Flowers in a Garden

I was so sad to hear about the recent attacks in Paris; a historical world centre of decency and reason, suddenly attacked again by forces seeking mindless chaos. A nihilistic degeneration of Islam seems to be responsible and I give my full support to rooting out anyone involved in this, but ultimately we need something more than the usual efforts at fighting this. All humanity must stand together, like never before.

You’d think, with all the looming threats of ecological catastrophe and the unfolding promise of space exploration, humanity would see a reason to band together for the common. Isn’t space exploration something that brings out the very best in our hearts and technologies?

Seen from space, we are after all no different from the flowers in a garden, with varying appearances, but such similar hopes and fears. Sure, our bodies have a lot of regional adaptations due to the geographies of each place, but in today’s modern, climate-controlled world, they mean far less than ever before.

Yet we waste so much time and energy in pointless conflict, rather than in productive co-operation. Despite all our world wars, we still forget the importance of peace and of embracing all our cousins in a reasonable, rational system based on fairness and equality.

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Remembering the Margaret Thatcher Years

Anyone following British news, or even beyond, can’t help but have noticed that former Prime Minister Thatcher passed away and the polarised reactions she still inspires. So closely associated with her free-market and unabashedly right-wing ideology she was that her death has surprisingly reignited old passions there, in a way even a serious lapse in the free-market system such as the banking crisis failed to do. It is easier to feel strongly about a person than an ideological position. But who was she really and what were the defining issues of the ‘Thatcher years’, that she responded to?

Thatcher was a product of her times and someone who led at the very edge of what can be considered democratic norms. In Europe, as (even today) in South America, there was still an ideological conflict between the right, favouring privatisation and market forces and the left, putting it’s faith in a better managed state, increasingly centralised, using the finest minds to solve problems rather than free market forces to ‘naturally’ stablise society. Her style and the degree of power she wielded approached that of a dictator more than the more usual balanced, careful, almost bureaucratic norms of democratic leaders. This makes for a very divisive figure, a hero for the neo-liberal right, but a villain for the left. All of which doesn’t mean we anymore need to define ourselves in such tribal ways, but does explain the extreme reactions to her passing. It may sound dull, but I am personally against such extremes in public life. A lack of unity just makes co-operation and efficient running of society just that much harder to achieve and I think there is a certain consensus about this now. Yet it is also somewhat attractive to be thrown back to the seeming moral certainties and passions of the ‘80’s, when the current victory of neo-liberal policies had not yet been settled and in a sense, anything was possible.

For me, there are two Margaret Thatchers; the international statesman (or woman) who, together with both Ronald Regan and Mikhail Gorbachev, managed to end the cold war, heading off the very real possibility of it becoming a ‘hot war’ and at the same time opening up the former Soviet Block countries to economic liberalisation and political freedoms inconceivable before that time. In this, she was truly a remarkable historic figure, an icon of freedom standing up, unafraid to tyranny and a woman who defied all barriers. That the promised ‘freedom’ there has been accompanied by intense economic insecurity and, as the country broke up, patches of ethnic strife for many; though economic prosperity for others; shows this step forward wasn’t necessarily handled as well as it could have been. Still, this shouldn’t take away from the achievement here, which perhaps could only have been made by right of centre leaders, who would be so clearly opposed to the Soviet system that their accommodation of it’s transition would be seen as all the more sincere. Essentially, a nearly bankrupt Soviet Union couldn’t but change, but at least this made the event peaceful and somewhat manageable. As a side note here, Gorbachev never actually intended to break up or end the USSR, just to radically reform it, perhaps somewhat along the lines of recent leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.

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Thoughts on The Syrian Situation

I don’t very often comment on politics or, more properly, world events on my blog, but on this issue I feel inspired to do so, so please bear me out. I actually can’t stand politics, it even seems to me such a thing really shouldn’t even exist, as rather than being an honest search for the best solution to our problems, it quickly degenerates into a battle of wits, or even worse a test of who is stronger. Why so many people blindly confuse strength, confidence or heavy financial backing with truth I’ll never know, but the most optimistic side of me says that this comes from some basic faith that whoever gets to be strongest is also rightest (at the time), but it still seems to me that politics is an ugly game, whilst world events are very real and pressing concerns, like it or not.

Anyway, with that out of the way, it’s time for me to get into my views on the thorniest of subjects- the state of the Middle East. Now I’ll come straight out now and say that I am not even attempting to speak in terms of strict acceptance of all views prevailing there. Some are to my mind true and others, however widespread they may be are actually false. I have no time for fanatical Islamism, which seems to me just fascism in a loosely ‘Islamic’ guise. Just as no-one believe these days we should tolerate, let alone support fascism, I’d say the same goes for radical Islamism, however convenient in the short-term such movements might seem (I talk here of the so-called ‘Mujahedeen’ brought into Afghanistan to end Soviet mis-rule, a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for a country like no other analogy I can imagine).

I wish for and will only ever accept, a multicultural and religiously tolerant Middle East, so the fact that members of a religious majority in certain places might want to extend their prejudices by supporting a government discriminating on their behalf is not real democracy at all. At best it could be called populism, but it is destined to fail, as sooner or later the rest of the world will realise that they identify just as much, if not more, with the Christians, Jews, Kurds and other minorities of the region and will find ways of guaranteeing equal rights for them all. So whenever we talk of the need for more democracy in that region, the ‘elephant in the room’, so to speak is the danger of Islamism. What if, in such destabilised circumstances, populations rather than supporting liberal democratic ‘good guys’ turn in their evident frustration with the status quo to Islamic-clothes wearing fanatical ‘bad guys’, as they do in many cases seem to be doing. If they accept the voting principal, but use it in a bigoted way, or the only truly popular and organised opposition is in Islamic-themed (notice my use of ‘themed’ and ‘clothed’, as I don’t want to think or claim that this is the very nature of that creed, as then we really are in trouble), What then? I admit, this is a question I have no real answer for, though my faith tells me that time will bury such people if they refuse to recognise universal rights just as it buried the dictators that came before them.

