Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Patriotic Millionaires mix it up with Orrin Hatch

I am a "member" of a "group" called Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength. The reason I put the words in scare quotes is that nothing binds us together except for the fact that we've all signed a letter to the powers that be in Washington urging them to raise taxes on the rich (which is us) in order to reduce the budget deficit. This apparently got the attention of Senator Orrin Hatch who felt the need to lecture us about the fact that we can make voluntary contributions to the government:

For those that are interested in making voluntary contributions to pay down the national debt, the process is both easy and advantageous. Federal law authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury to accept conditional gifts to the United Stales for the purposes of reducing the public debt. Individuals can go to ihe website where they are able to make a tax deductible charitable contribution to pay down the public debt.

I'm proud to have been the principal drafter of a response to Senator Hatch. I reproduce it here in its entirety:

Dear Senator Hatch:

Thank you for your letter of April 20. With all due respect, you appear to be laboring under a number of misapprehensions. On behalf of the "so‐called" (your words) Patriotic Millionaires we would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight.

First, we are well aware that making voluntary contributions to reduce the deficit is an option that is open to us. That you seem to think reminding us of this is a constructive contribution to this serious debate indicates that you have missed the point. In our democracy, individual citizens do not get to pick and choose what government spending to pay for. You and your colleagues over the past decade have voted for vast outlays that many of us as individuals might not agree with. Nonetheless, we recognize our responsibility as citizens to pay for these expenditures, which were authorized by our elected representatives, and are therefore ultimately our collective responsibility. That is an intrinsic part of living in a democracy: you don't get to opt out.

But letting people opt out is precisely what you are suggesting with your proposal of paying down our debt with voluntary contributions. In World War II, when we faced great challenges as a nation, we didn't ask for voluntary contributions to pay for the war, or ask only those who supported the war to contribute. We had high taxes during the war, and high taxes to pay down the debt, afterward. Today, we benefit from that fiscal discipline. But we are undoing those benefits to society by cutting taxes on the wealthy at the same time we face enormous expenses and are carrying enormous debt. We need all of the above to address this problem, just as we have done in the past.

During World War II, we even resorted to rationing to share the burden of war more equally. Who is paying the burden of war, today? Our less privileged, who fight and die in disproportionate numbers, and our future generations, who will bear the burden of the debt. We think that is shameful.

We are ready to step up to the plate with a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good but we are not willing to make that sacrifice in vain, which it surely would be if we followed the course that you suggest. You even point this out yourself in your letter when you note that "the Bureau of Public Debt recorded only $3.1 million in gifts in 2010." We have been more fortunate than most people, but we are a very small group. If there were even the remotest chance of making a noticeable dent in the problem by acting alone we would have done it already. But we are a few dozen people in a nation of over 300 million facing a debt measured in the tens of trillions. To suggest that we try to tackle this problem by making individual contributions is, frankly, insulting. It is like suggesting to someone expressing a desire to serve their country by bearing arms that they buy a rifle and a plane ticket to Afghanistan. Some problems are too big to be solved except through collective effort and shared sacrifice, and this is one of them.

Second, you write: "this debt crisis is not caused because we tax too little. It is caused because our nation spends too much." This is quibbling over semantics. Deficits result when spending exceeds receipts. Whether that happens because spending is too high or receipts are too low is a matter of perspective and priorities.

In 1977 when you first became a Senator, the U.S. National Debt was approximately $700 billion – that’s with a B ‐ or 36% of then‐GDP. At the end of 2008, before Barack Obama came to the White House, the National Debt ballooned to almost $10 trillion – that’s with a T ‐ and about 70% of 2008 GDP (OMB). While there are different opinions as to how this happened, the National debt did not creep up on us suddenly. The spending that led to such debt resulted from the collective actions of Senators and House Representatives, including you.

It is true that government spending levels are at historic highs, but it is also true that tax rates (and hence receipts) are at historic lows in terms of percentage of GDP. It is the combination of these two factors that has taken us from surplus to near‐catastrophic deficits in a mere decade.

