Every Thing Can Be Improved – GRK Fasteners

Here’s a story of tech success by immigrants with a rather sad ending – that of the wood screw maker GRK Fasteners. I came across these products in Home Depot, where they get a whole bay to themselves:

They’re the best screws I’ve ever used! They have star heads, are self-tapping (meaning they start their own holes), are made from tough case-hardened steel, and are plated against rust and corrosion from treated lumber:

The first couple of threads have little W cuts in them to help saw through the wood. The star bits grip so well that you can hold a screw horizontally on the driver and it won’t fall off. They’re way better than Philips, never mind the absurd slotted head. The wide flat head sets against the wood, clamping the piece down.

Metal screws have been common for over 200 years. How is it that people are still improving on them? Who came up with this? The boxes have little black-red-yellow German flags on them, and they’re called Uber-grade. Is this another case of Germans looking at a problem carefully and doing it right?

Not quite. The company was founded by a guy named Uli Walther. He had been working for a German screw company called Reisser, and living in Switzerland, and they wanted him to open a North American office. He looked around the continent and settled on Thunder Bay, Ontario, a town on the northwestern edge of Lake Superior. It connects rail lines from western Canada to shipping on the Great Lakes, and is also a significant industrial center, notably of Bombardier light rail cars. Walther liked it because of the good amenities and its German immigrant population. He moved his family there in 1990. Meanwhile Reisser tried to expand into East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and promptly went bankrupt in 1992. The Walthers were left high and dry in a foreign land. But Uli still knew a lot about screws, and had contacts in Taiwan for the actual manufacturing. He started GRK in 1993 with money from local investors.

They had a hard slog in the 1990s. His sons worked at the plant starting in high school. Uli started to file patents on screw features in 1996, and ultimately got 5 US patents, the last in 2002. He and his son Mirco filed the most significant one in 1999, US 6,152,666, that patented the W-shaped saw cuts in the threads. Mirco took over the company in the 2000s, and has 5 patents himself. They did well in the 2000s, selling to independent hardware stores and contractors, and opening their own manufacturing plant in Thunder Bay. They even opened a German subsidiary. The biggest hiccup came in 2004 when the Canadian government imposed a punitive tariff on their Taiwanese imports, largely at the request of China. They fought the tariff for 5 years and finally got it overturned.

By the 2010s, Uli wanted to retire, so the company was sold in 2011 to a conglomerate, Illinois Tool Works, which has a lot of fastener lines. They then closed a deal with Home Depot to offer them across the continent, and that established their brand. ITW promised to keep the Thunder Bay factory open, but closed it three years later in 2014. Everything is now made in Taiwan, and there’s nothing of GRK in Thunder Bay any more.

So the Walthers came to the New World and used their experience and ingenuity to build something genuinely new and advanced, only to be shut down by global capital. Both parts of their story are fortunately and unfortunately common.

But there’s s sequel! Uli could not stay idle in retirement, and started a new firm, U2 Fasteners, in 2016. They have even more advanced features, like a bulge on the shaft that opens the wood up as it screws in, and little cutters under the cap that improve the counter-sinking. Here he is at a trade show with a model of one of his products:

They’re not sold at Home Depot, but contractors love them and there’s even a screw-off video comparing U2 and GRK on YouTube. Here’s hoping that all the Walthers keep advancing the state of the art!

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The Really Dangerous Tech is Really Old

Here’s an odd thing – the technology that is really dangerous today all comes from the 1950s and earlier. The big inventions of the last 60 years are nowhere near as deadly as the ones from earlier, especially those from the first half of the 20th century. That period had the worst wars in human history, so maybe that’s not surprising. But what we see is that the really bad stuff from that period is almost all heavily regulated now. The worst problems of today are social, not technical.

Let me illustrate this by describing some tech that really harms a lot of people, and when it was developed:

Deliberately Dangerous Tech

  • Sarin, the worst chemical weapon, was developed in 1939 in Germany but even the Nazis didn’t use it. It did get used by some of the most brutal regimes since then: Pinochet’s Chile, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Bashar Assad’s Syria. It’s what the lunatic cult of Aum Shinrikiyo used to terrorize Tokyo in 1995. It’s 80 times more lethal than cyanide, and 500 times more than chlorine. The name comes from the initials of the last names of the chemists who created it, which is about the worst memorial ever. It is classified as a WMD and was outlawed by the UN Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997.
  • Anthrax, the worst biological weapon, was used by Imperial Japan in China in the 1930s and weaponized by the UK in 1942, who poisoned Gruinard Island in Scotland with it. It has since mainly killed people who worked with it or near it. Outlawed by the Biological Weapons Convention in 1975.
  • Nuclear Weapons, the highest energy weapons ever developed, in 1945 (fission) and 1949 (fusion) by the US. They have only been used once, at the end of WW II, because they’re useless for actual military purposes. The goal of war is domination, not destruction. Nuclear stockpiles peaked in the mid 1980s and are now down to 10% of previous levels. Desperate loser countries like North Korea still work on them, but no one else does, and their tritium triggers are actually decaying over time.
  • Assault rifles, have killed more people in the last 50 years than any other weapon. They were introduced by Germany in 1944 as the SturmGewehr 44 because standard rifles were overpowered for typical engagements. What was needed was a high rate of fire, not accuracy at long ranges. The big breakthrough was in 1949 with the AK-47, a gun that worked in any condition. Ones have been found recently in Afghanistan that were made in 1953. It actually appears on the flag of Mozambique, and is one of the main legacies of the Soviet Union. They’re too widespread at this point for any kind of international control, although most countries have kept them out of civilian hands. Not the US, though, as is now demonstrated weekly.
  • Cluster bombs, the worst kind of munition, since they kill over a wide range and leave lots of unexploded ordinance behind. This was yet another innovation of WW II, with versions from Germany, the US, and the USSR. Attempts have been made to outlaw them, but the major military powers, including the US, still use them regularly.

