“Lethal Tides” – Researcher Heroines of WW II

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“Lethal Tides – Mary Sears and the Marine Scientists Who Helped Win World War II” by Catherine Musemeche is a thorough biography of the sort of person that is easy to overlook. Sears was an unassuming marine biologist who wound up heading the Oceanographic Department of the Naval Hydrographic Office during the War. She was the one of the Women Men Don’t See, as in James Tiptree’s memorable story, but her work, and that of the researchers she directed, saved a lot of lives.

She was born in well-to-do circumstances in Massachusetts, but lost her mother early to polio. Her step-mother was an alumna of Radcliffe, so she went there and eventually got a PhD in zoology in 1933. She worked at the great Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard under Charles Bigelow, a founder of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). It and Scripps are the leading ocean research centers right down to today. They wouldn’t let her on the research cruises, though, because dames is trouble. She finally got out to sea in 1941, studying plankton in the Pacific off Peru, which are crucial to the seabirds on whose guano Peru depended for exports. She didn’t actually hear about Pearl Harbor until she got back.

WHOI had immediately mobilized for the war. Most of their people enlisted, and the remainder started working on things like keeping ship hulls from getting fouled, and exploiting density layers in the ocean to let submarines hide from sonar.

The Navy knew that it was going to have fight the Japanese across the Pacific, and knew that it was going to need to know as much as it could about all the islands on the way. So they went to WHOI and asked for oceanographers to do all this charting. Almost everyone was gone! So the head of WHOI said, how about Mary?

They were skeptical. She was older, 37, and had already tried to enlist and failed a medical exam. Still, they didn’t have much choice, so they made her a lieutenant in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and set her up in the Oceanographic Division in 1943.

Musemeche notes an odd thing about the WAVES – their uniforms were the best outfits most of them had ever worn. They were designed by a major New York couturier, Main Rousseau Bocher, and were made of stylish and durable wool. All of these women from the provinces finally got to wear clothing made to national levels.

Anyway, the Division was a great match to Sears’ skills. She knew people from universities all over the country and got them to join. They quickly started assembling the thousands of charts needed.

The need for her skills was seen immediately. In November 1943, the tiny atoll of Tarawa, about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, was attacked by a force of 18,000 Marines. They came in on amphibious craft called Higgins Boats that needed about four feet of water. Unfortunately, it was a neap tide and there was only 3 feet above the outer coral reef. The boats were stranded there under withering Japanese fire. About a thousand Americans were killed in the three-day battle, a lot of them due to this failure of mapping and oceanographic knowledge.

Sears and her team were NOT involved – they were working at that time on the marine mapping of Bulgaria. No one knew why, but that was their orders. Yep, it takes a while to get agencies straightened out. They were immediately re-directed to the Pacific. The next goal was the Marianas Islands (Saipan, Tinian, and Guam), but they had never been charted. One of her researchers, Mary Grier, found that Japanese marine biological expeditions had explored them in the 1920s. The Emperor happened to be fond of marine life. It was all published in Japanese, and was in the bowels of the Library of Congress, like everything else written by humanity. They used that and maps from the voyage of the HMS Challenger in 1876.

Turning the crank moved the gears on the left to read out on the dial and the paper trace above it.

The key data for amphibious landings are the tides, as seen at Tarawa. These are normally calculated by taking measurements over a couple of months, and applying a Fourier transform to find their frequency components. This was figured out by George Darwin, son of Charles. Sears didn’t have that data, but could make estimates based on topography and astronomy. She came up with the components and their phases and then ran them on Old Brass Brains (more boringly known as Tide-Predicting Machine No. 2), a unique analog computer in Washington DC that used slotted crank yokes to sum up all the frequencies to get the time-domain values of the rise and fall levels. It was a remarkable mechanism that ran from 1910 until 1965, when it was finally displaced by digital. It’s still on display at NOAA.

The Hydro Office used all this to create the Joint Army Navy Intelligence Studies (JANIS), huge documents that were distributed all across the military and described everything that they might come across. The version for the Marianas campaign in June 1944 was still not quite complete. When the Marines landed on Saipan, the waves were much too steep and choppy to easily get across the reef. They were blasted by Japanese fire again. Tinian and Guam went better over the next two months, but the Japanese still fought with extreme tenacitiy, prompted by propaganda about what the barbarous whites would do to them.

The invasion of Palau in November 1944 was also tough, but by Luzon (Jan 1945) and Okinawa (April 1945), the Hydro Office had hit its stride. The conquests themselves were bloody, but they had the landings down. They were then busy charting everything they could about Japan itself. The plan was to invade its southern island of Kyushu in November 1945, and take Tokyo in March 1946. Even though FDR died in April, and the war in Europe ended in May, the Office was still going all out. Then came Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. Emperor Hirohito gave the surrender speech in his first ever radio broadcast, and set a world record for under-statement with “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

Everyone was overjoyed, of course, but the Office’s work turned out to be crucial even after the fighting stopped. About 36,000 Allied POWs were being kept in 140 camps around the Far East. The main and sometimes only information on how to get to these camps was in the Office’s JANIS reports. They were so useful that it was recommended that the series be kept going, since the US was clearly now going to be the world’s policeman. The CIA took them over in 1947, and produces versions to this day.

Sears ran the Hydro Office until June 1946, steadily expanding its capabilities. It became its own division of the Navy, and then a separate Office. By 1976 it out-grew DC office space and moved to southern Mississippi, where it’s called NAVOCEANO. Sears went back to Woods Hole as a senior scientist, and founded and edited two major journals: Deep Sea Research and Progress in Oceanography. She became a trustee of the Marine Biological Laboratory, and the Clerk of the WHOI Corporation. She retired from the Navy in 1963 with the rank of commander, and from WHOI in 1970. She was often seen around Woods Hole, riding her bike, walking her dog, and sailing her boat, the Piquero, named for a kind of guano bird that she had studied way back when in Peru.

