Friday, December 15, 2006

Jews on Christmas

A collection of clips, sites, and info that really capture the spirit of the season...for us. Oy vey. Chappy Channukah.
(There is a sound that automatically plays when you load this page. Listen.)

Clark W. Griswold: Where do you think you're going? Nobody's leaving. Nobody's walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no! We're all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here! We're gonna press on, and we're gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye! And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he's gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse!

Clark W. Griswold: This is what Christmas is all about. I'll uh, park the cars and check the luggage, and uh, I'll be outside for the season.

Todd: Where do you think your gonna put a tree that big?
Clark W. Griswold: Bend over and I'll show ya.

What do Jews do on Christmas?

Also, from

A dreidel is a four sided top with the Hebrew letters, nun, gimel, hey, and shin, printed one on each side. The letters stand for Nes gadol hayah sham "A great miracle happened there." (In Israel, of course, the letters are nun, gimmel, hey, and pey, for Nes gadol haya poh "A miracle happened here.")

The dreidel is a traditional game played by children as the candles of the Hanukkah burn in the Menorah, the 9-candle candelabra of Hanukkah. Each player puts a token in the pot: a piece of candy, a raisin, nut, or chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. Then the first player spins the dreidel. When the dreidel stops, the letter that is facing up determines the play: nun indicates neither win nor loss, gimmel allows the spinner to take all the tokens in the pot, hey allows the spinner to take half of the pot, but shin forces the spinner to put one token back into the pot.

The game of dreidel was played throughout Europe in the Middle Ages under various names. The Hebrew letters are probably borrowed back from the Yiddish or directly from German: N(un) for nichts "nothing," G(immel) for ganz "all," h(ei) for halb "half" and sh(in) for stellen "put in." Legend has it that Jewish children living under the persecution of the Persians and Greeks spun the dreidel as they studied the Torah and Talmud, so that their persecutors would think them playing rather than studying forbidden holy writ.

Dreidel is a Yiddish word spun from the German verb drehen "to spin, turn". This word is related to English throw, which originally meant "to turn or twist." The Latin descendant of the same original root is torquere "to spin", the root of our words torque, torture, and torment. In English it ended up as queer, another way of saying "twisted". (Everyone at alphaDictionary wishes all our Jewish friends the happiest of Hanukkah seasons, especially those in Israel, where we hope the Festival of the Lights will illuminate a brighter and more peaceful future.)


Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Ditto Dems

I kvetched earlier about pundits on the right claiming victory where none existed. Dems, that goes for you too. The talk of the left is awash in triumphant, self-congratulating encomia (aside from James Carville's bizarre call for DNC chairman Howard Dean to resign immediately after the electoral victory). As I voted democratic across the board in this election, I would like to remind my new representatives (even though nothing actually changed for me at the federal level, I feel the party should be beholden to me nonetheless) that they didn't win squat. Stop patting yourselves on the back; this was the kind of contest that, if it were a sports game, I would have wished both teams could be handed a loss.

What was the Democratic platform for this election? I paid very close attention to every candidate I could find time to follow, and they all had only one thing to say: "I'm not Republican." Minor variations included "I don't like the war" and "I do not support Bush." Yeah, the Republicans were fools to have hitched their wagon so tightly to Bush, and to have unflinchingly defended our clusterfuck of a war long after that ceased to be a reasonable option. But Dems have inherited an intractable problem that they themselves have made political anathema. They now face a terrible dilemma: they can stay in Iraq and try to win, in which case they will almost certainly face the same wrath of the electorate that Republicans recently did, or they can high-tail it out of there and let the devil take the hindmost. Based on the implied promises of this campaign cycle, they will certainly opt for the latter.

Some may object that I have presented a false dichotomy; we have the intermediate option phased troop withdrawals, essentially a downscaling of the war. Bollocks to that. First, there is a limit to how half-assedly you can fight a war and still call it that, and the Dems' cutbacks promise to be massive. Even if they are not, remember that one of the greatest criticisms of the war, now advanced even by its erstwhile proponents, is that we never had enough troops to begin with. If we maintain a further diminished troop presence, they will hardly be more than armed spectators. More importantly, it is doubtful that the electorate would tolerate even that. Americans by and large want our hands washed of that godforsaken place right now; they want OUT. So while I concede that the notion of a phased withdrawal is valid, I contend that it is purely hypothetical. In actual policy terms, what we choose to do will effectively amount to either staying or leaving. Recall that our hastily-bid adieu to Vietnam was not a retreat; it was a "phased departure." We will most likely do the same in Nam 2.0; declare victory and leave.