Then there is tech that was NOT deliberately designed to kill, but has caused a lot of damage even so:

Accidentally Dangerous Tech

  • Leaded gasoline – has damaged IQs all over the world, and is likely responsible for the crime wave of the 1980s and 90s. Lead exposure harms neural development in children, and there is a distinct dropoff in crime about 20 years after lead is disallowed in fuel, when lead-free children mature. It was developed in the 1920s to permit cheaper fuel to burn cleanly in cars. It was disallowed in 1976 in the US, and in the 90s in Europe, but is still used in some places.
  • Bisphenol A (BPA) – could be damaging human fertility, since it mimics the hormone estrogen and is an endocrine disruptor. Male sperm counts have dropped substantially in recent decades, and some associate that with BPA. It has distinct effects in mice studies, but the human studies have been too varied to settle on conclusions. It was first prepared in 1891 in Russia, and came into widespread use in the 1930s. It’s now used to make clear, tough polycarbonate plastics for things like water bottles, and in epoxy resins. Regulatory bodies in the US and Europe are just now recommending against its use, but environmentally-conscious consumers already avoid them.
  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – release free chlorine atoms when they’re hit by ultraviolet in the upper atmosphere, and the chlorines then catalyze the destruction of a lot of ozone (O3). Since ozone is what mainly prevents UV from striking the surface, and UV is dangerous to all living things, this is highly bad. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Antarctic and satellite imagery could detect what was happening, and a treaty banning their use, the Montreal Protocol of 1976, was quickly put into place. It was a rare example of industry readily allowing regulation, and was made possible by the dire consequences of ozone depletion and the ready availability of substitutes.

So what recent technologies could be dangerous?

Possibly Dangerous New Tech

  • Genetic engineering, could be used to make even more deadly plagues than anthrax. See James Tiptree’s story The Last Flight of Doctor Ain (1968), for an early and brilliant take on this. But superbugs have all the problems of nuclear weapons in terms of being indiscriminate and with uncontrollable side effects, and can’t even have targeted releases. They’re stupid as a weapon, and too difficult for terrorists to develop compared to much easier tech like sarin.
  • AI, as in sentient machines that decide they don’t want to share the earth with us. The gleaming skeleton of the Terminator scared the dickens out of people, but I’ve never understood this trope. There isn’t a single self-reproducing machine on earth, and no one is working on them. All machines are made for some human purpose, not one of their own. Machines that do what they want are called industrial accidents, and are highly frowned upon. There is current computer software that is called AI by the nontechnical press because it mimics neural networks, but it doesn’t even appear to be changing productivity statistics, much less turning us all into serfs.
  • Transhumanism, where people are enhanced by biological or machine methods to become oppressive overlords, the Red Skull trope. You only have to look at people with actual prosthetics to see how sad this is. They’re getting better, but are tragically far from even matching what normal bodies can do, much less exceeding them.

I do see a couple of things based on new technology that could be dangerous:

Likely Dangerous New Tech

  • Omni-surveillance, which is now being used to oppress the Uighurs in the Xinjiang province of China. Cheap networked cameras and machine learning algorithms can keep track of millions of people without needing vast numbers of expensive human guards. A whole region can be turned into an open-air concentration camp. This appeared first in China because it’s a technically advanced country with few human rights, but can be replicated in a lot of places.
  • Drone soldiers, both aerial and land-bound. Aerial drones were used a lot by ISIS in Syria to carry explosives. Legged robots are getting to the point where they really could replace people in breaking down doors and attacking settlements. The seminal work here is Forever Peace (1997) by Joe Haldeman, where drones allow the US to conduct Vietnam-like counter-insurgency all over the world without the US civilian population knowing or caring. They’re wildly expensive today, but tech that works always becomes cheaper and more widely available as it’s developed.

Anyway, what I see from these lists is that the really efficient means of killing were driven by the World Wars. A lot of tech with dangerous side-effects was developed in the Second Industrial Revolution of the early 20th century, when people were happy to just get things that worked, never mind the consequences. By the later 20th century, those consequences became much more apparent, and the tech was much more regulated. The Third Industrial Revolution of integrated circuits and computers, working medicines, and worldwide travel and shipping, has had far fewer bad effects.

The actual serious problems of today, like environmental damage, oppressive oligarchy, and the many kinds of discrimination, are not particularly technical. They’re mainly due to entrenched interests defending their income and privilege. Those are political and social issues, and much harder to change. We know how to fix the technical problems, and have done it in the past. Current tech trends will bring some new issues, but they pale compared to the political problems.

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Good News on Backstopping Renewables (3) – Eavor Advanced Geothermal

The last posts were about batteries and pumped-hydro storage, which will be used to handle excess energy from variable renewables. But what happens when there’s no sun or wind for weeks on end? There still needs to be something to provide baseload power. Currently that’s done by nuclear and gas-powered plants, but nuclear is way expensive, and gas plants leak the powerful greenhouse gas methane, and emit CO2 as they burn. There are some other renewable resources still coming on-line, such as big hydro-power projects in northern Quebec, and some interesting work around tidal power plants, but more alternatives would be good.