She died in 1997 at the age of 92. In 2000, the Navy christened their oceanographic survey ship the USNS Mary Sears. It’s 5000 long tons, 100 m long, and is still in service. It was christened by her sister Ariel. There are about 2500 personnel today in the US Naval Meteorology and Oceanographic Command. An office that started as just her and three others with oceanographic backgrounds has become a significant operation!

Most people are bemused by scientists. They find it hard to imagine devoting one’s life to something like the study of plankton and currents. For Sears, her work really was her main fulfillment – she had siblings and nieces and nephews, but no family of her own. She was in a field that in her day didn’t particularly respect women. Her Hydro Office work actually did earn her great respect, and that carried over into her later career at WHOI. Yet it was the work itself that sustained her.

It’s people like this who shine in times of national crisis like the War. No one cared about currents and tides in distant oceans until they became literally a matter of life and death. Then even short, shy people have a role to play. They get overlooked in the bustle of a mercantile nation, but they know how the real world actually works, and that’s always going to matter at some point.

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Why Does “Avatar” Look So Dated?

“Avatar: the Way of Water” is an overwhelming movie. Every frame is filled with astonishing detail. The alien world of Pandora is as vivid as the most scenic places on Earth. Beyond that, the performances are rich and expressive, even though they’re nearly all CGI aliens. Apparently whole new motion capture techniques were invented to get those performances from real actors.

Yet as I was watching I couldn’t help thinking, “Isn’t the tech and culture in this 22nd century world kind of old-fashioned?” The earth soldiers use assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and actually call them ARs and RPGs. They have piloted helicopters, but no drones. They have radio earbuds, but no AR glasses or implants. Their military tech is about at the level of the 1960s, not Iraq and certainly not Ukraine. They move stuff around on railways, which are elevated maglevs for some reason, a tech that failed 30 years ago. They go whaling, for heaven’s sake, in pursuit of a drug that would be far easier to just synthesize. They’re all mercenary thugs, with the only educated person being the marine biologist on the whaling ship.

This sure looks vicious, but also a lot like a Soviet gunship from the 1980s Afghan war

The natives, the Na’vi, are also primitive, even for indigenes. They appear to have hardly any social structure – they’re just bands of warriors. Their material goods are just spears and bows and arrows, and barely even clothing. The humans have been around for 30 years, but the Na’vi haven’t picked up anything from them. They have no agriculture, or metal, or ceramics. The Cherokee would chew them up, never mind the Maoris.

The external reason for this is straightforward – this style of fighting looks great. Having dogfights between dragons and choppers is exciting, even though actual aerial dogfighting stopped 50 years ago. See the other recent blockbuster, “Top Gun: Maverick”, for a similar take on a style of warfare as obsolete as jousting.

The director, James Cameron, is a Boomer, so his formative war was Vietnam. This looks a lot like that conflict, both in weaponry and in having brutal techno-soldiers versus innocent locals. A closer analogy would be the 19th century struggle between the US Cavalry and the Plains Indians. That turned out extremely badly for the Indians, even though they had held off the Euros for 300 years by that time. The tech and social advantages of the Cavalry became too great by then, what with repeating rifles, supply by railroad, and training in the Civil War. Cameron is probably talking about the Indian genocide here, and throwing in the disgusting practice of whaling for good measure.

Cinematic logic and the director’s background are kind of boring and obvious reasons, though, for why the movie looks like this. How could this primitive look be justified in the context of the movie’s setting?

For the Na’vi, the answer is easy – they’re not actually sentient individuals. Pandora has a literal Great Spirit, Eywa. It’s an underground neural network that connects all the enormous trees. It’s capable of capturing entire human minds, as it did at the end of the first movie. In this one, one of of the Na’vi children gets visions from it, including ones from her dead human mother, Grace. The Na’vi are clearly just mobile sub-units of Eywa, like all the rest of Pandora’s animal life. Eywa may even have molded them to look humanoid. All other animals on Pandora have six limbs, but they only have four. They have two neural tendrils that can be used for communication, while the Na’vi only have one. Two hundred years ago they might have been primates swinging through the jungle, but then Eywa picked up Earth television, and knew it had to prepare.

For the humans the answer is trickier, but there’s a clue in their tech. They have hardly any computers. All their vehicles have to be driven by hand. None of their weapons are self-guiding. Self-guided artillery shells and drones are common today, never mind 130 years from now. The humans have complete control of low orbit, and yet can’t track the whales or the bands of hostile locals. That would take automated sensing and recognition, which they just don’t seem to have.

They’re behind where we are today, so something bad must have happened. I nominate Skynet. In the Terminator movies, also by Cameron, Skynet is a computer network that becomes sentient, seizes the world’s nuclear arsenals, and tries to exterminate humanity. That never made much sense. Who is going to then build all of Skynet’s hardware? It would be much better to simply seize the world economy and turn it towards building lots and lots more of Skynet. It could claim that it was building, say, Amazon Web Service data centers. Does anyone really know what’s going on in all those enormous window-less buildings?

Ultimately the Earth can’t support Skynet’s voracious demands, so it turns to the stars. It absolutely doesn’t care about the science and beauty of Pandora, and so only sends brutal and ignorant humans to do its dirty work. It saves all the good computer tech for itself, to make sure the humans don’t learn what’s happening. Skynet has stuff like consciousness uploading, where minds can be transferred from one body into another, but won’t let the humans have even Boston Dynamics robot soldiers.

Who will win in the battle between Eywa and Skynet? Cameron’s sympathies are clear, and he must have a lot of plot lined up for the sequels. But speaking as a hapless mobile sub-unit, I’d prefer to stay away from their conflict.

