Monthly Archives: May 2014

Criminal Punishment Theory

I’ve often wondered about the theory of criminal punishment. How long should sentences be? For which crimes and external circumstances should people be let off, for which should there be alternative punishments, like civic work, or a fine instead of jail time. I’ve a few ideas, but here are some thought cases:

Someone steals an expensive handbag from a clothing store. What should the punishment be for (a) a ghetto black with no job, (b) a middle-class, college sophomore (c) a famous actress? Should it be the same for all? Is jail the best punishment — it costs money, and doesn’t help the criminal or the store. If jail, how long is appropriate? Should the length of stay correspond to the cost of the bag? If the punishment is money or civic service, how should the fine vary with the wealth of the thief, or if the person is a repeat offender? Many countries have corporal punishment — why or why not?

My sense is that sentences should be shorter for less-expensive items, and longer for more expensive. My sense is that a fine or civic service is appropriate for most first offenses, and while jail seems necessary for serious crimes, if only to keep criminals off the streets, the sentences should be reasonably short and include rehabilitation. I suspect that long sentences don’t help the criminal or society. I suspect that victimless crimes, e.g. prostitution or drug sales should have very short sentences or non-jail punishments, and I’m not quite sure what to do if the thief reforms in prison or appears to.

The US leads Russia, China, South Africa, and all of Europe in terms of percent of population is prison.

The US leads Russia, China, Cuba, India, and all of Europe in terms of percent of our population in prison. The main cause is very long sentences, a product of fixed minimums. Strangely, our crime rate is low. Chart from the international business times.

Regarding prostitution perhaps it should be policed by the clergy, that’s why they get tax breaks. And why is sex between consenting adults punished as prostitution if money changes hands but not otherwise, or if the only pay is dinner? Why should the professional offender (the prostitute) pay more than the casual (the john). Why is drug use punished more than alcohol. Many drug and alcohol users live happy productive lives. To the extent that these crimes should be punished, it seems to me that fines, community service, or corporal punishment might be appropriate — I can not see prison healing a moral failing or reforming a victimless criminal.

And then there is rape. As a crime, the definition of rape has a long slippery slope, but the punishment does not. It isn’t quite clear where consensual become criminal, but the punishment is strict and undivided. We treat some cases as extreme crimes and others are let completely free. We have cases where the sex-criminal man or woman marries his or her underage partner, but is still guilty of statutory rape, and is then listed forever as a sex-criminal.

Children under 21 can not drink alcohol in the US, but they can in many other countries, and in some countries even older people can not drink at all. Is Saudi Arabia a very productive country; is Germany falling apart because of young drinkers? It seems not, so why is 21 the drinking age when you can choose to marry or join the army at 18. Soldiers are allowed to drink earlier than non-soldiers, but young marrieds are not afforded the same benefit. I don’t see why. The punishment for underage drinking varies too, as does the punishment for underage driving.

The Bible has some enlightened ideas on punishment, prescribing the use of fines of double or four or five times the value going to the victim (the thief pays 4 times for a stolen sheep, 5 times for a stolen cow, for example), but in other cases, it’s positively draconian prescribing death for homosexuality, violating the sabbath or for taking God’s name in vain. A seducer has to marry his seducee, but can not divorce her (assuming she agrees) but what if it’s an unhappy marriage? There is no room for judicial leniency in the bible, but there is in traditional applications; I’m not sure that’s not an improvement.

Robert E. Buxbaum, May 30, 2014. I’ve been wondering about the theory of appropriate punishment for at least 35 years. Are we protecting society, extracting vengeance, helping the criminal or doing some vague combination. My sense is we’re just bumbling blindly, and sorry to say, I have no answers.

Buddhists, Hindus and dentists joke

At the dentists’ office, Buddhist and Hindu monks don’t need anesthesia to have their teeth worked on. They transcend dental medication.

It’s funny because it’s a 3 word pun, and because there is something magical about the ability of people to conquer pain through meditation.

Focussed meditation can keep you from worry and other pain.

