Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Nuclear Leaks 11: Three Mile Island

Yesterday, I coincidentally heard someone in a shop say: 1979 was a good year. It wasn't a good year in Pennsylvania. Today is the 33rd anniversary of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, the worst meltdown in American history. This partial meltdown at Reactor 2, which arose due to design and operator errors and a loss of coolant, led to radioactive gases and iodine being released into the atmosphere. The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission explains what happened during the accident (here):
The accident began about 4:00 a.m. on March 28, 1979, when the plant experienced a failure in the secondary, non‑nuclear section of the plant. The main feedwater pumps stopped running, caused by either a mechanical or electrical failure, which prevented the steam generators from removing heat. First the turbine, then the reactor automatically shut down. Immediately, the pressure in the primary system (the nuclear portion of the plant) began to increase. In order to prevent that pressure from becoming excessive, the pilot-operated relief valve (a valve located at the top of the pressurizer) opened. The valve should have closed when the pressure decreased by a certain amount, but it did not. Signals available to the operator failed to show that the valve was still open. As a result, cooling water poured out of the stuck-open valve and caused the core of the reactor to overheat.

As coolant flowed from the core through the pressurizer, the instruments available to reactor operators provided confusing information. There was no instrument that showed the level of coolant in the core. Instead, the operators judged the level of water in the core by the level in the pressurizer, and since it was high, they assumed that the core was properly covered with coolant. In addition, there was no clear signal that the pilot-operated relief valve was open. As a result, as alarms rang and warning lights flashed, the operators did not realize that the plant was experiencing a loss-of-coolant accident. They took a series of actions that made conditions worse by simply reducing the flow of coolant through the core.
Because adequate cooling was not available, the nuclear fuel overheated to the point at which the zirconium cladding (the long metal tubes which hold the nuclear fuel pellets) ruptured and the fuel pellets began to melt. It was later found that about one-half of the core melted during the early stages of the accident. Although the TMI-2 plant suffered a severe core meltdown, the most dangerous kind of nuclear power accident, it did not produce the worst-case consequences that reactor experts had long feared. In a worst-case accident, the melting of nuclear fuel would lead to a breach of the walls of the containment building and release massive quantities of radiation to the environment. But this did not occur as a result of the three Mile Island accident.

... By the evening of March 28, the core appeared to be adequately cooled and the reactor appeared to be stable. But new concerns arose by the morning of Friday, March 30. A significant release of radiation from the plant's auxiliary building, performed to relieve pressure on the primary system and avoid curtailing the flow of coolant to the core, caused a great deal of confusion and consternation. In an atmosphere of growing uncertainty about the condition of the plant, the governor of Pa., Richard L. Thornburgh, consulted with the NRC about evacuating the population near the plant. Eventually, he and NRC Chairman Joseph Hendrie agreed that it would be prudent for those members of society most vulnerable to radiation to evacuate the area. Thornburgh announced that he was advising pregnant women and pre-school-age children within a 5-mile radius of the plant to leave the area.

Within a short time, the presence of a large hydrogen bubble in the dome of the pressure vessel, the container that holds the reactor core, stirred new worries. The concern was that the hydrogen bubble might burn or even explode and rupture the pressure vessel. In that event, the core would fall into the containment building and perhaps cause a breach of containment. The hydrogen bubble was a source of intense scrutiny and great anxiety, both among government authorities and the population, throughout the day on Saturday, March 31. The crisis ended when experts determined on Sunday, April 1, that the bubble could not burn or explode because of the absence of oxygen in the pressure vessel. Further, by that time, the utility had succeeded in greatly reducing the size of the bubble.
Three Mile Island is classed on the International Nuclear Event Scale as a level 5 incident, that is, an accident with wider consequences. In terms of seriousness, it is on par with the UK's Windscale incident and Canada's first Chalk River episode.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Millennial Extremes 9: James Cameron Visits the Deepest Place on Earth

An example of biolumniescent creatures (not photographed on Cameron's expedition). Image Source: Osamu Shimomura and Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole © 2012 via National Geographic (Hat tip: Quigley's Cabinet).

On 26 March (local time), Canadian director James Cameron landed at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Using a special sub he has been developing with experts for several years, he journeyed to Challenger Deep, a spot in the Trench seven miles below the Earth's surface. It is the deepest place on the planet, and it lies inside an underwater gulf 50 times the size of the Grand Canyon.  In traveling to it alone, Cameron set a world record. Only three previous descents into the Trench have taken place: in 1960 (manned), 1996 (unmanned), and 2006 (unmanned). Cameron took the first film footage of the environment, which he described as "a completely alien world" - it was almost devoid of life:
I landed on a very soft, almost gelatinous flat plain. Once I got my bearings, I drove across it for quite a distance ... and finally worked my way up the slope. ... It was very lunar, a very desolate place, very isolated. My feeling was one of complete isolation from all of humanity. I felt like I, literally in the space of one day, have gone to another planet and come back.
During his descent, he also observed glowing creatures displaying bioluminescence, although not the large types displayed here. The event is described further at the blog, Quigley's Cabinet and at National Geographic.

Gatsby Revisited

Image Source: Warner Brothers via Lost in the Multiplex.

The late 2000s to early 2010s' revisiting of the 1920s to the early 1930s continues (see my post on decades revisited, here). Another example: the 2012 film remake of The Great Gatsby, (set/written in 1922; published in 1925), directed by Baz Luhrmann, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway. Luhrmann's movie site is here. It's right in line with this rather strange 2012 spring 'Silent Era' swimwear collection, weirdly echoing 1920s' styles.