I have opposed this war since it was just a gleam in the President's eye, but there is one thing his (former) people got right. Colin Powell said from the beginning, "If you break it, you bought it." Damn right, and we definitely broke it. If I may wax romantic, I do indeed believe that we are honor bound to help the hapless Iraqis who have suffered for our ostensible national interests. Regardless, the care with which we extricate ourselves from this imbroglio is of legitimate concern to national security, far more so than our initial incursion. Lately we have been speaking with powerful nations in the area about adopting our soon-to-be-bastard Iraqi government. Who can we trust over there? No one, of course, but we've been speaking with Syria and Iran. I will write more about this later, but suffice it to say that leaving a vacuum of power to be filled by these two (or even any of their competitors of whom I'm aware) would be perilous in the extreme. Syria is a known, prolific sponsor of terror, with a history of projecting its will internationally; Lebanon has long been a proxy for Syrian-funded terrorists to attack Israel. Syria is also dominated by the Baath Party, and in fact many of Saddam's loyalists fled there when his government was deposed in 2003. They may simply return from exile to reestablish the government whose existence was intolerable. Imagine how dangerous Iraq could be now that even the peons, and not just the ruling elite, hate us.

The same goes for Iran. Its truly evil aspirations were once checked by the rival power to the West. Even if Iran does not grow stronger through consolidating the Iraqi Shia under its banner (which seems almost inevitable), it gains simply from the fall of Iraq, who will not longer be able to foil Iran's most militaristic ambitions.

We broke it. Destabilizing the region could prove far more dangerous than having never meddled there at all. I do not envy the Dems; now they have control and they must be the ones to buy it. They have basically promised not to, and I believe they won't. This is a tragedy.

Our foreign policy may be hopeless, even if the Dems had the balls that I know they don't. But there are plenty of domestic issues that they can fix, and I won't stand for anymore kudos to anyone until they get fixed. Are they going to institute aggressive measures for limiting carbon emissions and funding alternative energy? Fund stem cell research? De-politicize the FDA? Axe the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act? Prosecute warrantless wiretapping? I hope that they will stand up for the Constitution and declare once and for all that this is a secular nation, and that means that nobody's book can tell the government what to do. The stemming of the theocratic tide in our country has much bigger implications than boys kissing, and needless to say, this is just a partial list.

Face it Dems, you are not winners. You are merely the beneficiaries of an opponent so corrupt, incompetent, arrogant, hypocritical, and out of touch with America, you could hardly but win. And, for shame, a lot of us still thought you would blow it. Show us something, and we'll be the ones to hand out the accolades. Until then, you've got a lot of work to do.

Update: According to WaPo, William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution agrees with me on how we should depart from Iraq:

"I think it's important to distinguish between the desire to bring this agony to an end and the consequences of bringing it to an end in the wrong way," he said. "I can't prove this, but I believe Democrats will be held responsible if they are seen as advocating a course of action that doesn't take the consequences of failure into account. We cannot afford as a party to be either silent or blithe about the consequences of rapid withdrawal."


Monday, December 4, 2006

Killer Chemistry

I can't believe that's the best title I can come up with. Anyway...

This post is no longer timely, but I will finish what I started some time ago.

I conceived this blog with the intention of devoting at least half of it to science, but apparently I am much more interested in politics after all. In any case, there has been much ado over Polonium-210 recently, because of the poisoning of a former KGB operative.

First, the "-210" after polonium denotes its atomic mass, or the total number of protons and neutrons in its nucleus. Polonium, like all elements, is defined by the number of protons in its nucleus, so this extra number (indicating that it is a particular isotope) basically denotes how many neutrons it has. Polonium has 84 protons, so Po-210 has 126 neutrons. Many elements have only one isotope, and most that have more than one isotope have only a few. Polonium has many, but here I will talk only about Po-210, the isotope used to poison Litvinenko.

By the way, you may have noticed that the mass numbers used to describe isotopes of scary radioactive elements are almost always above 200. There is a good reason for this, and it has to do with the nature of radioactivity itself. Within the nucleus of an atom there is tension between the nuclear strong force, which binds protons and neutrons together, and the electrostatic repulsion of positively charged protons. The strong force is dominant at short distances, which is why small nuclei tend to stay bound together very tightly. However, as the distance between protons increases, the repulsion caused by their like charges becomes more salient than the attraction of the strong force. Consequently, when a nucleus attains a certain mass, the repulsive forces predominate and it becomes unstable. It can increase its stability (which is the same as lowering its energy) by emitting certain particles in order to achieve a better balance between attractive and repulsive forces. In addition to explaining radioactivity, this balance of forces is also the concept behind nuclear fusion. Nuclei with few protons, like helium, have very little repulsion between them, and thus the addition of more protons does not destabilize the atom. In fact, the atom is more stable with more nucleons, because the strong force binding it tightly together is not strongly opposed by proton repulsion. This is why heavy nuclei like U-235 are used for nuclear fission and hydrogen is used in fusion; if you want to release energy, you split large nuclei or combine small ones.

Back to Po-210. Polonium was discovered by Marie Curie, who did a great deal of the seminal work on radioactivity, and named for her native Poland. It can be produced a few ways from other radioactive nuclides, but Curie probably discovered it as the last (radioactive) product of the radon-222 decay chain, which is ultimately a part of the uranium-238 decay chain. It decays by alpha emission to lead-206, which is stable (i.e. not radioactive). More on what that means shortly.

