September 29, 2005

On A Roll 

Yes, the contributors of Tech Central Station are definitely on a roll these days, grilling without any mercy environmentalist loons in particular.

Theo Richel dispels the myth that Chernobyl caused hundred of thousands of cancer cases,

Xavier Mera guts the French enviro-nuts who destroyed crops of GM plants destined to medical uses.

John Luik ridicules the big acrylamide scare that gained so much traction in the USA.

Tomas Brandberg destroys a few dogmas of organic agriculture.

Fred Smith and Iain Murray hand their arse to the idiotic European regulators wanting to put hefty taxes on air travel.

And finally, Nima Sanandaji buries the notion that global warming will cause enormous damage, economical and not.

Keep doing the good job, guys: we need it, much more than I'd like to.

Update 03/10: John Luik wrote two more articles (1, 2) on the acrylamide "Phantom Menace".

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September 28, 2005

Articolo Parallelo 

A causa di un errore scoperto troppo tardi, il mio nuovo articolo Righe Bianche é pubblicato su The Italian Corner.

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September 25, 2005

Elastic Instability 

It is quite well known that it takes far less energy to squash (elastically, that means not permanently) a rubber hose or a soda straw, than to inflate it from the inside out.

In fact, a while ago I used a piece of plasticized PVC hose for vacuum, and it ended up being squashed even if the pressure differential is just 1 bar, well below the maximum allowable pressure for that hose.

The reason for these occurences is elastic instability, a phenomenon that has relevant importance for all kind of structures. It is not only straws that get squashed but also - and more importantly - struts and columns that can bend and buckle under load.

Elastic instability has been treated sistematically, and although the description of this phenomenon is rather heavy on matemathics (there's plenty of differential equations and matrix algebra) but the core issue is one of energy distribution. Every configuration of the system (that is, in layterms, shape of it) has an associated level of potential energy, and the energy distribution changes with the applied load. It happens that under certain conditions an load intensity, the system configurations with lower energy are the buckled ones - bent struts and columns, squashed hoses etc. Relieving the load, if the deformation is elastic, the system will return to its original shape... but if you cycle 1000 times, fatigue can kick in and shot everything to hell again.

This is another of those annoying cases in which nature doesn't really behave like we would like, and makes things more complicated than we desire. And we have to deal with it, this is no dream world.

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September 21, 2005

Mean & Nasty 

Europeans who venture in the comments section of Little Green Footballs often have to endure massive doses of Europe-bashing. Some of it is granted, but a lot goes way over the top - and the notorious commenter bigel often proposed the nuclear genocide of Europeans. Amid some outraged reactions, and a lot of apologists.

So imagine my reaction when I saw this thread: Rice Urges Israel to Cooperate with Terrorists.

And the comments are even better; here's a few snippets:
When is Rice scheduled to meet with bin Laden so they can work out their differences?(#16)

Rice works for George Wahhabi Bush.(#78)

It is about establishing a permanent presense in the heart of the persian gulf for the next century, a key part of it's global realignment.
I happen to agree with that goal.
What I dislike is that the admin, like all previous administrations, has chosen to lubricate it's intercourse with the arab world using Jewish blood.(#118)

Your anti-American rant today is the worst thing I've ever seen here against America.
You have shown your true colors.
You're as much a traitor as the worst liberal.(#136 referring to #118)

Course she is a Ventriloquist Dummy for James (Fuck the Jews) Baker and Daddy BUSH. Baker sitting in the WH now, quite under the radar, (we didnt elect this guy, in fact we threw him OUT along with Daddy Bush) and we are supposed to PRETEND we don't know whats going on. She didn't do the LAST job she had correctly and went on to be promoted (oh I wonder why) UP. Peter Princ. for SURE as well as....(#144)

Americans are (and have been) DYING in justified wars that America has been fighting against ARABS in the Middle East.
Ignoring this sacrifice (as if America has been having SEX with the Arab world all this time without shedding a drop of American blood in the wars that have really been going on) is as big a lie as anything ever told by Michael Moore.(#149)

Sharon is basking in world congratulations, because he gave away Jewsih(sic) land, he did what they could not, he tore Jews from their homes and made Gaza Judenrein.(#167

A sane one - getting lost in the noise:
There's a thin line sometines between making a statement that is bombastic for effect, and one that steps over the line, and libels all of us. And when someone does that it's not helpful to the cause.(#176)

I restrained from posting over there, because the temperature is already high enough. But I confess, I'm gloating. You enjoy so much bashing Europe and calling us Nazis for Europe's policy towards Israel*? Now I'll enjoy watching you jump at each other's throat about the State Department actions. Fair deal, no?