Third, you cite Kevin Williamson's argument that "a public school administrator earning $130,000 married to a pharmacist earning $125,000 a year is rhetorically lumped together with millionaires and billionaires." That may be, but it is Williamson doing the rhetorical lumping, not us. We have urged the President to raise taxes only on people earning over $1 million a year, so Williamson's argument is a complete non‐sequitur. But even under the most aggressive plan currently on the table, Williamson's hypothetical couple would pay zero additional taxes, as deductions and exemptions would reduce their taxable income to well below $250,000.

Finally, we would like to remind you of two historical points. The first is that the Constitution of the United States of America was established for the express purpose of "promot[ing] the general welfare" and not just the welfare of the rich and powerful. Over the last ten years we, the signatories of the PM letter, have done very well, in no small measure because we benefited from public education, government services, a civil society, and world‐class infrastructure, all provided by the government. However, our good fortune has not been shared by the vast majority of our fellow citizens and since our success has been supported by the general public, we feel an obligation to pay back.

The second historical point is that we have faced a crisis like this before. In the early 1990's we successfully addressed a similar crisis through a combination of tax increases and spending cuts. As a result, in 2000 we were not debating how to address a debt crisis, but rather how best to dispose of a budget surplus. It is also worth noting, as a matter of historical fact, that we reached this happy state of affairs through a bipartisan effort involving a Democratic president and a Republican Congress. This makes us fundamentally optimistic that the problem we face today is surmountable.

You close by expressing concern about raising taxes on us "during a vulnerable economic recovery." It is precisely because we do not want this problem solved solely on the backs of the most vulnerable that we have asked the President to call us to our duty. To him and to you we say again: raise our taxes. We can take it.

A comedy of political errors

The White House has "released" (you'll see why I put that word in scare quotes when you follow the link) the long form of his birth certificate. Donald Trump immediately took credit for "hav[ing] played such a big role in hopefully getting rid of this issue." The CSM gives the win to Trump, saying, "In politics, anytime you force an opponent to react to you, as opposed to talk about what they want to talk about, you’ve often scored a point."

The CSM is right, but it overlooks one important point: this will not get rid of the issue. It will only fan the flames higher. There is a reason that conspiracy theories have "conspiracy" as a prominent part of their name. They are impervious to facts because "facts" can be manufactured. You don't even have to try very hard to concoct a birther-friendly explanation of the alleged long-form birth certificate. For starters, the White House did not release the document in a sane format, like an image of a PDF. They "released" it as an Adobe Flash file. So you can't look at the whole document, you can only peer at it through a teeny weeny little window. Yes, you can zoom in and out and pan around, but if you zoom in far enough to be able to read the text you can only see a tiny part of the document. Why did they do this? Obviously there can only be one "reasonable" explanation: the White House is desperately trying to conceal the fact that the document is a forgery.

So yes, Trump scored a point by making the President react. But then he conceded the game by implicitly accepting the document as legitimate! You can't have it both ways. Either you're playing for the loons or you aren't. Switching horses in mid-stream is political suicide. Trump already lost all the sane people when he signed on as a birther in the first place, but now he will lose the birthers too because he's become part of the conspiracy!

This is Trump's greatest weakness: he can't stop himself from gloating over a victory. It just cost him the White House.

[Update] Turns out they released it as a PDF too. But of course that won't matter either, they'll just come up with some other story.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Is it Lisp or is it me?

John D. Cook writes:

I’m skeptical when I hear someone say that he was able to program circles around his colleagues and it’s all because he writes Lisp. Assuming such a person accurately assesses his productivity relative to his peers, it’s hard to attribute such a vast difference to Lisp (or any other programming language).


There are genius programmers who write Lisp, and Lisp may suit them well. But these same folks would also be able to accomplish amazing things in other languages.

As someone who has specifically gone on the record saying pretty much exactly that (more than once) I feel the need to refute this claim.

Since the argument is based on the premise that I was in fact more productive than my peers, I have to toot my own horn a bit more than I'm generally comfortable with. I spent twelve years of my early career at the Jet Propulsion Lab during which time* I was promoted to the rank of Principal, the highest rung on the technical career ladder. I think it's safe to say that I did not achieve this through my sparkling personality, my willingness to brown-nose, or my finely honed political skills. In fact, looking back on it, I think at one time or another I managed to alienate about 90% of the people I came in contact with. So the only reasonable explanation of the fact that I was promoted instead of fired was that I produced results.

That still leaves open the possibility that I'm just freakin' brilliant, I could have (and would have) produced the same results in any old programming language. But there is actual data to refute that theory.

