Warming Harms the US More Than the Northeast

I’ve been looking at the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment, the US government’s considered opinion on what climate change will do to the country.  This program has been running since 1990, and is protected from hostile Administrations by legislation.   It looks bad, as all these reports do, but I was struck by how much less bad things are for the US Northeast, my own region, than they are for a lot of the country.  Take the overall rise in temperature, as expressed by the number of cooling degree days:

From https://nca2014.globalchange.gov/system/files_force/downloads/low/NCA3_Full_Report_04_Energy_Supply_and_Use_LowRes.pdf

The baseline case in the upper right shows that the South is going to cook, while the Northeast changes hardly at all.   Cooling degree-days are calculated by taking the daily average of high and low temperatures and subtracting 65 F.  If the average is higher than 65F, it’s a certain number of cooling degrees; if less, it’s heating degrees.  Add them up for a year and that’s a measure of one’s air conditioning needs.   Boston has about 700 cooling degree days, while Miami has 4200. The Northeast will actually have less heating degree-days as things warm, which could  reduce CO2 emissions because of less natural gas usage.

The NCA breaks down effects by region, and does the 12 northeastern states here: Climate Change Impacts in the United States: Northeast .  They consist of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.  This covers a fifth of the country’s population, 64 million people, and a fifth of its GDP, about $4T.   Temperatures have already risen here by 2 F from 1895, and sea level is up a foot.  It could rise by another 8F by 2080, and another four feet of sea level, depending on how fast Greenland and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melt.

It notes that agriculture could be hit hard by warming, but that accounts for only $17B in the Northeast, 0.5% of its GDP.   The Midwest and Far West are likely to be hit much harder.   Northeast agriculture is pretty diverse, and could shift crop mixes to match temperatures changes. 

Likewise, the Northeast could see much worse storms, with the precipitation in the worst 1% of events increasing by 70%.   Hurricane Sandy (2012) really damaged New York City, and was the third most expensive storm in US history at $65B, after Katrina (2005) and Harvey (2017), both at $125B.  It killed 150 people, half in New England, but that’s a far cry from the 1800 deaths of Katrina.  A Sandy could happen again, but New York is much better prepared these days, with fewer underground substations and better emergency plans for subway flooding.  The Southeast, though, has been hit by five big storms in just the last two years. 

Wildfires have become catastrophic in the West, but the Northeast is too wet for them.  It’s actually more heavily forested than any other region: 52% vs about 38% for the Southeast and Northwest, and 23% for the whole country.   The Northeast’s forests could do a lot of carbon sequestration if they were managed right, and could actually be worth a lot of carbon credits.  They’re not absorbing much at present, possibly because the temperature shifts are causing tree species changes.  The boundary between hardwoods and boreal softwoods has moved by 400 feet in the mountains of Vermont since 1964.   Changing temperatures also mean new insect species, and that has devastated forests in the Northwest.  We’ll get them too, along with more mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus.

So the climate here will change to that of the mid-Atlantic, and we’ll get more bad storms, and the vegetation will shift.   Beaches will wash away, so shore property values will decrease.  There’ll be more flooding, but that’s something that can be managed.  Last August Massachusetts authorized $2.4B in spending on climate adaptation, covering seawall, dam, and other infrastructure upgrades, surveys, and planning.  They’re also discussing “rolling easements”,  a plan to manage what happens when sea level rise claims land.  The plan tries to preserve wetlands and maintain access to beach property as the roads wash away.

The area is also doing its bit on CO2 reduction.  Its states have banded together into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and emissions from power generation have dropped in half since the peak of 2005.   This is partly due to demand reduction from better lighting, partly due to conversion to natural gas (coal is gone), and some due to wind and biomass power (largely methane from landfills).   For instance, I get 100% of my home power from wind farms at about $0.14 per kWh.  Natural gas appears to be $0.12/kWh in MA, so going green only costs me about $20/month.

The path to zero carbon for the Northeast is fairly clear: maintain the 25 nuclear plants still operating, open up hydro-power from Quebec, and expand on-shore and especially off-shore wind.  Solar will help, but the sunlight here isn’t steady and there is less open space.  Cars go electric, heating switches from furnaces to heat pumps, and planes go to biofuel.  Now that renewable energy generation is largely solved, the biggest thing the area can do for energy is to solve storage.  That could be through the enormous molten batteries of Ambri, or flow batteries that offer unlimited capacity but limited power.  In the longer term, we have to figure out how to get CO2 out of the air itself, either through better trees or some mechanical system.

