The soundest base for a diagnosis

So much depends on style, that factor of which we are growing more and more suspicious, that although the tendency of criticism is to explain a writer either in terms of his sexual experience or his economic background, I still believe technique remains the soundest base for a diagnosis, that it should be possible to learn as much about an author’s income and sex-life from one paragraph of his writing as from his cheque stubs and his love-letters, and one should also be able to learn how well he writes, and what are his influences. Critics who ignore style are liable to lump good and bad writers together in support of pre-conceived theories.

Connoly, Cyril. Enemies of Promise. George Routledge & Sons, Ltd. Broadway House: 68–74 Carter Lane, E.C. 1938

New podcast on the U of T divestment campaign from 2014 to 2016

Back in November, Amanda Harvey-Sánchez and Julia DaSilva released a podcast episode for Climate Justice Toronto about the first generation of fossil fuel divestment organizers at U of T. That episode covered from the inception of the campaign in 2012 until the People’s Climate March (PCM) in New York City in September 2014.

They have now released the second episode, which features Katie Krelove, Ben Donato-Woodger, Keara Lightning, and Ariel Martz-Oberlander, and which discussed the period from the PCM until president Meric Gertler’s rejection of divestment in March 2016.

Lives of spies

One genre which I enjoy reading is non-fiction about espionage and counterespionage.

Recently released Cuban spy in the USA Ana Montes is an interesting story from several perspectives, including ideological motivation, tradecraft, and the challenges in countering insider attacks against the intelligence services.


Podcast episode about the early U of T fossil fuel divestment campaign

The first episode of Amanda Harvey-Sánchez and Julia DaSilva’s podcast about the / divestment campaign at the University of Toronto is online. This one features three organizers from the early campaign in 2012: me, Stu Basden, and Monica Resendes.

Satellite to satellite espionage and warfare

One inescapable but confounding element of trying to understand politics, international relations, and history up to the present day is that we don’t have access to what governments are doing in secret. We will need to re-write the history of these times decades from now, if circumstances and freedom of information laws permit historians to learn about the skullduggery of this era.

One potentially important example is happening now in space. Satellites have become crucial to everything from time synchronization for high precision activities to navigation and communication. They also can’t really be hidden. Perhaps there are satellites with optical stealth that are hardly or never visible, but even top secret spy satellites of the conventional design can have their orbits determined by civilians with stopwatches and binoculars.

That is why we know that Russia, among others, has been experimenting with satellites that approach others and can potentially disrupt or destroy them, or monitor their activity. An article on China’s program includes the intriguing phrasing: “non-cooperative robotic rendezvous” between spacecraft. Russia’s Cosmos 2542 is known to have approached USA 245: an American spy satellite believed to be one of the largest things in space.

One can only speculate on how such capabilities are influencing world politics and the unfolding of events.

Arithmetic of power and plutonium

The first pile at Hanford generated 250 million watts—250 megawatts or MW—of thermal power and produced each year about a hundred kilograms of plutonium. A rule of thumb is that a megawatt of fission heat in a natural uranium reactor accompanies the production of about a gram of plutonium-239 per day. About six kilograms were sufficient to make a bomb.

Garwin, Richard L. and Charpak, Georges. Megawatts and Megatons: The Future of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons. University of Chicago Press, 2002. p. 33


I watched the four-part Netflix series on the Three Mile Island disaster and found it to be well crafted and emotionally poignant, though only OK as an educational resource on the partial meltdown.

My technical complaint is that they explain almost nothing about why the accident happened and exactly what took place while it was going on. There is a lot of interesting material on how complex systems have interactions which cannot be foreseen, as well as user interface issues in the control room, which would have helped viewers better understand.

In terms of storytelling, my objection is with how the filmmakers basically set up two kinds of interview subjects: forthright and emotional local residents who suffered, and a few wicked representatives of the industry. They quote dismissive claims about culpability and the accident’s severity from the insiders, while uncritically quoting residents on how an unchecked disaster would have destroyed Pensyllvania or the East Coast. To me this all felt like too much handholding about who to believe, coupled with insufficient reference to credible outside accounts.

I wouldn’t especially recommend the series to either people who know a lot about nuclear energy or those who know fairly little. The former are likely to be annoyed at how anecdote-driven the whole thing is, while the latter may be given a false sense of confidence about the correctness of the view expressed. Unlike the remarkable 2019 series on the Chernobyl accident, this is one that can be safely missed.

For better explanations on TMI, I would suggest Nickolas Means’s talk (which also contains some fascinating discussion about what human error means in the context of major industrial accidents and how to investigate them after the fact) or this Inviting Disaster episode from The History Channel.

The marriage of journalism and intelligence

“One profession that is particularly close to my heart, a profession that can get away with nearly anything,” Wagenbreth told his colleagues, “and this group are our dear journalists.” Journalists with a good reputation, he said, had excellent access to officials with security clearances and business executives, and could even travel through the Iron Curtain without a cover. Intelligence and journalism, in Wagenbreth’s view, had “entered a kind of marriage,” he said. “They complement each other and can’t let go of each other.” The Stasi knew that the press was addicted to leaks, and that scoop-hungry reporters would even publish anonymous leaks; they also knew that it was extremely difficult for journalists to tell whether a source was genuine or fake, and ever harder to tell if the content of a leak was accurate or forged. And it was another notch harder still to tell whether an anonymous leak contained some shrewd mix of both, handcrafted for maximum impact. The symbiotic relationship found its fullest expression in the active measures field. “What would active measures be without the journalist?” Wagenbreth asked the Stasi leaders. “Revelations are their métier.” The X, of course, had the same métier.

For Wagenbreth, more competitive and polarized media outlets presented a major opportunity. “For the man on the street it is getting harder to assess and judge the written word,” Wagenbreth explained. “He is ever more helpless in the face of the monsters that are opinion factories. This is where we come in as an intelligence agency.”

Rid, Thomas. Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

Now the world’s top clothing fibre

I came across an interesting article about the history of polyester, and particularly its rise to dominance with the popularity of sports- and outdoors-wear:

With that technology in hand, Patagonia developed a line of base layers that Smith dubbed Capilene to suggest capillary action. In fall 1985, the same season Synchilla hit the market, Capilene completely replaced the company’s polypropylene underwear. ‘Those two innovations – base layer and fleece – completely changed the world’s opinion of polyester, not just the outdoor industry’, says Harward. ‘It became seen as the high-end performance comfort fiber. Over time, polyester’s success as a performance fiber allowed it to reclaim its fashion luster.

The article is a bit hard on wool, which is better than anything for what it is best at including outer socks, but it’s interesting to read the description about how synthetic fabrics have been adapted for human requirements.