shape for maximizing effective specific area, we're going to switch to using the most efficient shape for packing uniform isometric equidimensional items in the least amount of space, namely the hexagonal cell in the arrangement known as hexagonal closest packing. This should be old hate (sic?) for all of you who've suffered through crystallography, advanced physical chemistry or solid state physics. For the rest of you, just take my word for it that hexagonal closest packing - or "hcp" - is the way to go, as looking at any honeycomb in a beehive can illustrate..

A hexagon with a width of 24 inches from apex to apex is equivalent in area to 6 equilateral triangles with sides of 12 inches. Using the area of a triangle formula of 1/2 the base times the height gives us an area of 62.35 sq inches per triangle, for a total area of 374.1 sq inches per hexagon. Dividing through by 144 square inches per square foot gives us an area of 2.6 square feet per hexagon. So using hexagonal closest packing with 24 inch hexagons gets us the following:

Assume 1 person = 2.6 square feet (24" hexagonal closest packing)

711600000 people x 2.6 sq ft/person = 18501600000 sq ft

18501600000 sq ft / (27878400 sq ft per sq mile) = 663.7 sq miles

Okay then, this is still less than the area of the City of Jacksonville, Florida. But of course, there's a catch - and here it is: Jacksonville, Florida, is the city in the entire United States of America with the largest area. Not even that queen of western US urban sprawl, Los Angeles, at 503 square miles, comes close. Let's look at LA real quick. LA is huge. Not only do you have downtown, which is actually quite small, but there's all of Griffith Park, Dodgers Stadium, most of the San Fernando Valley, parts of what's considered "Hollywood" including the famous sign, half of the Santa Monica Mountain Range, and the huge industrial area and rail yards east of downtown. In a state of big spawling cities, LA is the biggest. So in comparison, LA at 503 square miles, which includes that huge piece of suburbia called The Valley (like totally for sure...), is smaller than Jacksonville at a supersized 885.

Michelle Duggar picked the one city in the country with the biggest area. If the comparison used the second largest city in the country, which is LA, then the population of the world would take up more space on the basis of using hexagonal closest packing. Now we don't know what basis Mrs. Duggar used to estimate how much room a person takes up in terms of ground area but I'm assuming it isn't very different from what I've done here.

Of course, it does look a little suspicious that Mrs. Duggar used the one municipality with a really ridicuously huge area. So what's a more normal city look like? Here's a list of cities and towns with their ground area and their population density for your perusal:

NOTE: (My blogging software doesn't make it easy to do formatted tables so until I get off my butt to write the xhtml code to do the formatting, please forgive the crappy presentation below)

City..........................Area...........population density

Name....................Sq Miles.........population/sq mile

Los Angeles.............503..............225
New York..................302.6...........27550
Hong Kong...............426..............17024
Groton, Conn............45.3............890
Salt Lake City............110.4...........1666

Groton is where I grew up so I threw it onto the list. It's a typical town in coastal southern New England. I was surprised that Dehli was smaller than places like New York and Beijing. I was blown away that Macau and Manila were so tiny in terms of area, especially given their very large population densities.

Let's talk about population density. What Michelle Duggar's simplistic analysis lacks is the awareness that one can not judge whether the world is over-populated by examining how many people you can squeeze into the smallest possible area. All that does is tell you, well, how many poeple you can squeeze into the smallest possible area. It's a useless measure. It's smoke and Mirrors, folks. Why? Because it doesn't tell you anything real; for example, it can't tell you about how much area it takes to grow food for 7 billion people or how much fresh water has to fall out of the sky to grow that food and quench everyone's thirst. Stuffing everyone into the smallest possible space doesn't tell you how many people you can fit into an urban environment - an environment where you have to be able to bed all those people; to have transit systems to get them to work and to the market to buy food; to build and maintain roads and rail and canals and quays to move food and goods in and waste out; to construct water mains, storm water drains, sewer drains, water treatment plants and electric power lines; to plan and create parks and theaters and sports arenas. 

Figuring out how much room you need to fit the world's population on a tightly-packed grid doesn't tell you anything about how much room people need to actually LIVE. The thing that tells you about how many people you can stuff into a city where they can actually live and work and prosper will be population density.

We really don't know what the maximum population density might be before the critical infrastructure necessary to maintain urban life fails. We do know what the highest population densities are in the world's most populated cities. Given that an excess of thousands of people aren't dying everyday in cities all the time tells us that we have not yet exceeded a population density so great that modern infrastructure fails to provide our needs.

The number one most crowded urban space in the world right now is Manila in the Phillipines, with an astounding 111,002 people per square mile. The high population density of Dehli in India wasn't much of a surprise but the almost-as-high population density of Paris was, at least to me. That Paris has more than twice the population density of New York City was an eye opener and a bit of humble pie for this Yankee. I put both Vienna and Salt Lake City on the list as examples of moderate-sized urban places with good infrastructure and pleasant habitable environs. Vienna is considered one of the most desirable cities to live in, independent of my personal bias as a former resident. Salt Lake City is probably my favorite city in the left half of the US, with its stunning surroundings, comfortable size, exceptionally clean urban environs, and its active arts scene. I wasn't surprised at the population density in Vienna given that the city limits include the massive greenbelt known as the Wiener Walt or Vienna Woods, made famous by the Strauss waltz of the same name. I was surprised at the really low population density of Salt Lake City but that was before I looked at the city limits on a map. The city includes City Creek Canyon and Grandview Peak in the Wasatch Mountains, all of the airport and the much of the salt marsh north of the airport, the industrial area starting at the railyards and extending as far west as the Kennecott tailings, and most of the salt marsh west of the airport all the way out to the shore of the Great Salt Lake. Basically, the developed parts of the city are exceeded by undeveloped lands also within city limits. It's all that empty land that makes Salt Lake City's population density so low on paper. In a way, looking at population density for cities is a bit misleading since how you draw city limits can distort that number. Salt Lake City and Jacksonville have low population densities compared to places like New York and Hong Kong because both incorporate large amounts of empty land within city limits.

To make a measure that might better reflect the minimum amount of area needed to sustain the world's population, one approach would calculate how much land would be used if the world's population were confined to an area with a population density already sustained by one of the world's most populated cities. I have done just that. I took the population densities from the previous list and then using those numbers, figured out how much room 7,166,000,000 people would take up if we fit them into a space with, for example, the population density of Singapore or LA. Here's the list of those areas:

City..........................Area......  ...population.................area for world population this population density  

.............................Sq Miles........people/sq Sq Miles 

New York..................302.6...........27550...................258294
Hong Kong...............426..............17024...................417998
Los Angeles.............503..............225........................865167
Vienna.......................160.1.......... 10366...................686475
Salt Lake City............110.4...........1666.....................4271308
Jacksonville..............885..............1100.................... .6469091
Groton, Conn............45.3............890........................7995506

This list doesn't tell us much because there isn't anything to compare these areas against. So what I did next was to rewrite this list with the areas of various US states and some other places for comparison.

Place, Calculated or Actual Area in Sq Miles

  • Ohio                       44825
  • Manila                    64107
  • Missouri                 69704
  • Utah                       84899
  • Colorado                104094
  • Delhi                      107598
  • Paris                       129620
  • Macau                    147966
  • California                163696
  • New York               258294
  • Texas                     268581
  • Singapore              375653
  • Hong Kong             417998
  • Alaska                    663268
  • Vienna                   686475
  • Mexico                  759516
  • Greenland             836297
  • Los Angeles            865167
  • Argentina               1073518
  • Beijing                   2156364
  • Australia                2969907
  • Brazil                    3287597
  • USA                      3537110
  • Canada                 3854085
  • Europe                  3930000
  • Salt Lake City       4271308
  • Antarctica             5300000
  • Jacksonville          6469091
  • South America      6890000
  • Groton                   7995506
  • North America        9540000

What does this tell us? Well, if all the world's 7.116 billion people lived in one city as dense as Manila, that city would take up an area bigger than Ohio but smaller than Missouri.

It's useful at ths point to look at Jacksonville, the city that Michelle Duggar invoked in her "research" on the world's population. If all the world's 7.116 billion people lived in one city with the actual population density of Jacksonville, Florida, that city would take up an area bigger than the continent of Antarctica but smaller than South America. Of course, almost all of Antarctica is uninhabitable, but that's beside the point.

We still haven't looked at really important things like how much land you need to feed the world's population and what density you need of roads and rail and water shipping to move food and goods in and garbage out. These are big complex subjects with answers that aren't easy to calculate, as any geographer, earth scientist, or climatologist can tell you. The analysis we did here is really very simplistic. All we really did was show the inadequacy of using Michelle Duggar's approach for saying anything meaningful about over-population. We didn't come close to a real analysis of population sustainability. That would take a book or two, I suspect, and it might take more than that if one were to get really technical in a truly critical and scientific manner.

