Thursday, June 30, 2011

Japan’s Nuclear “Safety Myth”

Engineers of complex technology should be studying the Fukushima nuclear disaster for many reasons, but one of the most important reasons has to do with belief. According to a New York Times article (6/25/11) the Japanese utilities, government and citizens all succumbed to the mass delusion that their nuclear plants were “absolutely safe”—this phrase is repeated so many times in the article that you get a strong sense of the propaganda that must have been disseminated in Japan for years.

The article traces the nuclear “safety myth” to Japan’s post-World War II restructuring. Japan did not have oil or other natural resources, a big part of why it was defeated. Despite being hit by two atom bombs, nuclear power must have looked like a free lunch card, assurance that they would not slip backwards into the old world development status of primitive Pacific island cultures. But if nuclear power was the only way Japan would survive as any kind of respectable world power, then, by god, nuclear power would just have to be safe. Too much national identity was at stake for it not to be. And once the island nation was peppered with 54 plants, to paraphrase Dick Cheney, nuclear safety was not up for negotiation.

This mindset led to a rash of irrational, if very familiar, bad decisions. The (Japanese!) utility did not invest in radiation-capable robots. At Fukushima, when workers needed to pump water to cool the reactor, the pump they used had to be imported from China. The plants have robots of course, but they are positioned in the visitor centers and on tours for the education and amusement of tourists. If you go on one of these tours you will also see many friendly anime cartoons extolling the virtue and safety of nuclear. You will be guided by an attractive, childbearing-age female tour guide, the likes of whom were hired at Japan plants after Chernobyl to specifically ally the fears of mothers and prospective mothers worried about radiation birth defects.

A misleading PR offensive is one thing, but to willfully neglect to amass safety technology and tools that will be needed in the event of an emergency strikes me as a new page in the history of engineering disasters.

The “Safety Myth”, like all myths, was accepted on pure faith. Therefore, any emergency contingency plan directly challenged that faith. Since the faith stood on a shaky foundation to being with, everyone who clung to it was overly defensive about it. Any thought of the nuclear plans not being “absolutely safe” needed to be ignored at all cost.

I can relate. I used to feel the same way about my old Subaru Legacy, especially after she passed the 225,000 mile mark. What’s that grinding sound? What’s that odd smell? Nothing, absolutely nothing!

The problem is that the accident always hits eventually. With complex interactions between components that are tightly coupled (see Figure 9.1, Normal Accidents, Charles Perrow, or below) you will have an accident within the system. It is mathematically guaranteed to happen. The accident might not blow the plant to kingdom kum, but there is no guarantee that it won’t either.

Engineers are familiar—or should be—with the idea that redundant safety measures don’t necessarily make the system safer. They add more layers of complexity, give something else an opportunity to break down, all while lulling the human operators into a false sense of security. The Japanese appeared to have skipped this step. They created their false security without paying for the safety systems. Belief is a powerful way to circumvent the laws of physics, until it’s not.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Pleasure’s Diminishing Returns

David Linden’s book The Compass of Pleasure describes the latest neuroscience research on the medial forebrain pleasure circuit (interesting, these computer metaphors for brain anatomy).

One fascinating entropy-related finding is that the pleasure circuit activates with less intensity after each subsequent stimulant dose. A thirsty Cro-Magnon man roaming through the Sahara comes upon a stream and takes a long drink. The sandy water is the best thing he has ever tasted. A thunderstorm of pleasure is flashing inside of his head. He takes another drink. The cold water runs down his throat and seems to spread its coolness throughout his entire body. He takes a third drink. The inside of his mouth is saturated, no longer parched. But after the fourth and fifth slurp, he begins to taste the imperfections. He feels the sand in his teeth and the back of his throat. The water doesn’t seem as cold and refreshing. It doesn’t taste quite so watery. He takes one last drink for good measure and moves on.

A modern corollary is the fancy New York restaurant that only serves small steaks (heresy most everywhere else in America) because, as the restaurateurs say—as if facts mattered when the size of a man’s steak is at question—after the twelfth bite the pallet is so deadened as to render the remaining bites useless. What we call pallet is nothing but the pleasure circuit’s sensors in the mouth.