Image Source: Warner Brothers via Bangstyle.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Generation X Goes Back to the Future 10: On Declaring Moral Bankruptcy

Image Source: DonkeyTs.

On March 14, Greg Smith left Goldman Sachs as head of Goldman's United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He also published an op-ed in the New York Times that went viral describing what he thought of the firm, where he worked for the past 12 years:
TODAY is my last day at Goldman Sachs. After almost 12 years at the firm — first as a summer intern while at Stanford, then in New York for 10 years, and now in London — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it. ...

It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief. ...

How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.

What are three quick ways to become a leader? a) Execute on the firm’s “axes,” which is Goldman-speak for persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit. b) “Hunt Elephants.” In English: get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like selling my clients a product that is wrong for them. c) Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to trade any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym.

Today, many of these leaders display a Goldman Sachs culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. ... It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail. Even after the S.E.C., Fabulous Fab, Abacus, God’s work, Carl Levin, Vampire Squids? No humility? ...

It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are.

These days, the most common question I get from junior analysts about derivatives is, “How much money did we make off the client?” It bothers me every time I hear it, because it is a clear reflection of what they are observing from their leaders about the way they should behave. Now project 10 years into the future: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the junior analyst sitting quietly in the corner of the room hearing about “muppets,” “ripping eyeballs out” and “getting paid” doesn’t exactly turn into a model citizen.
Not everyone gets to flame their former employer in front of the whole world. To a lot of insiders, it looked immature, unrealistic, unprofessional, pathetic; after all, Smith was in the financial business. What did he expect? Meanwhile, critics of Wall Street have no sympathy for someone who profited from the boom and finally - it seems - got caught in the toxic atmosphere of the prolonged bust. Despite the public weakness for conspicuous consumption, the popular feeling about the finanical industry is that it was evil, is evil, and always will be evil, so there are no surprises here, except apparently for Greg Smith, who should have known better. In other words, for insiders and outsiders alike, for top management and up-and-coming young analysts, and for everyone else, the perception is that the financial culture is thoroughly morally compromised.

Those assumptions inspired spoofs of Smith's op-ed across the Internet (thanks to -C.): Why I am Leaving the Empire; and Why I am Leaving the Muppets. At Minyanville, Michael Comeau spoofed the spoofs, letting Goldman know they should hire him because he knew the score and could keep his mouth shut.

The NYT editors highlighted one of hundreds of comments at the foot of the op-ed from John Riley: "I don't think you attack on Mr. Smith is called for. It takes a long time for people to come to the painful realization that the place you have dedicated your career to is morally bankrupt, and not worthy of your time or energy. Mr. Smith realized this, and left in a way where he would expose much of the misaligned culture, and hopefully bring about resolution. That takes courage."

Generation X Goes Back to the Future 9: War, Memory and Happy Pills

West Point class, 1882. Image Source: Washington Monthly.

In 2008, James Sheehan, an eminent American professor of history known for his work on Germany, wrote a book entitled, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? It explains how America and Europe began to follow separate paths, based on divergent foreign and domestic policies in the late 20th century. The New York Times reviewed the book, noting that the two World Wars convinced Europeans once and for all of the perils of militarism:
as the cold war ran down the clock, it became gradually clearer that liberal democracy and a market economy mitigated by welfare had won a complete political victory over “actually existing socialism.” At the same time Europe was fully “civilianized”: conscription was abandoned, armies themselves assimilated the values of civilian society and, as the great English military historian Michael Howard has put it, “death was no longer seen as being part of the social contract.”
Continental Cold War European politics and problems in the Balkans were in fact highly militarized. But since 1989-1991, hazy politicized stereotypes have obscured that history to produce a post-WWII story about peaceable Europe and warlike America.

In fact, one main after effect of the World Wars was the splitting of military and civilian realities, between and within countries. This was an enormous historical shift. In Old Europe, the military class was fully integrated into the middling and highest social classes and recognized as such. Europe's earliest dramas revolved around war. They culminated in 19th century European society, with young ladies fainting after military cadets in the background of masterworks such as War and Peace or Eugene Onegin. There were plenty of contemporary novels describing the malaise that afflicted soldiers as they drank, philandered and gambled away the century in their barracks or in unsettled imperial border regions, for example, A Hero of Our Time, or The Radetzky March. But for all the hell they raised, there was no hint here that soldiers were not a fully integrated part of society. The rift with civilian life came only in the period after the Second World War, which saw the entire European military tradition marginalized.

And while America has been painted by her uneasy allies as a warlike nation marching out of step to the drums of European social welfare, internally in the United States, there is a rift between civilian and military worlds too. The 1960s' and early 1970s' Flower Power summed up how things had changed: society's eager young woman and the soldier were now on opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide, especially after 1970's Kent State shootings.

Vietnam War protests at the Pentagon, 1967. Image Source: Weider History Group.

Again, that split between things military and things civilian has been politicized. My point here is not to get into the politics, nor to debate terrorism and counter-aggressions of the past 20 years, nor to discuss the wrongness and - as the Old Prince in War and Peace would say - the inevitability of war.

Rather, I want to recognize that political arguments about war, war-making and militarism cloak complex attitudes about many things that are no longer accepted in globalized society. There is a strange unwillingness in global culture - driven by mass media and worldwide marketing - to face grim aspects of reality.  Popular culture is filled with violence. But it is a plastic violence where no one ever really gets hurt. As the NYT reviewer rightly cited, death is no longer seen as being part of the social contract. For that matter, neither is ugliness, nor ageing, nor unhappiness. Also, it seems nuclear war is not really someone talks about in polite company anymore.  Anyone who deals seriously with any of these things isn't part of polite company. That's the tone. That's the consensus.