So, was Michelle Duggar wrong on the internet? I would answer that by first pointing out that she used a city so large in area that her analysis approached the threshold of lying with statistics; and depending on whether her faux pas was intensional, she possibly crossed that threshold of dishonesty. Was her analysis a meaningful measure of population vs. over-population? Well, do the, wait. We just did that, didn't we?


If subjects concerning population science intestest you, a good blog to follow is: I must tip my hat to Tim De Chant, its author, and note that I stole his really useful idea of expressing world population in terms of area vs. population density for this post. Crediting one's sources is good manners, after all.


  • (All accessed 10 October 2013)
City Sq Miles pop./sq mile
New York 302.6 27550

Friday 27 September 2013

Can you say the dangers of fracking? Can you say cold fusion?

Has anyone been tracking nuances in the fracking debate? Of course, you'd have to be worse than me at ignoring the news to have missed the blow-up in the news media over fracking. Unfortunately, the coverage on fracking has been subject to the same sort of knee-jerk panic that environmental activists also to apply to global warming and nuclear power generation. Personally, I find the debate on the issues is driven by the perception of risk and not by the numbers. Is anyone surprised at this? When it comes to milking political situations or furthering dogma-based ideologies, fact is usually always the loser - and this is true of both sides of any hotly-contested issue. That's something that appears to hold whether you're living in the Roman Republic of antiquity or if you're living now in our modern democracy.

But enough with the pontificating on the poor treatment of evidence and fact-driven analysis. Today's post looks quickly at the controversy surrounding the research of Elaine Hill, a candidate for a Ph.D. at Cornell in Applied Economics. Here's good summary of what happened two months ago (1):

Hill’s work has focused on birth weight and other measures of the condition of babies born to women living close to gas wells in rural Pennsylvania and is summarized so far in a “working paper” titled “Unconventional Natural Gas Development and Infant Health: Evidence from Pennsylvania. The paper would have been an unremarkable draft of a graduate student’s research results had it not been disseminated last week with the help of a public relations firm retained by the nonprofit group New Yorkers Against Fracking and featured at a public forum run in Manhattan by Democrats in the State Senate.

I was rereading various articles on this gal and her paper when the parallel to cold fusion hit me in the nose. Remember cold fusion (2)? Two scientists interpreted a research result involving the electrolysis of heavy water on a palladium anode as a fusion event (hydrogen --> helium) at ambient temperature. Before the presentation of the results, the president of the University of Utah held a press conference about the experiment, worried that a rival research group at BYU would publish about a similar phenomenon first, thus confusing rival claims to cold fusion which would be an issue in the event of applying for patents. If cold fusion via the Utah set-up had turned out to be viable, the University of Utah could have reaped substantial monetary benefits as the majority patent owner of the process. In the end, when the Utah cold fusion experimental set-up was repeated by other labs, the result was not replicable.

The parallels with the Elaine Hill paper come down to this:

  1. The results of research were issued by non-scientists to the press before presentation and peer review.
  2. The motivation for release before presentation and peer-review was far removed from the traditional concerns of science: greed and ownership in the cold fusion case and political activism in the Elaine Hill case.
  3. The results were interpreted by non-scientists as true or false, not based on the slow grind of traditional scientific method presentation and peer review, but rather on what factions of the public wanted to believe was true, depending on their own pre-existing beliefs.

Cold fusion research isn't completely dead; however, because of the cold fusion fiasco of 1989, people in the field have rebranded the various interesting ambient-temperature energy events that are sometimes observed as Low Energy Nuclear Reactions. There has been some investment of research moneys in low energy nuclear reaction research, and rightly so. Good science is open-minded and if something looks like it needs reevaluation, it will happen sooner of later.

Let's get back to poor Elaine Hill and her research on babies with diminished health indicators who live near fracked natural gas wells. Unfortunately, no one can read this paper because it's in peer-review. When it gets published, a lot of folks are going to read it, including many outside her field because of the current controversy. She's not a grad student to be envied because, like Fleischman and Pons of cold fusion infamy, her research is going to be dissected by smart people, some of whom will have political or monetary agendas to service.

Is Hill's research sound? It might be; however, the great burden of studies like Hill's is the identification and elimination of other factors that could also effect the results. Any study based on the uncontrolled real-world runs a high risk that correlation does not prove causation. It's the classic drawback of studying natural systems with an unknown number variables. If she set-up her control group correctly and carefully, her study will have real teeth.

On the flip side the record, her results might not matter, other than to show that elevated exposure to gaseous hydrocarbons isn't good for infants... Now that's a trivial result in the grand scheme of things. Why? Because everyone already knows that. Like Fleischman and Pons of cold fusion infamy, Hill is going to have to propose a plausible and testable theory for why her results are tied to fracking. Fleischman and Pons were never able to explain a plausible mechanism for cold fusion. They had a result but they never presented a workable theory. Hill is going to be in the same boat: she may have a correlation, but unless she can proposed a testable theory to justify the correlation, she'll be just another economist looking for work outside of academe. That test should be easy - though it will be expensive. All one needs to do is run the study a second time, but with physical environmental monitoring installed at every dwelling involved. I'd be measuring not only atmospheric concentrations of pollutants but also ground vibration, weather parameters and proximity to other mining and drilling activities. After all, the infants might be reacting to hydrocarbon exposure, or they could be reacting to the endless rumble of trucks to and from drill rigs disturbing their slumber and causing a lack of sleep.

I'm sure of one thing - and that is I'm glad I'm not Elaine Hill right now.

There's another thing that may trivialize Elaine Hill's research if it survives peer review and public dissection: natural gas from fracked wells doesn't have to leak. Southwestern Energy, a major player in fracking natural gas in Arkansas, has taken their well construction prowess to the point where they build leak-tight wells (3). The company decided to get greener and treat the environment better. They consider this a price of doing business and they can certain go to town with the bragging rights. This underscores something I've been saying for years: properly-engineered and built wells don't have problems. It's not hard to build good wells and piping infrastructure - as the lack of contaminated aquifers in Texas and Oklahoma and California underscores nicely. When well construction is well-managed and well-regulated, the leakage from wells, both above and below ground, is negligible. Given that comments I supplied when California revised its well-construction standards in the late 80s, commentary that is now incorporated in the since-updated regulations, I think I know a little bit about the subject of building wells. Fracking is not the problem. Well construction is the problem - and well construction will be faulty when drillers can get away with cutting corners and regulators with enforcement power are thin on the ground.

What's required is the societal will to pay the costs of building good infrastructure and to enforce standards. If wells for unconventional gas plays were all built to high standards - and yes, it is possible - then fracking is an un-problem.

Un-problem??? Good thing my old high school English teacher doesn't read my blog!


  1., accessed 27 Sept 13.
  2. Taubes, G. (1993), Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion Random House, NY, 503 pp.
  3., accessed 27 Sept 13.

Monday 23 September 2013

Pipeline Pathways and Foot-In-Mouth

Sometimes a journalist or pundit says something so stupid and so amazingly clueless that it takes my breath away. Back in July this happened. The blog software my website provider uses has its moments though and it ate the wonderful blog post I wrote on today's subject. It has taken me two months to return to this, one of the lamest things I have ever seen in print.

How lame it is? Let me preface the target of today's blog post with a little personal history. I have worked in rail yards. When you hang out in rail yards, you learn all sorts of cool things about what gets moved around by rail. One of things you learn is that rail roads are really cool. They move freight cheaper than trucks on the interstate for all long hauls greater than a few hundred miles. They are three times cleaner per ton of freight than 18-wheelers and they have really small carbon footprints compared to cars and trucks.

There are some other things I learned about railroads while working at them. I worked as a contractor in the two rail yards around Sacramento owned by Southern Pacific ("SP") back in the late 80s before Union Pacific bought them out. The company I worked for did the environmental engineering and remediation for SP at the time. The Roseville Railyard was a Superfund site back then. I did a lot of environmental stuff there and managed all the environmental activities in the yard for a time, before I flipped the jerks who ran the environmental engineering firm the bird and quit. Having done environmental stuff in a railyard left me with an understanding of the transport of all kinds of hazardous stuff that travels by rail.

On the flip side, I've also worked in and around pipelines, the kind that carry oil and gas, and yes, crude. My first pipeline carried jet fuel from a US Navy dock facility on the central California coast, over the California Coast Ranges, and into the Naval Air Station at Lamar, in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley. There was an indication it had a small leak somewhere. My work partner and I went leak hunting.

In the environmental geology world, the biggest concern over pipelines, though, is in the context of running drill rigs during environmental investigations. It's not a good thing to accidentally drill through a pipeline. Back when I was running all the field activities at the Roseville Railyard, I had one sampling location along the street right by the railyard's diesel repair shop. There was a PG&E pipeline scant feet from the sample location. In fact, we moved that location away from the pipeline. Regardless, being 4 feet removed was still too close for PG&E, who sent a crew out to dig out the pipeline by hand and then shore their excavation while we drilled our sampling well. That's just a sample of two of the pipelines I've run into in my day.