Enter Eavor, who have a scheme for tapping the Earth’s heat in a much wider range of places than can be done at present:

Credt: Eavor

They drill down to a hot layer, which may be kilometers under the surface, then take a right angle turn and go horizontally for a while. They put out multiple horizontal legs to maximize the surface area. Then they drill a second well next to the first, also with horizontal legs, and carefully connect them at the ends. Cold fluid sinks down the blue well, gets heated up, and rises up the red, where it can be used for process heat or to turn a generator.

The temperature out determines how well this works. Getting 200C is enough for some power, and for industrial heating applications and greenhouses. Getting 300C gets really efficient power generation, but usually means going a lot deeper. Well drilling is an O(N2 ) process, since the deeper you go the harder it is to turn the bit and to get the pipe in and out. That means that deep wells are far more expensive, so you better be sure you’re going to get really hot fluid back up.

The whole system is sealed, with no fluids going in or out of the rock. They use a proprietary casing called Rock-Pipe on the wells. This gets around a problem with geothermal at present, where tapping hot brine can cause the ground to shift in earthquakes, or perturb water levels. Having an open-loop system may not be as bad as the opponents of fracking claim, but a closed-loop scheme avoids the issue entirely.

They make a point of not using pumps to drive the fluid down, saying that that costs too much energy. They rely instead of “thermo-siphoning”, where fluid expands and rises as it heats up. They also don’t say what the fluid is, so maybe its thermal expansion factor is really high.

The key problem here is getting the wells to connect up when they’re kilometers underground. This is called Wellbore Intersection, and is apparently a standard service these days. They use something called Magnetic Ranging Technology, and one scheme for that looks like this:

Credit: Oil & Gas Journal, 2004

After drilling one well, you put a sensor package down it that generates a magnetic field. A rotating magnet sensor in the second well can then pick up the first’s direction and distance, and guide the drill bit. You go as far as you can, and then guide the second well to connect with the first. It’s astonishing that this works.

Eavor has done one demo already in Alberta to test out the concept. They’re only aiming for 70C, but it’s just a demo. They’ve cut deals with firms in Bavaria and the Netherlands, and those should start soon. They recently raised $40M from BP and Chevron. That’s nice, but will only take them for one or two more wells. Their management team is mainly from Alberta, and look to be old hands at drilling. They’ve just brought an interesting guy onto their board, a Dutch professor of petroleum engineering from the University of Texas. He has been working on directional drilling for a long time.

All of this shows another advantage of this approach – it taps into the huge expertise and resources available in the oil & gas sector. There are lots of people who can do this once the tech is profitable. There are lots of oil companies that are looking at doom when (not if) fossil fuels are phased out, but could switch over to this and still have a future. There are lots of places like Texas and Alberta that are now striving mightily to hold back the renewables revolution, but could get their place at the table with this.

But it’s early days! It’s not clear in how many places this will work, or whether it’s economic. Everything gets cheaper as it’s scaled up, but first you have to show that it’s practical and reliable. Here’s wishing them luck!

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Good News on Backstopping Renewables (2) – Closed-Loop Pumped Hydro

The Ambri batteries mentioned in the last post are fine for storing some energy for a couple of days, but suppose you need a lot of storage for a week or more. That’ll be necessary when all the fossil fuel peaker plants have to closed in order to go 100% renewable.

This is where pumped-hydro comes in. It’s a dead-simple scheme – pump water uphill when there’s excess power, and let it flow down again through a generator when you need power. It’s been in use since 1907, and is far and away the largest form of storage, accounting for 1.6 terawatt-hours (TWh) worldwide, and 250 gigawatt-hours (GWh) in the US.

There’s a big pumped hydro system right here in Massachusetts – Northfield Mountain:

About Hydroelectric Power - First Light Power Resources
Upper reservoir of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Hydro Plant

It was the largest in the world when it opened in 1972. It’s been upgraded over time, and can now generate 1.1 GW for up to 7 hours. That’s the same output as the Seabrook nuclear power plant, and is about 9% of the entire New England load. Its lower reservoir is on the Connecticut River. The pump / generators are in a vertical shaft beneath it, and a horizontal tunnel runs from there out to the river. The upper lake can store 21 million tonnes of water with a 210 m head, allowing it to store a theoretical peak of 12 GWh. It was actually built to store the nighttime output of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, allowing it to run at the same rate all the time regardless of demand, but that reactor closed in 2014 due to low electricity prices from shale gas and constant protests. Doing this much storage with batteries at an aggressive price of $100/kWh would cost almost a billion dollars.

So pumped facilities like this are great for intermittent wind and solar power, but hardly any new ones are being built. This is mainly because high hills next to rivers are not common, and because tunnels are expensive.

A team at Australia National University in Canberra have been working on the first problem, and recently published a nice study on just where systems like this can be built: “GIS Algorithms to Locate Prospective Sites for Pumped Hydro Energy Storage” by Bin Lu et al, Applied Energy, July 2018. What they’ve done is to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to identify places that would be suitable to schemes like this. We now have data on the height and characteristics of every square meter of land on the planet, and so can use it to find places that:

  • Are at least 300 m above another spot that is within a 1:15 slope nearby. If the slope is shallower than that, the tunnel between the reservoirs is too long.
  • Could hold at least a million m3 of water.
  • Have a height and volume that gives a storage capacity of at least 1 GWh
  • Has an area of at least 10 hectares (300 m on a side, a small lake) for both the upper and lower reservoirs
  • Is not in an already protected area such as a park
  • Is not already under intensive use like residences
  • Would need dams of limited height and limited amount of excavation
  • Are near existing transmission lines

They then looked for sites to build two kinds of reservoirs:

a) Dry gullies – where there’s a slope that can be dammed. The dam should be no more than 40 m high.

b) Turkey nests – flat areas where excavated dirt can be piled up to form the dam. The sides should be no more than 20m high. Turkeys build their nests this way on flat ground.

