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).

Click for publisher site

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,

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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Launching US Rockets From Soviet Bombers

In the last post I complained about how ugly the Soviet ekranoplans were. I’m glad I can now pass along a story about one of their really beautiful planes – the TU-160 supersonic bomber. It almost got used for doing air launches of Pegasus orbital rockets, but the Russians were too embarrassed to let that happen. They call it The White Swan:

At present it’s the largest and heaviest combat plane in the world, and the fastest bomber, beaten only by fighters. It’s only a little smaller than a 747, and about 2/3 the empty weight, but can go 2.3X as fast – 2200 km/hour (Mach 2.05) at 12,000 m. It has a variable swept wing, which gives it a lot of lift on takeoff and less drag at speed, and is the largest one of these ever flown. It first flew in 1981, and the USSR built 35 of them before it collapsed.

What happened next is described by Dario Leone in this recent article at The Aviation Geek Club. At the time of the collapse, 16 TU-160s ended up stranded in Ukraine. The Ukrainians were happy at first to have such a major military asset, but soon realized that they were white elephants. They need enormous amounts of fuel, and all their spare parts and maintenance know-how were back in Russia. It was originally designed to counter the US B-1A bomber (and it greatly resembles it), but the B-1A got cancelled, and Ukraine didn’t need to bomb anyone anyway. They tried to sell them back to Russia for $75M each in 1993, but the bankrupt Yeltsin administration wasn’t interested. The Russians offered tactical aircraft and munitions instead of cash, but the Ukrainians had their own financial problems.

Then the US got into the picture. The US Nunn-Lugar Act was one of the best programs of the under-appreciated Bush Sr. administration. It allocated real money ($400M a year) to dismantle nuclear weapons and their delivery systems in the former Soviet Union. It succeeded, and Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan are nuclear-free. The US offered Ukraine as much as $13M to dismantle the TU-160s, and they did take apart two of them in 1998 and 1999.

Then an even better offer came along from the US – sell us three TU-160s, and we’ll use them as launch platforms for the Pegasus rocket. This was the first orbital launch vehicle to be entirely developed with private money. It was designed by Antonio Elias at Orbital Sciences (now part of Northrop-Grumman), and first launched in 1990:

The rocket is carried up to 12 km (39,000 feet) beneath a customized Lockheed L-1011 jumbo jet, and then dropped. Its solid-fuel engine then ignites and takes a payload of up to 450 kg up to orbit. That’s not a lot, but it was the cheapest orbital launcher in the world for 20 years. Launching from a plane instead of a pad meant that it didn’t need a huge first stage, didn’t have to have perfect weather on the pad, and wasn’t tied to one launch location. That let it do a wider range or orbits too. It’s had a lot of missions, 45, but has been superseded today by the SpaceX Falcon9 (more expensive, but a lot more mass to orbit) and the RocketLab Electron (less mass, but cheaper).

The L-1011 was a passenger plane competitor to the Boeing 747, but lost out. It turned out to be perfect for this usage because it’s built with two main structural beams along the bottom instead of one. That let Orbital Sciences hang the Pegasus from two pylons, and cut holes in the bottom as slots for the rocket’s fins

So the L-1011 was fine, but could only go up to 1000 km/h. The TU-160 can get to 2000 km/h, which would give Pegasus a lot more payload, maybe twice as much. It’s more expensive to fly, and releasing the rocket at Mach 2 would be tricky, but the extra payload would greatly increase its value.

Yet selling the pride of the Russian Air Force to the Americans just made the Russians’ heads explode. They quickly cut a deal with Ukraine for all their TU-160s in return for forgiving Ukraine’s natural gas debts. The planes ended up going for about $250M, which is a lot more than the US would have paid.

The Russians also started adapting it for their own air launch service. In the 90s they were working on a two-stage liquid-fueled rocket for it called Burlak, that could have put 600 to 1100 kg into various orbits. A burlak is a peasant who hauls barges; “The Volga Boatmen” is about them. The project monies were apparently spent on “foreign cars and saunas”, and so their German satellite backers pulled out. It has recently been revived, though. They have been building new TU-160s in the 2000s and 2010s, and talking about variants such as a passenger liner or a carrier for hypersonic cruise missiles. The plane is quite active these days, with recent missions to Syria and Venezuela. The age of bombers is long gone, though, except for military showmanship.

