Monday, June 27, 2011

Nuclear Accidents, Sociology, The Word ‘Bistre’

Before I Begin

I need to follow my own advice. Late this afternoon I went to two kinds of places I know I shouldn’t go and unpleasant things happened in both of them.

First of all, I went to a craft store. Gads, what’s wrong with me? But I wanted a very specific thing—a set of Winsor and Newton water miscible oil paints—and it was such a simple purchase I figured what could go wrong? Ha! At the checkout, the computer rang up the paints for $20 more than the price listed on the shelf. So I caught the error, pointed out the mistake and the checkout girl used a headset device she wears [!] to call someone walking the floor to check the price. Sure enough, the computer price didn’t match the shelf price. So the checkout girl re-totaled my purchase for the shelf price, but told me I was lucky because the computer price was correct. The store can’t coordinate their shelves and their computers and I’m supposed to feel lucky (or, I guess, guilty).

Then—in fact, right after that—I visited a library. [Sighs.] Again, I was getting one specific thing, a book about Ray Harryhausen. I had checked the computer catalogue online so I knew the book was on-shelf. When I got there, however, the book wasn’t on-shelf. A very friendly librarian looked up the title and said, “Well, it hasn’t been checked out in five years. That usually means a patron has absconded with the book.” So, yeah, some patron stole a book and that library’s catalogue which listed the book on-shelf stole two gallons of gas out of my tank.

However something unexpected and cool did happen on the way home. I was stopped for a red light and I saw on the sidewalk next to my car a beautiful woman taking a young girl for a walk. Right next to my car, the woman screamed. I looked over and she was picking up the young girl in her arms and jumping off the sidewalk into the street—because a big garter snake (I think it was just a garter snake) was slithering across the sidewalk from one patch of grass to another. The woman saw me looking at her and we both laughed and both said at the same time, “I’ve never seen that before!”

Suburban snakes on the move!

Anyway. On with today’s post.

Nuclear Accidents

The last time I used this headline it was about Fukushima. Not today.

This is a photograph of the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Station in Nebraska:

Now, officially, everything is safe. Politicians and nuclear experts say the flood waters haven’t inundated the two nuclear power plants in Nebraska and all the safety systems at both plants are functioning properly.

However, around the internet—of course—just about every scale of conspiracy theory is available.

I’m not going to link to anyone because they are all—to one extant or another—kind of crazy. However, I’m going to kind of summarize things from my own points of interest.

The general conspiratorial belief about nuclear power plants, today, to my eyes seems to be this: 1) Some global ‘elite’ power bloc is intent on a vast depopulation of the planet, taking the population down from around seven billion to about one billion or less; 2) Nuclear disasters will provide one portion of the large-scale death toll; 3) Nuclear disasters will be caused by a two-part process; 3a) The Stuxnet computer virus first will infect the control systems of nuclear power plants either alone or along with very high-tech nano-sabotage technologies; 3b) Climate-control technologies will then cause seemingly ‘natural’ disasters which push the physical systems of the nuclear power plants beyond their control range causing fuel melt-downs which cannot be stopped.

All this, I guess, makes sense in a kind of James Bond Villain sort of way. However, so far as I know, there is no way a computer virus can disable all the control mechanisms of all nuclear power plants. And climate-control technologies are, again, so far as I know, just an internet techno-myth.

The topic of so-called scalar physics is all over the internet but I have never seen anyone—either a professional physicist or amateur physicist—ever demonstrate that ‘scalar physics’ is even real! The whole idea seems to be that vectors, or even quaternions, which describe an electrical or magnetic field can be deconstructed into their component magnitudes, their scalar quantities, and those scalar quantities can be manipulated to do just about any magic you want to imagine—project power to a distant point, control the weather, cause earthquakes, create Star Trek-like tractor beams, etc., etc., etc. It sounds cool, but so far as I know, it is not real! It is all a techno-myth with no basis in the real world at all. Nothing.

The only reason I’m paying any attention at all to this is because Japan is a society that really is well-run. I’ve known people who lived in Japan and they tell me that living in Japan is very different than living anywhere else. In Japan “experts” really do know the stuff they’re supposed to know. In Japan politicians really do look after the stuff they’re supposed to look after. And in Japan things in general work.

So it is very strange to me that Fukushima happened in Japan.

Also, although the mainstream press speaks in passing about Fukushima backup systems failing, from the little I know about nuclear power plants, some backup systems are very, very blunt. For instance, heat from an un-cooled core can drive turbines which pump cool water over the core. Even if electricity fails to a plant, there are blunt mechanical backup systems like that.

So it is very strange to me that Fukushima now has (at least) three reactors in uncontrolled melt-down.

I never would have believed that could happen.

If I could have been wrong about that—and I was—then I might be wrong about, say, scalar physics, too.


The mainstream press has done a pretty bad job—to my eyes—covering Fukushima (not to mention the Gulf of Mexico!). That strangeness from the mainstream continues now from, of all places, the magazine called “Psychology Today.”