First, when I was at Google I got to see firsthand what real coding genius looks like, and it ain't me. There were dozens of people at Google who could code so fast and so effectively that it literally left me slack-jawed. My colleagues regularly did things that I would not have even thought possible had I not seen them with my own eyes.

Second, when I tried to learn to do what they were doing, I failed miserably. I tried to wrap my brain around Java and C++ and I just couldn't. I found myself so frustrated by the fact that I had to manually worry about a zillion little details that I could just ignore if I were using Lisp that I got a mental wedgie and I just couldn't get past it. I'd get bogged down in protection faults, STL errors that scrolled off the top of the screen, the fetid cesspool that is Perl, and get so frustrated that I just couldn't make any progress.

Third, I'm not the only one this has happened to. When I was working on the remote agent experiment an attempt was made to port part of that code (the planner) from Lisp to C++. After a year that effort had to be abandoned because the planner team just couldn't make it work. So it's not just me.

Fourth, it's just seems obvious from first principles that it you're using a language where you don't have to worry about memory management, you're going to get things done quicker and more reliably than a language where you do.

It is because of all this that I attribute my own success more to Lisp than to my personal coding prowess.

This is not to say that Lisp is a panacea. I do believe in the Lisp curse that the power of the language is in some respects self-undermining because it empowers the individual and so tends to attract people who don't work well in teams. A team of competent programmers willing to put up with bullshit will out-compete a lone wolf striving for elegance no matter how brilliant he is. It's sad, but that's the way it is.

[*] To be strictly accurate, after 12 years I was a Senior, one rung below Principal. I then left for a year to work at Google, and when I returned I was re-hired as a Principal.

Friday, April 22, 2011

New startup rule: revenue pages should get top priority

My world, along with that of a zillion other geeks, came crashing down around me about 24 hours ago when Amazon Web Services went down and took Reddit down along with it. Things are slowly returning back to normal, but at the moment only paid Reddit Gold members are being allowed to log in. I've actually been meaning to sign up for Gold for a while just on general principle because I like Reddit and want to see it continue to thrive, so this seemed like as good a time as any. Unfortunately, it turns out that to sign up you have to log in. Catch-22.

So... if you're doing an on-line startup, you should build it in such a way that the revenue path stays up no matter what, or at least is absolutely the last thing to go. You never know when or why people might want to give you money. You should never make it impossible for them to do so.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Articles on the web need to be prominently dated

During my morning read-through of the day's news I ran across this link pointing to a Washington Post article disclosing the existence of what are essentially secret police operations conducted by the FBI without a court order. Naturally my blood began to boil and I dashed off an indignant blog post. Only after I published the post and it had been up for a while did I notice that the article was from 2007.

This is one of the problems with digital media. Back when newspapers were on paper it was easy to tell if an article was old: the paper would be yellow and frayed. There are no such cues on the web. Every article is as pristine as the day it was written, so unless there are some obvious stylistic cues there is no way to tell when a particular article was written unless it is dated. And even if it is dated, can you really trust the date?

The web really needs some infrastructure for producing reliable and prominent timestamps.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A split-brain experiment

My sister pointed me to this video about a particularly interesting split-brain experiment. In these experiments, the corpus collosum, the bundle of nerves that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, is surgically severed, usually as a treatment for severe epilepsy. The result is literally two separate brains residing in the same body, which can develop two separate personalities. In this case, one of the personalities believes in God and the other one doesn't. As the speaker observes, this raises a profound theological question: what happens when this person dies? (And no, saying this person has two souls doesn't solve the problem, because that just raises the question of when he acquired his second soul.)

Personally, I believe this is just an extreme case of what is actually a much more common phenomenon than is generally appreciated. Our conscious selves are not, in fact, the coherent whole we perceive them to be. The perception we have that we are "individuals" with an "essence" or an identity that is constant across time or even coherent at any given moment is an illusion. This can be demonstrated by a wide range of psychophysics experiments, but I don't have time to look those up at the moment. Fodder for a future post. Someone remind me.

Abortion and the Bible

Abortion is once again in the news because the anti-choice mafia is successfully taking over the state house. So this seems like as good an excuse as any to point out the fact that the Bible does not support the pro-life position.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Bible is pro-choice (at least not for women) but it turns out that it is explicitly against the proposition that life begins at conception. Exodus 21:22 says:

“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman so that she miscarries but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined ..."

