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November 2006

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.

. . . and Agriculture: this naked hippie & his old lady . . .

Ahem. Um. I am informed that a certain member of our immediate family played a naked hippie on Saturday Night Live recently. The YouTube video of the clip seems to have been removed at the request of the copyright holder.

Anyone got a still or a copy of the video clip for the, ah, family photo album?

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!)

Frank Abagnale, the 'Catch Me' con man on the Technology of Fraud

Abagnale_photo From the Miami Herald, a lecture from the Catch Me if You Can con man:

When [Frank] Abagnale, 58, did it more than 30 years ago, the process of stealing someone's identity was simple, if a bit time-consuming. It required going to the county clerk's office, finding the name and Social Security number of a dead child, asking for a copy of the birth certificate and using that certificate to obtain a driver's license. With the Social Security number and driver's license, the financial world was his oyster -- and still is for today's crooks.


''It was all on paper,'' he said. "Now it's all done online. Electronic records just make it easier.''

To illustrate, he pulled up a copy of a mortgage document he obtained electronically about Porter Goss, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. representative from Florida. The Social Security numbers of Goss and his wife were part of the document, though they were crossed out on the PowerPoint screen onstage.

''Technology breeds crime,'' said Abagnale, who designed the birth certificate form now used in Florida. There are ''no con men anymore because the victim will never see them. They can be a thousand miles away.'' While banks and companies lose laptops and other records containing sensitive personal information, kids with cellphones secretly shoot pictures of checks being written in checkout lines of grocery stores. They can blow up the images on a computer and get all the information they need to commit bank fraud.

''Fraud has just gotten easier,'' he said. "I never in my life saw a simpler crime.''

It's interesting that he thinks there are no more con men to be met in person. Obviously he hasn't had much exposure to the subject of Internet dating sites where fraud is rampant and the whole purpose of it is to meeting someone under false pretenses, sometimes just for sex, and sometimes for financial gain. (Dating sites are not my thing, but I've been told Tales of Terror by older single women with experience in that area.)

Further, though, the culture of the Internet promotes the idea of assuming an alias with the idea that this gives the Netizen more personal freedom. But freedom to do what? Yes, it affords the possibility of expressing political and sexual opinions while keeping one's job in an oppressive corporate environment. But as I have argued before, this is a very slippery slope. Teaching people to assume aliases teaches them a way to avoid responsibility for their own actions.

It will be interesting to see how much this carries over into daily life: Will there be a broadening of the use of aliases, not just by, as it were, the usual suspects, but by people who would not otherwise have felt the need of additional personae in real life. And how far will this extend?

Regarding Abagnale, his website bio explains:

Mr. Abagnale was the subject of a major motion picture entitled "Catch Me If You Can", directed by Steven Spielberg with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. "Catch Me If You Can" is currently in development for a television series. The series will be produced by DreamWorks Television.

Food for Thought, Served in Several Courses

This is Year's Best season for us, and so I've been reading lots of short fiction, which ought to give me a lot to say in this space, but instead leaves me sort of stunned. If you have a favorite science fiction or fantasy short story published in 2006, now is the time to tell me about it.

Mathlove800_1 One thing I found out about this weekend is Rudy Rucker's podcast of his fine story, "Chu and the Nants" published in  Asimov's. I told David about it and he was pleased I liked it because it is part of Rudy's next novel, Postsingular, which David is publishing at Tor in a year. Meanwhile, Rudy's new novel, Mathematicians in Love, just came out. Put it on your Christmas list.

On a not entirely unrelated topic, I have been surveying the Nerdosphere for worthy math and computation-related blogs, and have noticed the interesting phenomenon that there is a new generation of math and physics grad students who blog. Most of these are very low traffic sites  that would raise hardly a blip on the Technorati rankings, but seem to me indicative of an interesting technological shift.

Historically, physicists were among the first to have web sites (my father had the second in the State of Washington), however scientists have been a bit slower to embrace blogs than they were the web as such. When I've had more time to survey them, I may provide more targeted links.

Here are some blogs that caught my attention while I was surfing for math and math-related blogs:

  • Cellular Automata in Bio-Medicine by Prof. Gershom Zajicek M.D.who is "exploring ways to boost healing processes in a diseases, and particularly in cancer."
  • Anima ex Machina: (has an interesting pic of my friend Kovas presenting a paper last week)
  • Gooseania: My friends invited me over for dinner on Tuesday, just after my theorem was pronounced dead and so I immediately rejected their offer, worried that I'd better get working on something new.
  • NeverEndingBooks: A very pretty blog. The author has two categories for his posts: On Topic and Off Topic, and . . .
  • Backreaction, the blog of Canadian theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder and Stefan Scherer, a physicist who now works in scientific publishing in Germany.

Further to the subject of data, I've had a look at David Sifry's much discussed State of the Blogosphere post. The part I found most interesting  is the discussion of splogs and how Technorati deals with them.

. . . some of the new blogs in our index are Spam blogs or 'splogs'. The good news is Technorati has gotten much better at preventing these kinds of blogs from getting into our indexes in the first place, which may be a factor in the slight slowing in the average of new blogs created each day.

The spikes in red on the chart above shows the increased activity that occurs when spammers create massive numbers of fake blogs and try to get them into our indexes. As the chart shows, we’ve done a much better job over the last quarter at nearly eliminating those red spikes. While last quarter I reported about 8% of new blogs that get past our filters and make it into the index are splogs, I’m happy to report that that number is now more like 4%. As always, we’ll continue to be hyper-focused on making sure that new attacks are spotted and eliminated as quickly as possible.

This relates to something I have been worrying a bit about lately, which is astroturf blogs in quantity founded for an unpleasant and possibly illegal, though not commercial, purpose. I won't link to the example of the phenomenon I have in mind, because that would give them traffic.

If, for example, sometime in the near future, a cult were to order its members to all found blogs to attack a particular individual or institution, how would search engines like Technorati or Google react? Would this be seen as covered by freedom of expression, or would it be seen as analogous to to the founding of many erection-enhancement pill blogs? How will this be dealt with? Could offending an organization with fanatical members ruin your reputation on the web permanently? Or is this something that people like Dave Sifry will have to start monitoring? 

And, if it were happening now, and you were to know about it, what would you be able to do about it? 

And what if you were a target?  What would you do?

Write to Dave Sifry? Call the FBI? Hire an attorney? Hire a publicist? How relevant and enforceable are, for example, the cyberstalking laws?

Food for thought.

...then there is the potion involving camphor oil in the bathroom and the devil mask glued to the dishwasher...

Last week, David was out of town at the World Fantasy Convention in Austin on a day when I had three hours worth of conference calls and my son had been sent home sick from school. We have portable phones, and so I was walking around trying to keep up with the kids while I was on the phone. But this effort was not entirely successful. The following is a series of emails I send David that evening:

6:42 PM: Peter came home sick. Will probably be home tomorrow because he had a low fever at school. 3 hours+ phone conferences  . . . Kids fighting. Put in jamas. Will feed them soup soon.

6:44 PM: Oh, and someone ground all the bay leaves in the house in the spice grinder and Elizabeth just tried to roast a lollipop on a light bulb.

6:54 PM: Oh, and Belinda [the cat] is apparently the culprit with the spice grinder, at least as told by Liz. And then there is the potion involving camphor oil in the bathroom and the devil mask glued to the dishwasher. . . .

Now that a week has gone by, I am better able to see the humor in the situation. (Don't try this at home!)

Hand out the garlic, grab the crosses, and hope for the best: A review of Snakes in Suits

006083772101_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_v54208143_Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work  by Paul Babiak & Robert D. Hare, Regan Books, 2006

I love this book. I read it in one sitting, more or less. I started reading it just after I cleared security at White Plains Airport and finished the last page as I touched down at my destination.

Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare is marketed and mostly reviewed as a business book on the problem of psychopathy in the workplace. For example MSNBC’s excerpt, coordinated with the authors’ appearance on the Today Show, is headlined “Snakes in Suits unmasks corporate psychos.” But what the book has to say is much more generally applicable and translates well to the larger context of daily life.

