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November 2006

Wednesday Cat Blogging

I wish I'd written a really insightful post today, but I spent my spare moments waiting on our 15-year-old cat who had three tumors removed yesterday. I lit her a fire in the fire place, made her a cozy nest with food and water near the fire etc. She's a good old cat.

How to Make Polonium, Part 2

Yesterday, I thought I understood that a particle accelerator was necessary to create man-made polonium. But apparently not. Here is another method that has been suggested to me:

  • Step One: Bake a cylinder of bismuth in a nuclear reactor in an area of high flux of thermal neutrons.
  • Step Two: Use zone melting to separate out the polonium: a heat source is moved up and down the length of the cylinder and this drives the unusual elements along with the heat. A semiconductor plant could have equipment for zone refining.

How to Make Polonium

This morning I blogged an article from the Guardian connecting the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with the trade in poorly guarded nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union. Given the half-life of Polonium, over the course of the day as the situation was dicussed further in the media, this scenario was beginning not to seem very plausible.

The New Scientist reports a different possible source of the lethal dose of Polonium, remarking that Polonium is usually made by bombarding the element Bismuth with neutrons:

To poison someone, polonium would most likely have been chemically combined in some type of dissolvable salt, for example polonium nitrate, experts told New Scientist. In this form the material could easily have been added to his food and ingested.

Polonium is a radioactive element that is used industrially as an anti-static material. It is difficult to get hold of and not used regularly by research scientists, but very small traces of it occur naturally. The metal is usually made by bombarding the element bismuth with neutrons.

"To poison someone, large amounts of polonium-210 are required and this would have to be manmade, perhaps from a particle accelerator or a nuclear reactor," said Dudley Goodhead at the UK's MRC Radiation and Genome Stability Unit.

The online description of a 1972 article, Investigation of the purification of black bismuth from polonium, gives a little more detail:

Title    Investigation of the purification of black bismuth from polonium.
Creator/Author    Kirgintsev, A.N. ; Koslyakov, V.I. ; Prokhorov, L.A. ; Aloi, A.S. ; Selivanov, I.M.
Publication Date    1972 Jan 01 . . .
Resource Relation    Sov. Radiochem. (Engl. Transl.) ;14: No. 2, 307-312(1972).; Translated from Radiokhimiya;14: No. 2, 296-302(1972).
Related Subject    POLONIUM ISOTOPES Po-210/content in black bismuth;POLONIUM/separation of bismuth from, by direct crystallization and zone melting;BISMUTH/purification from polonium by direct crystallization and zone melting;BISMUTH/polonium-210 content in black

Timeline_photo1 Sounds like something not to try at home. (For starters, where are you going to keep your particle accelerator? In the fridge? Next to the sushi, right?)

Interestingly, the IAEA notes circa 2004 produced and recovered polonium by irradiating bismuth as a component of Iraq's nuclear program. The report does not give a time frame for this. There have also been more recent reports that Iran is producing Polonium 210 at the Lavizan II military site.

AN ODD BUT IRRELEVANT DETAIL: Polonium apparently has a special significance for Creationists.


Litvinenko's Death & the Market for Stolen Nuclear Materials

The Alexander Litvinenko is going somewhere really interesting: into the shadowy market for stolen nuclear materials. From the Guardian: Spy death linked to nuclear thefts [link fixed]

An investigation was under way last night into Russia's black market trade in radioactive materials amid concern that significant quantities of polonium 210, the substance that killed former spy Alexander Litvinenko, are being stolen from poorly protected Russian nuclear sites

As British police drew up a list of witnesses for questioning over the death, experts warned that thefts from nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union were a major problem.

A senior source at the United Nations nuclear inspectorate, the International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Observer he had no doubt that the killing of Litvinenko was an 'organised operation' which bore all the hallmarks of a foreign intelligence agency. The expert in radioactive materials said the ability to obtain polonium 210 and the knowledge needed to use it to kill Litvinenko meant that the attack could not have been carried out by a 'lone assassin'.  . . .

In 1993 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reported that 10kg of polonium had disappeared from the Sarov, which produces the rare radioactive material and is described as Russia's own version of Los Alamos, the US government's nuclear research base in New Mexico.