All of this is germane, which you'll appreciate in just a moment more when I unveil the reason for this post.

So, what is this marvel that compelled me to rant and rail (pun intended) for your benefit herein? Well, it's a rather astounding utterance in print from our friends at the Wall Street Journal in the aftermath of the ongoing tragedy in Lac Megantic.

Y'all remember Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, n'est pas? Where there was that horrific train derailment and explosion, a pile of people dead, a beautiful little town on a lovely lake destroyed? Did I mention anywhere yet that I've been there? I've driven through Lac-Mégantic twice, going to and from Trois Rivieres last October. It was a pretty place surrounded by forests and the last gasps of the northern end of the Appalachian Mountains. The view from downtown out over the lake was breath-taking. I don't look forward to revisiting. By all reports, the entire center of the town is gone. Photo: @sureteduquebec, Twitter

So what was this utterance in the Wall Street Journal? It was in an editorial with the provocative title of: "Can Environmentalists Think?" by one Bret Stephens, published on July 8, 2014 (, accessed July 8 and September 23, 2013).

The editorial is a rant about all the environmental types wailing over the transport of crude by train vs. pipeline in the aftermath of the Lac-Mégantic disaster. Of course, a lot of hand-wringing was done by the environmentalist types about how Lac-Mégantic shouldn't be used as a reason to support pipelines like the Keystone XL project. The tone of the editorial is rather caustic and the author laments, rightly so, about the lack of common sense and practical knowledge of most environmental activists about the real-world compromises that modern society has to make to support our industrial infrastructure. His points were apt though his sarcasm and tone were distasteful to me. Granted as someone who has a legitimate claim to having made a living as a professional in environmental science, I can't say that I have a lot of respect for your average environmental eco-idiot. Most of them have little real understanding of the science of the field they espouse to champion. I'm not sure who I dislike more: the businesses I've worked for who would let their environmental damage sit and be ignored if not forced by law to do something about it or the environmental crusaders who have no clue as to the real issues and science behind the causes they espouse. The former are near-criminals and the latter are living examples of my favorite adage that thinking is work and people are lazy...

You can see that I didn't much like the editorial. It wasn't respectful in a bad-manners kind of way. In fact, it was insulting and annoying and I'm not even one of the folks being insulted. It was needlessly nasty in my opinion (yours, of course, may differ). But that's not why I'm dissing this piece of work...

What set me off badly enough to make it the target of my blog? It's the following really clueless statement:

"Pipelines also tend not to go straight through exposed population centers like Lac-Mégantic."

The author was arguing the virtues of pipelines environmentally and this was one of his points about their safety in comparison to railroads. Now, I think I might know a thing about railroads and pipelines both.

So here's a short list of just a few places that pipelines make a beeline straight through exposed populations centers larger in size than Lac-Mégantic and its approximate 5000 souls. Population figure are from the 2010 US Census. To be absolutely rigorous, I have limited this list to places that I can personally go and stand on the pipelines in question. This is not a theoretical list made from using someone else's reference material. These are crude oil pipelines I know myself professionally, can stand on their path and point to the downtowns or residential neighborhoods they transit.

  • Conroe, TX pop. 56207
  • Taft, CA pop. 9327
  • South St. Louis, MO pop. 318172
  • Salt Lake City, UT pop. 189314
  • Farmington, UT pop. 18275
  • Bountiful, UT pop. 42522
  • Layton, UT pop. 67311
  • Eureka, CA pop. 27191
  • Rawlins, WY pop. 9259

Did the author of this editorial even bother to do any research on pipelines before suffering from verbal diarrhea?

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Miscaptioning Atrazine

What a difference a few words makes. Today's offering is a figure caption from Wikipedia. Maybe it's unfair to pick on Wikipedia - but since it has become the launching point for many an inquiry, I don't think they should be exempted from scrutiny. All things considered, I think Wikipedia is a good thing. I'm a big fan of not having barriers to knowledge for people outside of academe. Given the open and egalitarian nature of Wikipedia, there's far more that's right with it than wrong. The downside of Wikipedia is that it takes time to craft quality articles from a neutral perspective when anyone at all can contribute to writing and editing. It will never be the Encyclopedia Britannica but it has become a great place to start a research project on the net.

I debated whether to even bother with a post about one small figure caption on Wikipedia. Then I realized that if the same figure caption had shown up in a scientific article that I had been asked to peer review for a journal, I would have no mercy on the article authors. Why? Because figure captions matter. A lot of science professionals read articles outside their discipline by skimming in the following manner: first one reads the abstract followed by the figures and figure captions. Depending on the ego and nastiness of any given scientist, some would include a third step which would be to check the references to see if one had been cited. After all, it really is a publish and perish world out there and citations matter.

Basically, figure captions matter. When you consider that journalists and bloggers often lift figures out of journal articles and reprint them in internet or newspaper content, then figure captions matter a whole lot more than one would think. So in this context, I decided that, yes, I would indeed pick on just one short figure caption in Wikipedia.

Earlier today, I was reading a string of comments on Facebook about a murderer and his victims. Someone made a comment speculating that the murderer could have poisoned one of his victims with atrazine. This immediately hit my HUH? filter big time and left me wondering how much atrazine comprised a lethal dose for an adult human.

These days, I tend to look at Wikipedia first for regulatory, physical chemistry and toxicology information since many chemical pages on Wikipedia often include that info. If the Wikipedia page is any good, there will be a link back to a public health, industrial hygene, health physics or envirnomental science authority or journal where cited numbers can be verified. For the record, unless I already know a number off the top of my head (for example, I know most of the EPA MCLs for heavy metals by heart), I almost always verify numbers, especially if I'm going to be commenting or blogging about it later. Just as a quick FYI, the CDC is even better than the EPA if you want to look up understandable environmental and toxicological info about pollutants.

Getting back to our main topic here, which is a figure caption on the English-language Wikipedia site for atrazine, I found the comment from Facebook rather odd since herbicides are not popular or widely used poisons for homicides. As I suspected after looking at the toxicology numbers for atrazine, the amount needed to poison someone would be several tablespoons. Nope, atrazine would make a lousy homicide poison on the basis of quantity required. I suspect it would also taste bad too. Arsenic and strychnine are in no danger of being displaced as effective human poisons by atrazine. I'm sure that's a great relief to know! You can sleep better tonight knowing that evil atrazine from the blue earth corn fields of Minnesota will not waylay you and bring you to death's door before you wake.

Of course, atrazine has its own little anti-fan club because of its use in American farming, for cereal crops and especially maize, the iconic crop of the Midwest. Like all other things that farmers put on their crops in liquid form, atrazine has infiltrated into drinking water aquifers wherever farming is big. If you believe that atrazine is a danger to public health or the environment, then this is a matter of concern.

Regardless of the real or imagined danger posed by atrazine, having good facts at hand on its spread, prevalence and impact is necessary for meaningful debate. For the people out there who go to Wikipedia - and no farther - for their information, getting the facts right on the page for Atrazine strikes me as highly desirable. Now there are a few things that could use some fixing on this wiki page, but the one and only figure caught my eye immediately. Here's what it looks like, straight off my monitor screen: atrazine2.png

Did you spot the caption below the figure? "Atrazine use in pounds per square mile by county."

I made the mistake of really getting eye tracks all over this figure BEFORE blowing it up for finer inspection. Right off the bat, I thought all that green-level use of atrazine in New England was off-base. Seriously, New England - the home of rocky ground and non-existent top soil - was using that much atrazine? You don't use atrazine if you're farming apples, potatoes, maple syrup, trees or cows - which are all the main aggie products in the New England states. Now look at California and southern Idaho - especially southern Idaho where one of the biggest crops is barley. I would have thought the atrazine use in these area would be much higher than on the figure.

So I enlarged the figure: atrazine.png

I just love how the highest usage area overlaps the Midwest corn belt. Check out the non-linear scale too. There's all sorts of fun on this figure.

The enlarged figure did two things for me. First, I could actually read the text inside the figure box. I couldn't before because I've reached that point of middle age where I should really be wearing reading glasses and I'm too vain to enlarge the type size like an old person. After enlarging the figure, I could read the rest of the text on the figure and saw that the original caption was "Average annual use of active ingredient (pounds per square mile of agricultural land in county)."

Wow! That's a big difference. Use per square mile of farm land in a county is a lot different than use per mile of all land in a county! This figure would never convey how much bulk atrazine was being spread around on a per area basis. It only tells you how likely it is that farms will use atrazine on a county by county basis, regardless of how much farm land is in any given county.

The bottom line is that the Wikipedia caption that's big enough for an old person like me to read is misleading. As soon as I can figure out how to send in edits to Wikipedia, I'll try to fix this caption.