Anyway, it’s a lot easier to adapt to beach erosion than it is to Cat 5 hurricanes and fire tornadoes!   The direct impacts on the Northeast are serious but not catastrophic. The larger impact will be damage to the national and world economy.   No one will come to our schools and hospitals if they’re broke!  We may be better positioned than many areas to adapt to this change, but we’re all in this together.

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The Obsolescence of White Nationalism

I was sitting in a conference room the other day, meeting with a company that wanted to supply a component for a new chip we’re working on.  These days most chips are assembled from big pieces from other firms.   It’s the only way to handle the hundreds of millions of transistors that go onto a $10 chip.

I was looking around the room.   Here was our internal expert on this kind of hardware, a Chinese-American.   Here was our expert on this software, from Eastern Europe.   The senior person from the presenting company was a tall, thin Dutch guy, and his US application engineer was a brusque Israeli.   East Coast sales were handled by a genial Boston Irishman.   I was the only WASP there, and I’m a first generation American myself.

When I started my career it wasn’t like this.   A significant number of people I worked with then had been born nearby.  Those were days when ten people could build a competitive chip, and would design every transistor on it.  It still takes about ten people to do a chip, but they won’t ever touch a transistor, or even do much logic design.  They can’t possibly, if they want to finish in their lifetimes.

So we use larger and larger blocks, that have to come from a wider and wider range of sources.   There’s a wider range of skills involved too, from physics at the process level to system experience with software tools. The talent to do this has to come from a wider and wider pool as well.  Thus the range of backgrounds in even this one meeting.  Even the country with the largest and oldest electronics industry in the world , the US, can’t develop  chips by itself.

If you’re in tech, you’re familiar with this.   Globalism is taken completely for granted, and is an obvious necessity.   Not so for a lot of people.  They seem to think that Harley Davidsons can be made entirely in America.  The Brexiters thought that their small island could manage a modern industrial economy, and they’re finding that they can’t even manage the negotiations with the EU.  Worse still are the people who think that an all-white country can work, that letting in only certain people like, say, Slovenian models (to pick a random example)  is enough to sustain a country.

They’re bigots, and they’re obsolete.   It hasn’t worked that way for decades.   Look at the poor Russians — their one technical success, rocketry, has been running on old tech for so long that it’s both failing (E.g. the recent Soyuz abort and upper stage launch failures) and getting surpassed (E.g. Vector, SpaceX and Blue Origin).  They aren’t part of the worldwide slosh of ideas and talent, and they’re getting left behind.    If it can happen to a country as full of determined and brilliant people as theirs, it can happen to anyone.

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Immigration and the Nobel Science Prizes

It’s hard to take the current Administration’s stance on immigration seriously.   Their policies are deliberately cruel, as in family separations, and clearly motivated by bigotry.  In response, people have pointed to the 80 million US immigrants and their huge contributions to the country.   This includes the ancestors of many of the people in the Administration itself, such as the president’s grandparents and wives.

But let me do a quantitative take on this.   The most prestigious prizes in the world are the Nobel science prizes, those in Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine.   These even outweigh the other Nobels: Peace, Literature, and the new Economics.   The Peace choices are often terrible, like Kissinger and Obama; Economics is not as important a field as the others; and the Literature awards are usually obscure.   But the science Nobels have been for consistently important work for over a century, and are about the only technical prizes anyone knows about.

[Irresistible side story: Brian Schmidt was visiting his grandmother in Fargo  North Dakota, when was stopped by the TSA in the airport.  They saw a solid black disk in the X-ray of his carry-on.  “Sir, what’s this?” they asked.  “A half pound of gold.”  “Where did you get it?”  “It was given to me by the King of Sweden.” “Oh really?”  “Yes, for discovering the acceleration of the expansion of the universe.”  Physics award, 2011.  “Yeah?  So why are you in Fargo?”]