Given the halflife of Polonium, there is an interesting story problem here: If X amount of Polonium was stolen on a specific date, how much would be left as of the time of Litvinenko's poisoning? (I don't think we've been told yet how much Scotland Yard thinks he was given, but from the sound of the news story, his assassins didn't just grind up the foil from anti-static brushes and feed it to him.)

Also, it would be interesting to make a map of sites from which Polonium is known to have been stolen along with dates and quantities. Hmmm....

AN INTERESTING ASIDE: A surf through suggests that the main vector of Polonium 210 in the the human diet (not delivered by assassins) is caribou, reindeer, & moose meat, and beef cattle that graze near urnanium mining operations. There are also lots of cold-war era articles about Polonium 210 being found in the blood and urine of uranium miners of various countries.

Hacking the Universe?

Sethlloyd An interesting paragraph. (I think Hector's first language is not English, so bear with him. The discussion is a followup on a presentation that took place at a conference in Berlin.)

Dr. Seth Lloyd’s work is very inspirational, and I am in the process of engage myself on a project inspired by related ideas mining the computational universe for uncovering Lloyd’s and others claimings. But I find that his theory about the universe, which by the way I agree with him (even when it seems the contrary) among many others that also think that the universe is Turing computable, assumes no less than any other conception of the universe, which leaves space for continue thinking on evocative hypothesis, including Church’s one while at the same time we achieve to hack the universe.

A Spammer Threatens to Fire Me

Redpill1Bluepill1A spammer threatens to fire me if I don't start buying his pills — for which he promises to reimburse me! This is at least, ah, creative. 

Seems to me like a good opening for a Philip K. Dick novel or the next Matrix sequel. In the novel, I buy the pills and take them, and then reality becomes very strange indeed!

From "HeadOffice":

Give me one reason I shouldn't fire you? You 've been lazy, done crap all, and yes done nothing much of anything lately. Why do I keep you employeed here? Sometimes I wonder. You'd better change your attitude and get to work. Maybe it's your life outside of work, I am not sure, but smarten up. I suggest you start taking something to help you concentrate more and start eating right. I am telling everyone that is on the cutting board to start taking these supplements. I know these work because I have have used them on a few of the others over the past few years. Take them, they work. Otherwise you'd better focus a hell of alot more or you'll be looking for a new job fast. Get the the stuff from the website below. We'll subsidize your cost with a receipt. Yes I am giving you the stuff free when you purchase. If you don't send in a receipt to payroll in the next week then I will have my eye on your performance from now on. Take my advice or leave it, up to you but you'd better start doing things right. . . . Holidays or not, You'd better start doing your job or you won't have one soon. Regards.

So. Do we think these pills are red? Or blue? Or are they the Jefferson Airplane kind?Plate4

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don't do anything at all

What You've Always Wanted to Know About Polonium

Theodore Gray's collection of elements.

In case you're wondering about that rare radioactive element Polonium, which was apparently used to poison ex-KGB agent turned author Alexander Litvinenko, I have just the web site for you.

Poster10x20jpg Theodore Gray, one of the founders of Wolfram Research, is a collector of chemical elements, and just this year did a really lovely poster of the periodic table.

He also has a terrific collection of the chemical elements, portions of which are in his office at Wolfram in Champaign, IL. (I spent quite a while admiring the collection last year, and when I went to take a plane home, my luggage set off the TSA's chemical alarm.)

Theodore Gray with his element collection

In his introduction to Polonium, Gray explains:

Polonium is a dangerous radioactive element that occurs only in minute quantities in nature. Before the invention of the audio CD quite a few people had a little bit of it in their homes in the anti-static brushes that were used to make LP records sound a bit less terrible.

Ah, the good old days!

Gray's site describes samples from his element collection:

Radioactive Sparkplugs.
For some crazy reason, in the 1950's Firestone made automotive sparkplugs containing radioactive polonium. Presumably the idea was that the ionizing radiation would allow the spark to travel more easily, making for better ignition. I think it's a fairly far-fetched idea.