The second thing that enlarging the figure did for me was confuse me terribly. If the figure is showing me usage BY COUNTY, then I should be able to discern county shapes in the data but I should not be able to pick up details smaller than counties. The problem here is that there are features in the data that are obviously smaller than whole counties.

For starters, you can pick out pieces of interstates, like I-80 west of Chicago and the I-39 corridor in northern Illinois. You can see the Platte River in eastern and central Nebraska. You can see Columbus, Indianapolis, Peoria, and Cleveland but not Toledo or Des Moines. Cities and rivers are at scales finer than counties. A figure that's captioned as presenting data on a "by county" basis is mislabeled if you're seeing details smaller than counties.

The explanation turns out that the figure really isn't on a per county basis in a weird sort of way but you have to go to the source of the data to find that out. The source of the figure turns out to be respectable and reputable. The data and the figure both are from a very recent USGS report on pesticide usage in the USA. The complete citation is: Thelin, G.P., and Stone, W.W., 2013, Estimation of annual agricultural pesticide use for counties of the conterminous United States, 1992–2009: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2013-5009. You can also find it online at (accessed 18 Sept 2013). The authors of this USGS report did something kinda strange with their data and I'm left wondering why they bothered since it strikes me as somewhat counter-intuitive. Here's their explanation from the USGS webpage that explains how they made the pesticide usage maps in their report:

Individual crop types....were reclassified to simply differentiate agricultural land (including pasture and hay) from non-agricultural land....then generalized to one square kilometer cell size and the percentage of agricultural land for each cell was calculated. The proportion of county agricultural land included in each one square kilometer cell was multiplied by the total county use for each pesticide to calculate the proportional amount of use allocated to each cell. To display pesticide use on the annual maps for each compound, all of the cell values nationwide for the entire period were divided into quintiles and a color-coded map was generated for each year; the quintile classes were converted to pounds per square mile.


You follow all of that? They proportioned out the farm land in each county by one kilometer cells, allocated to each cell the amount of pesticide known for the county multiplied by the proportion of farmland in the cell, and then rebinned it all to present it on one national map in units of pounds of pesticide used on a per square mile basis. At the scale of the entire country, this conversion from kilometers to miles is a monstrous amount of work which would not change the level of detail one could see on the maps in their report. For their purpose, the conversion step was essentially superfluous!

One last thing. If you sit down and actually read this USGS report, you'll discover that the usage numbers for almost all the pesticide and herbicide data broken out by county is estimated based on statewide data.

My brain hurts.

Sunday 8 September 2013

Aspartame and the Warburg Effect

There's an article floating around the internet about aspartame, a relatively benign substance unless you're one of the very few people with the rare genetic disease of phenylketonuria. You've probably run into it, a rant on how aspartame is the root of MS, fibromyalgia, an epidemic of seizures, extreme symptoms of lupus, inexplicable blindness, loss of ambulatory function, etc., etc. One almost expects claims that aspartame is responsible for athlete's foot and baldness! If you read with any critical evaluation of these various claims, it quickly becomes apparent that pseudo-science abounds. All the usual pseudo-science tricks are present: fake citation of supposed authoritative sources, anecdotal claims, lack of any proof that could withstand actual scientific scrutiny, claims of evidence suppression by business and/or government, etc. Frankly, crap like this really irritates me because with a little thought, 1) most anyone should be able to figure out the difference between factual reports and bull puckey, and 2) pseudo-science helps to further undermine public trust in our representative democracy and in the credibility of institutional science.

I'm getting ahead of myself here, so without further delay or tangents, today's target can be found at (accessed 8 Sept 13). Now I'm going to also point you to the debunking of this aspartame hoax by sending you to its entry at the granddaddy of all debunking websites,, at (accessed 8 Sept 13). To be frank, I'm not sure the snopes debunking page is all that great in this case because the Food and Drug Administration letter quoted on Snopes is probably too nuanced for most people to follow. Trust me on this: having been thru two different grad schools (Caltech and UCDavis, both in the top 25 schools in my field), what no one teaches in hard science is how to write for people who are not fellow hard scientists. The best you get is maybe a class on how to write and publish a scientific paper. Learning on how to communicate to the hoi polloi is not in the curriculum. The FDA letter quoted on Snopes is a good example of talking above the heads of most of the readership. But that's not really my topic today so let's leave this tangent for the time being.

One of things I've noticed about the aspartame-is-toxic article over the years is that the end of it often varies if the person posting it has something to sell you. The Rhonda Gessner blog post of this article is on a blog site whose object is to sell you water purification stuff. If you look at the aspartame-is-toxic article quoted on the Snopes website, it wanted to sell you some junk medicine books. This kind of gimmick is the internet equivalent of an infomercial on cable tv.

The end of the aspartame-is-toxic article on the Rhonda Gessner blog is really quite interesting, enough so that I will quote one part of it here:

I came across an article about Dr. Otto Warburg that said…he won the Nobel Prize in 1931 for proving that no disease including cancer, can survive in an alkaline body. From there…a friend told me about a Japanese medical device that makes alkaline water. She went on to tell me that since our body is 70% water, drinking alkaline ionized water is the easiest way to raise your pH. It makes perfect sense…the health “puzzle” is made up of many pieces including water, diet, exercise, sleep, etc. But since 3/4 of that puzzle is made up of one big piece…WATER, drinking enough of the “right” kind of water will have a HUGE impact on your health. If you’d like to learn more, click on the link and request your FREE eBook on Healthy Water: <<link to the product that this blog is pushing>>

The blog post ends immediately after this link with this sentence:

(just sharing this info from another blog…i’m not the author)

Did you catch that? By stating that everything above this disclaimer statement is from another blog, which is never cited by the way, this blog's author makes it look that someone else's blog was plugging the water purification product that this blog is marketing. Nice... Wow. Is that sarcasm I'm smelling?

It's certainly an interesting segue from aspartame in diet soda to drinking the right kind of water in order to prevent or cure cancer. You would think that such an amazing find by Herr Doktor Otto Wartburg would have circled the globe already with cancer cures and the cancer eradication becoming well-established everywhere. In fact, if such a thing were true, that no disease can exist in an alkaline body, then disease as we know it should have passed out of existence well-before the end of the 20th century. But here we are in the 21st century, and disease is alive and well, so to say.

So who was Otto Warburg and what did he really discover in his research about cancer? Right off the bat, Dr. Warburg was a research biochemist who worked in Italy and Germany. One interesting fact about the man is that he was friends with both Einstein and Max Planck. He won the 1931 Nobel Prize in Medicine for elucidating the mechanism and responsible enzymes for cellular respiration. As as outgrowth of his research on cellular respiration, he showed that cancerous cells required much less oxygen than normal cells because they replace aerobic cellular respiration with anaerobic glycolysis as a source of energy. The "Warburg effect" was Warburg's theory that even in aerobic conditions, cancer cells will persist in using glycolysis for energy rather than aerobic respiration. Warburg believed that the malignant transformation of normal to cancerous cells, i.e. from aerobic respiration to glycolysis for energy production, was the fundamental cause of cancer. Subsequent research of cancerous cell growth strongly suggests that the Warburg effect is itself the result of gene suppression and mutation; thus the anaerobic conditions associated with malignant tumors are not the cause of run-away glycolysis, but rather the result of gene misfunction.

So where do people get these strange ideas about the pH of biochemical processes and the acidity or alkalinity of human bodies? It doesn't make much sense to me. I have a inkling that it comes from a misunderstanding about the relationship of anaerobic processes in the body somehow being associated with acidity. Maybe it goes like this: the products of anaerobic glycolysis go through a non-Krebs cycle fermentation with an end product of lactic acid, thus increasing acidity. Now it looks like Warburg was thinking the anaerobic conditions were the precursor to the transformation from normal to cancerous cells, so even according to his theory, any increase in acidity from the creation of lactic acid was the effect of the cancerous cell glycolysis, not the cause. So this isn't really a good explanation for how someone might mistake Warburg's precursor anaerobic conditions for some kind of increase in body acidity.

The concept of an acidic vs. alkaline body is just plain weird. To say that your body is 70% water, and that drinking alkaline water will shift the pH of your body's water to more alkaline values is nonsense. Why? Because the so-called water in your body isn't really water. The water molecules in your body exist mostly as the solvent part of the solutions that form the so-called bodily fluids like blood, cerebral fluid, mucus, bile, vitreous humor and many others. Each of these fluids has its own optimum pH suited for the function that that fluid carries out in the body. Gastric acid, which is the stuff in your stomach, varies in pH between 1 and 4, depending on when you ate last. (For whatever it's worth, coke has a pH of approximately 2.5, well within the range of stomach acid.) The pH of blood is ~7.4 ± 0.05. Your body works continuously to keep your blood inside that range. If the pH of your blood shifts out of that range, it can make you quite sick but it doesn't cause cancer. Kidney or heart failure, maybe; but cancer, no. There's more blood in you than any other fluid but drinking a lot of acidic or alkaline water will not lead to shifts in the pH of your blood because bodies just don't work that way. Think of it this way: all the water you drink, regardless of its alkalinity or acidity, will always be instantly acidified upon ingestion. There's no way to avoid that acidification because it's the stomach job to attack everything you ingest with low pH gastic acid. So much for buying fancy gizmos to make your drinking water alkaline, if it isn't already that way already. A lot of water in North America is on the alkaline side of pH. If you live west of the Appalachian Mountains, chances are that your local drinking water is hard water - and hard water by definition is alkaline. Why buy a gizmo to deliver you alkaline water when all you really need to do is move to Arizona.