By certain definitions, Rice and probably also Bush should be called nazis at this point. And with the bigel's doctrine, Israel should nuke Washington DC now.

* Policy that I often find morally bankrupt and pathetic and I would turn on its head.

Update: Boy, this is a delicious one -
But here's a dicey subject. Much to the left's chagrin, Condi is black. There is a substantial segment of the US black populace that are antisemetic(sic). Could she be one? I've never understood this, because it would seem that struggle would creat(sic) a common brotherhood....(#212 )

Update 2:
This is becoming a liveblog -
Um hello guys & gals... it is US (ie: Jews) who have not learned our lesson.
From Egypt, to Spain, to Rome, to Germany ... we are always betrayed by our "host countries".(#240)
Now the USA too, I'd guess from the tone of this comment.

Final Update: Too good to be left out -
All: If you feel the need to start off any statement with: I Love America. America is the Greatest. I am a LOYAL American Citizen...then you are talking to the wrong group. Suspicion of Jews is a old marker for Antisemitism. Accusations that Jews who don't like this or that Policy are Traitors to their Country is a Big Marker for Antisemitism. We have seen that, this isn't new. Its the same old, same old.(#299)

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Bureaucratic Machines 

Those in my line of work have to be pretty familiar with thermodynamics, and a fundamental rule of thermodynamics is that you cannot win, you cannot break even either.

Everytime energy is transformed from one form to another or used to produce work (moving objects around is an example of work), some energy goes irremediably lost as heat, and the efficiency of the process is always less than 100%. We can write this as:

(Energy In - Energy Out) / Energy In < 1

There is nothing that can be done about it; it's a law of nature that cannot be violated.

However, humans managed to build some pretty efficient machines: big alternators and electrical transformers have 95% or so efficiency; modern gas-fired water heaters reach 80-85%; fuel cell electricity generators achieve 50%; internal combustion engines 30-40%. At the lower end we have steam engines with a meagre 10% efficiency* and lasers, which are pretty inefficient - however, laser light has so interesting properties that efficiency is a very seconday concern.

Now consider some bureacratic machines, such as almost all of the EU and, say, Brent Council in London. The EU takes money from one pocket - as taxes etc - and gives back over 60% of this money as agricultural subsidies. The Brent Council takes most of its income with the council tax, and spends another 60% of it in... housing benefits.

It occurred me lately that there is an analogy between these bureaucratic machines and thermal machines: the efficiency of both is always less than 1.

Think about it: a bureocracy does not just exist, but it's made of people that need to be paid, and need building were to work; vehicles, computers, stationery, electricity... toilet paper and so on. All this does not come for free, but it's paid for with a part of the incoming money.

There are bureacracies that do something useful and I'm pretty comfortable with them (although bureaucracies spontaneously expand and ought to be kept in check), but those dedicated to money redistribution are a scourge, just money-eating machines. I even think that wealth redistribution is morally bad, but I know other people have different opinions.

* Can't really vouch for the accuracy of those figures: it's data that I read years ago and just pulled out of my memory.

Update 23/09: In the comments Tom points out that it is necessary to define the purpose of a machine (define what Energy Out is, in other words) in order to calculate properly its efficiency. True enough, but anyway not so relevant because the efficiency is always less than unity, no matter what.

For bureaucracies, the situation is a little more complicated. First, when I cited the figures about the EU and Brent Council balance I did not imply that their efficiency is 60%; instead it was meant to demonstrate that one important purpose of those bureaucracies is money redistribution. I think an egregious example was my flatmate, who at the same time paid the council tax and was receiving housing benefits. And the fact that a bureaucracy consumes resources only to exist is true regardless of its purpose.

However Tom is right on another aspect: after a little while, bureaucracies shift objectives, and their priorities become not the initial purpose, but self-sustainment and expansion. And often also graft, and perpetuating the same problem that the bureaucracy was intended to solve - because otherwise the whole structure should be dismantled.