Interestingly, while Curie did her famous work in her adopted France, Francium was later discovered by another woman, Marguerite Perey, at the Curie Institute in Paris. Apparently, Cheeseeatingsurrendermonkium was taken. Also, it would be difficult to distinguish such an element's abbreviation from that of Cesium (Cs), its close chemical cousin. A lazy element with no known applications and a peculiar odor, Francium is disliked by the other alkali metals for its haughty disdainfulness and effeminate cigarette holder-thingies.

Po-210 has a number of advantages as a poison. As mentioned above, it decays by emission of alpha particles. An alpha particle is essentially a helium-4 nucleus: 2 protons and 2 neutrons. This is a very large particle, as these things go. Typically when we think of radiation, the concern is neutrons (1/4th the mass of an alpha particle) and/or high energy photons, like gamma-rays, which are even smaller. This is important because at the the scale of these particles, almost everything is empty space. The bulk of the volume comprising a single atom is actually just the unoccupied space between the nucleus and the electron shell, so a subatomic particle can easily pass through loosely packed atoms and molecules (like air) without colliding with anything. And the size of the particle determines the likelihood that it will collide with a nucleus; larger particles will collide more often. Thus alpha particles cannot travel far, even through air, before smashing into something and coming to rest as plain-old helium. This means that a pure alpha emitter like Po-210 can be safely handled with very little shielding (paper is sufficient) or even none, because the particles will not penetrate the epidermis into tissues where they can really do damage. This also accounts for radiation screeners' inability to detect Po-210; if the particles don't reach the detector, it can't detect them! (In investigating the case, they have been able to track Po-210 contamination. I'm not sure if they have detectors that are capable of directly detecting alpha emission, but I know that alpha particles can precipitate the emission of neutrons from other elements. In fact, Po-210 is often used as a neutron source to initiate a chain reaction like those in nuclear weapons. So I suspect a better way to detect it is by introducing beryllium or some other metal from which Po can liberate neutrons, and then using conventional detection technology to look for those.)

While Po-210 is fairly easy to handle safely, that doesn't mean it's not dangerous. It simply needs to be introduced to the body by inhalation or ingestion, for example, and will then wreak havoc on the unprotected tissues. There are a few mechanisms by which it causes damage to tissue. First, remember that it is a 2-proton nucleus. This means that it will strip away 2 electrons from other molecules in order to balance its charge. This kind of ionization is usually a bad thing in tissues; it is the formation of the free radicals we have all heard of as potent carcinogenics. Free radicals are associated with the negative effects of aging and the carcinogenic effects of cigarettes. The anti-oxidants we always hear about in healthy and often brightly-colored foods like tomatoes and berries putatively confer their health benefits by neutralizing these radicals. This type of damage may be the greatest concern in chronic and/or low-level exposures.

The other source of damage is the physical collisions of the alpha particles with parts of the cell. This is most harmful in the nucleus, where particles are likely to collide with dense coils of DNA. It's never good when something messes with your DNA, but not all types of damage are equal. Your cells have remarkable mechanisms for repairing DNA, but alpha particles are capable of severing both strands of DNA. Double-stranded breaks are tough to repair; you don't have the other strand to use as a template, or you have very little of it if the ends overhang slightly. Still, our repair mechanism for double-stranded breaks (non-homologous recombinational repair, sometimes called non-homologous end joining) works pretty well with isolated breaks of the kind that may occur naturally in a cell. The problem is that if you have lots of these breaks simultaneously, as with high doses of UV light or other ionizing radiation, the ends of non-matching fragments can get joined. These transpositions can cause lots of problems and eventually lead to, you guessed it, cancer.

In Litvinenko's case, he would have accumulated so many of these damaged and swapped DNA fragments so quickly that they would have immediately begun to affect his cells. You would expect the effect to be most prominent in cells that are highly active and rapidly dividing (which entails replicating their DNA), and this is exactly what happened. His rapidly dividing epithethial cells died or malfunctioned, causing his hair to fall out, and most probably some serious problems with his skin and the lining of his digestive tract. Some people may have noticed that his symptoms were reminiscent of a chemotherapy patient; that's exactly right. Chemotherapy fights out-of-control replication of cancer cells by inhibiting DNA synthesis, and unfortunately this inhibition cannot be contained only within cancerous tissue. Also, chemotherapy is usually accompanied by radiation therapy, which seeks to induce enough mutations in the DNA of cancer cells that they can no longer reproduce viable cells. This is why a substantial percentage of people who overcome their cancer with this treatment will later develop leukemia; the radiation induces the same carcinogenic mutations discussed above in other, previously healthy tissues. In both treatments, the goal is to halt DNA synthesis, either by inducing mutations that are lethal to the cell, or by chemically blocking the process. Litvinenko's death was, in effect, similar to a massive overdose of chemo/radiotherapy, in that it was caused by the prevention of DNA synthesis in cells that must replicate for the body to function.

A few more interesting links: