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:

Pros:

  • 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:

Cons:

  • 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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How Re-industrialization Now Works: GO Lab and Wood Fiber Insulation

I was driving through central Maine recently, and was struck by how dreary the landscape looked. The houses and towns looked run-down, and store fronts were vacant. This is an old story about industry leaving rural areas, and can be seen almost anywhere. But then we came to the town of Madison and saw this:

GO Lab mill in Madison ME on the Kennebec River

This gigantic, new-looking factory suddenly appeared in the middle of nowhere. What could be going on here?

It’s the site of a brand-new kind of wood-processing mill from a startup called GO Lab (home page). The older brick buildings have been there for a century, and used to be a paper mill powered by hydro from the Kennebec River. The newer blue buildings were put up by a Finnish company, UPM-Kymmene, who used them to make “supercalendared” paper, a kind of low-end glossy paper used in newspaper inserts. Newspapers have been disappearing, though, so the mill closed in 2016. Various groups bought the equipment and the rights to the hydropower, but no one was employed there.

GO Lab bought the mill in 2020. They had been using small business loans and grants to explore producing low-density wood fiber insulation. These are panels used for exterior and interior insulation. They’re made from the waste softwood from lumber mills, reinforced with a glue called PMDI, and with paraffin for water resistance:

TimberHP exterior sheathing, interior fill panels, and interior batting

The tongue-and-groove boards are for the exterior sheathing of houses. The flat panels go between 2x4s for interior insulation, and the batting gets stuffed into crannies. Compared to the usual plastic foam and fiberglass panels, they:

  • Actually sequester carbon from forests, rather than using petrochemicals or letting the waste wood rot back into methane and CO2
  • Don’t emit toxic chemicals when burned; they just char slowly
  • Are permeable to water vapor and so discourage mold
  • Can be cut with ordinary tools, and the dust is safe.
  • Have excellent R-values for thermal insulation
  • Have good sound-absorbing properties for acoustic insulation

They’ve been used in Europe for the last 20 years, and are very popular there, accounting for $700M in sales. They’re bulky and hard to ship, though, and so are more expensive than plastic panels in the US. Europe is also running out of waste wood supplies.

The co-founder and president of GO Lab, Josh Henry, is a materials scientist who heard about this product a few years ago. He got his doctorate in chemistry from Columbia, did post-grad work in Sweden, and then was a prof at the Maine Maritime Academy and the University of Maine. He started the company with an architect, Matt O’Malia, in 2017. They bought a used production line from Germany and have been installing it for the last six months. Just last month they closed on an $85M bond offering from the Finance Authority of Maine. They plan to begin production in Q2 of 2023.

The state of Maine loves ventures like this, of course. It fits right into their historical industries, will employ 100 or so people, will revitalize Madison, and fits into the green economy of the future. The governor of Maine, Janet Mills, chose this factory to announce how she’ll spend federal money from the American Rescue Plan. A lot of Maine subsists now on tourism (they even call themselves Vacationland on the license plates), but the “hospitality industry” means catering to the whims of a lot of cranky and rude people, most of them from Massachusetts. It’s much better to just build things rather than have to keep up a strained smile as people complain about the WiFi.

That must be why this is being financed by the state rather than banks or venture capitalists. This kind of re-industrialization used to be routine. Products went out of fashion, and new ones with new technology just replaced them. That doesn’t seem to be happening as much. It’s so much easier to make money in software or finance that capital for straight-up manufacturing like this seems scarce. Of the 10 most valuable companies in the US, only Tesla actually makes anything here. It now takes government support to back a real economy in an out-of-the-way place like Madison.

So here’s wishing luck to GO Lab! This looks like a solid, green product that should be useful everywhere.

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Why Care That “Foundation” Is Bad?

The new TV miniseries “Foundation” is full of meaningless CGI, ponderous religious imagery, thudding messages about terrorism, imperialism and climate change, and dialogue so clunky that even a serious actor like Jared Harris can’t deliver it. So what? There are lots of bad TV shows. If you want better TV science fiction, go watch “The Expanse” or “For All Mankind”.