It's not that all bureaucrats are evil (some are, tho), but they have a regulatory mindset, and like all humans are reluctant to let go what earns them a living. There is no feasible solution to this problem, but the guiding principle should be to reduce bureocracy at the strictest minimum. The disgraceful EU instead took the opposite way.

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September 17, 2005

Driving Forces 

Uno dei temi principali della moderna sinistra è che tutto il mondo dovrebbe essere giusto (fair, in inglese - tutto questo articolo sarà un po' bilingue): giusta distribuzione di ricchezze, giusta ripartizione di colpe e responsabilità, giusta divisione di potere eccetera - in forme differenti, ho letto queste posizioni centinaia di volta, tanto che ormai mi danno quasi la nausea.

Da una parte è chiaro che cooperazione e solidarietà sono spesso strategie vincenti, non ci sono dubbi. Immagino che al tempo dei primi uomini, un tipo di collettivismo tribale fosse utile per la sopravvivenza.

Ma ci sono molti problemi con l'idea di giustizia della sinistra odierna. Uno, che è molto più serio di quello che sembra, è come definire "giusto".

La debolezza fondamentale, tuttavia, è ad un livello più profondo. Chi ha studiato Chimica Industriale (ed altre discipline, sono sicuro) dovrebbe essere familiare con il concetto di driving force (che non ha una traduzione soddisfacente in italiano). Una driving force è la forza che fa accadere un fenomeno, e queste forze sono invariabilmente differenze*.

Il trasporto di calore o energia avviene quando esiste una differenza di temperatura o contenuto energetico; il trasporto di massa avviene quando c'è una differenza di concentrazione; reazioni chimiche avvengono spontaneamente quando i prodotti hanno un contenuto energetico minore dei reagenti. E così via; si potrebbe dire che alla fine l'unica driving force è la differenza di entropia, ma non voglio prendere quella strada ora.

Man mano che ci si avvicina all'equilibrio (uguaglianza, distribuzione uniforme) la driving force diminuisce fino ad arrivare a zero all'equilibrio. All'equilibrio niente succede, tutti i fenomeni si sono completati e non c'è ulteriore evoluzione del sistema.

Mentre in certi casi raggiungere l'equilibrio ha utilità pratica, bisogna notare che, per esempio, i sistemi biologici sono tremendamente fuori equilibrio (tutte le sostanze organiche sono termodinamicamente instabili); la vita sulla Terra è possibile perchè siamo alla distanza giusta dal Sole che è enormemente in non-equilibrio (e la Terra stessa ha un nucleo caldo; pochi sanno che il vulcanesimo ha un ruolo molto importante nel mantenere l'atmosfera terrestre).

Ora, sarebbe imprudente estendere queste considerazioni alla sfera delle scienze sociali senza alcuna revisione. Tuttavia, penso che sia possibile tracciare delle valide analogie.

Il paese probabilmente più vicino al "socialismo reale" è la Norvegia. Quand'è l'ultima volta che avete sentito parlare di fermento culturale, di qualcosa di attraente ed interessante proveniente da lassù? Forse mai; io bazzico diversi ambienti e l'unico fenomento culturale norvegese che posso citare è il black metal. Considerando le folli, violente avventure criminose dei suoi fondatori non sono sicuro che sia qualcosa di cui andare orgogliosi. A volte mi sembra che il black metal con i suoi eccessi sia una forma di ribellione ad una società stagnante e terribilmente noiosa (certo il clima artico non aiuta) - questo comunque non è una scusante per Burzum & compagnia.

Poco più a sud-est c'è la Svezia, che è meno socializzata e mi sembra tenda a produrre più cultura - lo scrittore Henning Mankel (che però mi dicono preferisce vivere in Sud Africa), tutta la scena del death metal svedese - che paragonata ai folli black metallers è una compagnia di allegroni - ed anche qualche film interessante (la scena Dogma e Lars VonTrier sono grossi pacchi per me, ma a qualcuno piace).

Se si considera la Russia comunista, da quello che mi ricordo le uniche idee interessanti venivano dai dissidenti; la Cina ha iniziato a produrre storie di successo quando il sistema comunista si è allentato (anche se la Cina ha ancora molta strada da percorrere).