A sociologist—we are told, in fact, he is “a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow”—writing at “Psychology Today” looks at the nuclear power plant situation in Nebraska and sees it only as an example of modern global media rumor mongering and the power of images:

...When a contemporary disturbance can be linked to a well-known disaster, the public mind churns into overdrive. Seeing these images of flooding and aware of the fire, the analogy was powerful. Flood and fire equal disaster.

One Pakistani English-language online newspaper, citing Russian sources, described the accident at Fort Calhoun as "one of the worst" in U.S. history. The report suggested that President Obama tried to clamp down on news reports and ordered a no-fly zone over Fort Calhoun because of the danger of radiation plumes. Conspiracy claims blossomed, charging that, because of government inaction, residents were in danger of a nuclear catastrophe. Reading from the incident in Fukushima and the lack of timely response from the Japanese power company, the possibility that the administration might underplay the real danger seemed all too real to many. The rumors kept spreading, a spark away from panic.

But at this point this panic has not occurred. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission assured us that there was little danger, insisting that radiation has not been released. Victor Dricks, a spokesman for the agency, recognized that "the rumors have been as difficult to combat as the rising floodwaters," condemning false information on blogs and social media. The Omaha Public Power District wisely placed a page on their website that served as "Flood Rumor Control." The water is slowly receding and so are the rumors.

Not being a nuclear engineer, I have no independent knowledge as to the denials; however, I have read no credible evidence that suggests that the good people of the heartland are in danger. Warren Buffet can breathe a sigh of relief.

Still, the episode reminds us of how rumors are generated. People judge potential dangers in light of what has happened previously. Images speak volumes in organizing how we think and what we believe. People routinely engage in evaluation through what social psychologists speak of as "comparative contexts." A dramatic visual impression primes us to judge images that appear similar through that cognitive prism. Thanks to Japan we know what a nuclear disaster looks like, even if it doesn't. And so as of today the residents of Omaha seem safe and secure. The fire and the flood have spared them - this time.

I hope that’s all correct. Nebraska is only one state away from Illinois and the normal wind patterns blow almost directly from there to here.

The Word ‘Bistre’

Back when I talked to people in the real world, I knew some people who attended the School of the Art Institute and we would sometimes talk about painting. When we used the word ‘Bistre’ we knew that it originally referred to a kind of dark ink.

But we all used the word to refer to a kind of dark, neutral gray created by mixing three primaries.

It was a fun way to sketch/paint because you could do quick monochromatic images, but by controlling the ratio of red/blue/yellow you could make the monochrome a little cool or warm or even introduce little bits of color. And, if you decided to change the sketch into a color rendering you had all the primaries there to mix any color you wanted.

When I look around the internet now I don’t see the word ‘Bistre’ used this way at all. In fact, on its Wikipedia page there is no mention of ‘Bistre’ as a kind of mixed gray at all.


This is pretty strange because when we used the word conversationally everyone just “knew” what everyone meant. ‘Bistre’ was a mixed dark.

Oddly, although I’ve never seen the word ‘Bistre’ used on the internet the way I always used it, I have seen it in one book—and only one book—used exactly as I used it.

In Ettore Maiotti’s “The Waterolor Handbook,” apparently writing from a European tradition, Maiotti writes:

... If you want it as dark as possible add a little Cadmium Yellow to the Ultramarine Blue plus Carmine. If the three colors are mixed in equal proportions you will get a genuine painter’s black, or Bistre. When diluted to varying degress, Bistre will give you shades of gray quite different from those obtained by using black, which produces a dull and heavy effect.

This is interesting to me. I and painters I grew up with used this word, ‘Bistre,’ to mean a “mixed dark,” what Maiotti called a painter’s black, but I would be hard pressed, today, to “prove” that the word ever had such a meaning. Other than this one reference in one book.

I don’t think there is any deeper meaning here. But it is remarkable to me that I often take the internet to be a kind of final arbiter on usage because people from all over the world—different cultures and all that—contribute to the internet’s content. But every now and then some little fragment of reality that I hold to be an actual fragment of reality, seems to have no existence within the internet cosmos.

That’s kind of disconcerting to me. It doesn’t worry me, but it makes me wonder just how good a job—in the big picture, in the existential picture—the internet does at representing real life, since for many people a great deal of the so-called bricks and mortar reality is being deconstructed and people are living much of their life here in this internet, ummm, fabrication.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Writers Versus Painters By The Perfume River

Rembrandt, Magic And Colors Beyond Words

1 comment:

Julz of the World said...

"Bistre" -- this word has been popping up in Maiotti's Oil Painting Handbook as he gives color mixing hints. He never says what bistre actually is although he always says, "as I explained earlier."

A google search turned up your blog and I am thankful that the Internet actually does contain the right information now. What a relief! I can go ahead and finish my perusal of this little book. That term was driving me crazy!

Thank you so much!