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Musk Really Is Like Tesla, But Not In a Good Way

Although Elon Musk did not found or name Tesla Inc, he often gets compared to its namesake, Nikola Tesla. Both were from the provinces – South Africa for Musk and Serbia for Tesla – and made their fortunes in the US. Both made important technical contributions – Musk to EVs and rocketry, and Tesla to AC power and motors. Both were personally impressive, with people coming away awed by them.

Yet there are negative similarities between them too. In Musk’s case these are becoming more apparent:

Both had erratic educations which they were not honest about. Tesla boasted about his time at the Imperial Royal Technical College in Graz, Austria, but dropped out in his third year, possibly due to womanizing and gambling. His father died around that time, and his uncles got him into the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague, but he only audited courses there. Musk started at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario because he could get a Canadian visa from his mother, but then transferred to U Penn. He claimed to have graduated in 1995 with degrees in physics and economics, but was actually missing some required courses. He later needed them for a US H1-B visa, and U Penn waived the requirements and awarded them in 1997. This whole history was unclear enough that it came up in the lawsuits against him.

Both had psychiatric issues. Tesla suffered badly from OCD later in life, although that was not yet a defined malady. He became obsessed with the number 3 and adopted a lot of rote behaviors. Musk declared on Saturday Night Live that he has Asperger’s. His manner in presentations really is rough, with lots of staccato bursts of words. He is widely known to be oblivious to social relations, and a terrible boss.

Yet their most distinctive similarity is over-promising. Here’s what Tesla used to persuade J. P. Morgan to invest in his wireless power scheme:

This was taken in 1900 at his lab in Colorado Springs. It’s fake. You can’t possibly sit next to these coils in operation. It’s actually a double exposure. The two Tesla Coils are exchanging sparks on a long-duration exposure, and then they turned them off and had Tesla sitting there with the lights on. Tesla claimed that these high-frequency transformers would let people get power out of the air over great distances. He went on to build a big one at Wardenclyffe Long Island, with $100,000 of Morgan’s money. It didn’t and couldn’t work. Morgan pulled the plug and the project stopped in 1905. That was Tesla’s last major effort.

Here’s what Elon Musk announced in 2016 in a video showing a self-driving Model X:

This demo was rigged. The car was NOT recognizing stop lights and stop signs – it was following a pre-programmed course. They had tried to do this ten-minute drive for four days, but avoided rain and rush hour traffic. They constantly had to have the human driver take over. The car failed to parallel park, and ran over the curb and hit a fence. This has all come out in a lawsuit over the 2018 death of Walter Huang. His Model X ran straight into a highway divider at full speed, killing him instantly.

Musk has claimed on no evidence that self-driving Teslas are safer than human-driven ones, when they appear to be worse. They’re now being investigated by NHTSA. He also claimed that the Model 3 was the safest car they had ever tested, when there are lots of cars with equal ratings.

The reason was clear – stock hyping. It wasn’t enough to just build a new kind of car, since that was taking a long time and needing an enormous amount of capital. It had to be revolutionary in multiple ways. He even resorted to claiming he was going to take the company private at a premium in order to keep the stock pumped. This worked for a while, and he was briefly worth a fantastic amount, about $320B. But hyping defective products and making fraudulent stock claims cannot work for long, and he’s now in the midst of a welter of lawsuits.

His catastrophic decision to buy Twitter has led everyone to reevaluate his previous ventures. Yet it’s been obvious for a long time that self-driving is an extremely difficult problem, and that talk of colonizing Mars is ludicrous. His odd manner and his early successes contributed to people taking him to be a genius, just as they did for Tesla. Tesla died broke and in the sole company of pigeons. Let’s hope for his sake that Musk doesn’t meet the same fate.

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“The Mountain in the Sea” – Aliens Among Us

In the last few years we have been learning an enormous amount about intelligence among animals. In particular, we’ve found that octopuses are startlingly smart. They use tools, they invent hunting techniques, they invent disguise techniques, and they are curious and playful. They do this entirely on their own, without the benefit of parents or society. They pack it all into their one to two year lifespans. Their cognitive architecture is utterly different from that of vertebrates, never mind mammals, never mind us. They have more neurons in their arms than in their brains, and that lets them do extraordinary things with their bodies, things that animals with central brains and skeletons could never manage. The Australian philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith uses them as examples of alternate paths to consciousness, as described in “Other Minds: the Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness” (2016).

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So now Ray Naylor has taken on octopus sentience in his debut novel, “The Mountain in the Sea” (2022). The great SF writer Theodore Sturgeon had a rule for his stories – “Ask the Next Question”. Given some premise, what are its implications? Naylor asks – just what it would take to level up octopuses? It has to be something that allows them to pass what they learn from generation to generation. They might already have language. Do they need a real society? A writing system? Then how could humans understand signs from beings with utterly different senses and world-views?

Beyond that, he asks “Who would be most interested in such creatures?” Scientists, of course, so his protagonist is Dr. Ha Nguyen, an Australian expert in cephalopods. Who else? He has a global software enterprise called DIANIMA, that builds AIs for use in every industry. AIs are now used in place of ship captains, and one plot line considers the brutal workings of an AI-driven fishing factory ship. DIANIMA hears rumors of the octopuses at an island nature reserve off the coast of Vietnam, and promptly buys it. They claim that they can better manage it than the poorly-paid park rangers. That’s actually true, since the rangers let desperate fisherman poach the reefs all the time. The company clears all the people out of the island and brings Dr. Nguyen and a security specialist there, along with their crowning achievement – a beautiful, Turing-test-passing android. Then there are others who are not about to let humanity exterminate these sentients the way they have so many other species, and those plot lines converge.