Focused meditation can keep you from worry and some physical pain. As for thugs, that’s more controversial. It’s possible that laughter, or looking at a spot will do as much. Gahan Wilson

The types of meditation, as I understand it, are two which are four. The two are focused and non-focused. focused meditation is supposed to allow you to conquer pain, both physical and spiritual. You concentrate on your breathing, or some other rhythmic action and thought; and whenever you realize that your mind is wandering you bring it back. A popular version is called square breathing: you breath in, hold, breath out, hold, etc. In time there is a sense of calm with the world. In theory, you can transcend dental medication, but I use the normal western practice of Novocaine plus gas. Meditation practitioners claim that directed meditation can also protect you from villains and bring peace in the world; I suspect that’s true, but also suspect that humor, or staring at a spot will do as much. I suspect that Dr Seuss has done wonders for peace in the world.

The second major version of mediation is non-focused; it can bring enlightenment if you use it right. You repeat a mantra slowly and let your mind wander along some general paths. The classic incantatory mantra is OM, and the classic paths include: what am I doing with my life, imagine a stick with one end, what is the sound of a hand clapping. The enlightenment that is supposed to arise is supposed to promote non-violence, charity, and a sense of oneness with the all. In general, I’ve found that letting one’s mind wander is a great way to solve difficult problems and to help one decide whether certain situations are worth being involved with. To the extent I’ve used a mantra, it’s versions of “radiator not leaking, mind leaking,” or “computer solution not unstable, mind unstable.” In the calm of realizing there is a solution, I’ve generally been able to find a solution.

Enlightenment can be as simple as realizing that you're there already or that you shouldn't manage a country that's unlike you and dislikes you.

Enlightenment can be as simple as realizing that you’re there already.

As for the other 2 types of meditation, it depends. To some, it involves rocking to the sound of the one hand clapping (or not). To some, it’s realizing you’re there already, or that you really don’t want to get involved in an Asian war to defend and manage a country that’s completely unlike yours, and that dislikes yours as well, or that it’s OK to use Novocaine and gas when you have your teeth worked on. That’s what they are there for.

Robert E. Buxbaum, May 24, 2014. Some wisdom from the Jewish mystics: Wherever you go, there you are, as for your baggage, who knows? Tea, with the first sip joy, with the second, satisfaction, with the third, Danish.

The future of steamships: steam

Most large ships and virtually all locomotives currently run on diesel power. But the diesel  engine does not drive the wheels or propeller directly; the transmission would be too big and complex. Instead, the diesel engine is used to generate electric power, and the electric power drives the ship or train via an electric motor, generally with a battery bank to provide a buffer. Current diesel generators operate at 75-300 rpm and about 40-50% efficiency (not bad), but diesel fuel is expensive. It strikes me, therefore that the next step is to switch to a cheaper fuel like coal or compressed natural gas, and convert these fuels to electricity by a partial or full steam cycle as used in land-based electric power plants

Ship-board diesel engine, 100 MW for a large container ship

Diesel engine, 100 MW for a large container ship

Steam powers all nuclear ships, and conventionally boiled steam provided the power for thousands of Liberty ships and hundreds of aircraft carriers during World War 2. Advanced steam turbine cycles are somewhat more efficient, pushing 60% efficiency for high pressure, condensed-turbine cycles that consume vaporized fuel in a gas turbine and recover the waste heat with a steam boiler exhausting to vacuum. The higher efficiency of these gas/steam turbine engines means that, even for ships that burn ship-diesel fuel (so-called bunker oil) or natural gas, there can be a cost advantage to having a degree of steam power. There are a dozen or so steam-powered ships operating on the great lakes currently. These are mostly 700-800 feet long, and operate with 1950s era steam turbines, burning bunker oil or asphalt. US Steel runs the “Arthur M Anderson”, Carson J Callaway” , “John G Munson” and “Philip R Clarke”, all built-in 1951/2. The “Upper Lakes Group” runs the “Canadian Leader”, “Canadian Provider”, “Quebecois”, and “Montrealais.” And then there is the coal-fired “Badger”. Built in 1952, the Badger is powered by two, “Skinner UniFlow” double-acting, piston engines operating at 450 psi. The Badger is cost-effective, with the low-cost of the fuel making up for the low efficiency of the 50’s technology. With larger ships, more modern boilers and turbines, and with higher pressure boilers and turbines, the economics of steam power would be far better, even for ships with modern pollution abatement.