. . . and  Antistatic brushes. See also Jeremy Wagstaff, who explains why you don't want to eat your anti-static brush. But this is Theo Gray again. . .

Antistatic brush.
These brushes, which you can still buy today (2002) are made for brushing static charge off of photographic negatives. The radiation from the polonium element (which must be replaced every year or so because the half life is only 138 days) ionizes the air around the brush, making it conductive and carrying away the static charge. . . .

Continue reading "What You've Always Wanted to Know About Polonium" »

Criminals Take Out Ads

From CNN this morning: Gang takes out ad claiming they are vigilantes

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- A violent Mexican drug gang has taken out a half-page ad in newspapers in which they claim to be anti-crime vigilantes who want to put an end to kidnapping, robbery and the sale of methamphetamine in the western state of Michoacan.

The Family, a shadowy group believed to be allied to Mexico's Gulf drug cartel, has claimed responsibility in the past for bloody killings, such as a September 6 attack in which gunmen dumped five severed human heads into a bar in the Michoacan city of Uruapan.

Those and other heads discovered since have been accompanied by hand-lettered, poorly spelled notes, but this is apparently the first time the group has taken out newspaper ads.

The newspaper El Sol of Morelia, 135 miles west of Mexico City, confirmed that the half-page ad ran in Wednesday's editions.

"Our only reason for being is that we love our state, and we are not willing to allow the dignity of our people to be trampled on," reads the ad, signed "Sincerely, The Michoacan Family."

"This organization was formed with the firm intention of fighting the uncontrolled crime in our state," it reads, claiming the group is "growing, and now covers the whole state."

How, um, postmodern of them. Do they have a web site yet? Podcasts? YouTube videos?

Love the patriotic sales pitch. What better reason to cut off people's heads and dump them in bars than patriotic fervor! (I wonder what the poorly spelled notes said. I have a gub, maybe?)

Why did the newspaper accept the ads, anyway? (Perhaps because of the chance of decapitation if the ads were refused?)

Happy Thanksgiving!

One of the things I like to do on Thanksgiving is watch the Flickr feed on words like "turkey." You can watch other people's cooking progress over the course of the day.

9:19 AM: So far, there is a pic of a family trying to defrost a turkey that isn't fully defrosted yet.

Now. On to cooking!

12:51 PM: A couple of favorite Flickr photos so far: Dog meets raw turkey, and this one:

Here are my own Thankgsgiving pix so far. My turkey is in the oven. I stuffed it with limes plus and onion and a couple of bay leaves. I talked David down from a 20 lb turkey to a 10 lb one this year, so there's not much room in the body cavity.

turkey's in the oven

I'm doing the stuffing separately. The house smells good and we've got a lovely fire in the woodstove.

3 PM: Turkey done:


From the Annals of Internet Voyeurism (Edgar Allan Poe Edition)

November 11th:

Mommy Forever left me. She took the kids too. They’re spending three days at the outlaws, who live 50 miles to the north. It’s really quiet here. Too quiet. And boring. So boring that I scrubbed the shower tiles, mowed the lawn, raked the leaves, did three loads of laundry, picked up the toys the kids left all over the place, and washed the pile of dishes sitting in the sink. That was first day.

November 20th: My Wife Hacked My Blog

. . . You can’t convince me my wife had nothing to do with it. She pretends she barely knows how to use a computer, but now I know better. She’s a closet hacker. I think she’s even writing a book about it, If I Hacked It (not to be confused with O.J. Simpson’s If I Did It book).

There are some things the web reader was not meant to know!

Retrocausality & the Movies

Further to the subject of retrocausality, my dad, John Cramer, emailed to say:

My planned experiment has been concantated with a review of the upcoming movie "Deja Vu" in an article on MSNBC at


From the article:

Over the next few years, some experiments hold out a chance of finally being able to show whether or not time can move backward as well as forward. Theoretically, at least, it might be possible for the future to influence the past, said John Cramer, a physicist at the University of Washington. He and his colleagues plan to try just such an experiment next year.

Cramer acknowledged that the concept of retro-causality doesn't seem to make sense, "but I don't understand why not."