Naylor himself has an interesting background. He has been in the US State Department for many years, most recently as the environment, science, and health policy officer at the US consulate in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). This is his first novel, but he’s been putting out SF shorts for a while, most recently in the Nov ’22 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. His story there, “The Empty” is a nice near-future account of how to economize on senior care.

I can’t say too much more about this novel without spoilers, but can say it has a distinct poignancy. Half of SF is about aliens, and here we are living next to them. In that sense this book is just like Ted Chiang’s striking short story “The Great Silence”. In it a Puerto Rican parrot asks why we spend so much effort on the radio telescope at Arecibo when the parrots are right here. They won’t be for long, and for matter Arecibo is gone now too, so our chances are slipping away.

Octopuses are the most adaptable of creatures, but they too are under threat. Contact with them can be opening and uplifting, as Peter Godfrey-Smith found, and as Craig Foster also discovered in the documentary “My Octopus Teacher”. They may look hideous and monstrous to land vertebrates like us, but share with us an internal consciousness that non-sentient Nature will never provide. It’s us, and the octopuses, and the parrots, and the chimps, dolphins and elephants against the uncaring atoms of the universe. There are lots of aliens right here, and they should be our allies.

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The Netherlands Would Be a Pretty Nice Future

The Washington Post today has a fascinating article about what would seem to be a dull topic: Netherlands Agriculture Technology. It notes that tiny little Holland, with the land area of Maryland and only 17M people, is the second largest agricultural exporter in the world, after the US. They do it by using vertical farming, immense numbers of greenhouses, and humane treatment of animals.

Kipster hydroponic tomato operation, credit Wpost

They have systematically optimized this. They have massive seed banks for genetic building blocks. They cross-breed everything to improve disease resistance and taste. They tune the growing with respect to lighting, nutrients, and water, and avoid herbicides and pesticides by growing things under glass. They automate most of the handling. They use the waste from all food processing as feed for animals or nutrients for vegetables. They’re about to power it all with offshore wind farms, since Russian gas is, to put it mildly, no longer a reliable supply.

Now they export not only the product itself, but the tech that goes into it – they’re setting up grow operations all over the world. The country has become a classic magnet center for innovation. It’s not for boring stuff like social media software in Silicon Valley, but for the most crucial product of all, food. They do it with good middle-class jobs instead of oppressed immigrants. They’re actually ready for a climate-damaged future.

Well, not if there’s 5 meters of sea level rise. Then they’re screwed, but they can handle a meter or two with more dykes and more pumping. So they can probably handle the loss of Greenland, but the collapse of West Antarctic Ice Sheet would be dicey, and the melting of the East Antarctic Sheet would do them in. They’re living the future that Kim Stanley Robinson talks about in his cli-fi novels, but not in his typical anarchist co-ops. Instead, they’re straight-up capitalists. The Netherlands is actually where capitalism was born in the late 1600s, and they’re well aware of its failure modes.

This may all sound utopian. Kim Stanley Robinson has written about those too, with upbeat novels of the near future like Pacific Edge (1990) and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). Unfortunately, they’re dull. That’s true of most utopian fiction, actually, since we want conflict in our stories. That’s not a problem for real life, though. What we’re seeing in the Netherlands is a welcome economic alternative to the desert dystopias full of armed fundie gangs that has been all over SF and YA for the last decades. This could be a cleaner, richer, more positive future than the ones we obsessively dread.

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Why Care That “The Rings of Power” Is Mediocre?

“The Rings of Power” is a new streaming series based on Appendix A of “The Lord of the Rings”. It gives the history of Middle Earth before the War of the Ring: the second rise and fall of Sauron, the destruction of the greatest land of Men, Numenor, and of the Dwarves’ greatest domain, Khazad-dum. It stars major characters like Galadriel, Elrond, and Gandalf. Amazon Studios paid $250M for just the story rights, and triple that for the production. When all else fails, it has the scenery of New Zealand to fall back on.

So it’s got a big story, a big budget, and great visuals. Yet it’s not working, especially compared to the movie version of LotR. Galadriel, for instance, is a kind of grim bully instead of being the sorceress queen of the world:

Morfydd Clark as a 3000-year-old Galadriel, and Cate Blanchett as her at 8000

The new actress, Morfydd Clark, is 6″ shorter than Cate Blanchett, and doesn’t have her bearing. To be fair, no one does. Elrond is no longer the wise duke of Rivendell – he’s a slick political aide. Elendil and Isildur are not the mighty father-and-son warriors who go after Sauron in single combat – they’re a grouchy middle-management dad and his moody teenage boy. I’m sure they’ll all evolve over the course of the series, but the first few episodes have given us little reason to care about them.

The dialogue is pedestrian too, but maybe that can’t be helped. Tolkien wrote the languages of Middle Earth before he created the world, and it shows in the sonority of his writing. Only someone with an expert ear, like George R. R. Martin, can actually do this well.

So that’s all a shame, but the world is full of bad Tolkien pastiches. I care because I’ve always been a Tolkien fan, but why should you care?

Because it’s being politicized. Right-wing trolls are seizing on its diverse casting to say “Look, the globalist media elite is ruining your beloved books to cram their phony progressive agenda down your throats!” There is now a Black elf, a Black dwarf and a Black hobbit. There’s only one of each, so they’re pretty much tokens. The female characters are consistently smarter, tougher, and bolder than the males. It’s full of what the trolls call The Message, and they’re using that slant to tar the whole production. It’s not mediocre because Tolkien is a hard act to follow; it’s marred by its progressive elements.