So how has immigration contributed to winning science Nobels?   For each laureate, we can identify the country where their work was done and whether the laureate is a native of that country or was born elsewhere.   For the top ten work countries, the split between native and immigrant looks like this:

The data comes from this List of Nobel Laureates by Country, but each laureate was only given one country where the work was done.   The full list and charts are in this spreadsheet: Science Nobel Prizes and Countries.

There have been 609 Prizes awarded to individuals between 1904 and 2017 inclusive.  Three people have won two: Marie Curie, John Bardeen, and Frederick Sanger. 32 countries in total have gotten Prizes for work done there.  Switzerland appears to get the most per capita, followed by Sweden and Denmark.

The US dominates the list with 271 of them, 45% of the total.  This isn’t just because the US has a much larger population than the others.  It only got 26 prizes before 1950, but then Congress poured money into the NSF, NIH, and other Big Science programs, and it won 245 more, 54% of that total.  That’s still true in the 21st century – the US has 77 out of 142 since 2000, which is still 54%.  Only 2 native Americans have done their work elsewhere.

What’s even more striking is that 79 of the US prizes come from immigrants.  More immigrants have won Nobels for work done in the US than for any entire country, except the UK.  The UK has 82 and Germany 72.

So where did those immigrants come from?

                            Birth Countries for US Laureates
Region Country Number each
Europe (41)
Germany 14
Italy 6
Austria 5
Hungary 3
Netherlands, Poland, Norway 2
Czech Republic, Ireland, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, France, Lithuania 1
Anglosphere (16)
Canada 8
United Kingdom 6
Australia, New Zealand 1
Other (22)
China 6
Japan 4
India 3
Russia, Ukraine, Mexico, Israel, South Africa, Taiwan, Turkey, Egypt, Korea 1

Looking more closely at the European immigrants, we find that 18 out of 41 of them, about half, were driven out by mid-20th century persecution by Nazis, and by Italian and Spanish fascists.  16 of those were driven out by anti-Semitism, and 2 were not, Max Delbruck and Severo Ochoa. Europe’s loss was the US’s gain.

Immigrants from the Anglosphere would have had a much easier time transitioning.  But Canada in particular lost a lot of talent – it lost 8 people to the US while only getting 9 itself, and 4 of those were also immigrants.  More native Canadians have won Nobels in the US than in Canada itself.

Immigrants from other parts of the world would have had difficulty getting into the US before the 1960s, when immigration rules were greatly relaxed.   Notice what a range of countries they come from, many of which would be considered undesirable.

The current Administration is explicitly denying entry to those fleeing persecution, and trying to eliminate immigration from non-white parts of the world.  If it had kept out the 22 from the Other parts of the world, and the 18 that were fleeing European persecution, that’s 40 of the world’s leading scientists.  Fleeing and non-white immigrants have won more Nobels for the US than any whole country has won, except the UK and Germany.  That’s more than all of France.  The Administration’s anti-immigration policies will damage US science even at this very top level.

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SF Inventors

Unlike other groups that I’ve written about (Beautiful Inventors, Political Inventors, Criminal Inventors and Movie Inventors), science fiction authors are known for their interest in technology.   You would think, then, that a lot of them would have made real-life contributions, but I haven’t actually found that many.  Here are a few of interest:

Arthur C. Clarke is the probably the best known SF inventor, and that’s because he came up with the best use for spacecraft – geosynchronous communication satellites.   Its first mention is here, in a letter in the Feb 1945 issue of Wireless World, and he gave it a full write-up in the Oct 1945 issue:

Click for article

People had talked vaguely about communication satellites before, but he figured out the right way to do it.   The idea of orbiting anything was pretty far-fetched in 1945, much less what to do when you were up there.  Clarke thought that it would be 50 years before such a service could be built, but it took only 19 – Syncom 3 launched in 1964.   There are about 530 operational satellites in GEO now, about 30% of the total.  Satellite comm overall is a $200 billion industry today, which is about 2/3 of all space activity.   Not bad for a radio technician!  Clarke never made a dime off of the idea, but it was worth immortal fame.