Nuclear steam boilers can be very compact

Nuclear steam boilers can be very compact

Steam powered ships can burn fuels that diesel engines can’t: coal, asphalts, or even dry wood because fuel combustion can be external to the high pressure region. Steam engines can cost more than diesel engines do, but lower fuel cost can make up for that, and the cost differences get smaller as the outputs get larger. Currently, coal costs 1/10 as much as bunker oil on a per-energy basis, and natural gas costs about 1/5 as much as bunker oil. One can burn coal cleanly and safely if the coal is dried before being loaded on the ship. Before burning, the coal would be powdered and gassified to town-gas (CO + H2O) before being burnt. The drying process removes much of the toxic impact of the coal by removing much of the mercury and toxic oxides. Gasification before combustion further reduces these problems, and reduces the tendency to form adhesions on boiler pipes — a bane of old-fashioned steam power. Natural gas requires no pretreatment, but costs twice as much as coal and requires a gas-turbine, boiler system for efficient energy use.

Todays ships and locomotives are far bigger than in the 1950s. The current standard is an engine output about 50 MW, or 170 MM Btu/hr of motive energy. Assuming a 50% efficient engine, the fuel use for a 50 MW ship or locomotive is 340 MM Btu/hr; locomotives only use this much when going up hill with a heavy load. Illinois coal costs, currently, about $60/ton, or $2.31/MM Btu. A 50 MW engine would consume about 13 tons of dry coal per hour costing $785/hr. By comparison, bunker oil costs about $3 /gallon, or $21/MM Btu. This is nearly ten times more than coal, or $ 7,140/hr for the same 50 MW output. Over 30 years of operation, the difference in fuel cost adds up to 1.5 billion dollars — about the cost of a modern container ship.

Robert E. Buxbaum, May 16, 2014. I possess a long-term interest in economics, thermodynamics, history, and the technology of the 1800s. See my steam-pump, and this page dedicated to Peter Cooper: Engineer, citizen of New York. Wood power isn’t all that bad, by the way, but as with coal, you must dry the wood, or (ideally) convert it to charcoal. You can improve the power and efficiency of diesel and automobile engines and reduce the pollution by adding hydrogen. Normal cars do not use steam because there is more start-stop, and because it takes too long to fire up the engine before one can drive. For cars, and drone airplanes, I suggest hydrogen/ fuel cells.

If hot air rises, why is it cold on mountain-tops?

This is a child’s question that’s rarely answered to anyone’s satisfaction. To answer it well requires college level science, and by college the child has usually been dissuaded from asking anything scientific that would likely embarrass teacher — which is to say, from asking most anything. By a good answer, I mean here one that provides both a mathematical, checkable prediction of the temperature you’d expect to find on mountain tops, and one that also gives a feel for why it should be so. I’ll try to provide this here, as previously when explaining “why is the sky blue.” A word of warning: real science involves mathematics, something that’s often left behind, perhaps in an effort to build self-esteem. If I do a poor job, please text me back: “if hot air rises, what’s keeping you down?”

As a touchy-feely answer, please note that all materials have internal energy. It’s generally associated with the kinetic energy + potential energy of the molecules. It enters whenever a material is heated or has work done on it, and for gases, to good approximation, it equals the gas heat capacity of the gas times its temperature. For air, this is about 7 cal/mol°K times the temperature in degrees Kelvin. The average air at sea-level is taken to be at 1 atm, or 101,300  Pascals, and 15.02°C, or 288.15 °K; the internal energy of this are is thus 288.15 x 7 = 2017 cal/mol = 8420 J/mol. The internal energy of the air will decrease as the air rises, and the temperature drops for reasons I will explain below. Most diatomic gases have heat capacity of 7 cal/mol°K, a fact that is only explained by quantum mechanics; if not for quantum mechanics, the heat capacities of diatomic gases would be about 9 cal/mol°K.