All we can do, I suppose, is avoid legitimising or condoning their prejudices and without fail stand up for the minorities’ rights, even make respecting those rights a prerequisite for our support. The fact is, business will go on unabated. Seeing as Saudi Arabia, long considered a key Western ‘ally’ outrageously discriminates against Christians with the flimsy excuse that their fellow religionists have done so for generations shows us how bad things actually are there. Europe in the past did such things, in Medieval times minorities were widely persecuted and after the financial upheavals of the great depression fascist parties came to the fore, often with the blessing (perhaps under duress, we don’t yet know for sure) of the majority Catholic Church and others, who saved their property but arguably lost their souls in the process, leaving Europe as the most agnostic continent the world has ever seen in their wake. Not that I see that as a bad thing, on the contrary, a broadly secular state is the only guarantee of religious freedom, in the end the most precious of freedoms, as a lack of an imposed religion allows those of conscience to flourish.

I may add that secular injustice is also to be condemned. The so-called Baath parties of former Iraq and present-day Syria lack any kind of legitimacy, yet it is still questionable if violently overthrowing them is the right answer. In Iraq, it clearly wasn’t and in Syria a combination of delegitimising the existing government there and its own terrible, repressive behaviour, far from new though it may, though with terrifying barbarity, has led to widespread chaos. What kind of order can emerge from such chaos, could it be humane governments, or will more rough beasts slouch forth from Babylon to be born?

So, to bring the conversation right to the point of current events, we have a certain dilemma here, presented in its starkest terms in Syria. By toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein, we helped expose just how transitory such governments in fact are. We also revealed the sectarian chaos that can emerge from beheading a government in a country that was from the very beginning a post-colonial construction of convenience, cutting blindly across ethnic lines that would presumably has delineated ‘natural’ entities rather than forced ones that seem to require near-constant armed intervention to maintain. Not my use of the word ethnic rather than religious, though the two of course combine in identities. Even if you could strip away the religious identities of Sunni, Shiite, Jew, Kurd, Christian, Christians often being the most badly treated with shocking indifference from the West, ethnic conflict would still be possible in lands with unnatural borders, so rather than try to reduce identities it might be better to expand them with a sense of universal humanity and enlightened, shared custodianship of the Earth.

In Syria we have a protest movement that was so brutally suppressed that it turned into a fully fledged armed uprising, which has gathered such pace it can almost be called a civil war. I say almost as the sides are so unequal and, at least in the side of the opposition, ill-defined. A pressing question is what kind of opposition is it really? Assad claims it is al-Qaeda linked terrorists and it can’t be denied that members of such groups have made their way into the country, though hopefully the West isn’t and won’t ever dream of arming them. I would have thought after the experience of Afghanistan, finding themselves at war with some of the same groups they had helped supply previously, the West would realise that such entities are like a wild tiger. You might train it, but can never tame it and here we are talking of horrendously barbaric groups, which are in essence no different from the Attila the Huns and Genghis Khans of history.

Yet apparently, they are being heavily equipped by Saudi ‘charities’ and are in a position to do much of the fighting. How to help the legitimate, democratic opposition whilst avoiding arming them, who sooner or later will find some way of turning such arms on us anyway, whether it be by Maliesque hostage-taking, terrorist plots, or simply wishing to destabilise nearby countries and attempt to infiltrate them. Knowingly arming them would not only be downright cynical (which is why I wouldn’t put it past some our so-called intelligence services), but ultimately self-destructive as we are the ‘great Satan’ of freedom, enlightenment and prosperity they fear so much, whilst Assad and his Russian backers are just a little Satan. Yet do nothing and we will be resented as silent accomplices of the regime, which is fighting not so much a terrorist insurgency, though this forms part of the problem, as an internal uprising by a people thoroughly tired of his mis-rule. Here we have a crystallisation of the uprisings there in the 1980’s, which at the time we merely ignored, though now affecting the entire country.

It seems to me though that there has to be a clear decision by the rebel groups that they will commit to a democratic and egalitarian program, that recognises the rights of all groups there, if they want to see Western support. Without that, I’m not sure it makes any sense to give any armed assistance, for the reasons outlined above and the charge of moral blackmail isn’t very persuasive. However odious Assad’s government might be and however tempting the idea of winning over a country in Russia’s pockets, the end does not justify the means for the simple reason that the end is something that comes after the first act. How nominally Christian countries can even think of arming people whose stated, not perceived, but stated intention is to commit genocide against all non-Muslims in the area and also different types of Muslim, simply beggars belief. I can understand the desire to have some influence on the resulting government and to be remembered as allies rather than strangers, which surely helped lead to the Libyan involvement. Yet we have to be pretty clear we won’t support just another form of bigotry, however it is dressed up. I have seen news reports that the liberal groups are receiving specialist (non-lethal’ arming and training. though it has to be made very clear that this is conditional on it staying in their hands… something no doubt hard to guarantee, which makes any kind of involvement questionable.

Of course, in this context two things should be remembered, however unpleasant they may be. One being that these militants are reportedly being armed with the help of the Saudis. Seeing as Saudi Arabia is very much in the American ‘pocket’, even extending to formally secret drone bases, it is hard to believe the West would know nothing of this, especially as such a tactic was used in Afghanistan in the 1980s, with similarly blinkered objectives.

The second is perhaps darker and I hope it’s not the case, but I think it’s worth pointing out the possibility. In the time of the original crusades, the Orthodox Christians of Slavic and Middle-Eastern lands were seen as just (or even more) heretical than the Jews and Muslims, who at least had the excuse of not knowing who Christ was, rather than going against his wishes of Apostolic successorship by being folded into the Roman Church and following the Pope directly. So Orthodox Christians were not just abandoned to regional rulers, but actively targeted, based around a fanatical belief that their way of worshipping with icons offended God, though persecuting them would somehow please him.