So killing a fetus should be punishable by nothing more than a fine.

That should be game, set and match in the debate over whether abortion is murder, but of course it won't be because religion is not about truth, it's about feeling good, so as long as fighting for "innocent unborn children" feels good, no amount of logic nor the Word of God will deter the anti-choicers from their fix.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Oh, puhleez!

People are playing Quidditch. Or at least they're trying. They're adapting the game to conform to the laws of physics, but the result sounds like less like Quidditch and more like the bastard stepchild of curling (they use brooms), rugby and Calvinball:

Welcome to the wild and weird sport of Muggle Quidditch, where boundary lines are suggestions, four balls are in play at any given time, and every player -- except for the elusive golden Snitch -- dashes about with large, bristly broomsticks held mid-thigh. Six years ago, the game was just a cool idea hatched by a group of students at Vermont's Middlebury College; today, there are more than 700 teams on high school and college campuses worldwide.

No, I'm sorry, but this is not "a cool idea", this is a completely stupid idea. The whole point of Quidditch (the "real" version, the one in J. K. Rowling's books) is that you can't play it in real life because it requires actual magic. That's what gives it its charm (so to speak). Quidditch without magic is like water polo without water. And, I'm sorry, but carrying a broom between your legs while you run around is just ridiculous. I hate to be a wet blanket, but someone needs to get a life.

Raising taxes on the rich will not harm the recovery

We've actually done this experiment once before back in the 90's. The Republicans screamed bloody murder. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.

The universal claim of Republicans in 1993 was that if the Clinton budget and its tax hikes on the wealthy ever became law, the country would immediately be plunged into another recession and millions of Americans would lose their jobs. That didn't happen at all. Moreover, when the economy began growing rapidly in the middle and late years of the decade, the new, higher rates established by the Clinton budget helped produce a massive revenue windfall -- enough to lead to record surpluses and to bring into sight the elinination of the entire national debt. You don't need to claim that Clinton's '93 budget itself spurred the economy or that it was the only reason a balanced budget was reached so quickly (yes -- there were other factors!) to acknowledge that (a) it did not cause any of the economic turmoil that Republicans guaranteed Americans it would and it did not hinder -- at all -- the sustained growth that marked the rest of the decade; and (b) it brought in far more revenue than the pre-Clinton budget tax rates would have -- and this revenue made achieving a balanced budget much easier.

Kentucky church comes out in support of gay marriage

Tip o' the hat to the Douglass Boulevard Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky whose members have voted to support gay marriage. In fact, they've gone one step further and voted to publicly protest marriage discrimination against gays by not signing marriage licenses until gay marriage is legalized.

"In our attempt to live out God's call to pursue justice for all, the Elders of the congregation joined the Pastors in witnessing to the right for gay and lesbian persons to God's blessing on their union and witnessing to the Commonwealth toward ending the refusal to recognize these unions," said Rev. Chuck Lewis, Chair of Elders with the church.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Thank you to my adoring fans! :-)

Just over a year ago (holy cow, has it been that long?) I was privileged to attend the premiere of a film made by a friend of mine named Hilalry Scarl called See What I'm Saying, the Deaf Entertainers Documentary. (It's a really great film. If you haven't seen it, DVDs are now available :-)

That was a real Hollywood premiere. It took place at the Egyptian theatre. About ten million people attended (well, maybe not quite that many, but it felt like it). There were limos, a band, paparazzi, a red carpet, acrobats (no, really!) ... the whole shlemobble.

My premiere last night wasn't like that.

We were planning to show up half an hour ahead of time just to leave some margin, and it's good we did because we hit traffic and only arrived ten minutes early. We were the first ones there. "There" turned out to be an old naval base in Alameda (near where they film "Mythbusters"). We were really wondering if we had the right place. If you can imagine a place that looks nothing at all like the place where you'd hold a film festival, that's what this place looked like.

Until you got inside.

There behind the doors was what has to be one of California's best kept secrets: an absolutely gorgeous art-deco theatre, not quite as nice as the Egyptian, but in the same league. It was at once beautiful and sad because it was absolutely empty. And it was still empty except for me and Nancy when the show started.