The reason to care, at least for me, is because this version shows distressing changes in the US since Isaac Asimov wrote the pieces of the original novel in the 1940s. In the novel the characters are rationalists trying to reason their way out of the chaos of a collapsing empire. After long study and close observation, they come up with a theory, psycho-history, that gives them a path forward. They face crisis after crisis in their exile on Terminus, and out-smart their opponents. Is a powerful neighboring kingdom about to conquer them? Play them off against other nearby powers. Do they then stage a counter-revolution? Use your leverage over advanced tech to undo them. Is your faux religion falling apart after local resistance? Establish commercial ties instead. Each problem is solved with wit instead of brutality. Violence is the refuge of the incompetent imperialists and feudalists.

When Asimov was writing, the old imperial and aristocratic world was destroying itself in a cataclysmic war, WW II. The US thought of itself as an upstart commercial and technological power, not an imperial one. It was a lot more like Foundation than it was the Galactic Empire.

That’s not what America is like in the 21st century. Hari Seldon is no longer a scholar; he’s a prophet. No one is said to understand his work. Then how does he know it’s right? No actual mathematician is like this. His only equal is a a girl with no background or education at all. She just intuits it somehow. People just have faith in him, not reason.

Faith is everywhere in this series, and nowhere in the novel. Asimov thought religion was bunk, and actually uses it as a con. This has a religion, Illuminism, that foretells of prophets. Even the robot believes it, and worries about whether she has a soul. What? You’d think that immortal sentient machines would have figured this out, since college sophomores do.

Out on Terminus, the leader of Foundation is no longer the wily mayor Salvor Hardin, who gets there by being elected. Instead Hardin is a lone outcast. With a gun. And superpowers. She’s a woman of color, but otherwise little different than the lone gunslinger Shane. She no longer outwits the neighboring powers – she kills them with her sniper rifle. Given that they are prone to attacking armed positions by running across flat open ground, something that infantry hasn’t done in a hundred years, they shouldn’t be that hard to fool.

At every turn the characters here look to their feelings, not their reason. Seldon actually appears at the end to tell them that the Foundation was not about curating knowledge, but curating people. What does that even mean? Strong institutions? Legal systems? Education? None of that is in evidence, because all that the TV writers think is important is emotion.

This show is the anti-Foundation. The thing that impressed so many readers over the last 70 years, including me as a kid, was how people could think their way through even the greatest catastrophes. They didn’t shoot their way out it, which is the standard trope of pulp and TV.

This wouldn’t matter, except that shooting your way out is now the standard operating procedure of the US. It used to be that it responded to aggression with some finesse. When the Soviets blocked off Berlin in 1948, the US just airlifted millions of tons of supplies into the city. They didn’t roll tanks across East Germany because that would be stupid. Yet when a maniac used passenger airliners to crash into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the US promptly attacked and tortured all the people in Afghanistan who could have given up Osama bin Laden, and then attacked an unrelated country for good measure. Apparently George W was upset that Saddam Hussein had tried to assassinate his father. That’s an emotional, TV reason to do something. Decades of imbibing TV attitudes has turned the country into idiots, and this inversion of the themes of Foundation is a pure example.

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Space vs Balloon Tourism

After a long hiatus, space tourism came back this year. The last trip was in 2012 to the ISS, but there have recently been four trips: two sub-orbital flights by Blue Origin in July and October, one by Virgin Galactic in July, and a four-day orbital jaunt by Inspiration 4 in a Falcon 9 in September:

New Shepard from Blue Origin, VSS Unity from Virgin Galactic, and the Inspiration 4 Dragon capsule on a SpaceX Falcon 9

The trips came in for much mockery and disdain, but I think for the wrong reasons. Let me describe those, and then talk about a better way to experience the main pleasure of this kind of travel – the awesome and inspirational view of the Earth from above.