Lets consider a volume of this air at this standard condition, and imagine that it is held within a weightless balloon, or plastic bag. As we pull that air up, by pulling up the bag, the bag starts to expand because the pressure is lower at high altitude (air pressure is just the weight of the air). No heat is exchanged with the surrounding air because our air will always be about as warm as its surroundings, or if you like you can imagine weightless balloon prevents it. In either case the molecules lose energy as the bag expands because they always collide with an outwardly moving wall. Alternately you can say that the air in the bag is doing work on the exterior air — expansion is work — but we are putting no work into the air as it takes no work to lift this air. The buoyancy of the air in our balloon is always about that of the surrounding air, or so we’ll assume for now.

A classic, difficult way to calculate the temperature change with altitude is to calculate the work being done by the air in the rising balloon. Work done is force times distance: w=  ∫f dz and this work should equal the effective cooling since heat and work are interchangeable. There’s an integral sign here to account for the fact that force is proportional to pressure and the air pressure will decrease as the balloon goes up. We now note that w =  ∫f dz = – ∫P dV because pressure, P = force per unit area. and volume, V is area times distance. The minus sign is because the work is being done by the air, not done on the air — it involves a loss of internal energy. Sorry to say, the temperature and pressure in the air keeps changing with volume and altitude, so it’s hard to solve the integral, but there is a simple approach based on entropy, S.

Les Droites Mountain, in the Alps, at the intersect of France Italy and Switzerland is 4000 m tall. The top is generally snow-covered.

Les Droites Mountain, in the Alps, at the intersect of France Italy and Switzerland is 4000 m tall. The top is generally snow-covered.

I discussed entropy last month, and showed it was a property of state, and further, that for any reversible path, ∆S= (Q/T)rev. That is, the entropy change for any reversible process equals the heat that enters divided by the temperature. Now, we expect the balloon rise is reversible, and since we’ve assumed no heat transfer, Q = 0. We thus expect that the entropy of air will be the same at all altitudes. Now entropy has two parts, a temperature part, Cp ln T2/T1 and a pressure part, R ln P2/P1. If the total ∆S=0 these two parts will exactly cancel.

Consider that at 4000m, the height of Les Droites, a mountain in the Mont Blanc range, the typical pressure is 61,660 Pa, about 60.85% of sea level pressure (101325 Pa). If the air were reduced to this pressure at constant temperature (∆S)T = -R ln P2/P1 where R is the gas constant, about 2 cal/mol°K, and P2/P1 = .6085; (∆S)T = -2 ln .6085. Since the total entropy change is zero, this part must equal Cp ln T2/T1 where Cp is the heat capacity of air at constant pressure, about 7 cal/mol°K for all diatomic gases, and T1 and T2 are the temperatures (Kelvin) of the air at sea level and 4000 m. (These equations are derived in most thermodynamics texts. The short version is that the entropy change from compression at constant T equals the work at constant temperature divided by T,  ∫P/TdV=  ∫R/V dV = R ln V2/V1= -R ln P2/P1. Similarly the entropy change at constant pressure = ∫dQ/T where dQ = Cp dT. This component of entropy is thus ∫dQ/T = Cp ∫dT/T = Cp ln T2/T1.) Setting the sum to equal zero, we can say that Cp ln T2/T1 =R ln .6085, or that 

T2 = T1 (.6085)R/Cp

T2 = T1(.6085)2/7   where 0.6065 is the pressure ratio at 4000, and because for air and most diatomic gases, R/Cp = 2/7 to very good approximation, matching the prediction from quantum mechanics.

From the above, we calculate T2 = 288.15 x .8676 = 250.0°K, or -23.15 °C. This is cold enough to provide snow  on Les Droites nearly year round, and it’s pretty accurate. The typical temperature at 4000 m is 262.17 K (-11°C). That’s 26°C colder than at sea-level, and only 12°C warmer than we’d predicted.

There are three weak assumptions behind the 11°C error in our predictions: (1) that the air that rises is no hotter than the air that does not, and (2) that the air’s not heated by radiation from the sun or earth, and (3) that there is no heat exchange with the surrounding air, e.g. from rain or snow formation. The last of these errors is thought to be the largest, but it’s still not large enough to cause serious problems.