Both Greene and Cramer know the science as well as the fiction side of the time-travel issue: Greene is the author of "The Elegant Universe," a best-selling book on string theory — but he also played a cameo role in "Frequency," a time-travel movie released in 2000, and served as a scientific consultant for "Deja Vu."

"It was a kick to be in the room with [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer and [director] Tony Scott and the writers, talking about special relativity and general relativity and wormholes," he told

Cramer, meanwhile, has done research into ultra-relavistic heavy-ion physics at CERN and Brookhaven National Laboratory — but he's also written two science-fiction novels and pens a regular column for Analog magazine called "The Alternate View." If his experiments show that retro-causality is a reality — that one event can determine the outcome of another event taking place 50 microseconds earlier — it could lend support to the ultimate alternate view of quantum physics.

"It opens the door to doing all kinds of really bizarre things," he said.

Peggy Perez-Olivo

Peggy Perez-Olivo

A teaching assistant at my son's school was murdered. Because she was a neighbor of the Clintons' and her husband's dramatic account of the event, it is all over the national news. My son knew her and says she was a nice lady who sometimes helped him at school a couple of years ago.

I knew her by sight. She knew me by name. I found her picture in my son's school yearbook from last year. She was shot on Saturday and I think died some time in the past 24 hours.

Here is the New York Times article about it: As Victim Dies, a Mystery Grows in Westchester

The scope of the investigation is certain to include a report by Mr. Perez-Olivo, who was listed in stable condition, that said “an unknown male” with a handgun cut him off on Saw Mill River Road and opened fire. But a law enforcement official, who was granted anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the case, said investigators were considering a range of possibilities, including one that the attacker knew his target or that the man with the gun was Mr. Perez-Olivo himself.

Mr. Perez-Olivo was disbarred from the practice of law in August: From the NY Law Journal, N.Y. Panel Disbars Defense Lawyer for 14 Actions.

UPDATE: for those Googling in hopes of a recognizable photo of her, try HERE.

11/24/06 UPDATE: From The Journal News: Disbarred Chappaqua lawyer hits TV reporter in slay case

CHAPPAQUA - The investigation into the mysterious late-night shooting that wounded a disbarred lawyer and killed his teaching assistant wife turned ugly yesterday, as disgraced attorney Carlos Perez-Olivo furiously punched a television news reporter who asked him if he had killed his wife.

The tumultuous encounter took place after Perez-Olivo, 58, spent two hours with investigators at Westchester County police headquarters in Hawthorne, and nearly three hours after state police divers scoured Echo Lake in Millwood for the weapon used in the Saturday night shooting.

. . . Perez-Olivo said nothing to reporters as he left police headquarters shortly after 5 p.m., waving his hands to indicate he had no comment as he walked to Simmons' car. But when reporters asked him if he had killed his wife, Perez-Olivo, showing no ill effects of the shooting, turned and rushed the pack, struck Fox-TV reporter Charles Leaf and shouted an expletive before another detective got him into the car.

Also, the NYT reports that as of Tuesday the 21st, "a family member" had already called Club Fit and cancelled her gym membership. Mrs. Perez-Olivio died on the afternoon of the 20th.

December 2007 UPDATE: Mr. Perez-Olivo was finally arrested and charged with his wife's murder a month after getting into a dispute a month earlier with an Hartford insurance over whether he would be allowed to collect about half a million dollars in life insurance payments on his wife death.

See NYT: Westchester Lawyer Charged in Wife’s 2006 Shooting Death.

October 2008 UPDATECarlos Perez-Olivo was found guilty October 4th, 2008.

And now a message from Our Publisher! Tachyon is Having a Sale!