D'altra parte, la cultura più influente al mondo è quella americana, che guardacaso arriva dal pese più capitalista del mondo. Poi arriva la cultura inglese, è pure la Gran Bretagna è un paese capitalista (anche se piuttosto strano, con un sistema economico fortemente capitalista ma anche un estensivo stato sociale); si potrebbero citare centinaia di nomi di artisti inglesi che hanno ottenuto fama ed influenza a livello mondiale.

Sicuramente c'è una correlazione fra capitalismo e vitalità culturale, ed io penso che ci sia anche un rapporto di causa-effetto.

La situazione è leggermente diversa per quanto riguarda la ricerca scientifica e tecnologica: paesi come la Russia comunista hanno sempre dato rilevante importanza alla ricerca, per motivi militari e di prestigio. Mentre il sistema capitalista tende ad essere più efficiente e produttivo, gli ingegneri russi non erano inferiori come competenza a quelli occidentali. Ed ora, se sfogliate una rivista scientifica a caso (io conosco bene quelle di chimica e materie correlate) troverete che almeno un articolo su tre è stato scritto da ricercatori cinesi - gran parte dell'industria cinese è ancora sotto controlo più o meno diretto dello stato, comunque.

* E' certamente possibile creare una differenza da una situazione di equilibrio, oppure andare contro la driving force (ad esempio, nei frigoriferi), ma è necessario spendere energia per farlo.

Correzione 4/11/05: Ho scritto una minchiata; Lars VonTrier é Danese, non Svedese. Comunque se non erro la scena Dogma ha trovato un certo seguito pure in Svezia.

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September 16, 2005

Parallel Projects 

For those who haven't realized yet, I have a parallel project going on from a few months - warning, contains severe multilingual, politically incorrect profanity.

The news is that I just opened another parallel project; it's quite serious and despite being empty like a high-vacuum chamber, if I were you I'd keep an eye on it for future developments...

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September 15, 2005

One Picture Is Worth A Thousand Lies 

It is true that images can convey much more information than words, but there also downsides to this. If we don't know the context to which a single image belongs we can end up being misled. If you see the picture of a guy standing with a gun in his hand in front of another guy sprawled on the floor bleeding, you may conclude that the standing man shot the other. But the truth can be that the fallen folk was attacked by thugs and the armed one came in his help.

And if the image is staged or propaganda, or even worse faked, the negative effects of the information it conveys will be amplified.

Case in point, this incident noticed by Jihad Watch: the notorious CAIR - a so-called civil rights organization that seems much more intent on defending Islam and eradicating Christianity than anything else - published a picture of a group of Muslims, and with a crude photoshop job they added an hijab on the head of a woman who was otherwise unveiled.

I can't quite figure out the reasons of this stunt, but it is likely to be a concession to "Islamic correctness": a woman without hijab is truly shocking for the radicals. It may even give the impression that another form of Islam is possible.

But even worse, this is trying to re-write history. An hijab added here, a cross erased there... an you'll end up with a whole artificial vision of the world. The endpoint is North Korea, where the population is kept largely isolated from the outside world and subjected to relentless propaganda and indoctrination. The result? Many students sincerely believe that Kim Il Sung and Jong were geniuses in any end every field - because in NK a lot of scientific books are attributed to the two tyrants and not their real authors. And even worse memes.

We live in an age where it's easier both to spread information and to manipulate it for lowly purposes. We must learn and be aware, not to be fooled.

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September 14, 2005

Iraqi Progress 

I often want to write about the situation in Iraq, but I rarely manage to. It takes time to write a good piece, and sometimes I don't have so much time. In other occasions, I feel like it's such an abused subject that my contribution would go basically unnoticed.

Today I found this paper by David Boxenhorn on Iraq, and I think it is rather significative - and very close to my position:
Amritas chronicles the evolution of his thinking since 9-11. It's an odd thing: I think I agree with his basic perception of the facts, but ultimately I disagree with him. In other words, I don't think that Iraq is going to be a shining beacon of democracy which will light up the world (or even just a plain-old imperfect democracy like Germany or Japan, or the US) - nevertheless I think that in the context of the Middle East, Iraq has already proven to be a beacon of light, and is therefore a great success.
From where I sit, it is natural to compare Iraq today not with Germany or Japan or the US, but with the rest of the Arab world, and with what Iraq used to be. Unless Iraq descends into a Khomeini-like theocracy (which is possible, but I would bet against it) there is no way I could consider the US actions in Iraq to be a failure, neither in the past nor in the foreseeable future.
The notion that Iraq could rapidly become a western-style country has always been unrealistic. And this is criticism of both the Left and Right: the former touts the fact that Iraq is not perfect as a proof of total failure; the latter (at a minion-level; people with decisional power are saner heads) suggested inanities such as copying the Iraqi constitution from the American one.