Nowadays, of course, there is much more fellow-feeling amongst Christians, though it seems to me possible that one reason there is such shocking silence amongst Western Christians in the face of such appalling oppression of their brothers and sisters in the Eastern Churches has it’s roots in this. Christianity may have evolved to be much more peaceful and enlightened, but I wonder if the same silence and even Western aid would greet groups persecuting Protestants or Catholics. This shouldn’t be the case and I don’t accept it at all, but other than the possibility of a New World Order organisation that essentially sees Christians as a threat due to their overt morality, this explains in part the widespread silence. Another possibility is that they themselves don’t want to be any more identified with an ‘alien’ west than they already are and beg to be allowed to resolve things on their own terms. Reports of a Christian exodus from Iraq and ‘liberated’ parts of Syria and persecution in ‘Arab Spring’ countries like Egypt suggest otherwise. To an extent, the so-called freedom of the Arab Spring is a death-sentence for minorities and more has to be done if their rights aren’t respected.

In all of this we have the existence of modern-day Israel, who I will be clear I recognise, see as a good thing ultimately for the region and the world and support their right to exist. With this comes of course the right to self-defense, self-defense in one of the roughest neighborhoods on Earth I might add, though I hope they use that right wisely. I don’t have any time for radicals or religious fundamentalists there, either, though think it pretty much absurd to try to pin the blame for all the region’s troubles on such a small entity, which after all is just trying to survive and prosper and doing a lot better than any of her neighbours at doing that. Why do people try to blame Israel for things so obviously beyond their control? Part of this is no doubt the historical prejudice of ‘blaming the Jews’, an almost superstitious tendency to escape from the complexities of a situation by blaming an at least mostly innocent party, a ‘scapegoat’. This works very well for the regimes of the region and keeps the people they are ruling and oppressing off their backs (None of this is to exempt them from their own wrong actions and often oppressive policies, by the way).

Yet even if there are Zionist conspiracies, and I have no doubt in such an unstable region, some wheeling and dealing is going on to protect Israel from the insanity so common around her (economically unproductive insanity I might add), it is beyond stupid to think that everything that goes on there is a result of such conspiracies. Yet intellectual laziness has seemingly endless appeal, particularly amongst the disenfranchised (which is not to say that Israel does no wrong, but to emphatically say they don’t do all, or even most of the wrong). The only thing I can see ending this, or any other prejudice for that matter, is universal suffrage and free education. What we are seeing in the Middle East now is that without education, democracy means very little. People are more likely to vote in their own new oppressors, representing their own particular bigotry, rather than governments that have a real likelihood of solving their various problems. The cultural divide between the West and traditionally Islamic majority states, which I still maintain are in reality multicultural countries as well, is very vast. That doesn’t mean we should forget about human rights and pluralism. We are lucky to come from countries where human rights are almost taken for granted. The overthrowing of corrupt dictators is only the first stage of bringing those universal rights to the rest of the world. Only governments that respect the rights of all their citizens, whatever their background, should expect to be seen as legitimate.

Dreamscape

The future is a very strange country. Every peek I take of it surprises me afterwards with it’s Philip K Dick-like bizarreness. Why so? Well, it’s actually quite simple- we humans have a multitude of needs, some obvious, some hidden and come what may we will seek to satisfy them. Just look at the actual content on the internet today compared to how the original academics intended for it to be used and you’ll see the pattern. Judge harshly, or even blink too long and you’ll miss the picture of humanity reflecting itself through its creations. Hence any perfect future as linear as much science fantasy would expect is quite simply unbelievable, partly for it’s boring predictability. No, one who would see the future will experience a much more remarkable place…

I dreamt of being a miner in some future, off-world colony. To assist me in operating my massive machinery and perhaps also to keep me company in the inhospitable zone, I had two android helpers- one Chinese-looking, one German. The Chinese one was technically very adapt, efficient and aggressive at getting things done. The German one was, by comparison, recalcitrant, even dreamy. The AI was an introvert, obsessed with ethical issues, which it would contemplate inwardly, mumouring musings in 17th century German from time to time, which neither of us could understands, but had a poetic ring to it.

At one point, the conflict between them, which I was bizarrely adjudicating like a teacher in a nursery school, came to a head. Looking skywards and mumbling some have-intelligible contemplation about the relationship between man (or even machine) and God, the German, who was known as a ‘Protestant’ model, failed to respond to a need to make some technical adjustments. The Chinese one was robotically furious, accusing him of disloyalty to me and the mission, a charge I felt unfair, considering his personality, robotic or otherwise. The Chinese one reached ore within a welding torch and threatened to melt the synthetic skin on the Protestant&s feet. Meanwhile, the Protestant, dressed in what seemed to be some amalgamation of a scientist&s white uniform and a sackcloth, looked skywards and mumbled what I can only suppose to be a condemnation of violence on intensely ethical grounds, as incompatible with the very essence of sentient intelligence, a pious objection that seemed to infuriate the Chinese robot all the more.

At this, I stepped in, scolding them in equal measure, as best I could. ‘There are many intelligences in the world, you have to respect each other. Protestant, I know your musings are holy and pure and I support them, but you need to pay attention to the task at hand when needed. As for you, violence is wrong, show some more tolerance. What would your maker think, seeing you behave this way to a fellow being?’

Unfortunately for the continuation of the dream, at this point I woke up, though at least this meant that I could remember what happened. I was left with a lot of strange and uncomfortable feelings, but there was inly one logical conclusion. It was that as technology solves the very real problems of creating enough computing power to feign intelligence and create the suggestion of personality, at that point it will all be a matter of taste what we invent. Our taste will ultimately reflect our humanity rather than our lust for achievements for their own sake.

We need more than anything to develop our compassion. It is almost as if God commands it, or knows it is best for us, to be more truly like Him, our compassion and tolerance growing in equal measure to our ability to effect the world around us, our power if you like, bringing responsibility with it. So it is only natural we will create beings that continue our own ethical debates about efficiency vs human rights and also beings that will require our concern and intervention as much as they help look after our needs. That is, our emotional needs will be met by robots as much as our physical ones, which includes the desire to look after others.

Hence my bizarre situation playing babysitter to the robots doing such crucial woke for me on a distant star system. Only with their seeming flaws could I stay sane, evolving inwardly as is so important for me. The seeming nostalgic, reverent recreation if the ‘Protestant’ embodies this. It is not so much that technologies will take over our humanity from here, as that they will reflect and aid their makers in more ways than are now obvious. Leading to a bizarre and wonderful future, rather than a predictable one, in which ‘Siri’ is just the first in a whole host of intelligences we will be interacting with.