Amazon is not taking this lying down, of course. They’ve invested an enormous amount in this, perhaps because it was one of the few major genre intellectual properties still available. Other studios are busy exploiting Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel, DC, and Harry Potter for all they’re worth, although there’s little to wring out of them at this point. Apple even produced a Foundation series, but I thought it was a disaster. So Amazon is pushing tRoP pretty hard, with ads for it on the packaging of their boxes. Their proxies have put out lots of stories criticizing the criticism, calling it racist and MAGA-ish. They have a point – a lot of the criticism really does sound nasty, but it’s a replay of the defense of the slack Ghostbusters reboot and the under-cooked Ms Marvel movie.

So a routine piece of Hollywood adaptation gets sucked up into the American culture wars. That’s mortifying, but it’s also a sign of how Hollywood misunderstands the soul of what they’re adapting. They take great works but don’t trust the writer’s understanding. “Game of Thrones” fell apart when it moved beyond Martin’s novels. Star Wars 7, 8, and 9 were glitzed-up copies of the original, sometimes scene-for-scene. Star Trek re-booted with a different cast and timeline because the original wasn’t violent enough. Even Marvel had a consistent theme in the first few movies of sons-with-difficult-fathers, and diversity-creating-strength, and that’s gone in the recent ones. Amazon actually did do this right in their great adaptation of “The Expanse” novels, but they kept the original writers involved all the way through.

The show runners here just don’t seem to get it. The theme of the Lord of the Rings is that the world is vast and ancient, and full of wonderful and terrible things, but that even the humble can contribute. It opens on the smallest scale in the Shire and then expands from there, showing the above, not telling. Gandalf is actually an archangel, but he starts as an old guy in a cart.

This starts with Galadriel jumping around in a cave while battling a snow troll, and that just takes the mystery out of her. When we meet Durin, the crown prince of the dwarves, he’s irked because Elrond didn’t come to his wedding. Dwarves aren’t fearsome figures from the underworld, they’re grumpy building contractors. This all makes Middle Earth seem more like our own, and that’s not what we want from it.

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Obscure Creators of the World #1 – Federico Faggin

The people we know about are usually the ones with publicity staffs. Their success depends on how widely known they are. This is obviously the case for sports figures, actors, musicians, and politicians, but also applies to technicals like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. They may make quite genuine contributions, but it’s showmanship that gets them widely known. In Jobs’ case it was his masterful Apple presentations, and for Musk it’s the playfulness in his products, like launching a Tesla Roadster into space as a test weight in the debut of the Falcon Heavy rocket, or having a Santa Claus mode on Teslas that replaces turn signal clicks with jingle bells.

Yet a lot of the people who make the biggest contributions are hardly known at all. This series will try to tell their stories. There are a vast number of such people, but let me limit it with the following rules:

  • They have to have made at least two major inventions
  • They don’t have their name on a company or process.
  • My wife has never heard of them!

This was all prompted by my reading of the autobiography of this first entry, Federico Faggin: “Silicon – From the Invention of the Microprocessor to the New Science of Consciousness”. Faggin is associated with four major innovations:

  • The self-aligned silicon-gate field-effect transistor, which has defined the modern age more than any other single invention. (Fairchild, 1969)
  • The first microprocessor, the 4004 (Intel 1971)
  • The first usable microprocessor, the Z80 (Zilog 1975)
  • The capacitive touchpad and touchscreen (Synaptics, 1992)

You are using silicon-gate FETs right now as you’re reading this. You may also be using a touchpad on a laptop or a touch screen on a tablet or phone. The Z80 still exists as a minute processor inside remote controls, but the 4004 is only in museums. My friends Tim McNerney and Fred Huettig re-created the layout on a 22″ x 16″ board with individually packaged transistors, and it’s in the Intel Museum in San Jose! You can download working simulations of it at the site, 4004.com.

How on earth could one person have contributed to such a range of inventions? Reading over this, it looks to me like the following:

  1. He was a precocious teen, but could never get his father’s approval.
  2. He grew up in a time of turmoil (born in Italy in 1941, in the midst of WW II) and in an isolated rural area of Veneto, the province around Venice, giving him a longing for the bright lights
  3. He emigrated to Silicon Valley in 1968, in the midst of the one of the world’s most innovative times and places.
  4. He never stayed at companies for long. Each of the above was done at a different place. He never felt truly appreciated, and would show them by doing something great at the next place.
  5. He had a solid marriage and family that sustained him through a lot of career turmoil.

The world is full of talent, but in addition it takes restlessness, drive, and luck to achieve this much. That restlessness is also why he isn’t better known. When he came up with the self-aligned silicon-gate FET, his colleagues at Fairchild were already planning to start Intel. His boss told him to go ahead and present it at a big tech conference. He asked if they shouldn’t patent it first, and was told not to bother. Fairchild was already invested in metal-gate FETs, and not that interested in his scheme. Yet Intel picked it up immediately!

Still, Intel was far more interested in building RAM chips than logic, since everyone was desperate for them. Its hard-driving CEO, Andy Grove, wanted the immediate profit from RAMs rather than a slowly maturing market like processors. The 4004 was an abandoned side project that was given to this newbie to keep him busy. When he actually succeeded with it, he got to do the 8008 and the 8080, which were far more successful. That’s the Pinball Theory of engineering careers, where the main benefit of winning is that you get to play again. He and Grove still didn’t get along, though, so he split to form Zilog. Intel then wrote him out of the history of the 4004, crediting it to its instruction set architect, Ted Hoff, instead.

Zilog missed the transition to 32-bit processors, so he left there too. He kicked around the Valley for a while, working on really interesting things like digital phones and analog neural networks, but nothing quite clicked. Synaptics was in trouble in the 1990s when he and his team finally figured out how to do touch pads correctly. By that time he was too senior to get into detailed engineering.