(a) Dry gulley scheme, (b) Turkey nest scheme

The big difference between their work and previous efforts is that they did NOT assume there had to be a river nearby. In fact they call it STORES: Short-term Off-River Energy Storage. This greatly increases the number of available sites. This would be a closed-loop system – the water would be pumped back and forth between the reservoirs rather than flowing through. The reservoirs could be filled from a temporary pipeline, and then maintained by trucks or rain catchment arrangements on the slope between the reservoirs.

They applied this to the province of South Australia. It already gets over half of its power from solar and wind. It has a big transmission line to connect to the rest of the country, but when that goes down, they get blackouts. Having local storage would be a huge help to them, and let them go 100% green. The study found 190 sites like the above, with a total capacity of 276 GWh. Modern people consume an average of 1 kW each, so the two million people South Australia use an average of 2 GW. Give them 20 hours of storage and they need 40 GWh. The study found over 5X that!

They also applied the same GIS search to the US and found this:

Data from the Global Pumped Hydro Atlas as part of the RE100 project at ANU. Click to embiggen.

There’s an embarrassment of riches! Basically all the hilly parts of the continent can do something. If we zoom in on western New England, more detail can be seen:

Western New England sites

This map is centered on Mount Greylock in the Berkshires. Now you can see the reservoirs themselves and the tunnels needed. The red dots are the best. There are lots of good sites just north of Greylock in southern Vermont, and lots just to the west in New York. Eastern Massachusetts is too flat, but New Hampshire and Maine have good sites too.

So a surprising number of places could be used for pumped hydro. How about the second problem, the cost of tunneling? A lot of these sites have reservoirs that are quite far apart. Michael Barnard, a clean tech expert and author, proposed that Elon Musk Should Build Pumped Hydro With Tesla Energy, The Boring Co., & Coal Miners. Musk’s Boring Machine company aims to dig relatively small tunnels, ones only 4.3 m (14′) in diameter, for single lane underground traffic routes. That would also be a good size for these pumped hydro tunnels. The pumped hydro projects themselves would be a good addition to his solar projects.

Plus, there are a lot of pumped hydro sites in places like West Virginia and Wyoming, where laid-off coal miners could put their skills to use in a new industry. It needs people who can handle the machinery for tunneling and excavation, and doesn’t give you black lung while doing it. If we really do need to get 20 kWh of storage per person, then the US will need 6.8 TWh of it for 340M people. That’s 27 times what it has today. That sounds like a lot of good work for a lot of people!

So modern information systems in the form of GIS, and modern advances in technology like electric tunneling machines, could give us a way to really get 100% green. Just as the improvements in solar panels and wind turbines have made renewable electricity cheaper than coal, similar progress can give us a place to put all this cheap energy. We don’t have all that long to get going on this!

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Good News on Backstopping Renewables (1) – Ambri

Wind and solar at this point are cheaper than any other form of electricity, and are getting steadily cheaper still. Coal plants are getting shut down because it’s just not worth it to run them, and even natural gas is becoming noncompetitive. This is all to the good for air quality and slowing climate change, but it still leaves the problem of how to handle their variability. The Stanford Jacobson study says that we can meet 100% of our energy needs without fossil fuels or nuclear power, but it’s going to be a challenge.

But once again the engineers are coming through. There has recently been some good news on this front in three areas: the battery startup Ambri, the geothermal startup Eavor, and the research by the Australian National University on closed-loop pumped hydro-storage. Ambri has a scheme for dead cheap batteries with unlimited numbers of cycles, Eavor thinks they can build geothermal power plants almost anywhere, and ANU thinks that systems that pump water between high and low reservoirs to store energy can be built in tens of thousands of places. Let me talk about Ambri in this post and leave Eavor and ANU for subsequent ones.

Ambri was founded in 2011 by David Bradwell and Prof Donald Sadoway of MIT. I wrote about them here, Maniacal Energy Storage Schemes, and here, MIT on Climate Change. Sadoway thought that complex lithium-ion batteries would never be cheap enough to handle the terawatt-hours of storage needed. “If you want something to be as cheap as dirt, make it out of dirt,” he said. He taught the Intro to Solid State Chemistry course at MIT, which was recorded on EdX. One of the auditors happened to be Bill Gates, who arranged to meet him the next time he was in Cambridge. They talked about distance learning, and then Gates asked what else he was working on. Sadoway sketched out a scheme for using the different electro-potentials of liquid metals to make a battery, and Gates became their Round A investor. Teaching undergrads turns out to be good training for pitching VCs!

But they’ve had a long, hard road. This is what the hypesters of entrepreneurship rarely mention – everything will take longer and cost more than you expect. Their original chemistry didn’t work out, and the seals on the batteries failed at high temperatures. They laid off a lot of the staff in 2016, and started over. They’re now building cells using a calcium alloy anode, a calcium-chloride electrolyte, and granules of antimony:

The materials are poured into stainless steel boxes, put onto racks, and shipped as 1 MWh packs in insulated shipping containers:

Credit: Ambri

They’re shipped cold, but heat themselves up to 500C when in operation in order to melt their materials. They’ve got an 80% round-trip efficiency, can start up in about a second, run at 500 to 1500V, and each container can output 250 kW. Li-ion batteries can catch fire and degrade with use, but these don’t. They’re claimed to be significantly cheaper than the $100 / kWh goal for Li-ion batteries, but of course don’t say how much.