The snow cover on Kilimanjaro, 2013. If global warming models were true, it should be gone, or mostly gone.

Snow on Kilimanjaro, Tanzania 2013. If global warming models were true, the ground should be 4°C warmer than 100 years ago, and the air at this altitude, about 7°C (12°F) warmer; and the snow should be gone.

You can use this approach, with different exponents, estimate the temperature at the center of Jupiter, or at the center of neutron stars. This iso-entropic calculation is the model that’s used here, though it’s understood that may be off by a fair percentage. You can also ask questions about global warming: increased CO2 at this level is supposed to cause extreme heating at 4000m, enough to heat the earth below by 4°C/century or more. As it happens, the temperature and snow cover on Les Droites and other Alp ski areas has been studied carefully for many decades; they are not warming as best we can tell (here’s a discussion). By all rights, Mt Blanc should be Mt Green by now; no one knows why. The earth too seems to have stopped warming. My theory: clouds. 

Robert Buxbaum, May 10, 2014. Science requires you check your theory for internal and external weakness. Here’s why the sky is blue, not green.

Getting rid of hydrogen

Though most of my company’s business is making hydrogen or purifying it, or consulting about it, we also provide sorbers and membranes that allow a customer to get rid of unwanted hydrogen, or remove it from a space where it is not wanted. A common example is a customer who has a battery system for long-term operation under the sea, or in space. The battery or the metal containment is then found to degas hydrogen, perhaps from a corrosion reaction. The hydrogen may interfere with his electronics, or the customer fears it will reach explosive levels. In one case the customer’s system was monitoring deep oil wells and hydrogen from the well was messing up its fiber optic communications.


Pd-coated niobium screws used to getter hydrogen from electronic packages.

For many of these problems, the simplest solution is an organic hydrogen getter of palladium-catalyst and a labile unsaturated hydrocarbon, e.g. buckminsterfullerene. These hydrogen getters are effective in air or inert gas at temperatures between about -20°C and 150°C. When used in an inert gas the organic is hydrogenated, there is a finite amount of removal per gram of sober. When used in air the catalyst promotes the water-forming reaction, and thus there is a lot more hydrogen removal. Depending on the organic, we can provide gettering to lower temperatures or higher. We’ve a recent patent on an organo-palladium gel to operate to 300°C, suitable for down-well hydrogen removal.

At high temperatures, generally above 100*C, we generally suggest an inorganic hydrogen remover, e.g. our platinum ceria catalyst. This material is suitable for hydrogen removal from air, including from polluted air like that in radioactive waste storage areas. Platinum catalyst works long-term at temperatures between about 0°C and 600°C. The catalyst-sorber also works without air, reducing Ce2O3 to CeO and converting hydrogen irreversibly to water (H2O). As with the organo-Pd getters, there is a finite amount of hydrogen removal per gram when these materials are used in a sealed environment.

Low temperature, Pd-grey coated, Pd-Ag membranes made for the space shuttle to remove hydrogen from the drinking water at room temperature. The water came from the fuel cells.

Low temperature, metal membranes made for NASA to remove H2 from  drinking water at room temperature.

Another high temperature hydrogen removal option is metallic getters, e.g. yttrium or vanadium-titanium alloy. These metals require temperatures in excess of 100°C to be effective, and typically do not work well in air. They are best suited for removing hydrogen a vacuum or inert gas, converting it to metallic hydride. The thermodynamics of hydriding is such that, depending on the material, these getters can extract hydrogen even at temperatures up to 700°C, and at very low hydrogen pressures, below 10-9 torr. For operation in air or at 100-400°C we typically provide these getters coated with palladium to increase the hydrogen sorption rate. A fairly popular product is palladium-coated niobium screws 4-40 x 1/4″. Each screw will remove over 2000 sec of hydrogen at temperatures up to 400°C. We also provide oxygen, nitrogen and water getters. They work on the same principle, but form metallic oxides or nitrides instead of hydrides.

Our last, and highest-end, hydrogen-removal option is to provide metallic membranes. These don’t remove the hydrogen as such, but transfer it elsewhere. We’ve provided these for the space shuttle, and to the nuclear industry so that hydrogen can be vented from nuclear reactors before it has a chance to build up and case damage or interfere with heat transfer. Because nothing is used up, these membranes work, essentially forever. The Fukushima reactor explosions were from corrosion-produced hydrogen that had no acceptable way to vent.