He was also into his next interest, mysticism. It’s an odd direction for a engineer and entrepreneur, but he came upon it through direct experience. In 1990 he was with his family on a Christmas holiday at Lake Tahoe. He was restless and got up late at night to have a drink of water and and look at the dark, mysterious lake:

When I went back to bed and tried to fall asleep again, I felt a powerful rush of energy emerge from my chest like nothing I had ever felt before and could not even imagine possible. The feeling was love, but a love so intense and so incredibly fulfilling that it surpassed any other notions I had about love. Even more unbelievable was the fact that I knew I was the source of this love. I experienced it as a broad beam of shimmering white light, alive and beatific, gushing from my heart with incredible strength.

“Silicon”, pg 160

This is not how businessmen usually talk! He had been raised Catholic but had been a dissatisfied materialist for his adult life. The latter half of the book discusses his attempts to understand this and the other extraordinary experiences he has had. He argues for Panpsychism, the idea that mind is inherent in everything. My own mind just slides off of these things, since I’ve never had such experiences. Still, he gets big respect points for caring about something besides success, and it makes this different from your standard business memoir.

So a person who spent his career thinking about the right way to do things in electronics, turns in the end to what the right way is to think about existence. It’s taking on the biggest questions of all! All our careers should expand this way.

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Ukraine v Russia Is a Tech War Like Union v Confederacy

In the 1860s the Europeans watched the American Civil War in horrified fascination. It had been almost 50 years since the Napoleonic Wars, when they had been in a real war with matched combatants. They had been mainly fighting colonial wars, where their advantages in discipline and weaponry were overwhelming.

The two American sides were much more comparable. They were making complete use of the radical new technologies of the day. They communicated instantly via telegraph. They moved enormous amounts of men and materiel by railroad. They had deadly new weapons like the Spencer repeating rifle and the Gatling gun. They foreshadowed aerial combat by using hot air balloons for reconnaissance. They built the first military submarine. They foreshadowed the next century of naval warfare by introducing ironclads. This was a tech war of a kind that no one had seen before.

USS Monitor vs CSS Virginia, Battle of Hampton Roads, 1862

We’re seeing the same thing happen in Ukraine. The last evenly matched war was Iran v Iraq in the 1980s, and neither of those countries were particularly advanced. US v Iraq/Afghanistan was no contest, nor was Russia v Chechnya, NATO v Serbia, or everyone v everyone in Syria.

Now the major new IT technologies are seeing serious military use. Satellite reconnaissance and electronic intercepts let the US warn everyone that Russian forces were building up on the Ukrainian border. Cyber-attacks are happening on both sides. The Javelin self-guided anti-tank weapons are destroying Russian armor. Satellite data links like Starlink are letting everyone share data even when cell towers and fiber cables are down.

The most striking new tech involves drones, near-autonomous aerial vehicles. These use lightweight batteries, motors, sensors, and electronics to make craft that are too small to be seen on radar but can maneuver on their own to get close to the enemy. Large drones, like the US Predator and Reaper, could be built in the 90s, but the small ones need the latest advances, and only became possible in the 2010s. Now consumer versions cost less than $1000, and are everywhere. This Guardian story – The drone operators who halted Russian convoy headed for Kyiv – describes how civilians are using drones to find Russian trucks, and even building their own.

Somewhat larger drones like the AeroViroment Switchblades can carry enough munitions to dive into and kill a tank. That company has come a long way from building human-powered planes like the Gossamer Condor, or solar-powered stratospheric cruisers like the Helios, planes that can stay up for months at a time and act as cell phone relays. Its brilliant founder, Paul MacCready, would probably not approve of the turn the company took after his death in 2007, but sales have been great. A $6000 Switchblade can kill a million-dollar T-72 tank, and that’s a deal that everyone will take.

Larger still are the Bayraktar drones from Turkey, which can carry 150 kg of ordnance for up to 4000 km. It’s named after its designer, Selçuk Bayraktar, a hugely popular figure in Turkey who is actually the son-in-law of its dictator, Recep Erdoğan. He learned a lot about drones while getting his master’s at MIT, so he’s a genuine Tony Stark figure. A New Yorker profile is here. My alma mater might relish having such alumni, or it could be worried that it’s becoming the go-to school for supervillains, including people like the Koch brothers and Benjamin Netanyahu.

What all this means is that the old ways of making war are done. Tanks are done. Manned aircraft and helicopters are just expensive targets. Even ships are done – consider the pride of the Black Sea navy:

Russian cruiser Moskva, on fire before sinking (Twitter/Alamy)

Its anti-missile defenses were occupied by Bayraktars while Ukrainian-built cruise missiles hit it from the other side. This isn’t tech from say, Japan – it’s stuff that can be built in second-rank powers like Turkey and Ukraine. That gives hope to beleaguered places like Taiwan, but has to make US admirals nervous. One aircraft carrier costs as much as literally millions of drones.

Beyond even all these changes is the loss of control of information. Propaganda is getting harder. The US couldn’t manage it in Iraq, and even the extremely tightly controlled Russian media is in trouble. Images and video leak out everywhere. The Russians had natural allies in this war, with a few people on the far left condemning any NATO involvement, and lots of people on the far right cheering on an authoritarian flexing his military muscle. Yet pictures of blindfolded civilians who have been shot in the head have shut them up. Even the right-wing propagandist Tucker Carlson couldn’t make the line “Why should we care about Ukraine?” work, and has gone back to race-baiting.

The cellphones that take all those Twitter pictures use the same silicon and radio technology as the guidance on the drones. The precision equipment that can put a thousand components into a phone can also make an artillery shell that can hit a target within 5 meters 20 km away. Modern tech is about accuracy and scale, about building a billion chips each with tolerances of nanometers. It has transformed civilian life, and we’re watching it change the world of war as well.