In time, Iraq can improve and become a prosperous free-market country. But this requires a cultural evolution that we cannot really impose, but only initiate. Then it's up to the Iraqis themselves. The realistic short and medium-term goals are to help Iraq to become a relatively liberal and democratic, relatively secular and relatively capitalist country.

Failure is possible, tho. One immediate (but not very likely) is the rise to power of a radical Islamic government, that can in turn cause at least attempts of secession of the Kurds. Another failure mode is the lack of evolution: Iraq may not manage to evolve further the situation of a relatively good place.

To avoid the first occurrence, it is necessary to have troops on the ground and eventually use them to overthrow the integralist government.

But to encourage the social evolution, soft power is best: communications, books, TV, radio, Internet - anything that will help Iraqis to see the rest of the world, learn about other places an people and ideas, learn what made other countries successful and good places to live. The free exchange of information (and memes) has always had positive effects.

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September 13, 2005

The Antipodes 

There is a lot of talking in the blogosphere about the distasteful decision of memorializing the Flight 93 (the one crashed in a field in Pennsylvania on 9/11 because its passengers fought back against the jihadi hijackers) with a crescent-shaped memorial, even oriented towards Mecca - like the shape itself wasn't enough.

However, I am in the mood for a little of musings and decided to locate the antipodes of Mecca. I used the coordinates published by Wretchard, a bit of longitude calculations by myself and Mapquest to locate the point.

It's smack in the Pacific Ocean, at the western margin of French Polynesia.

Update 14/09: The DMS coordinates for Mecca are N21:25:24.24, E39:49:34.32 - that poses its antipodes at S21:25:24, W141:11:26; for those eventually inclined to check my calculations.

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More Katrina Logistics 

Following my article on logistics in general, via the Rottweiler here it comes a post with a more detailed discussion of the specific logistics for the Katrina relief operations:
Guardsmen need to receive mobilization orders; report to their armories; draw equipment; receive orders and convoy to the disaster area. Guardsmen driving down from Pennsylvania or Navy ships sailing from Norfolk can't be on the scene immediately.
Relief efforts must be planned. Other than prepositioning
supplies near the area likely to be afflicted (which was done quite efficiently), this cannot be done until the hurricane has struck and a damage assessment can be made. There must be a route reconnaissance to determine if roads are open, and bridges along the way can bear the weight of heavily laden trucks.
And federal troops and Guardsmen from other states cannot be sent to a disaster area until their presence has been requested by the governors of the afflicted states.
This is the unavoidable, unmodifiable reality of relief operations after natural disasters. Trying to do differently would very probably end up being useless if not counterproductive and endangering the rescuers themselves.

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September 11, 2005

Not Equal? 

The scientific method is the most powerful tool we have to understand the physical world around us. But, the scientific method also implies that even long-held theories may one day be proven wrong, thus causing big shifts in many fields, also out of the scientific and technological realm. It happened with cosmology in the Copernico times; later when early chemists and physicists demonstrated that matter and energy did not behave as previously thought, and more recently with quantum mechanics.

Now, recent research works in genetics may cause a severe earthquake in the fields of antropology, and probably also sociology.

After first reading about in an op-ed on an Italian newspaper, I found a post (and this one is related too) on the blog Gene Expression dealing with the issue. In short, a team of researchers led by the noncomformist genetist Bruce Lahn (who is Chinese, and during his student years an anti-communism activist) found evidence that a couple of genes regulating the brain size in humans evolved pretty recently (the latest about 6000 years ago), and have unequal distribution around the world. Particularly, these alleles appear to be pretty rare in sub-Saharan Africa but more frequent among Euro-Asians. Two papers reporting the results of this research are published in Science, Volume 309, Number 5741, Sept 2005.

