More Junkmail from Bob!

December 30, 2014
Important Stuff.

Fun with Plutonium

Hydrogen atoms have one proton and one electron. However, there are three hydrogen isotopes, having zero, one, or two neutrons. The ones with neutrons can be used for fusion reactions.

plutonium symbol

Plutonium is a much heavier atom. It has 94 protons and electrons, and around 150 neutrons, depending on which of the 11 isotopes you're looking at. Plutonium is a heavy metal, too. It's about 75% more dense than lead, in the neighborhood of gold, tungsten, and uranium.

Density (water=1)


(I didn't realize Platinum was so dense before I looked this up. I guess I figured since it was white like aluminum, it must be light like aluminum.)

Plutonium's most stable isotope is plutonium 244, with a half-life of about 82 million years. It is found naturally in trace amounts. Most plutonium is man-made in nuclear reactors, coming from uranium 238 (the common, stable uranium isotope).

Plutonium 239 is used for nuclear weapons. Plutonium 240 tends to split spontaneously, releasing a thousand neutrons per gram per second, which tends to blow up nuclear weapons prematurely. As this can be hard on military morale, weapons grade plutonium doesn't contain much plutonium 240 -- less than 7%, and 3% or less for weapons stored around people (such as in naval applications).

A ring of weapons-grade 99.96% plutonium, enough for one bomb core.
The ring weighs around 12 pounds and is about 4 inches in diameter.
Its shape helps with criticality safety.

It's not practical to remove plutonium 240 from a batch of plutonium. Weapons grade plutonium has to be manufactured specifically for low concentrations of plutonium 240, by limiting the time the plutonium is in the reactor. This means someone can't make a nuclear weapon out of non-weapons grade plutonium.

Plutonium 238 in the form of plutonium dioxide is used in Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators, or RTGs. The plutonium gets hot and the heat is used to generate electricity. This is handy for space exploration, because the plutonium fuel will last for hundreds of years. RTGs have been used it lots of spacecraft since the 1960's, including the Mars Rovers, Cassini, Galileo, Viking, Pioneer, and Voyager interplanetary spacecraft. Cassini has a little over 70 pounds of plutonium fuel on board.

Some people are worried that the RTGs will contaminate earth in case of a failed launch, but this is not likely to be a problem. First, the fuel containers generally withstand a crash intact. Second, the amount of contamination would negligible compared to, say, any one of the hundreds of atmospheric nuclear tests of the 1950s and 1960s, not to mention a tanning bed. It makes a good topic for conspiracy theorists, though. Once the plutonium is in space, it doesn't matter. The sun produces a bit more radiation from slightly more frequent and slightly more powerful nuclear fusion reactions.

A plutonium fuel pellet from an RTG. The pellet is glowing red because of the heat generated by the radioactive decay of the fuel. This picture was taken after leaving the pellet under a graphite blanket for a few minutes. These pellets were used in the RTGs that powered NASA's Galileo and Cassini spacecraft on missions to Jupiter and Saturn. This picture is from Los Alamos National Labs.

Internet Insecurity

Der Spiegel has an interesting article on the state of government encryption cracking. They refer to the Five Eyes, or the intelligence services of the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. A lot of the information in the article comes from Edward Snowden's leaks.

It's still possible to encrypt your data securely, but most of the things we rely on for encryption will not keep out the spy agencies.

In Germany, the Chancellor and her cabinet use cell phones with strong encryption. I guess Ms. Merkel did not appreciate learning that the NSA had her cell phone tapped for a long time.

Cell phones are not the only way to intercept information. A few days ago one of Merkel's aides found a virus on a USB drive. The virus was the variety the U.S. and British government use for spying.

The German government is recommending that the public use "cryptography -- that is, consistent encryption" for communication in general. I expect it will become more widespread in the future.

Since February 2011, Skype has been under order from the secret US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to not only supply information to the NSA but also to make Skype accessible as an ongoing source of data for the NSA. (If it's a secret court, how did it make it into a magazine? Edward Snowden.)

Microsoft bought Skype later in 2011. The purchase gave the NSA more access to Skype communications. On the plus side, Microsoft is adding a really cool language translator for Skype. It's just like Star Trek!

Today's English Lesson

The World is Falling Apart

Wait, maybe it's not. Slate usually isn't the most unbiased site on the internet, but this article is pretty good.

Learn Something New

You can learn something on YouTube. Numberphile has some interesting lessons on... Numbers!

Kevin Ahern is an excellent biochemistry teacher. He went to the orange OSU (Oklahoma State) and teaches at the orange OSU (Oregon State). You can listen to a year's worth of biochemistry on YouTube: ... ...

Kevin and his wife Dr. Indira Rajagopal have two books available online, and three online courses on iTunes U, all free:

Kevin also runs over a million meters per year, which is pretty cool.


Russia is censoring political opposition in Google, Twitter, and Facebook. I probably won't move to Russia. ...

As you might gather from this, Putin is not overly tolerant of political opposition.

Google stopped offering Google Search in China in 2009 because the Chinese government wanted them to censor search results. Now the Chinese search engine is the number one site in China and fifth worldwide. They apparently don't censor Yet.