Snakes in Suits takes us beyond the stereotypes about psychopaths that emerge from news coverage focusing on serial killers, and from horror novelists’ attempts to delve into that same material. The psychopaths portrayed and profiled in this book for the most part do not kill people and are not in jail. And this last is one important reason why you should read this book: Most of us in daily life do not have the opportunity to interview cannibals, as do some of those who specialize in the profiling of the criminally insane. If and when we meet a psychopath, it is much more likely to be at a cocktail party than in a death row jail cell. So the literature of the profiling of criminal psychopaths, with its talk of organized vs. disorganized crime scenes and such, is not likely to be all that helpful. In contrast, the psychopaths of Snakes in Suits are presented in much more familiar settings and contexts.

In the book’s preface, the authors explain why psychopaths often excel at talking their way through job interviews: They can be very charming, often possesses a disarming charisma, and tend to be skilled at social manipulation. (xi) Their “appearance of confidence, strength, and calm” makes them seem right for the job and make them stand out among other candidates. (xii) These same traits can also make them shine in other social contexts like parties or conferences or stand out as attractive in context like dating web sites or Internet discussion lists.

Hare is the author of a checklist of indicators of psychopathy, the Hare Psychopath Checklist—Revised (PCL-R), and so the book’s definition of psychopath is quite concise. While the book vividly describes the traits of psychopaths, the authors’ repeatedly emphasize that the term is a diagnostic category to be applied by a professional, and that while we may observe psychopathic traits in others (or in ourselves) this does not mean that the person in question is truly a psychopath, and so they caution against the broad application of the term.

Some of the characteristics of psychopaths I found interesting in this section were these: That the aggression and violence of psychopaths tends to be “instrumental”, i.e. a means toward an end, rather than impulsive (18). That “psychopaths are without conscience and incapable of empathy, guilt, or loyalty to anyone but themselves.” (19) That psychopaths often live a parasitic lifestyle (20) and are often liars who will lie about even the most inconsequential things. (21)

One of the most interesting, from the standpoint of literary characterization of psychopaths, is that they tend to manifest a semantic aphasia:

[Hervey] Cleckly  . . . noted that psychopaths use language somewhat differently than other people; their sentence structure, choice of words and tempo (or beat) were different. (22)

The authors describe this further a little later in the book:

. . . many psychopaths come across as having excellent oral communication skills. In many cases, these skills are more apparent than real because of their readiness to jump right into a conversation without the social inhibitions that hamper most people.  They make use of the fact that for most people the content of the message is less important than the way it is delivered. A confident, aggressive delivery style—often larded with jargon, clichés, and flowery phrases—makes up for the lack of substance and sincerity in their interactions with others. (38)

If this sounds like your new best friend, watch out! As the authors remark further down the page, psychopaths are “social chameleons” (38) which makes them “a near-perfect invisible human predator.” (39)

However, psychopathy is also a type of personality disorder, and so while psychopaths are in many ways very versatile, people with personality disorders tend to have “a limited range of ‘solutions’” to life’s problems. (40) So they also lack flexibility and the ability to change that people without personality disorders have.

A psychopath’s targeting of his victim goes through three phases: the Assessment Phase (43), the Manipulation Phase (48), and the Abandonment Phase (53). There are some interesting remarks along the way as the authors describe these phases. For example, in the discussion of the Assessment Phase:

. . . the psychopath is constantly sizing up the potential usefulness of an individual as a source of money, power, sex, or influence. People who have power, celebrity, or high social status are particularly attractive. (44)

In this section the authors’ also discuss the attractiveness of emergencies and disasters to psychopaths, who can find opportunities in the confusion: “psychopaths remorselessly use other people even when able-bodied and capable of supporting themselves.” (46) They also remark on psychopath’s attraction to life on the edge: “there is evidence that psychopaths need considerable novel stimulation to keep from becoming bored.” And here’s another notable line: “Sometimes their sense of superiority is so great that they say they are conferring a gift by letting their victims support them.” (48)

And so, on to the Manipulation Phase:

Following identification of individuals who may be useful to them, psychopaths begin to create a shroud of charm we have labeled the psychopathic fiction. This is the beginning of the manipulation phase.