Now, my film was the third one of the evening. The first was a ten-minute short music video, and the second was an hour-long film about sustainable industry. By the time the second film started there was still no one there, which meant that not even the people who made the first two films had bothered to show up to their own screening.

I was starting to get a little worried.

To my great relief, before the second film was half-way through people started to trickle in, and by the time my film started there were a fair number of people there (hard to tell exactly how many because it was dark).

Now, I have seen my own film a zillion times. I know every frame, every note in the soundtrack, every syllable spoken, every helicopter flying overhead (sound was the bane of my existence for two years when I was filming). We have a pretty big screen hi-def TV at home with a fairly decent sound system. But watching my film in a theatre was a completely different experience, not just because of the audience (which despite its small size was still the biggest group of people who had ever seen it at once), but also because there was something about the sound system that brought out details in a way that headphones and our home audio system just never did. I can't put my finger on exactly what it was (reverb maybe?) but whatever it was it made a huge emotional impact on me, and I guess it did on the audience as well because they all laughed at all the funny parts and (as far as I could tell) cried at all the sad parts. And when it was done the applause sounded enthusiastic, not merely polite. It felt great. Made the whole five-year long effort worth it.

Afterwards, the festival host called me on stage (he called me "brother Ron" which was the first time anyone has ever called me that, and I thought that was pretty cool too) and we had some Q&A. There were a lot of questions, and a lot of compliments. (If anyone who attended is reading this, I would really appreciate if you would write up a quick review and send it to me so I can put it up on the web site. Thanks!) It was a really great feeling. I can only imagine how Hillary felt in the same position in the Egyptian with a standing room only crowd.

I have no idea where the film will go from here. I'm very much hoping I'll be able to line up some more screenings. If you saw the film and liked it please tell your friends. If you know a film festival programmer or Jon Feltheimer, tell them :-) I'm not much of a marketeer so my main hope of reaching a broader audience is to have it go viral.

Thanks to everyone who attended last night!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rich people are not the creators of wealth

I was a signatory to the original Patriotic Millionaires campaign back in November, and I recently signed on for round two. It's looking more promising this time. Obama finally seems to have found his spine:

In December, I agreed to extend the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans because it was the only way I could prevent a tax hike on middle-class Americans. But we cannot afford $1 trillion worth of tax cuts for every millionaire and billionaire in our society. And I refuse to renew them again.

Actually, it's a pretty good speech. Worth reading the whole thing. (I don't think I've ever said that about a political speech before, and it will probably be a long time before I say it again. Sorry about the NYT link. I tried to find the text on the site and failed. If anyone from the White House PIO is reading this, if someone like me can't find the text of the president's most recent speech on your site, you have a serious problem.)

Of course, the Republicans were attacking the speech, particularly the part about raising taxes on the rich, before it was even delivered, lending credence to the theory that Republicans don't actually think about what they are saying but just mechanically object to anything the president says or does, even if it's their own idea.

But there's one very dangerous notion that really needs to be squashed: "now it’s time to tax the people who create the wealth.” (That was Michele Bachman, but you can count on hearing this line from the chorus on Fox News for the next few weeks.) The implication being that 1) rich people create wealth and 2) if you tax them, they'll stop. Both of these ideas are wrong.

Making money and creating wealth are two very different things. You can make money without creating wealth, and you can create wealth without making money. Salman Khan has created vastly more wealth than, say, Angelo Mozilo, but Mozilo made vastly more money. (Mozilo actually made his money by destroying wealth.)

Money and wealth are not completely unrelated, of course, but even when they go together the causality is often backwards from what Republicans tacitly assume. Money is usually the result of creating wealth, not the cause.

"But," you might object, "you need money to create wealth." That's not true. You need capital, but just as money isn't wealth, it isn't capital either. Money can be exchanged for capital (tools, factories, computers) just as it can be exchanged for wealth (food, clothing, shelter, entertainment). But money is distinct from both wealth and capital, and just because someone has money doesn't mean they got it by creating wealth, or will use it to create more. Furthermore, the government has been a very effective creator of capital: Interstate highways. The military-industrial complex (whether you like it or not, it's capital). Much of our medical and aerospace research and higher-education system. The Internet. All created by or with significant help from the government.