Fukushima Dai-Ichi, Three Months On

First of all, let me come clean and admit that this particular post has been written, rewritten and edited quite a few times in the past few weeks, so it may be even more rambling than usual. My original intention, weeks ago, was to share what I know. Yet then I asked myself, what do I really know about this for sure?  I realised that I would just be commenting on things I have heard Now that things have settled down a bit, at least as far as the release of information goes, it seems more sensible to talk. The situation is far from resolved; it will probably not be until next year at the earliest that the reactors achieve ‘cold shutdown’ and in the meantime, just recently the IAEA described the situation as ‘highly serious’. This may be a few notches down from the verdict ‘highly apocalyptic’, but it is enough to note that there is still a lot to be done there and we can only hope that the experts know enough to manage it stably and that  prophets of doom on the issue are just as wrong as this guy. So what I write below is as based on expert opinion as I could make it, yet it is the rambling thoughts of someone who is definitely just a beginner when it comes to this issue.

An advantage of ‘social media’ has over ‘news media’ is that, having no deadline to fulfil, there is freedom to digest the news before commenting rather than having pressure to comment before all the facts are in. I should admit that many times I am tempted towards the latter, but the problem with it is that it so often can lead to passing on a misunderstanding, or faulty information. I’ve noticed that ‘special interest groups’ are especially guilty of making interpretations here which are convenient for their ideology. For instance, on the one hand there are people who very sincerely believe that nuclear power, with man’s limited level of technology, is just too dangerous to be toyed with, that the genie of nuclear power, with it’s promise of enormous and efficiently delivered energy risks unleashing a terrible threat along with it. To me, this is a very honest and cautious point of view, yet I still wouldn’t want it to colour the interpretation of reported facts, subconsciously up-playing dangers because it verifies their position.

Then there are others who promote nuclear power as the most feasible way to combat global warming, describing alternative fuel sources as being in their infancy and unable to efficiently deliver the vast amounts of power societies need now. They feel that relying only on fossil fuels in the meantime is just too risky, especially considering the tyrannical governments and unstable societies in many of the countries that are needed to supply them. Despite what some say, with all the associated costs, especially those of decommissioning old plants, nuclear power ends up being a very expensive energy source, but for any country with huge energy needs, it remains a strategically vital one. The question is, is it worth the risk of such accidents and can plants ever really be made in a way that’s safe from them? The answer on many people’s lips right now is ‘no’. It seems to me we need to find safer alternatives, yet in the mean time, we need to make nuclear as safe as humanly possible. If this pushes up the cost so that it’s not as economical as it might have seemed, then so be it; the immense, incalculable cost of a disaster is too great to risk. Whist it may never truly be enough, an expensive ‘insurance policy’ of extensive safety measures is a necessity, not an option and with it, inspection authorities with the power to enforce them.

In this area, we can see humankind charting a new future as we speak. Not only do people tend to see what they (often subconsciously) want to see, but just by the very act of looking, they alter the reality they perceive. We maintain here at Perfect Futures that realities experienced by Man are being made by him at both an individual or group level. In a free universe, ultimately nothing is ‘forced’ on anyone, though it may seem to be so. Positive thinking, being stress-free and optimistic will be a lot better for people’s health than diving into a sea of fear. Yet, a calm, rational, reasonable voice of concern is still well-worth listening to. Being positive isn’t about deluding yourself, it is more a case of being as proactive as possible and filtering out any fear (which is not to be confused with intelligent caution), to take a calm and realistic view of the situation.

What we Know Now

The first thing we would like to say here is probably to restate the obvious. This was a terrible accident at a nuclear plant woefully unprepared for a quite conceivable event- a large earthquake followed by costal tsunamis in a seismically-active region. Presumably, even though there is no way of actually stopping a Tsunami, it is possible to sufficiently protect a plant and it’s back up power generators from one. If not, then Japan really has to think carefully about continuing with their costal nuclear plants. some would jump quickly to one or the other sides of this assessment. Yet I’d stress that it isn’t an easy one to make, with Japan needing to import so much energy and the danger of, for example, oil being suddenly cut off being a grave one potentially), it is understandable that a reliable source of energy would be desired, which came in the shape of nuclear, which could continue to fulfil this role until a satisfactory replacement is found.

The next thing we have to look at is what actually happened. We now know that there were not just one, but three meltdowns and that at Unit One and quite possibly at the others as well, it was total- leaving an intensely radioactive blob at the base of a leaking containment vessel. There is even some talk of a ‘melt through’, in which it has melted through through the containment vessel, possibly even through the concrete underneath it and reaching unknown depths, the so-called ‘China Syndrome’, in which people wondered if an unstoppeable core could pass all the way through the Earth, or at least to an unknown depth. Then there are also the additional dangers posed by the fuel storage pools, damaged by the earthquake and hydrogen explosions, which contain many advanced products of the nuclear reaction in their tightly-packed fuel rods and are prone to become reactivated (attain criticality) and even explode if allowed to overheat too much; not in a nuclear explosion, but in a conventional one.

The details behind this have been shrouded in mystery by Tepco for some time and in fact are still only being drip-fed out. It’s conceivable that they simply don’t know, or at least not for sure and are waiting for confirmation. It’s also possible that they are worried about incriminating themselves if serious mistakes were made, a possibility which makes you wonder if the system that keeps outside agencies relatively at bay is a good one, if they can withhold evidence at will, though what to me is more probable is that they are in fact reasonably transparent with the government and international atomic energy agency (IAEA), yet there has been a conscious choice to slowly release information when it is thought people are ready to absorb it without panicking. When there is an immediate potential danger, like within the 20km around the plant or highly contaminated food, action is taken. Yet in terms of revealing the facts as to what happened, which are thought to be too alarming and could provoke panicked reactions that could have terrible economic effects, it is being decided to slowly reveal the truth. Whether this is ethical or not is questionable, I am more on the side on the public’s ‘right to know’, but considering their position, it is an understandable choice. Some people compare this to ‘boiling a frog’; you increase the heat slowly, so it doesn’t suddenly jump out.