Year's Best Fantasy 6 cover

From Tachyon Publications:

Timed exquisitely to coincide with the holiday shopping season, we’re happy to announce that our shiny new website is up and running.  All of our books, news, reviews, even a Tachyon blog.  Check it out:

We’re also having a holiday sale on our 2006 titles:   

Trade paperbacks at 25% off - regularly priced at $14.95, now $11.25

  • Year's Best Fantasy 6 by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, eds.: “The 23 stories in this collection represent the cream of the crop of short fantasy published in 2005.” -Library Journal   
  • The Line Between by Peter S. Beagle: “His third and best collection...a cornucopia of delights; mark this as a major contender for Collection of the Year.” –Locus Limited signed and numbered hardcover edition also available for 25% off - $33.75
  • Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, eds.<:“Oh, these stories!... Don't stop until all have been read.” -Booklist, starred review
  • Catalyst by Nina Kiriki Hoffman: “Once you ingest Hoffman's mental soap flake of a book, you can never go home again.”, “A” pick
  • For a complete list of 2006 titles on sale, go to

    And if you don’t like to order online (it’s so impersonal), just give us a call: 415.285.5615.  And if you call and ask nicely, we’ll even gift wrap for no additional charge, and ship directly to your lucky giftee(s).  Let’s keep the holidays simple....

. . . in fact, some psychopaths are very successful members of society . . .

From the Ottawa Sun:

Being a psychopath isn't illegal -- in fact, some psychopaths are very successful members of society, an Ottawa lawyer argued at a dangerous offender hearing yesterday.

Eeeggaaadds! Well, I guess the lawyer is just trying to put the best face on it. I suspect the lawyer did not, however, hold up any specific individuals as paragons of psychopathy.

Nigerian Spam about Quantum Mechanics

Someone in Nigera apparently read my most recent post, because I got a hillarious piece of Nigerian spam on the subject of quantum mechanics:

I am Civ Opopekim, the only son of the late Professor Lawrence Opopekim, of a much respected university in my country of NIGERIA, who was dedicated to the study of RETROCAUSALITY. Upon examining my father's scientific journals, I have discovered a matter of the most URGENT importance to your future (and past) well-being. As most of my father's work has not yet been published, I am counting on your discretion in this sensitive matter.

In the course of research, my father discovered the photons created in his experiments were entangled through QUANTUM MECHANICS with photons found in your locale. Further study revealed the break-through discovery of photon tilt patterns in the photons of your area based on experiments planned but yet to be performed by my father.

Alas since my father was poisoned to death with tainted YAK MILK by scientists from rival laboratories who lured him to GENEVA under the false pretense of a scientific conference, a financial situation has arisen where I can no longer assure the continuation of his research or the operation of his laboratory (it embarrasses me to admit this sad truth).

As a person of science, you are aware that even changes at the quantum level cause universes to take separate but parallel infinite paths. I fear that if I am unable to continue my father's schedule of experiments and therefore cause the photons in your immediate area to not have tilted in the way they already have, the life you have come to know and enjoy will cease to be and you will find yourself in a parallel existence unfavorable to you.

To this end, and for the sake of your past and current self as well as my father's research, I humbly ask you for the sum of US$10,000, which will allow me to keep for father's laboratory open for a time to carry out the scheduled experiments.

As an indication of your willingness, please forward to me your: full name, company, full contact address, phone, cell, fax, city, sate, zip code, occupation, SSN and all the necessary information will be sent to you on the acceptance of this arrangement.

His dad must have been a very important guy! It's not everyone who gets fed poisoned yak milk in Switzerland!

My father, John Cramer, remarks that he will know to avoid the yak milk at future physics conferences.

My Dad Is Cooler than Your Dad: "If the experiment works, a signal could be received before it's sent"

My Dad is Cooler than Your Dad

From yesterday's Seattle PI: Going for a blast into the real past: If the experiment works, a signal could be received before it's sent

If his experiment with splitting photons actually works, says University of Washington physicist John Cramer, the next step will be to test for quantum "retrocausality."

That's science talk for saying he hopes to find evidence of a photon going backward in time.

"It doesn't seem like it should work, but on the other hand, I can't see what would prevent it from working," Cramer said. "If it does work, you could receive the signal 50 microseconds before you send it."

Uh, huh ... what? Wait a minute. What is that supposed to mean?

Roughly put, Cramer is talking about the subatomic equivalent of arriving at the train station before you've left home, of winning the lottery before you've bought the ticket, of graduating from high school before you've been born -- or something like that.

Yaaay for the home team!!! (See also my previous post: Retrocausality.)