The big recent news is that they’ve signed a contract for a 250 MWh system for a data center in Nevada: Ambri Inks Agreement With TerraScale’s Energos Reno Project To Deploy Proprietary Liquid Metal Battery Technology (Nov 24, 2020). At, say, $50/kWh that would be $12.5M. That’s not a heck of a lot, but gets them into mass production. The center will also have a big solar panel array, and is aimed at government and corporate customers who want secure, green computing. Massachusetts already has a center like that, the Mass Green High Performance Computing Center, which is powered by a dam in Holyoke MA, and has a 100 Gb/s fiber link to its founders: MIT, Harvard, BU, Northeastern, and U Mass. Siting this project in Nevada will give everyone on the West Coast similar low-latency access to green computing.

Still, everyone else in the world is working on Li-ion, and are already shipping tens of GWh of those cells. A proprietary solution may be better on the face of it, but has to compete with a thousand times as much ingenuity being applied to the mainline approach. But if Ambri doesn’t win, it’ll be because Li-ion got way better, and the world as a whole will be a winner. The prime value of capitalism is driving these kind of improvements through competition. As a citizen of Massachusetts, I’m hoping that Mass will be the place that delivers this breakthrough, but it’s going to happen somewhere.

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We’ve Got to Get To America 4.0

Every 80 years or so this country has been rebooted. Long-felt tensions exploded, and the country took a new direction. We’re at that point now. There is an outright criminal in the White House, there’s been a massive death toll from an easily-handled pandemic, and only the rich have gotten richer for the last 40 years. Since I’m a technical, I’m also dismayed that the US’s historically high rate of innovation has been choked by monopoly, and that has been dragging the rest of the country down.

Here’s how the phases have worked up until now:

America 1.0 ran from the Revolution to the Civil War. It started out well, with an extraordinary expansion of liberty compared to anywhere else in the world. The Northern states all got rid of slavery, and there was huge economic growth, thanks to power looms, then canals, then railroads. But the clever new machines also made slavery far more profitable, and the South saw no other route forward than maintaining it. The country locked up over the issue, and it was only resolved by a cataclysmic war, one that left half the country in ruins.

America 2.0 was from the Civil War to the Great Depression and World War II. The country expanded enormously, settling all the lands to the Pacific and displacing the Natives. The Second Industrial Revolution happened, with electricity and automobiles. There was vast immigration from the Old World. Again it was a time of huge growth, but the profits were kept by the robber barons. Union organizers were simply murdered. Then the plutocracy showed their incompetence by being unable to deal with the Crash. Herbert Hoover was actually a real businessman and engineer, but he was locked into the mindset of Wealth Makes Right, and couldn’t deal with it.

America 3.0 took us from the Depression to today. The country rose to actual world leadership. It was central to the Third Industrial Revolution of semiconductors and information technology. The period from the 1940s to 1980 was probably the most innovative in history, and the wealth was widely shared. But starting with Reagan, the oligarchy started a long, slow right-wing coup. Unions were crushed and inequality soared to levels not seen outside the Third World. Widgets got cheap, but the important things like housing, education, and medical care got crazily expensive relative to median income.

So here’s where the US finds itself – locked in a power struggle between the oligarchy and reactionaries, and the upper middle class and liberals. Nothing gets done any more. The last significant Constitutional amendment was the 26th, lowering the voting age to 18, and that was almost 50 years ago. That’s the longest gap between amendments in the nation’s history. It’s ludicrous that the ERA is not passed, and that there is no established right to vote. Basic flaws like the status of Puerto Rico and Washington DC are unfixed. Projects of the scale of the Interstate Highway System or the Apollo program are inconceivable. The only infrastructure plan the GOP proposes is one that privatizes public assets. Enormous financial crimes were committed in the run-up to the Great Recession, and went unpunished for fear of political blow-back. Obama’s caution was rewarded by an all-out attack on his Administration, one that deliberately delayed recovery by many years, and aided Trump’s election.

Progress gets made in the margins, like gay marriage and marijuana legalization, but that’s stuff the oligarchy doesn’t care about. Things that involve real money are stagnant. It took an immigrant from South Africa to even get the obvious tech of electric cars going, and the main auto companies are still not into it. Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon are doing about the same things that they were ten years ago. They’ve become trillion-dollar companies by not letting anyone else compete. The stagnation even shows up in the arts – the music and movies of 2000 and 2020 are a lot more similar than those of 1960 and 1980.

We need a reboot. I had hoped the 2020 election would be one, but no. Biden is an even more cautious politician than Obama, and did not get a mandate. 47% of the electorate still went for Trump, literally the worst person to ever be elected President. They also backed Republican senators, who allocated more money as tax breaks to foreign stockholders than they did to the pandemic unemployed. I had thought the reality of GOP rule would be brought home to people as their relations died in the ICU, but many go to their graves insisting the virus is a hoax. People haven’t woken up yet, even as armed thugs parade for Trump, the West is on fire, and the South is flattened by hurricanes.

But they will. Reality is that which does not go away even when you don’t believe in it.