It was breathtakingly arrogant for the US to think they could just buy these ultra-advanced planes, but hey, it was the 90s. That decade was the peak of US world influence. That power was soon squandered in the War on Terror and Katrina and the Great Recession, and is unlikely to come back again. It’s too bad that these beautiful planes have yet to find a good use, but maybe air launch rocketry, like ekranoplans, is another technology that will rise again.

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Ekranoplans are Back! Maybe. The Regent Seaglider

The Soviets used to build the world’s biggest and ugliest airplanes:

Lun-class Ekranoplan, first flown in 1975

They called them by the ugly term “ekranoplans”, or “screen effect” in Russian. They flew low over water, and got lift from the cushion of air between the wings and the surface, the ground effect. That meant that they could carry hundreds of tons of cargo. The plane above carried missiles in those tubes on top for use against US aircraft carriers. They only built a couple and didn’t see service for long.

Here in the 21st century, Regent Craft is building a far better-looking version, and giving it a much nicer-sounding name – a seaglider:

Unfortunately for their marketing department, it’s a prop plane, not a glider. It uses all electric propulsion – 8 props and about 500 kWh of batteries. That gives it a range of 300 km and a speed of 300 km/hour. This first model seats 12 passengers and a pilot. It’s meant for coastal transport, like Boston to Nantucket in 45 minutes. You board on a dock, taxi out of the harbor on hydrofoils, and then take off in the ocean. It flies at about 10 m, but can probably pop up to avoid small boats or low islands. It’s heavily equipped with radar for automatic obstacle avoidance.

Regent Craft is based in Boston, and the founders are from MIT and various aerospace operations like Boeing and Virgin Galactic. The CEO, Billy Thalheimer, worked on electric planes, but couldn’t get enough range to be worthwhile. The ground effect gets them twice the range for the same payload and batteries. They’ll be built by Moore Brothers in Bristol RI, a shop that specializes in marine carbon composites, but has never built a whole boat, much less a plane.

They’re backed by funds from Mark Cuban and Peter Thiel, both rather controversial figures. They already have a lot of orders, most notably 20 units for $250M from Southern Airways, an outfit in Florida. They’ll do first trials this year down in Tampa, and hope to start taking passengers in 2025.

There have been several other attempts at ekranoplans recently. NASA planned a transoceanic version in 2014. Wing Ship in South Korea built a 50-seater in 2013, but their website hasn’t changed since 2014. “Wingship” is a better name than “seaglider”, but they probably copyrighted it. WidgetWorks in Singapore actually got the Airfish 8-seater certified in 2018, but there’s been no other news.

So why is Regent more likely to succeed? It has a few points in its favor:


  • Electric propulsion wins in lots of ways over internal combustion:
    • It’s a lot quieter and cleaner, so more places will let them dock.
    • It’s more reliable, with lots of redundancy in the motors, power packs, and inverters.
    • Flying low with IC engines means that salt water gets sucked into the air intakes, which ruins the engines.
    • It’s cheaper because it needs far less maintenance and uses energy more efficiently.
    • Batteries are on a great curve of improving cost and density, so they can steadily expand the craft’s range.
    • Everything has to be de-carbonized, even relatively minor sources like short-range flights, so they’ll be allowed when fossil fuels are banned.
  • Autonomous flying using radar is a lot easier today given the work on self-driving cars. The Soviet planes were exhausting to fly because they needed constant attention. Autonomy is much easier to do at sea than on land. since there are fewer obstacles and they’re more visible.
  • The hydrofoils let them take off in rough water. That was a problem for the Soviet versions.
  • All airports are full, so this can service lots more places than short-range planes can.
  • Transport used to be stagnant, but has been blown open by Tesla, and money is pouring in.

Still, there are some things against it:


  • Taking 3 years to go from trials to paying passengers is ridiculously short for a brand-new design. Their backers are asking for extreme schedules.
  • Their backers have bad reputations, which might scare off serious investors. Mark Cuban is a non-technical TV personality, and Peter Thiel is an ultra-libertarian wingnut.
  • They want to certify this with the Coast Guard instead of the FAA, and that’ll be trouble when, not if, things go wrong.
  • It only flies at 10 m, so a bad wind gust can put it in the water at 180 mph. That limits the weather it can fly in, and could be a risk even on calm days.
  • The builders, Moore Brothers, are new to projects of this size and complexity.

Yet what a cool project this is! It could ultimately do Boston to New York far faster than Acela, and cheaper and cleaner than jets. In places far more dependent on ferries, like the Mediterranean, it could be a game-changer. It fits with the marine legacy of Boston and Rhode Island, and their current high tech resources. Here’s hoping they can make it work!

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