First off, yes, the New Shepard rocket does look like a penis, and no, that’s not deliberate. That’s just the shape you get when you put a large capsule on a small rocket. The rocket is small because it needs to be cheap, and the capsule is large so that its passengers aren’t mashed on top of one another. Yes, Blue Origin is competing with SpaceX, but they’re not doing it with shapes that you see on bathroom walls. Its owner, Jeff Bezos, wants to get people excited about space again, and he figures the way to do that is to let people go there themselves. The very name Blue Origin comes from his belief that the Earth is our birthplace, but not our only home in the long run. SpaceX is taking a strictly economic approach by trying to make space as cheap as possible, and that works too. Note that the Falcon 9 is far bigger than the New Shepard, and that’s because it’s a genuine orbital rocket, not a sub-orbital hopper.

Second, yes, these trips are expensive, but it’s not much for the people involved. The sub-orbitals cost a few million, which is in the noise to billionaires like Bezos and Richard Branson (the owner of Virgin Galactic). Actually funding these companies has cost the two of them billions, but really, what else do they have to spend it on? Another cruise-ship-sized yacht? That doesn’t get you points with the club members.

The same goes for Jared Isaacman, who purchased the Inspiration 4 flight. He’s the CEO of Shift4, a company that manages credit card sales for small businesses. They do about $500M a year in gross sales with about $100M in profit. His share of the public company is estimated at $2.4B. This trip probably cost him $200M, plus he says he’ll donate $100M to a charity, St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis. Aircraft are his hobby – he set the record for a round-the-world trip in a light jet, about 62 hours. He also has a company, Draken International, that has 70 fighter jets, largely foreign (E.g. MIGs), that it flies for the Air Force as opposition aircraft for training. That’s a bit sinister. This flight is a visible chunk of his net worth, but he still won’t miss it.

Third, the environmental impact of this stuff is minor. The CO2 emissions of even the largest of them, the SpaceX launch, is similar to that of a ten-hour 747 flight (about 350 tonnes), and dozens of those happen every day. All three of these vehicles are re-usable, so they’re not spreading junk all over the ocean floor as previous rockets did.

No, the real problem with these trips is that they’re crummy outings. The sub-orbitals are only 10 minutes long. In that time you get to spend a few minutes floating around in zero-gee and looking out the windows, and then they you’re done. It’s pretty much a long roller coaster ride at a million times the price.

The orbital trip has the opposite problem – it’s way too long. You’re stuck in a space the size of a bathroom with three other people for four days. You have to deal with bad food, space sickness, difficult toilets, and the interesting smells and personality quirks of your fellow travelers.

So a far better way to do this is by high-altitude balloon:

CGI of the Neptune capsule over Florida

There are several firms looking to offer this, but the furthest ahead is Space Perspective. They’re actually based on Cape Canaveral. They plan to offer 6-hour flights for $125,000 – two hours to get up to 100,000 feet (30 km), two hours to admire the incredible view, and two hours descending as the balloon deflates, and then a splashdown in the Atlantic:

Click to embiggen

They will launch before dawn, so you’ll see sunrise over the ocean. The capsule holds eight passengers, a pilot, and a bar, with a restroom below. The balloon is 200 m tall on the ground, twice the height of the Saturn V, and inflates to 15 million m3 at altitude, where it is about 200 m across.

The company has a lot of experience with balloons. They built the system that Alan Eustace used in his record-setting skydive from 136,000 feet (41 km) in 2014. Many of them were involved in the NASA super-pressure balloon program, a terrific program that I wrote about here: How Space Science Might Have Gone. The capsule manufacturing head comes from SpaceX, and has experience in luxury yacht design, which sounds like what you want for that much money.

An unmanned test happened in June 2021, and was successful. Full-up tests should happen in 2023, and first paying flights in 2024. Passengers need no training and have no health requirements beyond those needed to fly. You walk on, rise gently up, and get to see this with a drink in hand:

Taken by a GoPro on the Overlook Horizon flight.