So what should America 4.0 look like? That’s for another post, but I will say that it should be a big dose of what has always restored the country – liberty and equality. Stop people from being preyed on by police fines, and opioid makers, and scam schools, and rapacious financial companies, and brutal labor rules. Don’t let the rich live by separate laws and tax codes and environmental rules. Treat other nations and non-citizens as partners, not as suckers and victims. And above all else, treat each other as citizens, not tribal enemies. It may take something even bigger than COVID to do it, but it’s got to happen.

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H P Lovecraft Had At Least One Black Fan

A while ago I came across an amazing piece of fan fiction – Ex Libris Miskatonici by Joan C Stanley:

Cover Image of "Ex Libris Miskatonici"

It’s a pitch-perfect listing of the sinister and bizarre works that have been collected over the centuries by the great university. The back cover reads:

It is well known that the Miskatonic University Library holds in its collection some of the rarest and most obscure volumes in occult literature. Until this time, access to materials within the library have been restricted to scholars and researchers, and only those with significant academic credentials.

And quite rightly restricted too – these books are dangerous. It goes on:

Now, in this greatly detailed and researched volume, university librarian Joan C Stanley offers some background on the various collections to be found within the Library, as well as detailed descriptions of many of the more infamous volumes contained therein. To be found in this book are chapters detailing histories of the such volumes as The R’lyeh Text, Codex Dagonensis, Die Unaussprechlichen Kulten, as well as the most notorious volume in the university’s collection, The Necronomicon.

She mentions in passing the gruesome ends that many of the donors came to, but is properly thankful for their gifts to the University. She has dry academic discussions of some of texts, like blandly noting that the Eltdown Shards are not just prehuman, but pre-carboniferous, and that they discuss the Cthuhlu rebellion and the extinction of its minions and servitors. With regard to the mad Arab author of The Necronomicon she says:

“Abdul Alhazred” is not an Arabic name, but the type of European corruption of an Arab name common during the eleventh through eighteenth centuries (witness such names as Avicenna and Rhazes). Professor Sadowski’s learned reconstruction of the name appears to conform with what little is known of him. Sadowski translates it as “the worshiper or slave of the Great Devourer or Strangler”, or Abd Al-Azrad.

That careful attention to philology is rarely mixed with “Slave of the Great Devourer”.

So who was Joan C. Stanley? The book’s bio says:

Joan Stanley (1945 – 2016) was a long-time science-fiction and fantasy fan who fell in love with Lovecraft’s writing by reading At the Mountains of Madness while in the tenth grade. To a life-long resident of Boston, those shoggoths pouring out of the cave resembled nothing so much as a speeding MTA streetcar coming out of a Tremont Street tunnel, or a subway train screeching through the Park Street Under. She often wondered if Lovecraft had once been terrified by the city subway system. In real life, she was a criminal lawyer (that can mean whatever you wish) whose only previous forays into writing had been in the appellate courts.

Then I found her obituary and picture:

She wasn’t just a lawyer, she was the second Black woman to be assistant US attorney for Boston. She was born in Boston, and graduated from Howard University and Northwestern Law. She had a long career, but suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for her adult life. She wrote a number of Lovecraft pastiches, but this one is still available in soft and hardcover from Necronomicon Press.

Now, Lovecraft was infamous for the racism in his works. So infamous that a novel was based on it, Lovecraft Country (2016) by Matt Ruff. Its premise is that a young Black fan of Lovecraft in the 1950s finds the world of white people to be just as alien and horrifying as Lovecraft’s visions of the Elder Gods. His family publishes The Safe Negro Travel Guide, the equivalent of the actual Green Book, and he goes off on adventures to rescue his father from a nasty WASP cult.

Cover of "Lovecraft Counter" by Matt Ruff

I enjoyed the novel, but have not liked the HBO mini-series based on it. The stress on racism is just as compelling, but the horror bits are banal when you actually see them. Banal because you’ve seen haunted houses and Masonic-ish rituals and monsters in the woods many times before. These are Hollywood tropes, not Lovecraftian ones. Some bits also ring false, like the founder of the cult having a Black slave mistress. In Massachusetts? In 1830? It doesn’t help that all the backwoods yokels in supposed Massachusetts have southern accents (the series was actually filmed in Georgia), or dress in Pennsylvania Amish clothing styles. All those East Coast states are the same, right?

Of course, racism is an actual and pressing problem, while Lovecraft’s horror of cosmic entities is not. It’s the mixing of the two that doesn’t quite work. Stanley managed to mix cosmic horror with arid academese to funny effect, and that was a skillful combination to pull off.

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2020 Is Already the 2nd Worst Year in US History

One concrete way to describe how awful something is is by how many people are killed by it. It’s a measure that all can agree on, and is relatively well quantified. There are many other ways in which things can be bad, but counting the dead is a lot more straightforward than counting, say, corruption or cruelty.

So here we are in the horrible year of 2020. How bad is it compared to other years in US history? Let’s do this by the numbers:

YearUS DeathsCauseSource
2020>210KCOVID-19Covid Trends
201770KPeak drug overdoses. 2018 was down to 63K and more recent years are not listed yetCDC
199586KPeak AIDS deathsCDC (Figure 1)
199027KMost murdersHomicide Rates in the US
196817KHighest year for military deaths in VietnamWikia
1944~150KWorst year for the US in World War IIArmy (pg 10), Navy (tbl 1 & 3)
1918~550K115K lost in World War I, and ~450K in the 1918 Flu PandemicWW I & Flu
1864~150KWorst year of the American Civil Warof 360K Union total

At this point, 3/4 of the way through 2020, there have been 210K official deaths due to COVID-19. There have been an additional 30K to 95K deaths above typical mortality rates according to the CDC, which are likely to be unreported cases. About 700 people are still dying per day. By the end of the year, the official plus unofficial US death toll will be over 300K.

