The Rice Mystery

Here’s a mystery: why is bulk rice still in such short supply?

I could understand pre-packaged rice being in short supply, because of how the shortages have been created: virtually overnight, everyone has stopped eating at restaurants and relied on cooking for themselves. That has caused a sudden, tremendous, and unforeseen increase in the demand for retail food products.

Bulk grains, however, are not really a retail food product. They are a wholesale food product being sold by retail outlets. Bulk foods come in the same large packages that restaurants buy. If anything, there should be sale prices on bulk rice, because distributors should be trying to dispose of a glut of it, as restaurants are no longer purchasing the 50 lb. bags of rice that my local coop uses to fill the bulk bins with.

But no. Most of the rice bins in the bulk section remain empty as of today. It’s very strange.

It’s Not Taking Long

The CDC is starting to publicly come on board with my predictions about coronavirus.

Note I said “publicly” above. They doubtless have known the awful truth (and know the awful parts left unsaid by them so far) for a week or more. They’re just letting it out in small chunks, instead of all at once, to reduce the shock value and thus minimize the chance of causing panic. A responsible agency really can’t do otherwise, after all.

It’s a Pandemic, People. Prepare.

When the Fukushima Daiichi reactors melted down, I could tell something really bad was was happening, despite the general lack of news stories that something really bad was in fact happening. (The news coming out was designed to give the impression that it was serious, but not Chernobyl-serious.)

Why? Because of how the news cycle happened. Normally, in the case of a potentially serious nuclear accident, one would expect the number of stories about it, and the details given in those stories, to rapidly increase. That didn’t happen with the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Instead, the stories only slowly trickled out, and often were not even on the front page.

Furthermore, facts were appearing in those non-front-page stories that were extremely disquieting to anyone with a basic knowledge of nuclear reactor design and operation.

The big one was when they started reporting that sea water was being used to cool the reactors. Nuclear reactors are precision equipment, operated with meticulous care to ensure outside contamination doesn’t promote unexpected corrosion or intoduce dirt that might hamper their operation. Reactor cooling water is highly purified and closely monitored for contaminants. Yet they were now pumping raw sea water into the reactors “to cool them.”

Sea water is extremely corrosive stuff. A significant part of the civil engineering is coping with how corrosive salt water is to structures. And yet they were pumping this corrosive stuff into a nuclear reactor of all places? The only way that would make sense is as a last-ditch desparate measure.

Moreover, modern nuclear reactors are closed systems: the primary cooling water is simply recycled over and over, pumping it through microfilters to keep it as clean as possible. As such, it is unusual and abnormal to have to add water to them, because this normally means that water is somehow leaking out. A leak of primary cooling water means a leak of radioactivity, since the primary cooling water is in contact with the reactor core and therefore itself becomes radioactive.

Put it all together and it meant that the reactors were leaking massive amounts of radioactivity and were on the verge of or starting to melt down, and its operators were frantically taking last-ditch desperate measures. That was the only conceivable narrative that made sense of all known facts.

Then reports started filtering in (not prominently featured reports, of course, but still reports from reliable and trusted news sources) of privately-run radiation monitors showing elevated levels. More than one monitor was showing elevated levels, which points to a distant major leak of radiation, not a nearby minor one. Obviously, at least one reactor had fully melted down, and was now spewing radiation like mad into the environment. Fukushima was, in other words, another Chernobyl.

At that stage, I tried pointing that out to people, and almost universally got the reaction that I was being a baseless alarmist. When all was said and done, the IAEA gave the catastrophe a rating of 7 on a scale of 1 to 7. The only other nuclear catastrophe to rate a 7 so far has been, yes, Chernobyl.

The overall moral of it all is that news agencies do sometimes act in concert, downplaying the seriousness of a story. Most likely, this is done out of a sense of responsibility on such agencies to avoid instilling mass panic.

The reporting about coronavirus reminds me of nothing if not the reporting about Fukushima Daiichi. Again, we have a story about something of extremely serious concern. Again, the reports haven’t been dominating the front pages as much might be expected: if coronavirus becomes a pandemic, it will by all best evidence be Spanish Flu v2.0, given that the best evidence indicates coronavirus is approximately as lethal as the Spanish Flu was. That’s a really big story. Yet it only sometimes comes up on the front pages; stories about the primary election dominate here in the USA.