This hypothesis still needs a lot of verification before it can eventually become a working theory, but however it has a lot of deep implications. If confirmed, it will destroy the notion that all humans are basically equal, besides the superficial differencies of skin colour and features (and a few deeper ones regarding biochemistry and genetic diseases) to replace it with the notion that there are noticeable differencies in brain development between humans of different race*.

And thus, some serious philosophical rearrangement will have to be done.

* Please visit the link to understand the definition of race I'm using.

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That Day 

Today is the forth anniversary of September 11.

I set out to write a longer post with some analysis of the events of these four years, but then I thought my signal would probably go lost amid all the noise (in a neutral sense, not pejorative) of the blogosphere buzzing about that atrocity.

Someone else will say what I wanted to say with more eloquent, or more moving, or more rousing words. And for the analysis part, I'm pretty sure someone else will put together a cogent commentary on the War On Terror Islamism.

What I can say is that I remember; for god's sake I do.

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September 09, 2005

Verso il Cyborg 

Lo confesso, l'idea di poter impiantare componenti elettronici e/o meccanici in un corpo umano mi affascina. Non la trovo preoccupante come le manipolazioni genetiche. Parti cibernetiche possono essere usate in sostituzione di organi o arti invecchiati, difettosi o danneggiati, o anche per aumentare certe potenzialitá - non sarebbe comodo avere un microprocessore impiantato nel cervello per memorizzare cose come numeri di telefono, date ed orari di appuntamenti - ed anche per eseguire rapidamente calcoli? Oppure una visione ad infrarossi? Lame retrattili nelle dita per difesa personale?* Per non parlare di una sostituzione completa di un corpo con un'altro fatto su misura, piú forte e resistente.

Certo la possibilitá di assemblare cyborg porta con sé molte nuove questioni etiche e filosofiche difficili da districare. Ma non é di questo che voglio trattare ora - se mai lo faró.

Invece, un gruppo di ricerca della Universitá di Southampton ha fatto un passo avanti nella cibernetica: ha costruito una mano artificiale che puó replicare quasi tutti i movimenti di una mano naturale e si interfaccia direttamente con i muscoli dell'avambraccio. Ed ora stanno lavorando per dotarla di senso del tatto. Questa notizia é molto importante per chi ha subito l'amputazione di una mano, ma chiaramente ha implicazioni piú vaste.

Peró, la difficoltá principale dei cyborg non risiede tanto nel costruire le parti necessarie - che é solo poco oltre la tecnologia disponibile (tranne che per certi organi), ma quella di produrre l'energia che un cyborg richiede per funzionare. Delle batterie sarebbero troppo pesanti ed ingombranti; le pile atomiche presentano rischi di radiazioni (anche se una al trizio potrebbe andare bene). Ci rimangono celle a combustibile, ma non so se possono raggiungere il rapporto potenza/peso (W/kg) necessario. E poi come si alimentano? Ad etanolo magari; uno dovrebbe bere grappa tutto il giorno...

Altrimenti c'é la possibilitá ancora fantascientifica di un metabolismo a nanomacchine, che provvederebbero a ricavare energia dall'ossidazione di cibo comune - piú o meno come fanno i sistemi biologici.

Comunque sia, nei prossimi anni vedremo la possibilitá di impiantare piccoli dispositivi cibernetici, principalmente per risolvere certe patologie e danni da trauma.

* E' vero che armi integrate di questo tipo possono essere usate anche per offesa, ma ricordate che dove le armi sono illegali solo i criminali hanno armi.

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September 07, 2005

On Logistics 

Logistics is, generally, all the things involved with moving items from a point A to a point B - where A and B are not in close proximity*. It is something even common individuals have to face quite often: how to bring home all the stuff I bought at the supermarket? How to move my belongings from my old flat to a new one? Where to get all the boxes and bags, what pack and move first and last etc.

Industries have to deal with logistics on a bigger and more complex scale: how to keep a constant flow of raw materials and consumables coming to my factory, so that I will have a stock for emergency situations, but not too big? How to deliver my finished products on time? An Italian company built a tomato processing plant in Italy, then shipped the whole thing, disassembled, to China - and not China in general, but the specific town and place - to be assembled and commissioned by a mixed force of Italian and local technicians.