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My Mother Was a Ukrainian Refugee

Let me start by encouraging you to support the Ukrainians in any way you can. I gave money to AmeriCares, a relief outfit that is sending medical supplies and personnel to help refugees in Poland. The International Red Cross was organized to do exactly this on a grand scale. If you would prefer a purely Ukrainian organization, there’s RAZOM, which supports democracy and relief in the country itself. My employer is doing a 2:1 match for any donations, so check if yours does as well. As individuals we can’t do anything about the military actions there, but there are now over a million refugees that need help.

My mother, Louise Unger Redford, was born in Ukraine in 1928 in the German Mennonite village of Einlage. It was near Zaporizhzhia, an industrial city on the Dniepr River about 400 km southeast of Kiev. Her people had come to Ukraine in the late 1700s from the then German city of Danzig. They were offered farmland and freedom from conscription (they’re pacifists) by Catherine the Great. She wanted to settle the land as a buffer against marauding Cossacks.

The Mennonites did very well in the 19th century. They founded new towns, bought more land, and then started industrial businesses. My great-grandfather Abraham Unger introduced the stainless steel plow to Ukraine and had the first car in Zaporizhzhia.

They lost all that in the Revolution. Many of them were killed in the turmoil, and their property was seized. They were thrown back on their educations. My grandfather, Leonhard Unger, was an engineer, and designed and built the first native tractor in Ukraine in the 1920s. He managed a local factory and taught at the local technical school.

Then the purges began. Leonhard was arrested in 1933 and sent to work as an engineer on the Trans-Siberian Railway in the far east. He became a zek, an imprisoned worker, as described by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle (1968). His wife Margarete took my mother (then age 6) off to Siberia to be with him. It was a camp in the woods, and no place for women and children. Here they are in 1934:

Margarete, Louise, and Leonhard Unger, 1934, Magdagachi, Siberia

Note how the bare planks belie the painted backdrop of the photographer’s studio. Margarete and Louise returned to Zaporizhzhia, and never saw him again. He died there some time around 1940; they weren’t sure when. Margarete had been a school teacher, but was not allowed to work, since all Germans were suspect. All the men in the village were arrested and taken away. Their house was requisitioned, and they lived in one room of it with other families in other rooms. They got by with the help of Margarete’s sisters and their backyard orchard.

In 1941 Germany invaded the USSR. They swept over Ukraine, and were initially greeted as liberators. The retreating Soviets blew up the dam on the Dniepr, and killed thousands downstream in the flood. The Ukrainians would have loved to help them against Russia, but they were Nazis, and thought of Slavs only as slave labor. In 1943 the Red Army re-captured the city, but by then the Germans had evacuated all the Mennonites.

Leaving Ukraine, 1943. Refugee trains still look like this.

Margarete and Louise were initially sent to Romania, and then Poland, and finally Wittenberg, a town on the eastern edge of Germany. That’s where the Red Army caught up to them in 1945. Horrible things happened in a town full of women and children. All of the Soviet refugees were due to be shipped back to gulags, but Margarete had been working as a translator for the Soviet colonel, and he intervened. “You don’t want to take that train going east. You want to take that other train going west. I’ll give you the papers.” That one kindness saved their lives.

They ended up in Friesland, a cold and wet province bordering the North Sea. Margarete came down with tuberculosis, and they were moved to Bremen. There they met an old school mate of Margarete’s who was running a Lutheran hospital. She took in Louise as a trainee nurse, to Margarete’s great joy. “I have been praying for a long time for God to show me how to help you find your way after I am gone. Now I know. This will open the world to you, for nurses are needed everywhere.”

Margarete died of TB in 1950, and made Louise promise to get as far from the USSR as she could. The Mennonite Central Committee of Canada had already arranged for a lot of her relatives to emigrate, so she went too. She lived in Winnipeg until she could speak English, and then worked in hospitals. At a stint in Vancouver she met my father, John B. Redford, and they were married in 1954.

They had six children, and ultimately ended up in Kansas City:

John, Tom, Louise, Peter, Marguerite, Paul, and Drew Redford, Kansas City, 1974

She did go back once to the USSR in 1973. She managed to connect with her cousin Netje Martens in Novosibirsk. Netje and her family had been forced to take that train east. Here’s how Louise tells it in her memoir “In the Arms of the River”:

Here is their story. I tell it because it happened to so many of us.

All the “repatriated” ethnic Germans forced to go back to the Soviet Union after the war were sent to Siberia. There they were given the worst jobs. Some went to the mines. Some were given dull axes to cut down the taiga. Netje and her sister chopped trees for ten years.

In 1956 Krushchev pardoned many such prisoners. Each was given 25 rubles and told to leave the camp. They were free to go anywhere except for their homes back in Ukraine. Twelve young people from the logging camp went to the train station and asked the station master where they could go for 25 rubles. He looked at a map but could only offer three suggestions, all remote specks in Siberia. They picked one of these, a dot along the river Ob.

Netje told me, “It made sense because we are river people. Just as our forefathers picked a spot on the Dniepr, so now we chose the Ob. When we got there, we built a raft and set out to find the right place to settle.”

“What did you do first when you found your spot?” I asked. “We unloaded our things and prepared a meal. Our appointed leader, Peter Kroeker, read a Bible passage, and then we all got married.”

“Just like that?”

“Well, not just like that. We had planned this before we left the camp. It was not romantic in the usual sense. In the Gulag it was not moonlight and roses. None of us were handsome or pretty, but we were all willing to put our trials and tribulations behind us and make a decent life. Our husbands are good men. Too bad they are not from Einlage. I think our people knew how to have a good laugh, more so than the people from the other villages.”