Let’s review some of the basics about coronavirus, shall we?

  1. Known: It emerged in China.
  2. Known: The Chinese government admits that over 77,000 have been infected in that country.
  3. Known: China is a totalitarian dictatorship.
  4. Known: Totalitarian dictatorships tend to cover up or downplay news stories that make their countries look bad.
  5. Known: Coronavirus has a long incubation period, which has generally suspected to be up to 14 days.
  6. Known: During that incubation period, a person is contagious, and doesn’t even know it.
  7. Conclusion: Therefore there are likely far more than 77,000 Chinese infected right now, most of whom are running around infecting others, because they don’t even know they are sick.
  8. Known: Quarantines have been based on that 14-day incubation period.
  9. Known: Evidence is now emerging that the incubation period might be longer than 14 days.
  10. Conclusion: There is therefore a good chance that the quarantines will prove to be ineffective, and that coronavirus is already spreading uncontrolled in most of the world (we just don’t know it yet, due to the long incubation period).
  11. Known: Coronavirus has been reported in Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq.
  12. Known: Syria lies between Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq.
  13. Known: Syria is currently a war zone.
  14. Known: It is difficult to know or control what happens in a war zone.
  15. Conclusion: Therefore coronavirus is or soon will be in Syria.
  16. Known: Coronavirus has also been reported from Afghanistan.
  17. Known: Afghanistan is also a war zone.
  18. Conclusion: By virtue of being present in a not one but two war zones, coronavirus is now spreading absolutely uncontrolled.

All of the facts tagged as known above have been reported by well-regarded news sources. The only thing I am doing here is assembling them in one place, in a logical order, and arriving at some inescapable conclusions.

As mentioned before, the closest analogue to coronavirus is the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which spread worldwide and killed between 40 and 100 million people, or between 2.2 and 5.5 percent of the global population. If it happened today, that would be a death toll of 170 to 430 million. That is the most likely eventual outcome of coronavirus that can be predicted using the best available current knowledge.

When (not if, when) coronavirus becomes widespread in whatever country you live in, expect the same sort of severely disruptive total lockdowns of entire cities and regions now going on in China. Expect shortages and disruptions of food and common household goods. The time to start stocking up and preparing for this is now.

Well, Scratch That

An interesting condo was listed for sale on Monday. I immediately contacted my agent up there and requested we do a walk-through via Skype. That happened today, and it still looked interesting enough that I made plans to see it myself the next business day (i.e. Friday).

And now we learn that it has sold already. So be it. I’m unwilling to buy anything sight unseen, particularly after that experience with the mold-infested unit that looked so nice in pictures. Plus while the location was beautiful (on a dead-end street adjacent to a greenbelt), both the street network leading there and the complex itself were bicycle-hostile.

Exactly how hostile was a matter of question, and part of my due diligence on Friday was to ride around on my bike and get some feel for how bad the trip downtown would actually have been. I’m still planning on doing that, simply in case anything else in that area comes up for sale (there’s lots of condos in that part of town).

Ah, well, the search continues.

Correction: Greyhound Is Not Reliable, Either

Let’s just cancel it and blame the weather!

After his first bus was cancelled before it left Seattle (Greyhound lied and claimed I-5 was closed even though the ODOT TripCheck site clearly indicated it had reopened), and his second bus was cancelled in Portland (Greyhound lied again and claimed it was so they could drive through snow areas in daylight, even though in the present cold pattern the snow zones start in the southern Willamette Valley, where his new bus will be traveling in the predawn darkness), I think it’s safe to say Greyhound isn’t reliable either.

I rather suspect Greyhound is choosing to tell lies about the weather and road conditions so they can summarily cancel lightly-booked buses.

That said, it still beats Amtrak (which won’t be resuming travel in southern Oregon and northern California until Friday) in the reliability department

Amtrak Is Not a Viable Long-Distance Travel Option

Sorry, railfans. It’s just not. Certainly not in the wintertime between Oakland and Seattle.