The proposition that the rich are the (sole) creators of wealth, and that taxing the rich destroys wealth, is sheer nonsense.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Seeking a non-technical co-founder

I'm looking for a non-technical co-founder for a startup I'm working on. Main qualification is good interpersonal skills. Your primary initial responsibility will be sales/bizdev. Prior sales/bizdev experience is a huge plus, as is prior experience in (or at least some passion for) the aviation industry. Being located in the Silicon Valley is a plus but not a requirement. There will be significant travel (mostly domestic at first but possibly international later on) involved, so this is not a good opportunity for someone who wants to spend a lot of time with their family in the short term. You would be employee #1 so there is significant upside potential. If you are interested, drop me a line.

Ron rambles on

So it seems that the Ramblings will continue. Thanks to everyone who responded to my last post. It was a real revelation to learn that there are nearly 300 people subscribed to Rondam Ramblings via RSS. Seriously, who are all you people?

This still leaves me with the problem of deciding what to write about. So for now, here's a video of an A380 clipping the tail of a CRJ-700 at JFK yesterday. If you think you're having a bad day at work, watch this and it will put your troubles in perspective.

Monday, April 11, 2011

To blog or not to blog

I've been writing Rondam Ramblings for nearly eight years now. It started out with no clear purpose, and now eight years on that's still pretty much the case. At various times I've written about science, programming, politics, religion, philosophy, current events, travel, my personal life, and short links to things that seemed cool to me. If I were starting this project today I'd probably be doing it on FaceBook, but when I started RR, FB didn't exist (and it didn't open to the public until much later).

Along the way I've picked up thirty-four followers, and a few regular contributors have come and gone (mostly gone). I have no idea who most of you are or why you decided to subscribe, though I'm grateful you did. There is no greater reward for a writer than to be read. But it seems to have been a very long time since I've posted anything here that generated much interest. The last time anything really seemed to resonate was last October (and I don't want to make a blogging career out of taking pot shots at people).

Keeping up a blog is a non-trivial amount of work, and it is becoming less clear that Rondam Ramblings is worth the effort. If you thirty-four people, whoever you are, are still getting something out of this I'm happy to keep it up. But if you've moved on and just not bothered to unsubscribe then I'm going to redirect my efforts to other venues. So if you're still out there please let me know: send me an email, leave a comment, or just click on a reaction box, if for no other reason so I'll know what kinds of things I ought to be posting here, or if it's time to turn the page. Either way, thanks for listening.

Taking ridiculous to a whole 'nuther level

The Ramblings have been quiet because I just got back from a week aboard the MS Allure of the Seas, the world's largest cruise liner. Having seen her up close and personal, I rank her as one of the great achievements of human civilization, right up there with the Egyptian pyramids, the Coliseum, and vanilla soft-serve. She's a quarter million gross tons, carries over six thousand passengers, two thousand crew, and is the only ship in the world (except for her sister ship, the Oasis of the Seas) to have cabins with balconies that don't have a view of the water. It also has a basketball court, two FlowRiders, more restaurants, shops and pools than I can count, and an ice skating rink. She is a fully fledged floating city. In her one may even catch a glimpse of the future of human settlements.

By sheer happenstance, in one of our ports of call (St. Maartins) we docked right next to a little boat called Eclipse, which at 536 feet is at the moment the world's biggest private yacht:

(Click on the image for a hi-res version.)

They were in the middle of provisioning her for a trip and so I had a chance to chat briefly with one of the crew. I asked if she was available for charter. The answer: "I'm not allowed to tell you that." I took that as a "no" :-)

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Nuclear power is the safest way to make electricity

In particular, it is vastly safer than coal pretty much any way you slice it.

There's a particularly remarkable study linked to by this article (but the anchor text is misleading so the link is hard to find) to a study of the long-term health effects of Chernobyl, which was so bad that it could almost be considered a "dirty bomb". From the abstract:

Among adult populations, there is no strong evidence to suggest that risk of thyroid cancer, leukaemia, or other malignant disease has increased as a result of the Chernobyl accident.

The article also says that in a study of 120,000 Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, some of whom were exposed to the blasts and other who were away at the time, that since 1950 there have been 822 "excess" deaths among the exposed population, or about 2% of the 42,304 people who have died during the study period.

Yes, the situation in Japan is very serious and very tragic. But can we please stop freaking out about radiation?