Sunday, August 30, 2015

My Amazon Review of Craig Nelson's "The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era"

Three Books in One

Craig Nelson has really written three books. The first one on the history of nuclear physics from 1890 – 1960 and physicists involved is terrific. The second one is on the role of nuclear weapons during the Cold War and here his biases show and he leaves much to be desired. The third book embedded in “Radiance” is a history of nuclear power where he emphasizes the three big disasters of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima which highlights the incompetence and the corruption of the nuclear industry. Here he is on pretty solid ground. And he recognizes that despite the disasters nuclear power might in the long run be better than carbon burning power plants.

His history of the science is easy to follow for the lay reader and he draws great insights into the personalities of Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szillard, John von Neumann and Otto Hahn. He is at his best when he discusses the life and work of Lise Meitner who rightly deserves credit for her Nobel Prize work with Otto Hahn in splitting the atom. Einstein rightly called her “our (meaning German) Curie.”  Also of note is his discussion of the coincidence of so many leading physicists and mathematicians all being born in early 1900s Budapest. What was in the Danube at that time?

Where he goes astray is in his views on the Cold War. To him Russia is always reacting to moves by the United States. Yet nowhere in the book is a discussion of the massive Soviet build-up that took place in the 1970s. His villain is Edward Teller, the co-developer of thermo-nuclear weaponry and the instigator of Reagan’s strategic defense initiative (SDI) known as “Star Wars”. His animus towards Teller goes back 1940s Los Alamos and his testimony critical of Oppenheimer during his security clearance hearing. To be sure Teller had his faults, but Nelson goes overboard. Nelson also fails to understand that a less than perfect SDI would have great deterrent value because it would increase the uncertainty with respect to a first strike.

So the way I would score it would be 5 stars for the history of science section, 4 stars for nuclear power and 3 stars for the Cold War portion. Net, net 4 stars.  

Thursday, August 27, 2015

My Letter to the NY Times on Water/Housing Issues, Aug 27, 2015

California faces a housing affordability crisis brought on, in part, by environmental restrictions on development. With folks priced out of the coastal markets, where would you have them live if you stifle development inland?

For the NYT URL see:

Friday, August 21, 2015

Is the Chinese Communist Party Losing its Mandate from Heaven?

China is in crisis. The economy is no longer working. Forget the 7% GDP growth the government mandarins are posting. In all likelihood the economy is contracting. How can it not be with automobile sales, exports and construction in decline? Remember that China is the only country that has never revised its GDP statistics. They make it up as they go along. The recent devaluation of the Yuan confirmed that the economy isn't what it used to be. 

With the Communist Party no longer able to deliver economic growth, its widely publicized effort to prop up the stock market failed and with that billions of dollars have evaporated. 

Further the deadly industrial accident in Tianjin proved to the populace that the government failed to protect the rising middle-class who lived nearby in high-rise apartments. 

It is one leadership failure after another and it is calling into question whether or not the ruling Communist Party still has its mandate from heaven. Simply put, it is losing control. Time will tell, but meantime the global economy will be in for a rough ride.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Red Light for the Iran Nuclear Deal

Last month I posted a cautionary note on the Iran nuclear deal by adopting a wait and see attitude. (See After further evaluation I have come to the conclusion that no deal is better than a bad deal and unfortunately the deal brought back from Austria is a bad a deal and even though the opponents do not have an alternative I believe the United States would be better served if the Congress turns it down in September.

Two new pieces of information have come to light since my last post. First there is a giant exception to the snap back sanctions should Iran violate the terms of the agreement. That exception is that all prior economic arrangements entered into by Iran would be grandfathered in. This means that all Iran has to do is to make long term agreements with western, Russian and Chinese companies and those agreements would remain intact no matter what Iran did. Thus there would be no immediacy to the snap back sanctions.

Second there is a host of side agreements with the IAEA, the deal's "enforcer", that make it difficult to understand just exactly what enforcement regime Iran will be under. For example what will be the notice provisions with respect to inspections, what exactly is the baseline, and whether or not military facilities would be on or off limits. President Obama is relying on a whole lot of trust, but not too much on verification. 