To do that, you have to consider the carachteristics of your items, then choose the most appropriate shipping means; make an agreement with a transport company that will fetch your container and bring (by truck and/or train) it to a seaport where it will be loaded onto a ship; then unloaded in China and by some means shipped to the proper place - and possibly in time. All this takes time and money and manpower; while there are companies specialized in logistics, the owner of the goods cannot really ignore how the system works.
You have to coordinate men and machines so that the items will be delivered quickly without sitting idle for days, because it's a loss of money and those items can get damaged or stolen.

Where logistics is most important is in war. Armies are big systems that require a lot of supplies to continue working (fight and defeat the enemy): ammunition obviously, but also fuel, food, water, batteries, underwear, soap, shaving razors, boots, spare parts, toilet paper, tools, medical supplies and a lot of other things. A sizable army in combat operations consumes staggering amounts of supplies per day; tens of thousands small-arms rounds; thousands of artillery and mortar rounds; hundreds of bombs and rockets and hand-grenades. Plus tens of cubic meters of fuel and water.

And all this is required: if supplies are scarce, the effectivness of your army will be scarce. And if the logistic train stops, soon the whole system will grind to a halt. 10 000 infantrymen, 1000 jeeps and 500 tanks without fuel and ammo will be nearly useless.

One of the reasons the Allies won WWII is because they had superior logistics and could always bring to battlefield plenty of all that was needed. Even Patton himsslf in one of his speeches thanked profusely the truck drivers who continued to spool back and forth under an artillery barrage in Africa to keep the fighting troops supplied.

Good logistics is hard to organize: you have to estimate how much stuff you will need, and then provide for some extra. Then find out how many vehicles and crews you will need, considering that vehicles will need servicing and crews will need rest. Then you have to provide the fuel, and vehicles to carry the fuel itself. Estabilish transport routes (which may need to be guarded), assembly points where to load and unload the goods, and an inventory system that will assure the proper flow of supplies to each unit according to their role. Supplying the wrong items is a serious mistake, because having something useless is almost as bad as having nothing, and it will be a waste of resources. After being surrounded by the Red Army in the bitter winter of Stalingrad, the Germans tried an airlift to keep the troops in the pocket supplied, but some of those precious missions were wasted delivering useless goods.

The logistics required for disaster relief is very similar to the military one. Survivors (and rescuers themselves) do not need ammo and weapons (generally), but they need water, food, shelter, latrines, showers (possibly) and other things. Fuel is required for electricity generators and vehicles, and all this on a scale of several thousand people on a vast (relatively, it varies case by case) area where infrastructures are often already damaged and rendered nearly unusable by the same disaster that caused the emergency. Another cirmustances that must be taken into account is that if crowds are not properly disciplined, handing out or airdropping food and drinks can easily turn into riots. It is a big problem, not easy to solve and impossible to solve to the perfect satisfaction of everyone involved.

And flooded areas are, I think the worst of the worse: even if water is realitvely shallow, only off-road vehicles can wade through it; the ground will be reduced to slippery but sticky mud and dark waters will conceal debris and ostacles. If water is deeper, only boats (or the rare amphibious vehicles) can go in but their crews must be even more careful of obstacles and debris. But water will never be deep enough to let seagoing rescue vessels in.

Hurricane Katrina conserved a full Cat 3 hurricane force up to 160 km (100 mi.) inland, and considering its sheer size it is not difficult to believe it devastated an area of the size of Great Britain and displaced hundred of thousands people. It is a serious logistical problem to bring relief in, a very big one

I'm not saying that the Federal government did everything properly to the last comma, but my point is that no one man, not even George W. Bush can just snap his fingers and instantly make relief appear out of nowhere.

* In automated production processes even moving objects of a few centimeters can pose a relevant problem, but it is not called logistics.

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September 03, 2005

Catastrophic System Failure 

As even tea leaves readers could have predicted, the blame game for the Katrina disaster is in full swing. The left is accusing Bush of everything, from the formation of Katrina itself to the failure of the levees to the looting etc - and even more vile statements.

The right is showing much more restraint, for what I could see, but also folks on that side are blaming the Mayor, the Governor, the socialists, the environmentalists and maybe even Clinton, which has become a handy scapegoat. I happent to think that the Right is closer to the mark, but both sides are fundamentally wrong when they say that the disaster is the direct responsibility of someone - at least in certain parts, as I will explain later.