That’s still not as bad as 1918 for the country as a whole. Yet for my state of Massachusetts, 2020 is already the worst year. Mass lost 7000 people to the Great Flu and 974 to WW I in 1918. That’s about 8000 total, and it has already lost 9500 to COVID by official count. Massachusetts has the third-worst rate in the nation, after New Jersey and New York.

So individual years from the worst wars in US history don’t compare to the toll from COVID-19. The only event of similar size was the Flu Pandemic. It killed ~675K Americans over two years, more even than WW II’s toll of 405K over four years. COVID’s overall count probably won’t reach the Flu’s, but it’s likely to be even worse for the US than World War II by the time it finally burns out.

This was not an Act of God. It was caused by the deliberate downplaying of the threat by the Administration and many governors. A lot of developed countries were hit hard by COVID, and they have all gotten past it. For that matter, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts are largely past it. The US is still suffering because of a level of political malice and incompetence not seen since the Civil War. The country will come back from this, but it should remember who did it.

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“The New Alchemy Institute” – a Tech Road Not Taken

Back in the 1970s a lot of people, including me, were worried about Big Tech.  It was polluting, it was dangerous, and it operated on inhuman scales.  Big Tech was vast refineries, coal power plants, open-pit mines, and steel mills.  It was the immensely destructive and futile Vietnam War. It was the reason you couldn’t breathe in Los Angeles and New York.  It set rivers on fire in Ohio.  Behind it all was the species-ending Bomb.

So there was a movement called Alternative Technology.  It used cheap, low-tech materials in a smarter way to do softer things like heat houses, and grow and cook food.  Its patron saint was Buckminster Fuller, who thought that with good enough design everyone could live well.  Its bible was “Small Is Beautiful” by the British economist E. F. Shumacher.  Its house organ was the Whole Earth Catalog and then the Coevolution Quarterly.

It had an outpost in Massachusetts with the grandly named New Alchemy Institute.  Instead of turning lead to gold, it was using knowledge, water, wood, and plastic to live richly in cold New England.  It was to be an ark of sustainable living and agriculture on 12 acres in Cape Cod, close to the great oceanographic institutes of Woods Hole.

The passive solar greenhouse and garden, click for source

I visited it on a memorable trip in 1978.  I bicycled down from Cambridge to hear a concert in an old Quaker meeting house, and then went to a  bonfire party and sing-a-long at the Institute.  I crashed on someone’s couch there that night, and got a tour the next day.

At that time they were working on passive solar and aquaculture.  The greenhouses above contained huge water tanks made of sheets of translucent polyethylene.  Algae would grow in them and feed tilapia fish.  The nutrient-rich water would then be used for fertilizer in  greenhouse hydroponics and in outdoor vegetable fields.  The whole setup was warm all winter because of good insulation and heat storage in those tanks, and smelled of jungle.  It could easily house and feed a family.

I was a student at the time, but I never pursued any of these ideas.  Neither did the country.  The Institute had been running on federal grants, but those all dried up after Reagan was elected.  So did almost all renewable energy research; photovoltaic work nearly stopped.  They didn’t care about this hippy stuff.  Even Jack Kilby, the co-inventor of the integrated circuit, couldn’t get any interest in his scheme for a solar cell that stored its power in an early flow battery (see After the IC: Jack Kilby’s Solar Misadventure).   There was plenty of oil in the world, so long as you could cut good deals with the Arabs and Iranians.  They sent the US oil and we sent them SAM missiles and F-16s.

They despised tech like this because they loved money and power, but that’s not me.  Why didn’t I pursue this?  I liked the vibe and believed in their ideals, but I had little to contribute.  I was and am an EE, and so am firmly on the abstract side of engineering.  I don’t have the patience for even gardening, never mind farming.

The Institute closed in 1991. The three principals, John and Nancy Todd, and Bill McLarney, all went on to do good work.  The Todds founded several subsequent companies to do bio-oriented wastewater management, and their systems are used in dozens of places.  They’re now 80, and live nearby.  McLarney helped to found ANAI in Costa Rica, which encourages diverse and organic agriculture and clean water initiatives.  He also helped to save the Little Tennessee River in North Carolina from pollution and development.  The Guardian did a great article about them and the Institute here: The Circle of Life, 2019.

I actually visited the site of the Institute this summer.  Its buildings are still there:

It has now added PV solar panels as well as the hot water ones, and their rickety windmill experiments are all gone.  There are still lots of vegetable fields, and a farm stand next to it.  It’s been turned into co-housing and the offices of the Coonmessett Farm Foundation.  They do mainly marine biology research, such as studies of the local scallop fishery, but also consult on off-shore wind power.  They must be tied into the labs at Woods Hole.  The farm is also a popular wedding venue!

The Foundation has been running since the mid-90s.  It looks to me like a more sustainable enterprise, since it’s connected to other local labs and devoted to more American economic concerns.  The Institute was doing Third World agriculture: cheap and labor-intensive.  It’s great in places like Costa Rica, but US operations aren’t likely to take it up.

Instead, they’re more likely to adopt vertical farming:

SananBio farm factory in Xianmen

Vast warehouses full of LED lighting, hydroponics, and almost no people.  These have no bugs and no weeds, and so no need for pesticides and herbicides.  They’re not dependent on weather or worried about rabbits.  The whole can be tuned up over time by IoT and AI to get exponential improvements in productivity per unit area and energy.  It’s the dead opposite of the Institute philosophy of living more in tune with nature.