Thus with the enforcement regime shaky at best and with Iran receiving $150 billion in frozen assets to enhance its position in the region, the deal should be voted down. True Iran may ultimately change for the better, but in the meantime the regime is being run by a bunch of religious thugs who shout "death to America" six times a day in their daily prayers. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Fox News and Republicans Put on a Great Debate

We learned quite a bit last night from the first Republican debate of the election season. The debate confirmed that Donald Trump is both a bully and a jerk. Aside from Trump, the Republican field is strong with exceptional performances coming from Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Ben Carson and yes, Mike Huckabee. Both Bush and Walker disappointed because we expect more from front runners. In the pre-debate Carly Fiorina shined and in what will be showed over and over on YouTube she took down MSNBC reporter Chris Matthews in her post debate interview.

Over the longer term Fox News was the real winner. The very tight questioning by Bret Baeir, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace established the network's preeminence in covering the 2016 campaign. They set a high bar and we will see if other network interviewers will be as tough on the Democrats as Fox was on the Republicans.

Monday, July 27, 2015

My Amazon Review of Evan Thomas' "Being Nixon: A Man Divided"

His Own Worst Enemy

Evan Thomas, a pillar of what you would call the “eastern liberal establishment” has written a very sympathetic biography of Richard Nixon. As someone who both hated and respected Richard Nixon, Evans helped me understand the many aspects of Richard Nixon that made him such a confounding personality.

He was an introvert in an extrovert business. He could be a strategic genius, especially with respect to China, and at the same time be narrow and vindictive. To be sure he had real enemies who hated him for his doggedness in bringing the spy, Alger Hiss, to justice. For the liberals of his day that was Nixon’s greatest sin. And Nixon was correct in believing that the press had a double standard by continually giving Kennedy free passes while continually holding his feet to the fire with even the smallest of transgressions.

Nevertheless when Nixon’s “evil” side took over when he ordered his minions to run roughshod over the Constitution in what became known as the Watergate Affair where he was rightly impeached. In this sordid episode we see him seeking into a depression induced paranoia fueled by alcohol.

Although he did not cover himself with glory in Vietnam, his policies that were highly criticized at the time can now be better understood with the passage of time. For example the bombing of Laos and the invasion of Cambodia were, given the circumstances, military necessities.

Evans covers Nixon from his humble beginnings in Whittier, California to his graduating third in his Duke University Law School class where he achieved success by working hard and always being prepared. Those traits became a hallmark of his later career including his success at poker while in the U.S. Navy.

Evans portrays Nixon as a caring father and sometimes oblivious husband to Pat, who he loved very much. We get much insight into his character from his daughter Julie. We also learn that Nixon could be kind when he sent a letter to Thomas Eagleton’s teenage son after Eagleton was dumped from the Democratic ticket in 1972. Both father and son were touched by Nixon’s humanity.

In contrast we see his dark side where he appears to have enlisted Anna Chennault to torpedo the Paris peace talks ahead of the 1968 election by offering South Vietnamese President Thieu a better deal than what Lyndon Johnson had on the table.

In sum Evans sheds a great deal of light on one of the most influential politicians of the second half of the 20th Century and reads very well to boot.

The full Amazon URL is;

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Yellow Light for the Iran Nuclear Deal

The proposed Iran nuclear deal is 159 pages long, loaded with technical issues pertaining to nuclear physics, the inspections regime and the enforcement provisions which if they work will delay Iran's progress towards a nuclear arsenal by at least decade. A noble goal. But, this is very complicated stuff, an arms control pact with the leading state sponsor of terrorism if you will, yet proponents and opponents are rushing to judgement without fully understanding the nature of the deal.

To me it makes sense to wait and to listen to what comes out in the upcoming hearings that in all likelihood will flush out the issues mentioned above. Nevertheless I do have some priors. Because President Obama wanted the deal more than the Grand Ayatollah it is logical to assume that the U.S. could have gotten a better deal. In selling the deal President Obama uses the example of Nixon going to China, but in that episode the U.S. was allowed to establish a base in western China to monitor Soviet missile tests. There is no equivalent here.  But that doesn't mean the current deal on the table is a bad deal. As we have often noted, you can't make the perfect the enemy of the good.

My concerns with deal have to do with the inspection regime where somehow "anytime anywhere inspections" have been scrubbed in favor of a 24 day managed process. We also don't know if the IAEA is capable of conducting a verifiable inspections regime in a hostile environment. And we don't know how the inspectors and the international community will deal with what appears to be small technical violations of the deal. For that matter we don't know whether or not there will be the will to reimpose a full set of sanctions in the face of obvious breaches.

And finally the opponents of the deal have to offer a realistic alternative should they vote down the agreement. Simply put the question is will we be better off with the deal or without it? Hopefully we will be able to answer that question by the end of the summer.