China started blocking the Gmail web site last June, around the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. IMAP, SMTP, and POP3 Gmail has worked in China until this week, when it was shut down for four days for some odd reason.

      It's beginning to come back now.

In other censorship news, West Virginia is upgrading the science books of the state public schools to remove the unfair, one-sided position on the theory of global warming. Why alter facts in a science book?

Tom Campbell of the state school board said, "West Virginia coal in particular has been taking on unfair negativity from certain groups." He also noted the coal industry provides much money to the state’s education system.

There was no word of the state's position on the theory of gravity, although several airlines are moving to have gravity banned in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas.

IE is Dead. Long Live Spartan.

Microsoft is finally replacing Internet Explorer. Spartan (possibly under a different name) will be the primary browser on Windows 10, but IE will be included because some Microsoft and third-party applications require IE.

It's about time. Internet Explorer has been getting really bad, and losing market share. The features added to IE are disjoint, the user interface is inconsistent, and it's not practical to clean it up properly and still maintain compatibility with XP vintage applications.

In past years, Internet Explorer market share has dropped significantly. The numbers from major research firms are all over the place. Net Applications is really out of touch, apparently because they adjust the numbers based on some kind of country bias. This may mean that someone's paying them who would like to see larger IE numbers.

On, which is all that matters, here's the breakdown for visitors today and five years ago:
browser share   
Internet Explorer18%50%
Firefox and Mozilla    16%34%

The new boss of Microsoft seems a little more realistic and lot more technically knowledgeable than his predecessor. Satya is fixing a lot of things with Windows and other Microsoft products that Ballmer tried to solve with temper tantrums.


Now that the dust is settling, you can read what has been going on at Sony over the past few weeks. The article below is detailed and interesting. Sony Pictures was a security accident waiting to happen. ...

It's possible to break into some computers in most companies, just like it's possible to break into some buildings in most companies. But most companies have some security in place to limit access, limit damage, and report break-ins.

There was a Denial of Service attack against the Playstation and Xbox networks last week. It was not very sophisticated, although the vendors of DDoS protection sounded like Oklahoma weather forecasters in April.

A small group of people (they called themselves "Lizard Squad") used an illegal off-the-shelf application for the project, and they still made some mistakes.

Now they're selling DDoS attacks as a service.

You can now do your own hacking, for a small fee.

I think it would be fun, but the criminal penalties in the U.S. are a little stiff. You'd spend less time in jail robbing banks.

Virus and malware protection is nice, but it's never 100% effective. Even Ars Technica was hacked the other day.

You should keep a current backup. One of the newer malware scams is to encrypt hard drives on infected PCs, and then require payment for the decryption.

This only works if someone (a) has information worth more than the extortion fee of $1,500 or so, and (b) does not have an offline backup.

Good Reviews and Bad

Online reviews are very important to a company's business. Most companies with an online presence, from eBay sellers to Amazon, make a strong effort to keep customers happy and get favorable reviews.

While some companies will reply to a bad review, a few will actually bill people thousands of dollars for bad reviews.

For example, suppose you take a trip with 3rd Rock Adventures. You might notice this clause prominently displayed in the "Weight Restrictions" section of the contract.

... your acceptance of this sales contract prohibits you from taking any action that negatively impacts, its reputation, products, services, management or employees. Just as 3rd Rock Adventures will not discuss any unfavorable behaviors of our guests in a public forum or post we ask the same in return.
Should you violate this clause, as determined by 3rd Rock adventures, you will be presented with notice and given a 3 day window of opportunity to remove your posting. If the content remains, in whole or in part, you will immediately be billed $3,000.00 USD for legal fees and court costs until such complete costs are determined in litigation.

Of course, this is unenforceable (outside of East Texas), but it's enough to intimidate many people. And it's enough to keep me from considering doing business with this bunch.

Believe it or not, there are other companies using the same, customer-alienating strategies. ...

Airport Security

More than 500 TSA agents have been fired for stealing luggage. Naturally, most were not prosecuted. And it would be a safe bet that some more were caught and not fired, and many more were not caught in the first place.

Baggage handlers are also in on the airport thieving. Some baggage handlers were involved in smuggling illegal guns from Atlanta to New York on airliners.

Meanwhile, I have to take my shoes off before I can get onto an airliner.


Lottery Odds

It seems that lottery winners in New Jersey have defied the odds. Amazingly, the most frequent lottery winners in New Jersey are retailers and their family members. The odds of this are astronomical -- almost like winning the lottery!

New Jersey Lottery representative Judith said, "We have a very thorough and strict investigative process, so we're confident our security team is doing what they're supposed to be doing."


Free Weapons

Last September The Los Angeles Unified School District reluctantly returned the grenade launchers that the federal government so kindly provided them for class room behavior problems. LA Schools did keep some other weaponry, just in case.

Here are some interesting details on the government's program to provide military weapons and equipment to civilian governments and organizations. I'm surprised more people are not throwing major hissy fits about it. ...

Pictures of Today!

Dinosaur, Georgia

Plant, Colorado

Road, Colorado

Great Sand Dunes, Colorado

Butterfly, Washington.
Checkerspot (Euphydryas anicia hopfingeri)

Flower, Washington

A wet praying mantis

Hikers: Gill, Paul, and Kiran

Fiddleback,  Kitchen