Trivia: There are actually two things called the Warburg effect, the one discussed here and one relating to photosynthesis, both "authored" by Otto Warburg. There is also a thing called the Reverse Warburg effect, which involves aerobic glycolysis rather than anaerobic glycolysis and wasn't the brain child of Warburg (Pavlides et al, 2009, pubmed 19923890).

Tangential Trivia: Krebs is the German word for cancer. Interestingly enough, Hans Adolf Krebs, explicator of the Krebs cycles, also known as the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle or citric acid cycle, once worked for Otto Warburg as his assistant. The Krebs cycle is one of the processes associated with aerobic respiration of normal cells. The process of cancerous non-Krebs cycle fermentation after glycolysis is therefore a bit tweaked as far as nomenclature is concerned when you consider that Krebs means cancer in Kreb's first language. Go figure.


Encyclopedia Britannica, "Otto Warburg," (accessed 8 Sept 2013, subscription required).

Kim, J. W., and Dang, C. V. (2006), Cancer's molecular sweet tooth and the Warburg effect, Cancer Research 66 (18): 8927–8930. (pubmed16982728)

López-Lázaro, M. (2008), The warburg effect: why and how do cancer cells activate glycolysis in the presence of oxygen? Anticancer Agents Med Chem 8(3):305-12. (pubmed18393789)

Menedez, J. A., and 9 others, (2013), The Warburg effect version 2.0: metabolic reprogramming of cancer stem cells, Cell Cycle 12(8):1166-79. (pubmed 23549172)

Warburg, O. (1956), On the origin of cancer cells, Science 123 (3191): 309–314. (, accessed 8 Sept 2013, subscription required)

Saturday 17 August 2013

It's not basalt

Today's object of getting it wrong is an article in the New York Times. You can read it here: (accessed Aug. 17, 2013)

It's a piece discussing a geology article in this week's issue of Science, which is the premier of all scientific journals in the USA and along with the Royal Society's Nature is one of the two most respected journals in the world, bar none. An article in Science is a big deal for any scientist. Using the Science article as a departure point, the NY Times article drew a link between a geological event and a modern analog. The first event is the formation of the famous Palisades sill and a Triassic mass extinction event. The latter event is present-day global warming and the current modern mass extinction event we're currently in the middle of.

It wouldn't have been a bad piece - for those who like that sort of gloom-and-doom style of writing in the news - if the science had been better. You wouldn't know it from reading this article that the subject of the Science paper was about making better links between the break-up-of-Pangea rifting events and one of the largest mass extinction events in the geological record through the use of U-Pb dating methods. The abstract of the Science paper is free for reading online, though to get the whole paper you either have to be a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science or you can purchase just the text of the paper separately from an AAAS member's perk subscription to Science. If you're into geochronology, the Science paper is really a bid at revising the date of the Triassic-Jurassic age boundary. Well, that's my interpretation of this paper's purpose from reading between the lines. It's a big deal to instigate a revision of a Geological age boundary and it gives any researcher no end of excellent bragging rights in the relatively small and cloistered world of academic earth science.

Like many journalists writing about science, the NY Times reporter posed his account as if the link between big volcanic provinces and mass extinctions was startling, new and revolutionary. It's actually old news. The idea's been floating around for at least two decades. The American Geophysical Union monograph on the subject makes a good starting point if anyone is interested in this fascinating subject (Mahoney, J., and F. Coffin, Eds., 1997, Large Igneous Provinces: Continental, Oceanic, and Planetary Flood Volcanism, Geophys. Monogr. Ser., vol. 100, 438 pp., AGU, Washington, D. C., doi:10.1029/GM100.). Okay, I think it's fascinating but I'm also published in the broader field of continental volcanism. I might be biased here since not everyone is as deeply committed to rocks as I am.

No, I'm not really going to dump on this NY Times article because it made the Palisades sill sound like the source of the incredibly widespread Pangea-rifting event called the Central-Atlantic "Large Igneous Province" or "LIP." It's a fun acronym, LIP. Imagine thousands of smirking geologists going to American Geophysical Union or Geological Society of American conferences to attend sessions on LIPs. That's right up there with the US EPA's original program name for testing and remediating underground storage tanks, LUST, or the Navy's now-retired acronym for the now-renamed bureau of yards and docks, BuDocks (which was often mispronounced to rhyme with a feature of posterior anatomy). No, the reporter's presentation of the Palisades, the beautiful and famous massive cliff across the Hudson from Manhattan, as the font of all Central Atlantic LIP volcanism is not really worth nitpicking at. The reporter mispresenting the Science Pangea rift basin geochronology article as an analog argument for modern mass extinction is also not really worth nitpicking at. No, that's not what sent me off a cliff this time around. This time around it's all about basalt. I'm a bit of an expert on basalt. Wrote some good papers on basalt and continental basaltic volcanism in my day.

To make it even more personal, my first geology field trip ever was to the Palisades sill. I was an engineering student at Columbia. I had to take the "geology for science and engineering students" class as a requirement for my major. In the space of 10 weeks, I got hooked on rocks big time - so hooked that I took up geology instead of engineering. And part of that story involves those first fascinating field trips into the Triassic rift basin known as the Newark basin formed by the break-up of the Pangea super-continent. There are some first-rate rift-basin igneous rocks in the environs of New York City, including the Palisades Sill, which forms that spectacular cliff on the west bank of the Hudson, as well as the three prominent basalt flows which form the three big ridges to the west of NYC. The closest of these basalts, the Orange Mountain Basalt, crops out on I-80 in Patterson , New Jersey. That was included in one of those Columbia University geology field trips too. If you live anywhere near NYC or if you go driving down that patch of I-80 in New Jersey, you really need to check it out. The outcrop is on the south side of the interstate. It's hard to miss since it's a great big ridge that the interstate cuts through. In that cut are the most beautiful, well-formed, lovely pillows of basalt that you can see aanywhere. You would have to go to Hawaii or Iceland to see any as good. Not even the pillow basalts on Francis Drake Drive in Marin County, California, are as good. Serious wow-factor pillow basalt - in New Jersey, spitting distance from NYC, ticket to Hawaii or Iceland not required!

newark basin If you have no idea of what I'm raving about here, a pillow basalt is one that erupted in a water body like the ocean. Due to the action of water on the erupting basalt, the surface of a pillow basalt flow looks like a giant pile of grey to black pillows, ranging in size from bed pillows to haram pillows and bean bag chairs. You usually don't see pillow basalts in the large continental basalts like those in Idaho or Oregon or Washington. You do see them in places like Iceland or Hawaii or along the mid-oceanic rifts. The one on the highway in Paterson, NJ, formed in the young late-Triassic rift system that eventually formed what is today the Atlantic Ocean.

The Palisades were formed by injection of tholeiitic-composition magma into sediments a few kilometers down. The ingredients list for the Palisades Sill is essentially the same as for the tholeiite basalt barfed out of oceanic rifts; however, since the Palisades Sill was an intrusion, not an eruption, it's a rock type called diabase. The difference between diabase and basalt is one of texture. Basalts are formed from magma that is erupted at the surface into either air or water. Since eruption is a surface event, the magma is flash-frozen into a fine-grained rock which often includes lots of little gas bubble cavities called vesicles. There's a whole lexicon of terms just for patterns of vesicles in basalts that I will spare you from explaining for now. Diabases do not cool quickly like basalts since they are intruded away from the chill of the earth's atmosphere or hydrosphere. Injected into already-buried rocks, a diabase has time to cool slowly. This allows mineral grains time to grow to large sizes visible to the naked eye without a microscope or hand lens. In the Palisades Sill, the crystal grains of minerals formed and then settled into layers within the cooling magma body in a pattern known as crystal fractionation. In fact, the Palisades Sill is used as the exemplar of crystal fractionation in geology text books. It's famous for its obvious crystal fractionation features, like the ten-foot thick basal layer of green olivine crystals that you can see in the parking lots of some strip malls and apartment buildings in Jersey City, NJ, some of which I visited on those Columbia University geology field trips many years ago. It's not the sort of thing you forget: the towering vertical face, hundreds of feet tall, of the Palisades, and at its base, that shiny green layer of glassy, gemmy olivine. I'll never forget that trip: the hot September Saturday afternoon, the light blue Columbia van, the tops of Manhattan's skyscrapers across the river in the muggy haze, the two bored TAs, the smell of the garbage dumpster in the parking lot behind a supermarket in Jersey City, the fat buzzing flies, the fractured vitreous olivine crystals. To go on that field trip, I had to skip playing in the university band at that Saturday's football game at UPenn. I always liked collecting rocks, ever since I was four, but it was on those field trips that I fell in love with geology.

So while I can forgive the author of this NY Times article his sins of misrepresenting the point of this LIPs geochronology paper in Science, I do take exception at one thing. The author called the Palisades a basalt. It's not a basalt. It's a diabase. It's like calling a sugar beet a radish or a napa cabbage a brussel sprout. It's just not the same! I can barely tolerate hijacking a LIPs geocrhonology paper for pontificating on the evils of global warming but I can't stand it when someone gets the basic rock identification just plain wrong. Calling a thing by its proper name really does matter.

Further Reading:

The USGS has some nice webpages on the Palisades and the Triassic-Jurassic Newark rift basin at and The article in Science mentioned in the NY Times can be found here: (All links accessed 17 Aug 2013.) The figure of Newark Basin stratigraphy is from the USGS webpage on the Newark Basin

Friday 12 July 2013


If you recall - and even if you don't - I sometimes have a bit of fun exposing sloppy citations. There are various forms of sloppy citation on the internet. One that often turns up in news media blogs involves citing some other blog as a reliable source; however, the cited blog also got things wrong due to its own sloppy citations. It's possible to get a whole chain of sloppy citations like the one I discussed on March 6 (1). The problem here stems from the use of bad secondary and tertiary sources. The solution involves eschewing all but the most authoritative sources. The Encyclopedia Britannica is an authoritative source; Wikipedia is not.

Writers who use sloppy citations should be sent to the tenth pit of the eighth circle of Hell, along with impostors and perjurers (2). Just saying...

The following link will take you to a brilliant graphic that illustrates one mode of creating a sloppy citation:

(1), accessed 13 July 2013. (2) Dante, "The Falsifiers," Canto XXX, The Divine Comedy,, accessed 12 July 2013.

Monday 8 July 2013

Oil Prices, Middle Eastern Unrest and Unemployment

I'll warn you now, this post is a little on the long side and I confess to have thrown in a couple of tangential feel free to skip the idylls on why the unemployment rate doesn't actually measure the proportion of people out of work or why old-time drillers use to take actual swigs of oil out of the ground...


Have you ever wondered about reports of prices and economic indicators which change due to national or international events? For example, a news report might say something like:

Prices for Batmobiles dropped by 7% on Tuesday after the Gotham City Police Department reported that violent crime decreased last month, leading to projected lowered demand for vigilante transportation .

Since the housing bubble popped in 2008, such reports often deal with the impact of the monthly job statistics issued by the federal government. Here's an example from Friday's Wall Street Journal (1):

NEW YORK–Crude-oil futures climbed 2% Friday as violence in Egypt increased oil-supply concerns and better-than-expected U.S. labor market data pointed to higher demand.

Light, sweet crude for August delivery settled up $1.98, or 2%, at $103.22 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the highest settlement since May 2012.

Brent crude on the ICE futures exchange settled up $2.18, or 2.1%, at $107.72 a barrel, a three-month high.

After a few paragraphs with some details about the situation in Egypt, this article goes on to say:

As supply worries increased, economic data suggested the possibility of increased fuel demand in the U.S., the world’s largest oil-consuming country. The Labor Department said U.S. employers added 195,000 jobs in June, surpassing expectations for a gain of 160,000 and offering a sign of strong improvement in the labor market.

These statements in the Wall Street Journal are the subject of today's blog post. There really isn't a problem with tying the military ouster of the elected Islamist government in Egypt with a spike in the price of oil. Any any unrest or political instability in the Middle East usually causes short-term price spikes in the spot price for crude. The reason this article is today's target was the addition of tying the spike in oil prices to the release of the US labor statistics for the month of June. On the first Friday of every month, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics releases several statistics dealing with employment for the previous month. The figures that get the most attention are the number of jobs added and the rate of unemployment for the month prior.


The unemployment rate that's commonly reported in the news every month is somewhat of a misleading number. The government defines the unemployment rate as the percent of unemployed people in the labor who have been actively looking for work during the previous 4 weeks. The Bureau of Labor Statistics takes a survey every month in order to determine the unemployment rate. The data behind the unemployment rate have been assembled monthly by the government since the 1940s using commonly-accepted and -vetted methods of statistical data collection and extrapolation. The actual methodology is the sort of thing that statistician geeks really grove on - and I've worked with enough of those to know this first hand - but the rest of us would likely ossify after working with those numbers for a few hours. If you really want to know the nasty details behind calculating the unemployment rate, you should check out the Bureau of Labor Statistic unemployment faq page at

The government's definition of unemployment leaves out a lot of people: a recent write-up in Forbes estimates that the number of unemployed people in the USA is almost twice the official rate (2). Anyone out-of-work person who hasn't actively looked for a job during the last 4 weeks will fall into a category that is not included in the unemployment rate. The unemployment rate doesn't include all those people who have given up looking for a job after searching but not finding any. It also doesn't include people who are engaged in non-renumerative work like unpaid internships who are hoping to convert that into paying work, nor does it include people who want full-time work have taken temp or part-time employment wherever they can find it in order to make ends. Another set of workers left out are the self-employed: someone who works as an independent tradesman, handyman or professional consultant is not considered unemployed even if the number of paying jobs coming through the door has completely dried up for months on end. Even after the raw unemployment rate is generated, the number most often reported as the rate has also been tweaked to smooth out the effect of seasonal jobs like summer jobs for college and high school students or winter-only jobs at ski resorts. Government unemployment statistics sometimes leaves me feeling like the time-dependent Schrödinger's Equation is easy math!


While the Wall Street Journal article did mention the number of jobs added, it skipped any mention of the unemployment rate for June, which was 7.6% (3). This rate is unchanged from May. The reason that the addition of 195,000 jobs did not decrease the unemployment rate is because the rate also accounts for the estimated increase in the number of new entrants in the job market. The number of job market entrants, i.e. new job seekers, increases every month because the overall working population of the country increases every month. When the unemployment rate remains constant from one month to the next, the number of jobs added is balanced by the number of new job seekers entering the labor market. For the constant unemployment rate from May to June, there were 195,000 new job hunters who were not yet employed and looking for work.

Government economists originally projected that only 160,000 new jobs would be created in June - so the good news here is that ~35,000 more jobs were added in June than expected. The Wall Street Journal article is saying that the addition of this extra bounty of jobs is a situation

surpassing expectations for a gain of 160,000 (jobs) and offering a sign of strong improvement in the labor market (1).

Furthermore, the Wall Street Journal asserts that this economic improvement was reflected in the price of oil on Friday after the jobs figures were released. Here's the reasoning behind that: economic improvement from more jobs means more economic activity all the way around. More economic activity means a greater demand for commodities in general and that includes oil. What the article left out is that the supply of oil can't be suddenly increased to meet demand because the supply is limited by the capacity of currently-producing oil fields and currently-existing oil transportation networks. It takes years to bring new oil wells online and years to add new pipelines, trucks, trains and ships capable of transporting oil. There really is no such thing as big increases in the supply of oil in the short term. This means we can assume that the supply of oil is usually a constant in the short-term of days and weeks. Basic supply and demand dictates that if demand goes up and supply stays the same or decreases, then price will go up. That's how added jobs can lead to increased oil prices.

I hope that everyone has noticed the interesting sleight of hand in describing these good and improved economic conditions as reflected in the US employment statistics. When we clear away the the verbiage about the number of new jobs exceeding expectations, what we are looking at is a claim by this Wall Street Journal article that the economy is showing signs of improvement because the unemployment rate didn't get any worse from May to June! This sort of double-speak is perhaps worthy of George Orwell's Animal Farm and it is not confined to the Wall Street Journal. For example, looking around the internet Friday morning turned up several similar articles about all those new jobs. The website splash page for the Dallas Business Journal proclaimed (4):

Sun shines on economy -- 195,000 jobs added!

If you take the time to look, you will see this overly optimistic trend in reporting labor statistics across news outlets both conservative and liberal. I've been seeing headlines like this since at least 2011 - and I have to wonder whether journalists are really aware of what they are writing. Is everyone merely copying what some economist or pundit says about job creation without questioning the basic math? Where is this spin coming from? I see this happening with labor statistics and other economic indicators but I have never been able to unravel a root source for spinning mediocre labor figures into the heralded improvements in the economy that never seem to reach the anxious unemployed. Given the spread of such misinformation, it should be no wonder then that no one really seems aware that our currently steady unemployment rate of 7.6% (plus or minus 0.1%) is about 2% higher than before the housing bubble collapsed in 2008. Welcome to the new normal state of things.

I looked at several major news outlets Friday and Saturday, many of which repeated the misplaced optimism of the Wall Street Journal; however, I found two major outlets covering business news that managed to see the real numbers behind the cacophony of mistaken employment reporting. Despite the fact that I love to thump on the liberal myopia of certain editorials in the New York Times, that venerable institution is one of the only American news sources that didn't mistake those added 195,000 jobs as an improvement in the job market (5). The other news outlet that got it right was the aforementioned Forbes article (2).

Thus far we have looked at the misrepresentation of the lackluster June labor statistics as a sign of economic improvement. It's time now to move onto the price of oil.


There are several different oil markets and price indices. The prices you commonly see in the news, especially in the USA, are the spot prices per barrel oil, where one barrel is equal to 42 American gallons or ~158.99 liters. The index that is most commonly reported in the USA is the NYMEX price of oil which is currently defined as the per barrel price of West Texas Intermediate ("WTI") sweet crude. Oil is defined as light, intermediate or heavy based on its specific gravity. The New York Mercantile Exchange ("NYMEX") defines domestic light crude as having an API gravity between 37° API and 42° API (816 kg/m3), intermediate crude as between 20° API and 37° API and heavy crude as anything heavier than 20° API. The details on the numbers are important only to refinery engineers who have to crack the stuff into gasoline and other usable fuels. It suffices to know that light crude is fluid even into lower temperature and has lots of lighter short-carbon-chain organic compounds that are easy to separate into gasoline; whereas heavy crude is gooey, gloppy stuff that doesn't flow well when it gets cold and has lots of heavier organic compounds more suitable for heating oil, diesel fuel and lubricant greases. Obviously, intermediate crude has properties inbetween light and heavy crude.


The word "sweet" when applied to crude refers to sulfur content. The lower the sulfur content, the sweeter the crude. The terms sweet and sour as applied to crude oil originated in the early days of the American oil business. In the 19th century, oil drillers would actually smell and taste the stuff out of the ground to classify it. Depending on the taste buds of the oil taster, the line between sweet and sour will vary from one person to the next. For most people the sweet/sour boundary is between one to one-half percent sulfur. NYMEX defines sweet crude as having less than 0.47 percent sulfur content by weight. The percent value of sulfur to define sweet crude varies depending on where you are in the world; and it has also changed a bit through time. The old Rockefeller pre-Anti-Trust act Standard Oil Company definition of sweet was less than 1% sulfur. As lab analyses and modern chemical engineering replaced taking a sip of the black stuff out of the drill steel, the modern domestic definition of sweet crude has slid down to the modern values of around a half percent.


An oil marker is the Oil Patch name for what most normal people call a price index. Since the world of the petroleum is its own insular club, it has its own jargon. Economists have price indices for petroleum but the exploration and production ("E & P") world calls them "oil markers." There are a handful of oil markers that refinery operators, oil future traders and other "downstream" oil businesses consider the most important. These include the domestic WTI (West Texas Intermediate traded on NYMEX), the North Sea's Brent Blend (traded as "B" on Europe's Intercontinental Exchange or "ICE"), and well-known light but sour Dubai Crude. Tracking these three oil markers is currently considered sufficient to survey of the price of oil worldwide.

Having worked on occasion in "the Oil Patch," I could probably write a lot more about oil definitions and how oil is bought and sold on the various exchanges around the world. For now it suffices to know that in the USA, the domestic price of WTI crude is quoted per the American 42-gallon barrel. On the NYMEX, both Dubai Sour and North Sea Sweet Brent Blend are tracked and quoted for American traders in US dollars in units of American barrels. (One 42 gallon American barrel = ~158.99 liters)

Since oil futures contracts specify the delivery point, the buyer who intends to take delivery is responsible for the cost of shipping from the point of delivery. The delivery point for WTI is Cushing, Oklahoma whereas the delivery points for Brent Blend and Dubai Sour are various terminals in the North Sea and the Persian Gulf, respectively. An American refinery is more likely to buy WTI contracts due to the easier and usually cheaper transport and due to the price gap between WTI and Brent over the last 5 years. Brent Blend has been more expensive than WTI for a variety of reasons by approximately 3 to 12 US dollars per barrel during this interval. Since 2010, WTI has been priced lower than Brent Blend partly due to over-stock in Cushing that has depressed the domestic market for crude and due to a gradual decline in the supply of Brent from the aging North Sea reservoirs, some of which are approaching effective depletion. These factors are important since any effect on the price for crude due to a supposed improvement in the economy should show up as an impact on the price of domestic WTI whereas the European Brent Blend should be insensitive to the effects of American job creation on the domestic American economy.


So let's look at some data:


(Unemployment data from ref. 3; oil price data from refs. 6 through 8)

So, there are the numbers. There's an immediate problem and that is the unlike nature of the two datasets. Unemployment rate is reported only once a month, on the first Friday of the month. An extremely irreverent imp in the back of my head is making some noise right now about the neglect of the First Friday Devotions to the Sacred Heart of Christ and its replacement by the sacrilegious utterances of the secular false prophets of manna, a.k.a. the U. S. Departments of Commerce and Labor; however, it is well known that my inner child is a badly-behaved fiend who spent too many recesses at parochial school writing sentences under the watchful eye of Sister Superior due to bad behavior, so it is safe to ignore whatever pops out of my inner fiend's psyche.

In contrast, spot prices for oil markers change by the minute and for the sake of ease of reporting, close-of-market prices are available for all days that exchanges are open for bidding on the various crude oil futures available. This means that there is once a month data on jobs and near-daily close-of-market prices for crude. WTI and Brent are traded at sufficiently impressive volumes on NYMEX that the US government tracks and reports on both those oil markers on the publicly-available US Energy Information Administration website, thus saving interested taxpayers from paying for real-time professional-grade commodities price reporting, which used to be the only way to get this sort of info other than waiting for the next day's New York Times or Wall Street Journal.

The problem here should be apparent, especially when reporters claim a reaction in commodities prices due to the announcement of a once-a-month economic index figure like jobs created and unemployment rate. The issue here is whether the transient effect of a once-a-month employment index number has any true significant in time frames less than a day.

If the Wall Street Journal article is taken seriously in its claim that an improved job market can affect the spot market price of crude, then what we need to examine is the price of crude as measured by one or more of the important oil markers and to compare it to the unemployment rate. To do this, I have plotted WTI and the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate from the beginning of 2012 until this Friday, July 5, 2013. Here's what it looks like:


There aren't any obvious trends that leap off this graph. Since the claims of effect on spot price may be very short term, one could argue that we need to look at the change in unemployment from the previous month vs. the change the WTI price. To do this, I calculated the percent change in the price of WTI from market close on the first thursday of the month to market close on the first friday of the month. Then I plotted it vs. the change in unemployment rate from the previous month, for every month from January 2012 through last week. This is what it looks like:


If there are any trends in this plot, then they aren't really strong ones or our eyes would have sorted out the patterns already. But since we're trying to find a relationship between unemployment change vs. crude oil spot price change, let's drop the plot with respect to time and make a direct plot of the change data plotted against each other on a scatter plot. With time as a variable removed from consideration, if there are any real trends between WTI and unemployment, then they should show up on a scatter plot with clumping in opposite quadrants that we can regress to a line. Here's the scatter plot


There is scatter in all quadrants, not just in two opposing quadrants, and that indicates there is no relationship between the monthly change in unemployment and the price of crude right after the Labor Department's announcement of job statistics on the first Friday of the month. Regardless of whether unemployment or job creation has gone up or down, there is no observable effect on the price of crude, at least in the period that we looked at. Bottom line: the Wall Street Journal got it wrong.

There's another way to test if the announcement of job statistics impacts the spot price of oil and that's if the change in domestic price of oil is significantly greater or less than the change in the foreign price as represented by one of the overseas oil markers. To do this, I have listed the market close spot prices of both WTI and Brent as reported on NYMEX. Since some data was not listed in the middle of last week due to the Fourth of July holiday, we have to look at the three day change to compare WTI and Brent. As you can see from the table below, the change in price for both oil markers is very close, where the numbers for the price differences are within 10% of one another. That's good enough to claim that the differences are not significant, supporting the previous claim that job statistics did not impact the price of oil at least domestically. It's safe to say that all the change seen last week was mostly due to concerns about supply due to the military coup in Egypt.