James Cameron – In between making some of the biggest movies of all time, like Titanic and Avatar, and some of the best SF movies, like The Abyss and The Terminator and Aliens,  Cameron has found time to get two patents and one design patent:

  1. 5,189,512 (1993) Helmet Integrated Display System – a scheme of projecting a video image into both eyes of a cameraman so that they appear at a virtual distance
  2. 4,996,938 (1991) Apparatus for propelling a user in an underwater environment These were both with his younger brother Michael, who has also been in the Industry as a stuntman and actor.
  3. D783522S1 (2017) Solar Power ArrangementImage result for cameron solar sunflower -2015He likes solar power, but admits that the panels are ugly.  He designed these tracking solar sunflowers for his wife’s school, MUSE, and five of them supply most of the school’s needs.  When they came out in 2015 he said that he would open-source the plans, but hasn’t yet.   He does appear to be a busy guy.

Cameron and a partner, Vincent Pace, were also key to the revival of 3D movies, largely through their Fusion Camera System.  This split a single optical path into two stereoscopic ones with a variable distance between them, and allowed for the capture of both 2D and 3D simultaneously.   Plus, of course, he has been deeply involved in deep sea diving, using one of his own submersibles to visit the bottom of the Marianas Trench.   It’s not clear if he sleeps.

Gene Wolfe – has written brilliant outré fantasy such as The Book of the New Sun, the best long novel of the 1980s.  But his day job in the 1960s was as a mechanical engineer at Proctor and Gamble, and that’s where he worked on  Pringles potato chips.   In a 1998 interview with Lawrence Person he said:

GW: I developed it [Pringles]. I did not invent it. That was done by a German gentlemen whose name I’ve forgotten for years. I developed the machine that cooks them. He had invented the basic idea, how to make the potato dough, pressing it between two forms, more or less as in a wrap-around, immersing them in hot cooking oil, and so forth and so on. And we were then called in, I was in the engineering development division, and asked to develop mass production equipment to make these chips. And we divided the task into the dough making/dough rolling portion, which was done by Len Hooper, and the cooking portion, which was done by me, and then the pickoff and salting portion, which was done by someone else, and then the can filling/can sealing portion which was done by a man who was almost driven insane by the program. Because he would develop a machine, and he would have it almost ready to go, and they would say “Oh, instead of 300 cans a minute, make it 500 cans a minute.” And so he would have to throw out a bunch of stuff, and develop the new machine, and when he got that one about ready, they’d say “make it 700 cans a minute.” And they almost put him in a mental hospital. He took his job very seriously and he just about flipped out.

Pringles are everywhere – I’ve seen them lining the shelves of Central Asian convenience stores.  Maybe that’s because one can make 700 cans a minute. Wolfe was also the robotics editor at Plant Engineering magazine in the 1970s before switching to writing full-time.   How Pringles and manufacturing robots got him to think about far-future medievalist societies is mysterious.

Neal Stephenson – and four others received US patent 9,037,478 in 2015 for “Substance Allocation System and Method for Ingestible Product Preparation System and Method”.   It’s  written in impenetrable patent-ese, but appears to be a machine that will mix a dose of a drug like aspirin into a something like a smoothie. It was assigned to Elwha, a patent troll outfit started by Nathan Myrvold, formerly CTO of Microsoft. Stephenson appears to have gotten several patents associated with this, and Myrvold is on some of them.  This may be an attempt to lock up the concept of a personalized food fabricator.

Stephenson is also into western martial arts, and tried to develop a sword-fighting video game called CLANG.   It would have had a sword-like motion controller and use actual fighting styles.  He raised half a million for it on Kickstarter here. , but that doesn’t go all that far for a real game, and it never shipped.

He now has the title Chief Futurist at Magic Leap, a secretive augmented reality company with some new display scheme.  They too are having trouble getting anything out, but he is more concerned with what the best use of this tech is.  That sounds more up a writer’s alley than getting embedded controllers to work in swords and food makers.

Let me finally briefly mention some people who really do have tech day jobs:

  • Robert L Forward – inventor of the StarWisp interstellar craft concept and interesting solar sails, and author of the notable novel Dragon’s Egg, about life on a neutron star.
  • Geoff Landis – actual NASA researcher on the Mars rover missions and advanced propulsion concepts, and Hugo and Nebula award winning short story writer.
  • David Brinholder of US7124372B2 “Interactive communication between a plurality of users”, and notable author of the Uplift trilogy.
  • Leo Szilard – discoverer of the fission chain reaction, which he actually patented in Britain in 1934 as GB 630726. In 1961 he published a book of SF short stories, The Voice of the Dolphin, where the title story is about how dolphins use scientists as fronts to save the world.