For example, it was pretty obvious to people arount the world and especially to visiting experts that there were (and still are, as I speak) multiple meltdowns in progress, that cooling was intended to slow down but could no longer fully prevent. Yet it may well have been decided that this is a truth that people just couldn’t be trusted to handle, so it was held back until lots of lesser bad news was digested first, the same way one might give small drops of a bad-tasting medicine before a big gulp is administered. In terms of the response, it seems to me that they reacted as well as they could have done when you take into account their limited resources. Yet it also shows the essential problem with nuclear power- even an ‘exemplary response’ (as described by the IAEA) is still woefully inadequate, with contamination spreading wide and far, poisoning crops and having an effect we are only beginning to gauge. The myths of impervious containment structures, failsafe safety systems and diaster response teams proved to be empty promises when the forces of nature were unleashed upon the plant.

With a lack of official transparency, one person I turned to to fill in the blanks has been Arnold Gunter.  None of us can see the future, perhaps we wouldn’t want to if we could, but he may well have some important things to say about what has already happened and the delicate nature of supposedly well-protected plants. In this video, we can see one of his main points of contention with the official line that Unit 3 had a hydrogen explosion like those suffered by units 1 and 2, is his claim that it was a ‘moderated prompt criticality’; that despite being outside of the reactor, the fuel rods became ‘active’ and fuel-producing again when they no longer received enough cooling. He says that it was an explosion at Unit 3’s fuel rod pool that sent a cloud of extremely toxic radiation over the pacific and deposited parts of fuel rods as far as a mile inland. The evidence seems to increasingly support this, with the fuel rods in Unit 4 being intact, but pieces found a mile away, though I have to admit that as someone new to the whole world of nuclear power and the accidents that occur with it, I’m not really the best judge. Even so, his claims are coherent, calmly delivered and to my mind very plausible and I wouldn’t be surprised if the official story changes to something a lot more like his claims.

In the early days of the incident, I did a lot of research into the accidents in Russia- Chernobyl and the Mayak Reactor near Kyshtym and found the later had some similarities. It also featured a large explosion (though much larger than Fukushima had) and also involved a lack of cooling to nuclear materials. It was covered up for decades, something that was impossible in the case of chernobyl and would be inconcievable in our interconnected world of today. Apart from not wanting to cause panic, there was a strong urge to save face, in that case the face being the Soviet Unions. Yet people don’t change, even in different systems. In fact, cover-ups are something TEPCO is also notorious for, being far more concerned over the years with the image their nuclear-based products have than with dispensing with timely information. Until now, this is something they have largely gotten away with, as the inadequate safety measures had yet to be put to the test. It seems that this period is over and a lot of people are even wondering if nuclear power in Seismically-active Japan can really ever be safe.

Tepco can be credited with meeting the Tokyo area’s electricity needs over the past decades- no small task for such a resource-poor country. Yet we have to wonder what has been going on in this secretive company, that has been entrusted with some of the most powerful and delicate technologies known to modern man. In their history of using nuclear power, there have been not just a few, but over 200 safety breaches that they have attempted to conceal from the public, including in them localised mistakes that could well have be seen as precursors to this one. With the lack of any centrally co-ordinated team in Japan to deal with such accidents, TEPCO was forced to rely on fire brigades and help from other countries, help that they thankfully accepted rather than trying to keep saving face. To make matters worse, the situation isn’t particularly different with the other electrical companies in Japan. The urge to pretend that everything is okay can lead to vital issues being left unresolved.

We can’t blame this accident and it’s continuing effects on an Earthquake or Tsunami. They are not sentient beings that deliberately targeted the plant, but predictable natural phenomena in the vicinity which, despite their unusual intensity, regularly appear there. It seems much more plausible to blame a culture of concealing earthquake vulnerabilities the nuclear plants had, even in the courtroom, in order to save the massive expenses needed to better proof the plants against them and obtain viable emergency equipment to deal with the aftermath of potential problems. An article in the New York Times goes into this in some detail.

The practice of allowing former government officials to get cosy retirement jobs in the company, the now infamous practice of ‘am’ seems also to be flawed, as it is unrealistic to expect people with vested interests in a company’s financial success to approve funding for safety measures for hypothetical situations they might think too unlikely to be worth funding. The regulators and whistleblowers made many points, which had they been heeded may well have minimised this tragedy. Looking at the cost not only to those living around the plant, but to the company itself, with it’s liability in the billions, surely it can be seen that their listening to objective criticism, often very bravely offered in the face of threats, would have saved them in the long run? Yet even now we see the continued retreat into an incestuous way of doing things, with independent or critical reporters bared from press conferences. When people only talk to themselves, or to those who can be trusted to say ‘yes’ at every opportunity, how can they learn the truth, whether or not it is what they want to hear?

Even now, we are only beginning to find out what happened in the early days of the accident, learning facts that are not necessarily the same as what we had been lead to believe. It seems that it wasn’t just the apocalyptic Tsunami that cased the damage, but the earthquake itself, which the plant was supposedly built to withstand. As anyone who has been following this will know, the meltdowns started before the Tsunami hit, due to the earthquake- an earthquake the plant was supposedly designed to withstand. Safety equipment seems to have been rendered useless without electricity and manual controls for valves and water cooling inoperable. Filters to let out explosive hydrogen gas simply couldn’t open when their power was gone- yet their very exoistance was to help deal with a cooling crisis that a lack of power was likely (we now know, invevitable) to cause.

In fact, the containment may well have been compromised in hours- the same containment we were daily reassured was ‘impregnable’. All of this makes the early decision to resort to poring on tonnes of corrosive seawater, a measure considered desperate, all the more understandable. Which makes us think- if even the equipment to deal with emergencies fils when needed, if the containment is unreliable, if only due to weak spots such as seals, who is to say that other, ‘better’ designs won’t reveal their weaknesses when put to the test? Are we really, truly ready to build ‘safe’ reactors in an extreme situation (which I am afraid needs to not just encompass natural disasters, but also operator errors, unforeseen equipment failures, or even terrorism)? If we are, fine, new ones will be better, but if not, alternatives need to be found as quickly as possible. These could well be renewable energy sources, but they may include the seemingly safer Thorium reactors being developed, which don’t melt down.