What people should do before casting blame is to revise one of the fundamental rules of engineering:

All systems will eventually fail

Yes, the Mars rovers are still going well after their design specifications, and some Roman bridges are still standing and open to traffic. But in the end, they will fail too. Many parts in aircrafts are replaced when they reach the end of their safe service life, even if they show no sign of wear: this is beacuse statistical and laboratory studies determined that past a certain service time the probability of failure becomes untolerably high.

No sane engineer would ever try to design a system that never fails because it's impossible (and DenBeste explains why - in an essay that says many more interesting things). The best thing that engineers can do is to design something that will not fail catastrophically, at least in the appropriate conditions.

To speak frankly, New Orleans was built in a shitty place to begin with: a small patch of dry ground in the midst of a marsh, in a geologically unstable delta zone. No river delta is stable anyway; we have similar problems (but no hurricanes at least) in the Po delta and Venice in Italy. Most of New Orleans is below sea level and the delta ground is sinking.

The city is protected from sea storms and Mississipi floods by a system of levees (dykes), and here lies the rub: these defences were never designed for a Cat 5 monster as Katrina. The levees were designed for a Cat 3 hurricane; their upgrade was discussed for a long time (political bickering) but never reached the executive stage. And the fund cuts performed by Bush and other administrations have not changed the situation. Only a huge dose of good luck (a miracle, someone would say) could have saved the city.

There was nothing men could do to avoid, stop or divert the hurricane (and people who had to bear it instead of New Orleans may have not liked that), and nothing that could have saved the levees. The city was doomed by a Cat 5, as quite a few predicted already years ago.

However, it was possible to mitigate the consequences of the storm and flood, and here it is where the local authorities failed spectacularly. The evacuation order was sent too late, and executed poorly. It is like there was no plan, and if there was one either it was terrible or it wasn't followed properly. There was no plan to deploy security forces in the city - with the orders and powers to use deadly force to nip looting and lawlessenes in the bud. The National Guard was summoned too late. As I understand, the Federals have little role in all this unless their help is requested by the State (Louisiana) so they righteously did not jump in uninvited.

The Mayor of the city (Nagin) and the Governor (Blanco) demonstrated very poor leadership: leaders do not whine and spout profanity on TV (as Nagin apparently did) or even worse play the race card when faced with a problem; instead, they rally their forces and start working hard to find a solution. And usually one, albeit far from perfect, is found. Granted that leadership is much more a talent that a skill, but I would expect some leadership to be required to become a high-profile politician.

Also, it was well known that New Orleans has a staggering high crime rate; is it so outlandish to imagine that criminals would use this disaster to go on a rampage - as they always did in history?

Now the National Guard and even the Marines are going in to regain control of the city, allow the proper relief effort and finally bring some order in the mess.

Update 05/09: I should clarify a point. A good 80% of New Orleans citizens were evacuated succesfully and in time using the standing evacuation plans.
As an additional resource, blogger Rick Moran has put together a Katrina Response Timeline.

Update 2: No emergency plan survives contact with reality - paraphrasing Clausewitz.

Comments (3)

Ignorant And Confused 

This morning I woke up early and could not sleep, so I turned on the TV and watched Breakfast on BBC. Apparently a lot of newspapers are asking why Bush did not do enough for Katrina relief, or where he was when the disaster struck and alot pf similar questions. Some even played the race card: why it's all blacks that are suffering in a flooded New Orleans? (Maybe because NO was mainly a black city?)

Asking these questions - and not once, but obsessively - implies thinking that the President of the USA is a sort of dictator that can and does manage everything in the USA down to a county-scale, and can happily bend and break the laws and the Constitution sending the Army to operate in the territory of the USA, overriding the authority of state Governors etc.

It does not work like that. I'm no expert of American law, but the USA is a strongly federal and de-centralized country where States, and thus governors have a fairly large autonomy. It is the Governor that summons the National Guard, for example - not the President. There are precise rules for when the Federal Government can eventually override a State Government, and breaking them would be a major constitutional crisis.

So, before asking about Bush, serious journalists should ask about Ray Nagin, the Mayor of New Orleans, and Governor Kathleen Blanco. How did they perform in the face of the storm and its aftermath?

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