These are all I could find!   I’m sure there are more, but perhaps writing invention and mechanical invention are very different skills.  One or the other can certainly occupy all your time!

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Mad Science #4: Geo-Engineering With Nukes

Nuclear devices, what are they good for?  Almost nothing, it turns out.   They’re close to useless as weapons, since the goal of war is domination, not destruction.  The nuclear powers have been in dozens of wars since 1945, and have never come all that close to using them.   They make too much of a mess and cause too much auxiliary trouble.

So there must be something else that one could do with this expensive tech.   The Soviets sure tried.  They had a huge program called Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy, which did 156 tests between 1965 and 1989.  They tried fracturing rock for oil and gas only to find that it became radioactive.   They tried to create underground caverns for the storage of oil and gas, and for nuclear waste itself, but the caverns were unstable. They used nukes to blow out gas well fires, which actually does work but contaminates the field.

But the most interesting usage was for mega-scale civil engineering, projects that could affect the planet’s balance.   The one that actually got started was the Taiga Project of 1971, an attempt to dig a canal between the Kama and the Pechora rivers.  The result is still there:

The 600 x 400m crater left by the three Taiga Tests.  Photo taken from a paper on its current radioactivity. Click for source

The Pechora flows into the Arctic Ocean, while the Kama joins the Volga and then flows into the Caspian Sea.    There is lots of irrigation around the Volga that could use more water, and the Caspian itself is land-locked, and so in danger of drying up.  The Pechora is a major river, with 1/4 of the discharge of the Mississippi at its mouth, and 1/2 of the volume of the Volga itself.  Rather than waste all that water on the useless Arctic ocean, why not send it south?

Pechora-Kama Canal Map

The land between the rivers is relatively flat, and has long been used as a portage.  A canal had been proposed back in the 1930s, but to move serious amounts of water a really big channel would be needed, and it couldn’t have locks.   The total distance was about 100 km, but the southern 40 km was flat enough that it could be dug by conventional means.  The northernmost 60 km had a range of hills of up to 60 m high, so that’s what needed the nukes.  They would use them to excavate down about 80 m to make a channel with a cross-sectional area of 2000 m2.   That would be 20 m deep and 100 m wide if rectangular, but it would actually be more like a triangle.

A researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, Milo Nordyke, did an analysis of the project in 1979: Estimates of the Nuclear Design Requirement for the Pechora-Kama Canal Project.  Nordyke had been involved in the US peaceful nuke program, Operation Plowshare, as in beating swords into.  It showed rather un-American timidity and only set off 27 tests between 1961 and 1973, but was stopped by quite American local opposition.

The canal looked quite feasible to Nordyke, but would need at least 250 devices, of up to 150 kilotons each.   The actual test used three devices of 15 kT each.   They used very small fission igniters, of only 0.3 kT each, to reduce the amount of fission products.  They were set off 150 m underground, also to keep the radiation down.

That failed.  The 2009 study mentioned in the top picture found that the radiation around the lake peaked at almost 1000 times the background.  It included lots of radioactive isotopes like Cesium-137, Cobalt-60, and Americium-241.  The site is surrounded by a fence, but people fish in it anyway.

Great.  Just this small test has contaminated the area, although it appears to be far from any settlements.   It’s not as bad as the Polygon in Kazahkstan, an 18,000 km2 area that was permanently poisoned by 456 Soviet nuclear tests, but it’s still bad.

What really puts this in the Mad category, though, is the overall size of the project – 250 bombs.   This was in 1971, when people already knew quite a lot about contamination.   The water flowing through the canal would have poisoned a good fraction of Russia’s agricultural land via irrigation.   All of the peaceful tests had the same problem – more radiation got out than expected.  Even small tests caused trouble, so setting off hundreds of them was ridiculous.

Yet the project had an unexpectedly positive side-effect – it drove DARPA to start research into climate modeling.   Sharon Weinberger discovered this as part of  her history of DARPA, The Imagineers of War.  She writes about it in Chain Reaction – How a Soviet A-bomb Test Led the US Into Climate Science.  The Soviets had been talking about re-routing rivers for a long time, and then in 1971 they actually started doing it.  The head of DARPA at the time, Stephen Lukasik, had the entirely proper reaction: “Holy shit, this is dangerous!”