I just saw off a visiting friend from the Bay Area. He’s taking the bus back home. To get here, he carpooled. He had planned to take Amtrak both ways, but both trains were cancelled due to heavy low-elevation snow bringing down trees on the tracks.

In Europe or Japan, that would simply not have happened. Those trees would have been recognized as threatening the tracks and dealt with (i.e. either logged or pruned) a long time ago. Just in case that failed, there would have been safety procedures in place that allowed them to be promptly cleared and the flow of rail traffic restored.

That’s not how things work in the USA. First, the trees were left to grow, unlogged and unpruned. Then when they came down, there were no procedures in place for dispatching emergency track crews to promptly clear the right-of-way. Even if there had been, there were no modern regulations in place that would have allowed rail traffic to resume promptly.

And really, why should there be either? Amtrak doesn’t own any track in the Western USA. It’s all owned by freight railroads, who specialize in low-priority bulk cargo. It doesn’t much matter if low-priority bulk cargo gets delayed by weather for a day or three. If it did, it wouldn’t be low-priority bulk cargo and it would be shipped by truck.

Truck shipping actually does cost a fair bit more than rail shipping. As, logically, it should: labor cost is much higher. A crew of two can man a freight train of a hundred cars of more. Each of these cars can carry more freight than a single truck (and each truck needs at least one driver). Rail’s labor costs are thus much lower, and that’s before bringing fuel costs (also lower for rail) into the picture.

So why do people ship by truck? Simple: speed and reliability. It’s worth paying a premium for shipments that arrive quicker and with more predictability. Rail is where the less-urgent shipments go, and those tend to be large quantities of low-value-per-unit-weight bulk commodities. The two freight modes have specialized themselves to cater to two separate market segments.

And it is freight modes, because the railroads themselves don’t transport passengers. They have delegated that money-losing business proposition to the nationalized Amtrak.

In Europe, the railroads themselves tend to be nationalized, and to have a public mandate to carry passengers. They control the tracks, and maintain them to significantly higher standards than the US freight railroads do. Passenger rail in Europe is therefore a viable, reliable transport option. Plus, Europe is smaller and more densely-populated than North America, making distances shorter (another factor that works in factor of rail there).

By contrast, in the USA, rail passengers are stuck with a skeletal network typically offering only once-daily service, on lines run by railroads that view renting rail space to Amtrak as at best a necessary evil and more typically as an archaism to be discouraged by being as uncooperative as possible.

Even the much-maligned Greyhound is more reliable than Amtrak. Why? It relies on the highway network, and the latter is publicly owned and does have a public mandate to open promptly and provide reliable service to both private motorists and to motor-freight companies.

The recent snowstorms have been exceptional, and did close I-5, too. The difference is that I-5 reopened within ten hours. The delays for buses, trucks, and private automobiles were much more manageable than the delays for trains.

So, while rail easily can be a reliable mode, in the USA, alas, it is all-too-often not.

“Dark Matter” Probably Does Not Exist

For many years, the basic principles of thermodynamics stumped physicists. John Dalton hadn’t propounded his atomic theory yet, so the mountains of evidence in favor of atoms and molecules had not been convincingly compiled, thus the alternate (and correct) explanation of heat being the kinetic energy of atoms and molecules rattling (or in the case of gases, ricocheting) around didn’t exist. Therefore physicists hypothesized the existence of a mysterious substance called caloric, which was said to embody heat; heating and cooling was interpreted as a flow of caloric.

For many years, the propagation of light and radio waves stumped physicists. Such radiation clearly took the form of waves, yet what was waving? Sound waves and water waves involve matter making waves. Yet light travels just fine through interplanetary space. Therefore, they thought, the universe must be pervaded with a luminiferous ether, the oscillations of which caused light to propagate. Eventually Einstein’s theories of relativity obsoleted the need to hypothesize an ether into existence.

Numerous experiments were performed in attempt to detect both presumed substances, all to no avail. Eventually, alternate and better explanations for both phenomena were arrived at, ones that did not involve the conjuring into existence of hypothetical types of matter. However, the critical point is that for some reason, people seem to prefer imagining matter into existence over revising their theories of the rules for the behavior of observable matter.