This is what William Shatner was inspired by on his New Shepard flight this month. It’s not rockets. It’s not Humanity’s Manifest Destiny In Space. It’s our own precious home, our oasis in the void. That’s what these kind of trips can show us, and that’s worth a lot.

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The First Exa-Transistor Computer

That is, the first single system to have more than 1018 transistors, more than a quintillion, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 . It’s the Fugaku supercomputer in Japan:

I

It’s the world’s fastest machine as of November 2020, as defined by the benchmarks on the Top 500 list of supers, and is the first to break an exa-flop, doing more than 1018 floating point operations per second. It’s named after Mt Fuji, the most beautiful mountain in the world. It was built by Fujitsu using their own custom processor chips, and is operated by the RIKEN Center for Computational Science in Kobe, near Osaka. Here’s how its transistors are allocated:

FeatureTransistor countSize
Processors1.5 x 1015 160K chips with 48 cores and 8.8 billion transistors each
DRAM44 x 1015 32 GB on each chip above
Local flash storage132 x 1015 1.5 TB on each set of 16 chips
System flash storage1350 x 1015 150 PB for the whole machine, and assuming single-bit-per-transistor NAND flash
Total1.5 x 1018

The whole machine cost about a billion dollars, so that’s 1.5 billion transistors per dollar. A lot of the cost is in the chips themselves, but there’s a lot of overhead for network wiring, cabinets, and cooling. It draws 30 MW, as much as a small town.

Now, I’ve worked on about 15 processor chips in my career, and the biggest had a mere 200 million transistors, and drew 4W. My first processor in 1984 had 100 thousand transistors, and drew 10W. This is on an other-worldly scale compared to my systems.

How much is an exa? Consider that one raindrop weighs about one milligram. 1018 raindrops is a billion tonnes of water. That’s about the rainfall on New York City every year. If every transistor in Fugaku were a raindrop, it would take a year to sprinkle them across that huge city.

Or consider that a typical cellphone has 32 GB of storage, and maybe a billion of them are sold each year. That’s 300 exa-transistors. This one machine has 1/200th of all the transistors sold in all the phones.

Who built it? Riken is the leading scientific institution in Japan. It counts four Nobelists among its associates, it isolated the tastes of green tea and umami, it worked on Japan’s atomic bomb during WW II (and was destroyed because of that), and it discovered element 113 (now known as nihonium) in 2004.

Why did they build it? Supers are primarily used to do physical simulations. This is where the interactions between pieces of something obey well-known laws, but there are just so many of them that the overall behavior is unpredictable. The different parts of the simulation interact constantly, so you need a lot of bandwidth among the millions of processor cores. This is different from other big computing complexes, like Google’s or Amazon’s. Those are dealing with millions of separate, independent tasks, ones that don’t need much communication. This class of machine works on single problems and so needs a different (and much more expensive!) structure.

So what have they done with it? Recent publications from the Fugaku group include:

  • Discovering through simulation that the glycan molecules on the spike proteins of the COVID-19 virus are critical for infecting cells
  • Using machine learning to predict exactly what will flood when tsunamis hit. The Japanese in particular are very, very interested in this.
  • Doing the world’s highest resolution weather simulation, with a cell size of 3.5 km across the entire planet.

What’s next? The fastest machine on the Top 500 list has been doubling in speed every 15 months. That’s a factor of 1000 in 13 years. If the overall size of the machine scales with its speed, and it should, then the first zetta-transistor (1021) machine will be in about 2033. There’s no telling who will build it, but IBM has been high up on the list for the list’s entire 30-year history. The first yotta-transistor (1024) machine would come in 2046, just in time for the climate catastrophe to be in full swing, and in full need of simulation. After that, the metric system runs out of prefixes!

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Every Thing Can Be Improved – GRK Fasteners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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