The first goal here is to gain the trust of the individual through ingratiation and various impression-management techniques. (48)

The psychopath’s lack of social anxiety makes him more believable:

Unencumbered by social anxieties, fear of being found out, empathy, remorse, or guilt—some of nature’s brake pedals for anti-social behavior in humans—psychopaths tell a tale so believable, so entertaining, so creative, that many listeners instinctively trust them. (50)

And then comes the Abandonment Phase:

Once the psychopath has drained all the value from a victim—that is, when the victim is no longer useful—they abandon the victim and move on to someone else. (53)

The creepiest section of the book, and one of the most engaging as well, is the description of the “Psychopathic Bond” (pp. 74-79) in which the authors describe how the psychopath convinces his target that he is exactly the friend or lover the target has been looking for, that all secrets are safe with him:

Those who have been in long-term relationships with psychopaths describe them as the supreme psychologist or mind reader. The more they interacted wit the psychopath, the more they felt mesmerized by the facade. Many referred to their psychopathic partners as “soul mates” and reported how much they believed they had in common with the psychopath. It is even more disturbing to hear some victims’ reports—once they have been cut loose during the abandonment phase—that they miss the relationship and want the psychopath back in their lives. It is very difficult to believe that the relationship never really existed. (79)

The author’s describe a number of different roles a psychopath’s targets and victims can fulfill for the psychopath. Particularly memorable is the character of “Dorothy,” a bright young woman who ends up doing all the real work for a corporate psychopath, “Dave,” that gives him the credibility to rise within the organization.

"The whole idea, from concept to action plan, even the executive committee proposal presentation, was Dorothy's work. Dave just tapped into her and took her ideas as his own." (293)

Images_1"Dave." meanwhile, had been complaining about "Dorothy"'s job performance.

Other “Roles in the Psychopath’s Drama” are “Pawns, Patrons, and Patsies.” (Chapter 6)

Later in the book, the various scenarios begun earlier play themselves out, and the authors try to give their business audience practical advice on how to keep psychopaths out of their organizations. Then they give advice to individuals on how to unravel a psychopath’s complex web.

The book is most notable for its description of the problem rather than for its proposed solutions. How many people it will save from the malign influence of psychopaths, I don’t know. But at very least, once people have been through it, it will help them understand what happened to them.

But that is indeed the nature of the beast: The psychopath is our real life nosferatu. Hand out the garlic, grab the crosses, and hope for the best.

Geoff & Annie on Halloween

On Halloween Night, after trick-or-treating, the kids conked out and went to sleep. I stayed home with them, and David went down to Jackson & Wheeler in the center of Pleasantville, to hear Geoff Hartwell & his band at Geoff's Blues Jam, held at Jackson & Wheeler every Tuesday night. Geoff and Annie, his girlfriend, wore spectacular costumes:


Photo by Kim Galibert.

Henry Gee has posted his novel online

Nature Editor Henry Gee writes:

Vonda McIntyre (thanks Vonda!) told me of Andrew Burt's site where you can post novels, stories, items of nonfiction -- indeed, any writing -- and I chose to take advantage of it by posting a novel and a short story.

The first is a novel, The Sigil. The second is a short story, Iko-Iko.

To read The Sigil, visit

To read Iko-Iko, visit

I have posted them for free, as I am more interested in knowing what people think of them than making any money (yet). I hope you enjoy them.


So after deciding I wasn't going to dress up, on a last-minute whim right before taking the kids trick-or-treating, I transformed myself into the Statue of Liberty. I'm told by our neighbors that the costume worked really well in the dark with me holding up a candle (I couldn't find any of our flashlights).


IMG_6350.JPGMy son Peter cycled through an endless variety of mix and match superhero and science fiction character costume parts, so I can't rightly say what he ended up being for Halloween.

Elizabeth had a similar impulse (as shown in this picture from last week). She was "Ariel with wings" as in the Disney mermaid, but with butterfly wings. She also deployed this foam rubber hand on a long handle, that I think is intended for washing one's back in the shower, as her "seahorse." (Not shown)

It being the morning of November 1st, we are currently in discussion of whether candy is a suitable breakfast food.

Liz as Ariel with wings on her birthday.