Maybe that’s better.  Human beings tend to completely overwhelm nature once there are a lot of them.  Rather than plowing up all the fertile land of the world, we should let it revert to wilderness and farm in warehouses like these in our hives of cities.  The great biologist E. O. Wilson thinks that we should leave half of the Earth untouched in order to preserve bio-diversity.

The Institute is so green and lush that people want to be there on their wedding day, the biggest day of their lives.  But when there are 10 billion people on earth, the 21st century version of Big Tech is what will be needed.

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Moore’s Law In Spaaaace: Data Rates from Mars

The visionary scientist Freeman Dyson died early this year at age 96, but he gave a terrific talk in 2011 on four revolutions he had seen: space, computing, nuclear power, and genomics:

You may know him from the Orion project, a scheme to power rockets by throwing a series of small nuclear bombs out the back, or from the Dyson Sphere, his proposal that advanced alien civilizations could be detected by the flickering infrared light from stars that were completely surrounded by artificial worldlets, or (his major contribution) from his being a midwife to quantum electrodynamics in the late 1940s, even though Feynmann, Schwinger and Tomonaga won the Nobel for it.  He had been everywhere and known everyone.

So the whole video is worth watching, but let me pick up on something a questioner asked him at the end (51:35).  He asked why space technology hasn’t moved as fast as computing, with its exponential gains due to Moore’s Law.  Dyson replied that unmanned space tech was improving quickly, and largely because of the processing improvements made possible by Moore’s Law.   When he was working on Orion, he thought that space explorers would be like Darwin in the Galapagos, tromping around collecting samples on the moons of Saturn and writing reports.  He had no idea that there would be craft like Kepler, which has found thousands of exo-planets by radioing back the tiny dips in light that happen when a planet comes between a star and us.

But is this true?  Can we see Moore’s Law at work in space?   Let’s pick one concrete parameter, the communication rate back from space probes.  The rates vary hugely with distance, so let’s pick the most common destination for space probes, Mars, and compare them:

Click for spreadsheet, with lists of all missions

They range from 33 bits/sec with the very first successful probe in 1964, Mariner 4, to 6000 Kbit/sec for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2004.  That would be a doubling every 2 years, but those are outliers.  If we pick more typical numbers like the 16 Kbit/sec of Mariner 9 and the 2000 Kbit/sec of Mars 2020, we get a doubling every 6.7 years.  That’s not the chip version of Moore’s Law that doubles every 1.5 years, but it’s decent.

The rates have improved because of:

  • More power in the transmitters: probes have gone from a few hundred watts to a couple of thousand watts due to better and bigger solar panels
  • More accurate pointing of higher-gain antennas.  The narrower the beam, the higher the bandwidth, but the harder it is to keep it pointed at Earth.
  • Better modulation of the signals.  This is where Moore’s Law really matters – more complex chips allow more complex modulation of the radio signals, permitting them to be more easily distinguished from noise.
  • Better ground receivers.  The Deep Space Network now operates huge radio-telescopes all around the world.

The next leap forward will be laser links.  This was the plan for the Next Mars Orbiter, which would have had a 100 Mbit/sec laser link back to the Earth.   It would replace the current relay satellites like MRO, Mars Express, and MAVEN, which are getting old.  If the Orbiter went up in 2030, it would be a 16X speedup over MRO in 26 years, maintaining the bandwidth doubling every 6.7 years.

The 12 missions shown above are the ones I could find data rates for, and were largely the NASA missions.  There have 61 missions total to Mars, of which 28 (only 46%)  succeeded, and 5 (!) are en route.  A single launch may carry multiple missions, E.g. Mars 2020 carries both the Perseverance  rover and the Ingenuity helicopter.  They’ve all been done by governmental entities.  Of the 28 successful missions,  NASA (US) did 21, ESA (Europe) did 3, Roscomos (Russia) did 3, and the ISRO (India) did 1.

Special mention should be made of the Emirates Mars Mission, which launched a few days ago.  This was planned and run by the United Arab Emirates, with the probe built by the University of Colorado.  Single universities and small countries can now send missions to Mars!  This is a wonderful development.

So, yes, unmanned space really is moving forward at a good rate.  What hasn’t really moved is manned space flight.  Dyson talked about this too at 2:53 in the video.  He and Carl Sagan were on a committee to examine the science that could be done on the International Space Station.  They heard 48 proposals, and found that 46 of them could be done better by unmanned satellites, since they needed different orbits or quieter environments than the ISS could provide.  The other 2 were on the effects of weightlessness on human beings, so they had to admit that, yes, they had to be done on the ISS.

But Dyson wasn’t bothered by this.  He liked the Russian attitude that manned space is a matter of destiny, not science.  He had been to Baikonour before a Soyuz launch, and noted how the whole town would turn out to fete the astronauts, with great parades and speeches.  Treat it as a matter of adventure and pride, not science.

That’s what happened with the recent SpaceX launch of NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken to the ISS.  No one cared what they would actually do on the ISS – they were just relieved that the US was back in the game.  (If you do care, it’s described here, and seems to have mainly been equipment upgrades and testing).

Adventure and national pride is probably enough to get people back to the Moon, but Mars is an order of magnitude harder and more expensive.  We won’t see people there for a long time, but there are already 8 active robots there, and 5 more on the way.   Machines really can benefit from the amazing progress of Moore’s Law, so Martian robots are doing great.

 

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