Friday, February 22, 2008

UPDATE: Star Wars BS - FEMA to the Rescue!

The good news is that we managed to blow that falling spy satellite into lots of little pieces. The bad news is that those little pieces are now falling down anyway.

FEMA to the rescue! With remarkable alacrity, FEMA has produced the "First Responder Guide for Space Object Re-Entry", the definitive document on what first responders should do if the sky falls. Literally.

Here's a summary of the more important points:

General Rules:
1. Space junk is really bad.
2. Don't pick it up.
3. Don't even get close to it.

1. Hydrazine is flammable, explosive, poisonous, and may react violently with water.
2. If there's a hydrazine fire use water to put it out.


1. Contact with Beryllium may cause severe injury or death.
2. Molten beryllium metal can burn you.


The Guide is so poorly written that I thought it was a joke at first, but it's for real. Don't you feel better knowing that Bush's brilliant FEMA appointees are on the case?

UPDATED UPDATE: FEMA has released a revised version of the "First Responder Guide for Space Object Re-Entry". It's better than the first version, and has a lot more info on hydrazine, but the entire section on beryllium is gone. Maybe beryllium isn't poisonous anymore...

'08 WI Democratic Presidential Primary Results Map

This map shows the margins of the 2008 Democratic presidential primary for each Wisconsin county. Usually I do an analysis when I create these sorts of maps, but I'm kind of stumped. The county results show little correlation with past general election results, recent state primary results, media markets, or anything else I've previously looked at. The exit polls aren't much help either, nothing jumps out at me that could really explain the county patterns.

So I'm just going to throw this back to you all. Leave a comment if you have a theory, and if the time involved isn't too great I'll check it out and post the results. Maybe you'll see something obvious that I'm missing. Thanks!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hillary Attacks!

I received the flyer below in the mail yesterday. Click on the images to see larger versions. It's a classic attack piece on Obama from the Clinton campaign , and actually quite well done, although the fact that Obama crushed Clinton here in Wisconsin shows it didn't exactly have much impact.

One reason it was probably less effective than Clinton had hoped was that it arrived on election day, so most people didn't see it before they voted. Attack pieces are usually timed to arrive immediately before the election so the opposition doesn't have time to respond, but election day is just too late. A properly targeted and executed attack piece can be very powerful, but it sure looks like somebody in the Clinton camp screwed this one up, maybe because they forgot that Monday was a federal holiday with no mail delivery.

I'm an Obama supporter but I actually think Clinton's health care plan is better, so I agree with some of the points in the flyer, although obviously not with the way they're expressed. To Clinton's credit, health care is one of the few issues she can attack Obama on mercilessly without doing much damage to his chances in the general election. It's not like many people who care about universal health care are likely to vote for McCain...

Monday, February 18, 2008

Star Wars BS

Bush has decided that we need to shoot down a big military spy satellite that's falling from orbit. He claims that it's to reduce the risk to folks on the ground from a beryllium-lined tank of hydrazine (N2H4) in the satellite that might survive reentry. That's a load of crap.

Anybody who's even slightly familiar with the technical stuff understands that while there's a tiny risk from the satellite, smashing it into pieces that will still mostly fall down doesn't necessarily eliminate that risk, and may actually increase it, while also creating a whole new set of risks to astronauts and other satellites.

I'm not trying to minimize the dangers of large objects falling out of the sky, but I'd much rather have to dodge one big chunk than a bunch of smaller yet still substantial pieces. And hydrazine is indeed nasty stuff. I worked with a guy who had large areas of his face and hands bleached completely white from hydrazine burns. He happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when there was a fuel leak in a research rocket. But it's extraordinarily unlikely that the hydrazine tank will survive reentry intact, and once breached the hydrazine will dissipate rapidly. Beryllium? Also really nasty, but it's a metal and only a problem if you get it in your lungs, which can only happen when it's oxidized and powdered. Hard to say if smashing the satellite will reduce or increase that risk.

So why is Bush doing this, and who's he trying to fool? There are only two reasonable explanations, and they probably both play into his decision. First is that it provides a convenient excuse to get some good PR for our Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or Star Wars) program, and show those damn Chinese and Russians that we're serious! Conservatives are true believers in SDI, and all those huge SDI defense contracts, regardless of the problems with the underlying science and technology. Since SDI has had only marginal success hitting realistic targets, why not go for an easy score? The spy satellite is huge and in a nice predictable orbit. Much easier to hit than a nuclear warhead. Modern warheads are smaller than your hot water heater and offers only a tiny time window for a successful intercept.

The other reason is to prevent pieces of the satellite from falling into the wrong hands. This isn't any old spy satellite, it's a KH-13, our latest and greatest model. Big important chunks are going to survive reentry, and it would be mighty embarrassing if somebody we didn't like ended up with them.

So why is Bush lying about it? He isn't fooling the Russians or the Chinese. They know exactly what's going on. So does most of the foreign media. It seems the only people likely to be gullible and ill-informed enough to fall for his spin are ... us.

One thing worth mentioning, since you probably won't see it elsewhere, is that the primary mirror in a KH-13 spy satellite is probably made of beryllium or beryllium alloy. If so, it's likely that there's far more beryllium in the mirror than in the hydrazine tank. Of course, now that you know that particular secret I'll have to kill you...

Hillary: I'm Outta Here!

Looks like Hillary Clinton has written off Wisconsin. Obama hit the airwaves earlier and harder, and Clinton's internal polling presumably shows she's going to lose, so she's cutting her losses in order to put her somewhat limited resources into Texas and Ohio. She'll almost certainly win Ohio, but if she can't win Texas as well then it's probably the end of the road...

Wisconsin's delegates don't matter to Clinton nearly as much as the PR value of a win here. She desperately needs to slow Obama's momentum, and a win, no matter how slight the margin, would do that. All that counts is the media narrative on Wednesday morning, so from Clinton's point of view Wisconsin is either a victory or nothing.

Most polls show Obama with a modest lead, in Wisconsin, although the most recent poll from American Research Group has Clinton up by 6%. The ARG WI polls have tended to favor Clinton compared to other polls, so you do have to take them with a grain of salt. Kind of interesting that in Texas the ARG polls tilt the other way.

Full disclosure: With Edwards gone I'm now supporting Obama for two main reasons. The first is that Clinton is just too blatantly corporatist for me. She was chair of the DLC and sat on the Wal-Mart board. Not my cup of tea. Second is that I want American politics to change, and the first step towards change is always bringing new people into the process and convincing them that they can make a difference. Obama, like Howard Dean in '04, seems to have that gift, and Hillary Clinton just doesn't. Irrespective of their policy positions, and they're not really much different in my opinion, I think that in the long run Obama is far more likely to push our country in the right direction, strengthen the Democratic Party, and build a healthier progressive movement.