Date WTI, $ (1,6, 7, 8) Brent, $ (1,9)

7/2/13 99.65 103.96

7/3/13 101.24 N/A

7/4/13 N/A N/A

7/5/13 103.6 107.72

3-day change +3.95 +3.76


  1. Day, M., and DiColo, J. (2013, July 5), "Crude Climbs on Egypt Concerns, Upbeat U.S. Jobs Data," Wall Street Journal,, accessed 5 July 2013.
  2. Diamond, D. (2013, July 5), "Why the Real Unemployment Rate is Higher Than You Think,", accessed 6 July 2013.
  3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2013), "Unemployment Rate,", accessed 5 July 2013.
  4. Hoover, K. (2013, July 5), "Sun Shines on Economy - 195,000 Jobs Added,", accessed 6 July 2013.
  5. Schwartz, N. (2013, July 5), "U.S. Adds 195,000 Jobs; Unemployment Remains 7.6%," New York Times,, accessed 6 July 2013.
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Sunday 7 July 2013

Which is Safer to Transport Crude: Pipeline or Rail?

After the tragedy that's right over the border in Lac Megantic, it was only a matter of time before someone squawked about the lack of safety and the horrible environmental harm involved in transporting crude oil by rail. In fact, the Bangor Daily News already covered an aspect of this question last Summer in reaction to the increase in crude traveling by rail across Maine to a refinery in New Brunswick. But just a few hours ago, I spotted the first news article questioning the relative safety of pipelines vs. trains and more are sure to follow as the horror of the Lac Megantic disaster sinks in (see

Of course, the various professional associations that represent the rail and pipeline businesses have had their say as to which mode of transport is safer. This isn't really a big deal at all for transporting North Dakota crude across Maine to New Brunswick because there aren't any petroleum pipelines in central or northern Maine to compete with the two local rail carriers. Now if you're someone deeply invested for or against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project, then looking at the relative safety of shipping oil sands dilbit by rail vs. pipeline is a big deal, especially since the controversial US State Department Environmental Impact Statement ("EIS") uses some of those arguments in favor of pipelines.

It will be interesting to see if the State Department reissues the Keystone EIS to include the Lac Megantic train accident as further support for the pipeline.

It is worth taking a look at the safety of shipping crude in pipelines vs. railroad tank cars. This is made difficult since the federal database on train accidents at the Federal Railroad Administration is even worse and more crypic than the old USGS surface and ground water database - and that's saying something given the notoriety of the infamous USGS water data interface. In fact, after fighting with the database on the Federal Railroad Administration website, I gave up and decided to use some data from the Association of American Railroads ("AAR").

The AAR data is from a two-page info piece that presents the AAR's assertion that shipping crude by rail is safer than shipping via pipeline. To do so, the AAR calculated an average spill rate on a per barrel and per mile basis. They dug up numbers for miles of track and miles of pipeline for this analysis. They also confined their analysis to exclusively crude oil. This approach has some major problems. Due the to differences between railroads and pipelines, their numbers are based on the no-no of false comparison. You can look at their two-page analysis for yourself at

The first problem with the AAR approach is the focus on crude. It's not really the right thing to focus on. The safety of tanker cars is the important factor in spills, not the contents. The gig with rail transport is the variety of rail cars used. There are many different tank cars types, though the major categories are pressurized or unpressurized, and insulated or uninsulated. Petroleum oils are commonly shipped in insulated non-pressurized tank cars. To evaluate tanker car safety for shipping crude, one should look at all hazardous liquid spills involving insulated non-pressurized tank cars. The spill rate for insulated non-pressurized tanker cars will be underestimated if one looks at just crude oil spills. So long as the liquid inside is appropriate for the tank car design, then the actual contents by themselves are unlikely to cause a spill. It's the external factors which are important in spills, things like tanker car design, the car's condition, train speed, weather and rail damage.

Any tanker car spill rate which is based solely on crude oil will be be lower than the actual spill rate

Using a spill rate based on the amount of track traveled is also problematic because one can ship multiple liquids over differing route. Selecting an appropriate amount of track mileage for a crude spill rate is therefore slippery and subjective. Also, consider that there is more track mileage than pipeline mileage. While oil pipeline mileage is essentially a constant with fixed-location end points, rail mileage can vary depending on the route taken. The AAR tried to compare a shipping mode with fixed mileage and and one known product with one that can ship any liquid commodity over a wide choice of routes. These differences add up making any comparison inadvisable. Comparing apples and gorillas is a false comparison.

Comparing spill rates on a per mile basis is questionable since total rail mileage is variable.

Even if spill-per-mile rates are problematic, there is still a way to compare pipelines vs. trains. The trick is to drop per mile measurements entirely and to convert spill rate to a dimensionless quantity. In this case, an appropriate dimensionless spill rate is the volume spilled vs. the total volume shipped. The subjective amount of mileage traveled is now no longer a problem and concerns of disparate infrastructure can no longer bias the results. Gross volume shipped is unaffected by other variables.

Let's look at the numbers. Data are from the AAR, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Association of Oil Pipe Lines and the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration ("PHMSA").

Right off the bat, it's obvious that pipelines do a better job in terms of injuries and death. Using 2011 data, fatalities for five modern transportation modes are:

  • 32367 highway deaths
  • 800 marine deaths
  • 759 railroad deaths
  • 494 aviation deaths
  • 14 pipeline deaths

Pipeline fatalities are lower by an order of magnitude compared to other shipping modes. This is likely due to the fixed nature of pipelines, where the pipe and pumping equipment are stationary. All other shipping modes involve the motion of both heavy machinery and product through space, a complex system of many moving parts. It's a no-brainer that a lot that can go wrong in any complex system. In comparison, pipelines are much simpler since only the product moves, not the pipeline.

US pipelines transport approximately 11.3 billion barrels of petroleum per year. Approximately 52% of this is crude so a total of ~5.9 billion barrels of crude oil travel in pipelines.

The rail transport data from AAR was decadal so I converted it to an annual basis instead. Here's the converted AAR data:

  • Average annual barrels shipping by rail: 20,632,788.
  • Average annual barrels spilled by rail: 206.

As already mentioned, that spill rate probably underestimates the risk of spills from tanker cars.

The AAR also reported a spill volume for pipelines:

  • Average annual barrels spilled by pipelines: 43,131.

We can test the validity of the AAR spill amount for pipelines by comparing it to other reported estimates for pipeline spills. The database from the PHMSA website is set-up to report on all petroleum products in pipelines, including liquified gasses. Here's the average spilled by pipelines based on that data:

An average of 105,370 barrels of all pipeline products are spilled every year.

Assuming that 52% of those pipeline products are crude oil, then an average of 54,792 barrels of crude in pipelines is spilled every year.

Now we can calculate annual average spill rates on a dimensionless volume-only basis:


20 632 788 barrels/year shipped on trains     
206 barrels/year spilled
9.98 e -06 = fraction spilled
= 0.000 998 %


5 900 000 000 barrels/year in pipelines (52% of PHMSA volume)
43 131 barrels/year spilled from pipelines (AAR data)
7.31 e -06 = fraction spilled
= 0.000 731 %


5 900 000 000 barrels/year in pipelines (52% of PHMSA volume)
54 792 barrels/year spilled (52% of PHMSA volume)
9.29 e -06 = fraction spilled
= 0.000 929 %

There's very little difference between these numbers.

If the data were actually available for the miles that every barrel of crude traveled from oil field to refinery, the most rigorous way to calculate spill rates would be on a basis of per mile of actual travel, which is not the per mile basis from before which was calculated using the total fixed track mileage or pipeline mileage (both constants). But that data might be impossible to generate since you would need access to the shipping records of every railroad and pipeline. One can make a strong argument, however, that the number of miles traveled by crude on rail vs pipeline will not be significantly different. Why? Because the distances between oil fields and refineries will be about the same regardless of shipping mode. Those miles are not going to vary much.

The bottom line here is that the dimensionless volume-basis spill rate is about the same for both rail and pipeline. If this is really true, then we must look at other variables before one can say that pipelines are preferable to rail for moving crude. We already know that shipping by rail is around ten times more lethal than shipping by pipeline. What we don't know, and would like to know, is impact on the environment. We've looked at quantity of spills, but we haven't considered the "quality" of those spills. This is not a stupid question. A leaking pipeline is going to impact the environment differently than a spill during a train accident. Location for oil spills matters! A spill off a rail car into a river is a different beast than a leak from a buried pipeline that may dribble down into a potable aquifer. So given that the volume-basis rate of spills is approximately the same for pipelines and rail, the real question should be which transport mode impacts the environment the least.

I suspect the folks in Lac Megantic already have an opinion on that.

This blog post was editted on 30 July 2013 to improve readability.


Association of American Railroads, "Just the Facts – Railroads Safely Move Hazardous Materials, Including Crude Oil,", accessed 7 July 2013.

Association of Oil Pipe Lines (2013), "About Pipelines,", accessed 7 July 2013.

Christou, P. A. (2010), "Silhouettes of Rail Cars, Tank Trucks and Chemical Tanks," ttp://, accessed 7 July 2013.

Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis (2013, July 5),, accessed 7 July 2013.

National Transportation Safety Board, "34,434 Transportation Fatalities In 2011, ", accessed 7 July 2013

Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, "All Reported Pipeline Incidents,", accessed 7 July 2013.

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