Conclusion

All of this only reinforces the view I have come to have that nuclear technology is a uniquely powerful one in the history of mankind and can only be safely handled by mature people and societies, perhaps even more so than those we now have. It’s obviously something we desire for our electricity appetites, but are we ready to handle it safely, transparently, responsibly? It is a serious test, not only for the localised actors, but for all mankind, if only because the radioactive releases involved quickly become international, if not global. Already, radioactive particles from Fukushima have been found as far away as France, where pregnant mothers are being cautioned about certain foodstuffs. Even a small danger should be avoided if possible, the same way such mothers would avoid alcohol or tobacco.

Yet, in all of this, there are hopeful signs. Humanity wants to have a future and is willing to take these matters seriously. Now that it has happened, tremendous efforts are being made to mitigate the effects of the accident, some of them truly heroic and, hopefully, none of them in vain. Seeing the danger, other countries are improving their safeguards (or claiming to, everyone wants to save a buck, it seems) and making large investments into renewable sources, which is being seen as a safer wave of the future. Germany has even shut down their aging reactors and plans to make a complete move to renewables. Where there is a will, theer’s a way.

The suspension of Hamaoka plant is another sign, something undertaken when it became clear just how dangerous an earthquake can be to such a plant. We have to applaud Prime Minister Kan on having the foresight to cut through the red tape and force a decision there, even though the more gentle process of the courtroom could have achieved this earlier and also in a way that could have transformed the legal landscape in which Japan’s plants exist. The sign that we are moving in the direction of far greater safety measures is a silver lining to this cloud. An accident with the wind blowing inland would have been far worse, rendering vast stretches of Japan uninhabitable for generations. The spectre of this happening at Hamaoka was just too great to risk. Let us hope that such an event is less likely than ever at this point and that the issues that remain at Fukushima are resolved as calmly, quickly, smoothly and above all gently as possible.

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The Demise of Bin Laden

Like a lot of people, I was glad to see the back of Bin Laden (well, we haven’t even seen his back, but I’ll take their word for it). I felt a sense of closure. Whatever the actual truth about him and his backers, it was good to see the man held responsible for 9/11 out of the way, put in ‘the dustbin of history’, if you will and meeting with some form of justice, summary though it might be.

Although pleased to hear about it, the way in which things happened make me feel I shouldn’t exactly be celebrating. People dancing in the streets is understandable, as they were finally free from his witch-like curse, yet the more details that emerge, the harder it is to see things so simply. Really, he should have stood trial like any other criminal and we should have been able to find a more complete closure through that process than having him merely tossed into the sea. Also, if we are representing civilisation rather than the barbarism of Islamic extremists, shouldn’t we be having trials (even show trials), charges and so on?

Whatever the reasons, of course this won’t be the case. The idea of people taking hostages and demanding his release in exchange for them also makes me wonder if in fact such a choice would have necessarily been better. Giving him a platform of any sort would also have been counter-productive. Certainly, if there was an argument for the death penalty, he embodied it. Still, we shouldn’t be intimidated into losing our values… many an issue is caught up in this topic. People on the blogsphere are posting quotes about hatred not ending hatred, violence not ending violence. Actually, i am pleased to see people feeling this way, as ultimately this is true. Yet I think the way it is being used obscures the moral difficulty of the debate, a debate after the event, but one relevant nonetheless.

To what extent should civilisations protect themselves against enemies sworn to their destruction? To what extent should democracies put their values on hold? I’m not saying I have all the answers, or even if there are final answers to be had in a world created by our values, defined by our choices. I’m just saying, the situation is unclear enough for various shades of opinion to be respectable and for people to hold back on being too judgemental on others whose view is different from their own… as their objective might well be the same. It might be naive, but in the end we have to trust Obama, with all the compassion and humanity he has, to do ultimately the right thing, in as much as this is possible.

So, whilst I am uncomfortable with the methods, the end result can only be a good thing. After years of fruitless, expensive war, (one trillion dollars is a figure that is bandied about), finally a central objective (if this is actually what it is all about, I have my doubts) has been publically fulfilled. Will this lead to a draw-down in Afghanistan? Will the cause of global jihad feel this is an unrecoverable body-blow? I feel that the latter of these options is just too optimistic. Yet it does show that no Jihadi is untouchable, that they lack any real legitimacy outside of their own followings. If this helps to end the power of radicalised Islam, this could only be a good thing. Like Communisim in the Soviet Union, it is just too incompatible with the needs and desires of human dignity to be tolerated for too long. In fact the ‘Arab Spring’ in the middle east has already to an extent rejected it as a revolutionary movement. People want freedom and happiness, not darkness and fear.

Ultimately, I feel that education, diplomacy and in the end, the warm power of love and goodness are what will overcome the problem in the long term. Like the Aesop’s fable of the sun and the wind trying to get a man to take off his coat, the wind blowing him making him hold it tighter, whilst the warm sun convinces him to remove it voluntarily, we have to remember that however radicalised the people we are dealing with are, they are ultimately human and will be reintegrated into global society at some point in the future. So this is the end of a chapter, but not necessarily the end of the book.

Kyshtym disaster – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Kyshtym disaster – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Covered up by the Soviet authorities for decades, this remains one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. The location, at Mayak nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, being kept secret due to it’s use in the Russian nuclear weapons program, only much later was the full extent of it known. Despite occurring back in 1957, documents detailing it were only declassified in 1990, due partly to Soviet pride, though just as much to avoid worries about nuclear power programs in general. I personally only found out about it be looking up the scales of nuclear disasters on Wikipedia.

It shows just how vulnerable spent nuclear fuel is if left uncooled- in this case, carelessly left alongside potentially explosive materials (ammonium nitrate). Amazingly, not only were the nearby inhabitants kept there for a time, and in fact some are still living near the area, but the most intensely radiated region was used as a ‘live’ military training ground. Due to wind currents, the contaminated area was truly colossal, with 800 square km still off-limits today, though the most affected area was closer to the site. It shows that with nuclear fuel storage, there is no room for negligence or a lack of accountability. With the fuel rods producing heat for generations, it is a long-term problem, without any satisfactory solution yet being found.

