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Cleaning Up Terrorism

One of the main things we worry about in the future is another terrorist attack. Dhiren Barot was an al Qaeda operative involved in plots to blow up the London subway, among other targets. To maximize the damage and the terror, he planned to pack some of his bombs with toxic gas (Whitley's novel Critical Mass explores a similar scenario). Fortunately, in August 2004, British authorities caught Barot and his accomplices before they could carry out their attacks, but the threat of a gas attack remains. Is democracy even mathematically possible in countries in the Middle East?

While we fight for democracy abroad and try to keep it going here, we should realize what mathematicians know: It's basically impossible.

We want elections to be fair, with each vote cast counting equally, but mathematicians who have been studying various voting systems for years say it can't be done. In New Scientist, Ian Stewart give us an example of why: Mathematician Donald Saari asked 15 people to rank their liking for milk (M), beer (B), or wine (W). 6 ranked them M-W-B, 5 B-W-M, and 4 W-B-M. In a system where only first preferences count, the outcome is simple: milk wins with 40% of the vote, followed by beer, with wine coming in last. But voters don't actually prefer milk: 9 of them like beer better and 9 like wine better. The REAL order should be W-B-M, which is the opposite of what the voting system produced. In fact, Saari says you can design a system that produces any result you want (something Americans suspect that many other countries do--and maybe we've done ourselves, at times?)

Part of the problem occurs when you get a "third party candidate." In this case, a candidate does not have to get anything like 50% of the vote to win, so a majority of votes are "lost."

Meanwhile, where Barot failed, at some point someone might succeed. The right response to such an attack could minimize exposure and save hundreds of thousands of American lives. The Department of Homeland is researching ways to help the nation respond to and clean up after potential chemical attacks. They have been studying decontamination techniques for almost a decade.

Their recommendation? Chemist Donald Bansleben says, "Lasers could help to scrub chemical-contaminated buildings clean and become a tool in the toolbox to speed a facility

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