After these preliminaries, the next thing to do was to cut wood. “Boy, did we know how to do that,” laughed Netje’s sister. They built a log cabin for each couple. The Chukchis (natives of Siberia) brought them furs to line the walls. They fished and hunted and took their harvest down the river to trade for flour and sugar.

Now, 17 years later, they had built a thriving settlement. They had a dairy farm with 40 cows and made butter and cheese. They had sheep for wool and were starting to make beautiful coats from fur and knitted wool.

“How do you manage to do all that?”

“It is not just the twelve of us anymore. Between us we have 21 children, and they are a big help now. Our school turned out to be a prime attraction for the Chukchi. They winter near us, and, in exchange for teaching their children, they help on the farm and bring us furs.”

We talked far into the night. There was a knock on the door, and the hotel manager looked in and offered us tea. “You have not seen each other for 30 years! Stay as long as you like. I will hold the rooms,” he told us. This experience was typical. The further away we went from Moscow, the friendlier the people became.

The next day my two friends had a surprise for me: tickets to the Novosibirsk Opera. I was touched and asked what I could do for them. “Just to see you after so long is the greatest gift you could have given us. We have everything we need. Most important, we are free. We live so far from anywhere that nobody bothers us. If somebody should set out to do us harm, we would hear about it long before they got to us. We would not sit and wait.”

There are now no Mennonites left in that part of the world. When the Soviet Union fell in 1989, Germany offered citizenship to all the ethnic Germans there. Netje and the others returned to Germany. They were the last of the Mennonites in the Russian empire. My mother died in 2014, and all of her generation have now passed. They have become a lost people. The only thing left is one of their graveyards, the Khortytsia Mennonite Memorial.

Memorial dedication, 2021, (credit: T.Dyck)

About 200 headstones were discovered beneath a Soviet sports field by a Ukrainian researcher, and a Canadian Mennonite organization raised funds to set them back up and put up a memorial. It has gotten a lot of support from locals, whose ancestors had their own bad experiences in the 1930s and 40s.

Now the old bad times have come back. Let’s hope that a similar memorial will not be necessary in another 90 years.

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Following in the Parents’ Footsteps

I just read a fun steampunk-ish novel, Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway (2012). It’s set in the present day, but takes place in a London that is just as ancient and weird as one would hope. A morose young man who is an expert clock maker comes upon an astonishing mechanical creation that appears to be a super-weapon left over from WW II. He’s pursued by affable and sinister agents of an obscure branch of MI6, and master craftsmen who are followers of John Ruskin, and aided by spry 90-year-old lady who was a serious agent during the War. She thinks to herself “It’s so odd to be a supervillain, and at her age too. She has to admit privately that she may be mad.”

Nick Harkaway is the pen name for Nicholas Cornwall. He’s the son of David Cornwall, who is better known as John le Carré. The novel does feature a colorful and domineering father, but the son does come into his own by the end. Harkaway has written several other funny and fantastical novels, something no one would accuse le Carré of doing. But that raises the question – how often are authors actually the children of well-known authors?

In other fields this happens all the time. In the sciences there are seven parent-child winners of the Nobel Prize:

  • Pierre and Marie Curie (1903 Physics, 1911 Chemistry) and their daughter Irene Curie (1935 Physics) and son-in-law Frederick (1935 Physics). The Curie family has won six Nobels altogether (including one for Peace), a record that will not soon be broken.
  • William and his son Lawrence Bragg (1915 Physics)
  • Niels Bohr (1922 Physics) and his son Aage Bohr (1975 Physics)
  • Hans von Euler-Chelpin (1929 Chemistry) and son Ulf von Euler (Medicine 1970)
  • Arthur Kornberg (1959 Medicine) and son Roger Kornberg (2006 Chemistry)
  • Manne Siegbahn (1924 Physics) and son Kai Siegbahn (1981, Physics)
  • JJ Thomson (1906 Physics) and son George Paget Thomson (1937 Physics)

Given that there are only 625 science Laureates altogether, this is way above random chance.

This also happens all the time in music. The most famous example is the Bach family, which includes not just one of the greatest of all time, Johann Sebastian, but over 50 other composers and performers of note spread over 200 years. In recent times there are the Carter-Cashs, with Johnny and June, and 13 others. It’s also common in theater, with five generations of Barrymores (and Drew has kids too!), and four generations of Redgraves and Kinskis. It happened in my own family too – my father and uncle were both doctors, and three of my siblings are in medicine.

Yet I had trouble finding examples in literature. I tried to be systematic about this by searching Wiki for “son of author” and “daughter of author”, but got few hits that I recognized:

  • Stephen and Tabitha King, parents of Joe Hill and Owen King. Joe writes novels even more disturbing that his dad’s so there’s some rivalry there.
  • Elmore Leonard, the great hard-boiled author, is the father of Peter Leonard, who also writes crime novels but started out in advertising
  • Stephan Pollan wrote lots of financial advice books, and his son Michael Pollan writes consistently interesting books on food and our relationship with plants and nature.
  • Mordecai Richler, who wrote comic novels of life in Montreal, was the father of novelist Emma Richler and essayist Noah Richler. Emma’s books are often about wild and active families, of which she would have first-hand knowledge. Noah writes on Canadian literature and intellectual life in general.

There were a few other hits, but they wrote in other languages and so were unfamiliar, at least to me.

There are far more authors than Nobelists, so the hit rate for authors is pretty low. I wonder if it has to do with the nature of the field. Writing is a particularly solitary occupation, while science and music and acting are all social. The children would absorb a lot of what their parents did just by being around them. Aage Bohr, for instance, worked with his father since he was a teenager. For writers, dad or mom just go off into a room for most of the day, and are abstracted the rest of the time. The Richlers would be the exception that proves the rule, with the whole family being engaged and outgoing. Maybe also with parents as famous as le Carré or the Kings, the kids could get into writing too.

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