More details can be found in this declassified document-

http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:tvAcbQiZIn4J:www.osti.gov/bridge/servlets/purl/5254763-UCvDE3/5254763.pdf+Kyshtym+disaster&hl=en&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESiuW_F7sArWd7GFLVfcmx0O2kSi1zgxbU9DqT6YIVwLnQewRAhmd8y8ywHuLnsRP7nY-rJTQFKjGljzH_jaTVqCr9MbKV0ZyDQCSI7xKXkwt7bVe_bZriQgi6kQlrY7x3vJijVM&sig=AHIEtbRB8gXft66DM4LSxO332DIJFJchTQ

Even grimmer is this site, from a filmaker who visited the region, forgotten by the world, where there have been not one, but cumulatively three nuclear disasters-

http://www.logtv.com/films/chelyabinsk/nuclear.htm

Comment-

It should be added here that nothing remotely like this is likely to happen in Japan, as there is not the potential for such a tremendous explosion (which was a chemical and not a nuclear explosion, anyway). Having so many people on site and so much international attention is also a good thing. Yet it highlights the long-term dangers of nuclear waste, wherever it is, the problems associated not being limited to reactors themselves. Right now we can’t really live without nuclear power, though it makes sense to search for safer alternatives, that don’t produce so much radioactive materials. I’m not convinced ‘renewables’ can make enough power on their own economically, but it makes sense to use them where possible, which is something Germany is having  a lot of success with and with newer technology emerging, they could be even more effective in the years to come.

Reflections From Abroad

With all the things happening in Japan, I felt very lucky to have already booked a three-week trip to Europe for my girlfriend and me, staying mostly with relatives. Since then, I’ve had a wonderful, eventful holiday, even better than I could have expected… more on that later.

Like a lot of people, getting out of town for a bit seemed a sensible thing to do, my only worry being power cuts or an unexpected earthquake interfering with our trip to Narita Airport. With the trains being so intermittent, we booked a convenient airport coach from Kashiwa, which we safely made our way to the airport on on the Saturday morning. With so much booked and ready, it was a relief to get there without a hitch. There was then a series of very long delays getting to London, leading to us spending hours in Narita and Hong Kong airports. The situation being so extraordinary, I didn’t mind so much and British Airlines also gave us some generous food coupons that meant we could get whatever we liked at the places that accepted them.

Now I’m here, we are still checking the news in Japan. No major quakes near us appear to have happened and the reactors, though still producing radiation, seem to be far more stablized than when we left, when some kind of sudden explosion was not beyond the realms of imagination or the wilder speculations of the press. Shortages still seem to exist, especially with bottled water and fuel and the coast is not entirely clear.

We can only hope that the careful measures to contain the radioactivity pay off. Japan being a small country, they can’t afford to let a large area go to waste the way that happened with Chernobyl and I expect they will reduce the damage as much as possible. Hearing about a Fukushima farmer committing suicide when he heard that his rows of perfect, organic cabbages were no longer sell-able brought home to me the human cost of this drama. The Japanese authorities have a difficult task weighing this along with the dangers of cutting people off from their homes, lives and livelihoods.

Different governments have been saying different things, sometimes contradicting earlier attitudes. The French government, for example, recommended leaving all but Southern Japan, yet when actual radioactive fallout fell on their produce from Chernobyl (obviously, a much worse accident), unlike neighbouring Italy they declared an all-clear and refused to ban any sales, saying that any radiation had miraculously ‘stopped at the Italian border’. So we who have deep connections in Japan have to be aware of the political motivations behind foreign government’s advice, mainly aimed at their own non-essential citizens who might otherwise get in trouble and often involving some grandstanding of their own, to decide for ourselves how cautious we feel we need to be. To me the US/UK recommendation of 80km makes a lot of sense, weighing on the side of caution without being too over the top.

Not being an expert, I can’t give any advice (and the current fashion for people who know a little bit to be trying to seems a bit mistaken), but there seems to be a consensus that, especially for adults, very low levels of exposure are safe. Perhaps we should be more worried about pesticides and other pollutants, I don’t really know. It’s certainly something we need to decide for ourselves about, if only for peace of mind. I project that just as before, the real problems will be nearer to the events, further afield being psychological fear, which has a power of it’s own. I hope and pray that the effects will turn out to be very mild, which is what the plant was designed for.

As for precautions, when I go back I expect I’ll be more careful about wind and ‘acid rain’ coming from that direction for some time to come. I expect farmers downwind of it will have periods when their produce is deemed unacceptable, fairly or not. But living far away from the source in Chiba-Ken, I’ll be carrying on with my life as normal as much as possible. Thankfully, in a series of heroic actions, the early chance of a spectacular meltdown billowing into the air has been so reduced as to be practically impossible (if in fact it ever was, I tend to think that it couldn’t be ruled out as we never know for sure). There is always the chance of a big Kanto earthquake, but that’s nothing new, in fact the one that happened could just as well been in Kanto. I’d really understand people not going there or not going back and also the fact that people will worry about me being there. I appreciate the concern, yet however worrying it is, the risks where I am are so low and the good things about carrying on living there are so many, that  I am going to go back. My students will really appreciate having my class. Please remember that when it talks of what could happen, the media is generally sensationalistic, which is the only way of getting people’s attention.

Hopefully things keep returning to normal, the power and trains get stablised as they bring online more power plants. Just being alive remains a miracle. I intend to keep enjoying it, whilst doing what I can to help others, which includes cheering them up. I actually think this is a great thing we can do for our students, who even if they haven’t been directly affected, may still have been worried by things. Seeing how well people have co-operated, kept calm and looked after one another is really moving to see.

Let Us Not Forget

In all of this, we can’t forget the suffering going on in the North of Japan. Without enough food and fuel, the refugees are suffering innumerable hardships, stuck in temporary accommodation that is getting more uncomfortable by the day. Not to mention those nearest to the reactor, who are being instructed to stay indoors, with the awful prospect of being unable to get more supplies. A ray of light is the way they have captured the hearts of the rest of the people in Japan, seeing them daily on TV and the new projects to repair the infrastructure, so as to better deliver the very means of life. Many campaigns and fund-raisers have arisen, in a nation in which just enjoying pleasure was the main distraction from everyday life.

