Thursday, November 26, 2015


I heard an absolutely fascinating interview the other day (Nov. 24) on Terri Gross' Fresh Air.  She was talking to a New York Times reporter, C. J. Chivers, about his recent article in the New York Times Magazine, entitled The Doomsday Scam.

The subject of this article, and about the first half of the interview, is a substance I'd never heard of:  red mercury.  What?  I'm not kidding when I say that my first mental response to the discussion of red mercury was, "What's its atomic weight?"  Red mercury has been discussed, publicly and privately, since the Cold War - the Soviets were reputed to have it.  Mr. Chivers was unable to find anyone who had ever seen it.  I recommend you to take the time and read The Doomsday Scam - it's absolutely fascinating and Mr. Chivers writes very well.

The theory of red mercury is that it can be used to build very small nuclear weapons.  The following description (excerpted from the article) was written, I'm sorry to say, by an American nuclear physicist who should have known better:
In one edition of his autobiography, he claimed red mercury was manufactured by ‘‘mixing special nuclear materials in very small amounts into the ordinary compound and then inserting the mixture into a nuclear reactor or bombarding it with a particle-accelerator beam.’’ The result, he said, ‘‘is a remarkable nonexploding high explosive’’ that, when detonated, becomes ‘‘extremely hot, which allows pressures and temperatures to be built up that are capable of igniting the heavy hydrogen and producing a pure-fusion mini neutron bomb.’’ Here was a proliferation threat of an order never before seen.
The author of this bilgewater is named in the article, so that's your incentive to read it.

But my second response was:  I've heard this legend before.  Not red mercury itself, but the legend of the rare and difficult to find substance that can confer unheard-of powers on the owner.  It was called the Philosopher's Stone, and it was the goal of every alchemist the ancient world, and the Middle Ages, ever produced.  Here is the invaluable Wikipedia on alchemy:
Alchemy is a philosophical and protoscientific tradition practiced throughout Egypt and Eurasia which aimed to purify, mature, and perfect certain objects.[1] [2][n 1] Common aims were chrysopoeia, the transmutation of "base metals" (e.g., lead) into "noble" ones (particularly gold); the creation of an elixir of immortality; the creation of panaceas able to cure any disease; and the development of an alkahest, a universal solvent.[3]
 Red mercury sounds like a form of Philosopher's Stone to me, although sadly one which is only used to destroy.  We tend to look down our noses at our ancestors, as ignorant and uneducated.  At least their rare and powerful Philosopher's Stone was used to cure and create.  Red mercury is apparently only intended to destroy.  How fortunate we all are that it doesn't exist.

But what is it in the human race that makes us believe in the Philosopher's Stone, or red mercury, or snake oil, or any other substance, just because someone we don't know tells us it exists and we only have to find it.

The Other "Trail of Tears"

Talk about the things they didn't teach you in school.  I went through the California public school system back in the day when it actually taught you (well, me, anyway) to read and think about things.  And I don't recall ever hearing one single mention of this.  But let's start with a question it probably never occurred to you to ask.  Say you are a slaveholder in the pre-civil war South, and you have more slaves than you want.  How do you sell them?

In this article, in the October 2015 Smithsonian Magazine, I found the appalling answer.

Retracing Slavery's Trail of Tears

It's longer than the usual Smithsonian article, but I read all of it. It was horrifying but extremely educational. I recommend we all read it, and remember, so we can not do that ever again.

As I regularly post, if we as a people don't understand who we were, and what we did, how can we possibly avoid doing it again?


I'm not going to list all the things I'm thankful for.  The list is too long, and some of it would sound awfully self satisfied.  Here are the ones I'll admit to:

I'm thankful I can walk.  I put a lot of work into walking again, after all the cartilage in my knees disappeared.  But today I can walk as far as I want.  You can never understand how important this ability is unless you've lost it and regained it.

I'm thankful I married Jim Ringland, and I'll just let it stand at that.

I'm thankful I still can sing, and do still sing with the Oakland Symphony Chorus.  It turns out that most of my really close friends sing with me there, and I'm thankful for them, too.

I'm thankful I managed to keep living in northern California.  There were times I was afraid I'd have to move to get a job, but it didn't happen.

I don't mean to say that life is perfect.  It isn't.  I won't go into the things I'd change if I could wave a wand and make it so.  But it's pretty good, on this beautiful (if chilly) Thanksgiving Day.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


In the wake of the Guardian article the other day ("Airpocalypse now: China pollution reaching record levels"), I was discussing pollution, in the form of the old London "pea soup" fogs, with some friends on Facebook. 

Conveniently, this week's Economist had a review of a book entitled London Fog:  a Biography.  I'm not sure my friends believed the things I said about the old London fogs; but the review quoted some awful incidents that even I hadn't read about. 

This is what happens when several million people at once light up the coal fires to heat their homes in the winter.