What fascinates me is that the concept of entropy is imbedded deep in one of the most fundamental processes for how we interpret reality. This must account for the bedrock and universal human psychological/emotional concept of carpe diem, stopping to smell the roses, and the joys of simple pleasures. While the pleasure circuit itself ensured that our ancestors stopped to take that drink and was quenched by it, that they lusted for sex, that they relished the taste of fat and protein and sugar. But the diminishing pleasure return may have taught them to be self-reflective about those brief moments of heightened experience. The loss of pleasure may have started those early humans to think about their emotions, and—a small leap here—to think about their thoughts. This might have been one key to the evolution of human consciousness, the brain in all its self-aware glory.

A thermodynamics question: why did the pleasure circuit have to work this way? Why not have the fiftieth bite of chocolate butter cream cake taste as exquisite as the first? Apart from the answer that the Universe just doesn’t work that way, which we all feel intuitively (what would Heaven be for?), I hazard two interpretations. The pleasure circuit is beholden to the same laws of thermodynamics as anything else. It requires energy to produce that initial burst of pleasure, and it cannot be expected to maintain that any more than you can do an infinite amount of pushups.

A second idea: in order to function in the world, we have to be able to move on, especially from things that provide pleasure. We must learn to take in all substances and experiences in moderation. The fact that pleasure (happiness) doesn’t last, and that shoving that fiftieth forkful into our mouths actually leaves us unsatisfied and unhappy, teaches us not only the necessity of moderation, but the pleasure of moderation. And as has been catalogued on this blog already, moderation is what slows the degradation of energy in our bodies, our environments, or families, our societies.

To write this blog is to realize over and again this fundamental, universal, spookily pre-ancient truth.

Much of the book is also about addiction. Listen to a great interview with Linden on Fresh Air:

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Literature and Entropy

When I began this blog on energy depletion I knew that there would not be any topic that was off-topic, since there is not a single event, practice, belief or thing you can think of that does not epitomize the expenditure of energy, including he act of thought itself. But being an English Major I was especially excited to write about the different ways energy sources and usage is depicted in literature.

How is entropy—especially social entropy—handled by writers?

Let me kick off an Entropy Law summer-reading surfeit with the summer reading novel that inspired me with this idea several years ago. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

What happened in Paris in the late 1780s and early 90s is a case study in misspent social energy. The hungering, oppressed masses in so much need of the basics for survival, witnessed the aristocratic few burning up all of France’s resources (milk for crème puffs, firewood to heat mansions, gold leaf wallpaper, in essence the entire economy) for their own needs and pleasures. This drove the commoners into the kind of sane madness that engulfs all societies when energy is likewise misspent. It is the trick of every government—democratic or dictatorship—to either balance the energy expenditure or disguise the imbalance (see Saudi Arabia). The Bastille became a symbol of the fools at the top stealing all the energy and oppressing the people who tried to take a little for themselves. Interesting that by the time the commoners stormed the prison, the government had already gotten smart to its symbolism and moved the convicts out (see Abu Ghraib). The place was mostly empty. But the act of breaking through a government-sanctioned wall also became a symbol, one that was repeated in greater, bloodier proportions (see Lybia, Syria).

The grisly image of the grindstone early in the third book is so horrific that I want to believe Dickens’ was exaggerating, but I secretly don’t want to know that he did, so I haven’t looked up the historical research. It is one of the most arresting images in the novel—perhaps second to the women knitting by the guillotine—but it is central when one is thinking about the social energies pulsing through the people committing the slaughter. The grindstone becomes a kind of engine on which the entire Revolution is run. For the commoners in Paris, the fact that it is spinning becomes reason to sharpen blades on it, and the fact that it is bloody becomes a reason to sharpen blades on it for one particular purpose. The energy that was being channeled into crème puffs and Versailles is being wrested back with each grinding turn.

The key passage for me (and the worldview of this blog) is Chapter VII of the second book, Monsignor in Town. It also happens to be a pair of beautifully constructed sentences:

“The leprosy of unreality disfigured every human creature in attendance upon the Monseigneur. In the outermost room were half a dozen exceptional people who had had, for a few years, some vague misgiving in them that things in general were going rather wrong.”

Does that ring any bells? From global warming denials to pension-budget chicanery, dealing with the effects of real energy depletion is hard work, requiring much cold-eyed sacrifice. It is far easier to cloak yourself in the “leprosy of unreality” and surround yourself with lepers. Until it’s not.