SEE ALSO Slashdot. (Daddy's been Slashdotted!)

My favorite blog post on this subject is from Correntewire: Science for Republicans! which first quotes from the article on my dad and then quotes John McCain' electoral regrets:

“We departed rather tragically from our conservative principles,” McCain lamented recently, offering his take on why the GOP fell from power in Congress. He urged a return to what he called the foundation of the Republican Party — restrained spending, smaller government, lower taxes, a strong national defense and family values.

Sorry guys, not this time out. This is just a physics experiment.

My dad, also a publshed novelist,  explains the excitement of experimental phsyics:

Even if this does fail miserably, providing no insights, Cramer said the experience could still be valuable. As the author of two science-fiction novels, "Twistor" and "Einstein's Bridge," and as a columnist for the sci-fi magazine Analog, the UW physicist enjoys sharing his speculations about the nature of reality with the public.

"I want people to know what it's like to do science, what makes it so exciting," he said. "If this experiment fails in reality, maybe I'll write a book in which it works."

Physicists John Cramer, left, and Warren Nagourney work in the lab. Nagourney says he has

(Also, I've added a Restrocausality photoset to my Flickr account!)

Schaller on Cherry-Picking the Election Results

Thomas_schaller In the NYT Midterm Madness blog, there is an interesting opinion piece by Thomas F. Schaller (yes, I did eventually relent and pay for Times Select) addressing some of the stranger post-election blather: The (Fictional) Triumph of the Conservative Democrats:

Two narratives have begun to emerge from the 2006 Congressional elections. The first is that Democrats didn’t win so much as Republicans lost. The second is that the Republicans who lost were beaten by a bunch of conservative Democrats.

There’s some truth to the first one: The election was a negative referendum on President Bush and the Republican Congress, specifically their mismanagement of Iraq, their ethical problems, and their inability to balance the federal budget or refrain from trying to distract Americans public with noisy wedge issues rather than provide solutions to more pressing problems.

But the second narrative is a fiction. And it is puzzling that Republicans and conservatives are the ones peddling it.

. . . Conservative talking heads usually rush to paint Democrats as a pack of tin-eared, out-of-the-mainstream liberals. That’s why it’s so surprising that some of these same voices are now cherry-picking the results in an effort to perpetuate the fiction that Republicans lost, but conservatives somehow won. It suggests that this year’s defeat so stunned the conservative movement, it lost its messaging mojo, too.

For liberal Democrats, that may be the biggest victory of all.

The Republican spin machine is sounding awfully dizzy these days. Guess they need a little while to re-adjust their political inner ear (or maybe just to get over their hangovers).


Political inner ear collage by Kathryn Cramer using appropriated images.

Amazing Pix from Tim Holmen's Orbit Launch Party!


David went to the party launching the new Orbit science fiction line, which was held at the Dream Hotel on 55th Street in New York. He brought home many pictures, of which this is just the tip of the iceberg. Click HERE for more.

UPDATE: See also Media Bistro:

It seemed like nearly everyone in New York's science fiction publishing circles came to the Dream Lounge last night to celebrate the American launch of Orbit, the formerly UK-based imprint that Hachette is grooming as a global player.

New Blog: Life with Leukaemia

My friend Angus has just started a blog devoted to the topic of coping with his small daughter's leukemia while living in an island country off Africa.

This blog relates our experience of living with a small child, our daughter, with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia - we hope it will provide comfort and information to others in similar situations to our own as well as being both therapeutic for ourselves and a record of what will be surely a profound and sometimes traumatic few years for us.

Coining a Word: To Delegofy

Surely, there is already a word for removing large quatities of legos from one's child's bedroom floor or from the living room rug? I'm sure I am not the first parent to spend an unreasonable amount of time doing this. But it seems there is no specific word for this.

So I guess I get to coin the verb:

v. de•le•go•fied, de•le•go•fy•ing, de•le•go•fies

  1. To rid [a surface] of legos.
  2. To remove legos in order to clear a path where one might walk without hurting one's feet.

    To become free of legos.

(Bet you can tell what I was doing this afternoon!)