Things are even worse in the containment zone. As snow settles, people are afraid to even enter to make deliveries, such is the threat of contamination. We can only hope that appropriate vehicles are found to make deliveries, or even better, extract the people from their doomed towns. Whilst there is the prospect of lower-level radiation escaping beyond, the urgency of dealing with this should not distract from the needs of those worse affected. Seeing the heroic efforts of the staff to contain the crisis can’t but bring tears to our eyes, bring willing to sacrifice their lives to try to ensure as much safety as possible for the area and perhaps even beyond. Yet we should not allow an unchosen sacrifice of the local inhabitants. Technological solutions need to be found for the problems technology, at the very limits of our understanding of nature has brought upon us. No-one should be forgotten or left behind.

Entering a Strange Period

Now that I have the things I need over the next few days, it is a strange period here. Suddenly, Japan seems to be as fixated on the dangers posed by the stricken nuclear plants as the rest of the world. Just about everyone I know spent this evening inside, with their place closed up. no, we aren’t in the ’emergency zone’. Just some low-level radiation managed to drift towards the Tokyo Area from a plume of smoke from a fire at the number 4 reactor. The dangers it poses are  apparently (at least with limited exposure) negligible, but on the advice of the French authorities, who are seen as being more cautious and also more candid than the ones here, people didn’t want to take any chances. Despite my scientific scepticism, neither did I. I wonder how much of it is coming from anti-nuclear sentiment and how much is based on facts, but there is a growing fear of what could unfold. At any rate, knowing everyone is inside has led to a strange sense of community- conversations that would otherwise be in a coffee shop are had over a phone, or by computer messages. Perhaps it’s just today, but I foresee much more of this taking place, especially if more places close, because less people try to go to them, because more places are closed… and so on. Whenever ordinary life does return, perhaps as soon as a week or two, perhaps longer, it will inevitably be influenced by this strange period.

Panic buying has made toilet paper and bottled water no longer the cheap items you unthinkingly get, but hot commodities. apparently, on Amazon, alcaline batteries are available for the princely sum of 16,000 yen… quite a hike from their 100 yen price just a few days ago. Under them was a thread of angry comments about the attempt to profiteer, but ultimately it was a shocking example of the law of supply and demand. It meant my cheap batteries I bought just in case I need them are worth more than some of my camera lenses. Quite a change!

in case there’s anyone who doesn’t know, repeated hydrogen explosions and a brief fire have afflicted the seemingly well-designed Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Plant, raising the spectre of a ‘melt-down’. The results of that no-one really knows for sure, though the hope is that it would only be local. Yet locally, even it would seem to be a catastrophe of it’s own. The radiation levels there are sky-rocketing and the advice given to people nearby, many of whom can’t evacuate because of lack of fuel to travel with, is so restrictive that one wonders if it is even possible to follow. Not leaving one’s place means an impossibility of getting fresh supplies, with no-one coming to deliver new ones. I suppose in time the levels could go down, but the question is, can people hold out until then? Just imagining people being stuck out there with no-where to go is terrible to think of, though there seem to be plans to evacuate them as soon as possible. It would be worse than the Tsunami in a certain way, as you wouldn’t be wither saved or dead, you would be somewhere in between, not knowing what would come next.

I can’t help but feel for and admire the people who are probably sacrificing their lives by staying in the reactors, doing whatever they can to prevent them exploding. Many factors led to them being built out there. Ironically, a major one was the anti-nuclear movement galvanising opposition so that only the most poor and remote towns would agree to their construction. no all very understandable, you might think, but when you see that this led to them being built in an area unusually prone to Earthquakes and Tsunami, you have to wonder if a better solution than always caving in to popularism could be found. In the case of Japan (and probably France), nuclear power is a strategic necessity, Japan simply couldn’t afford to meet all it’s energy needs through using oil. Not to mention the memories of the ‘oil shock’ of the Seventies, in which it became less obtainable due to Middle-Eastern boycotts. Anyway, seeing them devote their time and their lives to these last-ditch efforts, which may well not succeed at this point, but should at least mitigate the damage, is moving to consider.

In case anyone is wondering, the levels far away, such as here can’t be and will never be comparable, simply because of the dilution of the radioactive material. I could envision a dangerously toxic plume, I just knew one would develop, but it isn’t comparable with the very light remainder of it that made it to Tokyo. The very fact that the plants powered off means that the potential disaster is nowhere near Chernobyl. Yet in the short term, even a smaller risk is an unacceptable one for many people, so wind patterns and what actually happens at the stricken site will make a difference to their behaviour. I just hope this period is very short term, as I wonder if the local economy could handle people staying in all the time. Here, other issues are more prevalent, such as panic buying, the shortage of petrol or Toyu heating oil and the cuts to train services which keep people from going to work (which in turn reduces their electricity usage).

Of course in all of this, I talk as though I know a lot more about the situation and factors involved than I actually do. From sheer necessity, I did online research to get a perspective that seems to me, at least. to be reasonably realistic. I feel that like so many things in my life, this is a distraction from my ultimate purpose, yet at least, I suppose, it is a different distraction with different lessons to be learnt. I actually think it would be better (if we could),  if we spent more time reflecting on the immense relief effort taking place to rescue Tsunami survivors, or even more so, learning from their experiences. I heard stories of people going unconscious and then feeling something hit them in the back, prompting them to grab onto an antenna or signpost, which turned out to save their live; even better, with the black-out, their body went into an automatic mode. One of Yuko’s neighbours told of their son’s wife, a nurse, stumbling into his house days after it hit, covered in mud yet unable to remember of anything that happened, let alone how she managed to make the long journey home.

These are dramatic stories, with very important messages of just what it means to be a human being on this planet, pulling through by a hair, though seemingly in the grip of a higher power, sometimes one activated through some kind of unconscious trance. They are stories worth looking into. They bring meaning to what would otherwise be a rude invasion of chaos into our ordinary lives.

Straight, No Chaser.

A Traditional Photography Blog - dehk © 2016

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