This predilection explains religious mythology as well as scientific dead-ends. Dating back to prehistory, invisible realms were conjured from the imagination to explain the holes in our understanding of the natural world. Can’t understand storms, the change of seasons, or the apparent motion of the Sun, the Moon, and the stars? Invent gods and a realm in which they dwell to explain it all.

It is reasonable to assume that this aspect of human nature is still with us today. Which brings me to dark matter: it has a lot in common with the earlier caloric or luminiferous ether. There is absolutely no evidence in its favor save how our current understanding of the laws of physics fails to explain the behavior of galaxies and other very large-scale phenomena. Nobody has ever actually detected so much as the smallest iota of this “dark matter.”

The most logical explanation is that dark matter simply doesn’t exist. It is a scientific dead-end that our human nature has conned many of us into chasing. There are in fact some astrophysicists who have come to this very conclusion.

The rub is, so far, none of the known alternate explanations (that do not involve dark matter) have yet proven sufficiently convincing. This may be because the correct explanation has yet to be arrived at, or it may be because prejudice is preventing an existing (albeit not well-known) correct explanation from being well-accepted. I will freely admit I do not know enough about the subject to offer any informed opinion as to which of the two is more likely.

But, based on what the history of not just science but all of human culture tells me about human nature, I strongly suspect that dark matter will eventually be consigned to the same dustbin of scientific history that caloric and the luminiferous ether currently are in.

Lane Splitting Should Be Legal Everywhere

For those who don’t know, lane splitting is when motorcycles ride in the gaps between lanes of stopped or very slow cars in heavy traffic. It sounds intrinsically dangerous, yet is legal in California, and there is no abnormally high rate of crashes involving motorcycles there.

It should be legal everywhere not only because it enables motorcyclists to commute faster (thus rewarding people for using vehicles that burn less fuel), but because it enables better traffic flow for all vehicles.

Motorcycles, you see, can cause inefficient flow in heavy traffic. This is because motorcycles rely on the angular momentum of their wheels for stability, which in turn means motorcycles have a minimum speed, below which they become unrideable. When this happens, the motorcyclist is compelled to stop, which compels all following vehicles to stop. Slow traffic has now been turned into erratically-flowing, stop-and-go traffic.

Letting motorcyclists split lanes prevents them from being compelled to stop and mess up the traffic flow in these lanes. Thus it is a win for all road users.

Junk Statistics

The article alarmingly titled Study: Only two-thirds of Millennials fully believe the Earth is round is junk news. Why? Just look at the question and the choices for answers offered:

Do you believe that the world is round or flat?

  • I have always believed the world is round
  • I always thought the world is round, but more recently I am skeptical/have doubts
  • I always thought the world is flat, but more recently I am skeptical/have doubts
  • I have always believed the world is flat
  • Other/Not sure

How would someone who has a good childhood memory (such as yours truly) answer this question? “Other/not sure” in my case: when I was a young child, I believed the Earth to be flat, because to such a child it obviously does appear to be so. Later on, I learned otherwise, then learned the mountains of evidence that indicate so.

It’s the only accurate answer available. I have not always believed the world to be round, I have certainly not become skeptical the earth is round recently, I have not recently become skeptical the world is flat, and I have certainly not always believed the world is flat. It’s an elementary process of elimination (as arriving at any “other” category must be). I doubt I’m the only one who arrived at “other/not sure” this way.

Paper Matters

Apropos this, it also really helps to spend a bit more per page and opt for a smoother, higher-grade paper that can take toner more evenly. It is not necessary to splurge and use the finest grade of coated paper; simply spending 2¢ more per sheet and getting the next level up from the default paper grade was enough to make for a dramatic improvement.

I was hoping it might, and today I was pleased to learn it does. I’m finally getting the print quality and overall effect I envisioned on the trees booklet I am putting out.

It’s really no big surprise, as advances in paper quality (and the resulting image resolution) were one of the things modern serif fonts were designed to show off.