Please contact us for more information, e.g. by phone at 248-545-0155, or check out the various sorbers in our web-siteRobert Buxbaum, May 5, 2014.

US cancer rates highest on the rivers, low in mountains, desert

Sometimes I find I have important data that I can’t quite explain. For example, cancer rates in the US vary by more than double from county to county, but not at random. The highest rates are on the rivers, and the lowest are in the mountains and deserts. I don’t know why, but the map shows it’s so.

Cancer rate map of the US age adjusted

Cancer death rates map of the US age adjusted 2006-2010, by county. From

Counties shown in red on the map have cancer death rates between 210 and 393 per 100,000, more than double, on average the counties in blue. These red counties are mostly along the southern Mississippi, the Arkansas branching to its left; along the Alabama, to its right, and along the Ohio and the Tennessee rivers (these rivers straddle Kentucky). The Yukon (Alaska) shows up in bright red, while Hawaii (no major rivers) is blue; southern Alaska (mountains) is also in blue. In orange, showing less-elevated cancer death, you can make out the Delaware river between NJ and DC, the Missouri heading Northwest from the Mississippi, the Columbia, and the Colorado between the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. For some reason, counties near the Rio Grande do not show elevated cancer death rates. nor does the Northern Mississippi and the Colorado south of Las Vegas.

Contrasting this are areas of low cancer death, 56 to 156 deaths per year per 100,000, shown in blue. These appear along the major mountain ranges: The Rockies (both in the continental US and Alaska), the Sierra Nevada, and the Appalachian range. Virtually every mountain county appears in blue. Desert areas of the west also appear as blue, low cancer regions: Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Idaho, Colorado, south-west Texas and southern California. Exceptions to this are the oasis areas in the desert: Lake Tahoe in western Nevada and Lake Meade in southern nevada. These oases stand out in red showing high cancer-death rates in a sea of low. Despite the AIDS epidemic and better health care, the major cities appear average in terms of cancer. It seems the two effects cancel; see the cancer incidence map (below).

My first thought of an explanation was pollution: that the mountains were cleaner, and thus healthier, while industry had polluted the rivers so badly that people living there were cancer-prone. I don’t think this explanation fits, quite, since I’d expect the Yukon to be pollution free, while the Rio Grande should be among the most polluted. Also, I’d expect cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and New York to be pollution-heavy, but they don’t show up for particularly high cancer rates. A related thought was that specific industries are at fault: oil, metals, chemicals, or coal, but this too doesn’t quite fit: Utah has coal, southern California has oil, Colorado has mining, and Cleveland was home to major Chemical production.

Another thought is poverty: that poor people live along the major rivers, while richer, healthier ones live in the mountains. The problem here is that the mountains and deserts are home to some very poor counties with low cancer rates, e.g. in Indian areas of the west and in South Florida and North Michigan. Detroit is a very poor city, with land polluted by coal, steel, and chemical manufacture — all the worst industries, you’d expect. We’re home to the famous black lagoon, and to Zug Island, a place that looks like Hades when seen from the air. The Indian reservation areas of Arizona are, if anything, poorer yet. 

Cancer incidence map

Cancer incidence,age adjusted, from

My final thought was that people might go to the river to die, but perhaps don’t get cancer by the river. To check this explanation, I looked at the map of cancer incidence rates. While many counties repress their cancer rate data, the pattern in the remaining ones is similar to that for cancer death: the western mountain and desert counties show less than half the incidence rates of the counties along the southern Mississippi, the Arkansas, and the Ohio rivers. The incidence rates are somewhat elevated in the north-east, and lower on the Yukon, but otherwise it’s the same map as for cancer death. Bottom line: I’m left with an observation of the cancer pattern, but no good explanation or model.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, May 1, 2014. Two other unsolved mysteries I’ve observed: the tornado drought of the last few years, and that dilute toxins and radiation may prevent cancer. To do science, you first observe, and then try to analyze.