If fresh water stops flowing into the Arctic, what effect does that have on global climate?  The planet’s ocean currents are not just driven by temperature differences, but also by density changes due to salinity.  That’s why people are so worried today about fresh meltwater from Greenland shutting down the Gulf Stream.  If the Arctic Ocean becomes more saline, what happens?

No one knew.  Lukasik assigned a young Air Force meteorologist, John Perry, to find out.  He got $4 million to distribute to studies of paleo-climates and computer modeling.  That became a lifeline for the Illiac IV, the first big multi-processor supercomputer, and kicked off lots of climate projects.    In 1976 it was taken over by NOAA and the NSF, and morphed into the current US federal climate program.

So a terrible but typical bit of Soviet hubris prompted a research program into what has become the major environmental issue of the age!  I hope the irradiated fishermen of the Taiga Atomic Lake don’t mind.




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Who Is the Most Corrupt US Businessman?

Paul Waldman of the Washington Post was recently writing about the raid on the office of Donald Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, which is likely to uncover lots of shady dealings.  Waldman wrote “He [Trump] may well be the single most corrupt major business figure in the United States of America.”

That sounds like a challenge!   Can we find a US business figure even more corrupt than Trump?   There are a lot of unpopular businessmen that I could include here, like the Koch brothers and the Coors family, but they’re unpopular more because of their heinous politics rather than outright crimes.  So here are some sleazier candidates, in alphabetical order:

Sheldon Adelson – casino magnate.  He has been credibly accused of bribing Chinese officials to set up casinos in Macau, and of running prostitution rings out of them.   He also bought a great deal of attention from the GOP (he was Trump’s largest single contributor), including the planned move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  This is a clear disaster for the US, getting it far more deeply into the hole that Israel is digging for itself.  On the other hand, running hookers is not as bad as actually harassing women, as Trump  has.

Richard DeVos – co-founder of Amway, the world’s largest multi-level marketing  (MLM) company.  The less polite name is pyramid scheme.  They claim to have 3 million “independent business operators”.  Hardly any of them make any money, but they pay commissions to their “upline” recruiters.   They’re also encouraged to buy sales materials from their uplines, which can be a large part of their profit.  DeVos himself is worth $8B.  He got in on MLM right from its beginning by selling Nutrilite health supplements from the California Vitamin company in 1949.  It had pioneered MLM in 1945, and he later bought it.  The FDA shut that down as false advertising, but they branched out to a lot of other products, hardly any of which are distinctive.  His daughter-in-law Betsy DeVos is now Secretary of Education, probably for her GOP contributions and efforts to undermine public schools in Michigan.  Trump is likely to have followed DeVos’s lead when setting up Trump University, but he only ripped off a small fraction of the people that DeVos has.

Robert Durst – heir to a real-estate fortune, and now on trial for murder in California.  He’s accused of killing a friend, Susan Berman, and is also suspected in the death of his wife, a neighbor, and three teenage girls.   He was the subject of a six-part HBO documentary, The Jinx, and appears to have confessed on camera when he didn’t think the mike was on.  This is way worse than anything Trump has done, but Durst does not appear to actually be a businessman – his brother Douglas runs the empire.

Bernard Madoff – runner of the largest Ponzi scheme in history with a peak claimed value of $64B in 2008, when he confessed.   Investors chipped in about $20B, and about $11B has been returned by the liquidators, so the total real loss is about $10B.  The assets of Madoff and his family were sold off long ago, and were nowhere near that amount, so someone still did very well out of all this.  It’s probably overseas banks that will just seize the abandoned accounts.  Still, victims who invested less than $1M with him got full restitution, so the main losses were with already rich people.

Angelo Mozilo – CEO of Countrywide Financial when it was a major contributor to the sub-prime mortgage catastrophe.  At its peak in 2006 it issued 17% of all the mortgages in the country.  Most of them had adjustable rates and no documentation.  That meant they couldn’t be backed up by the US housing guarantors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, so they were bundled together into mortgage securities and used as collateral on derivatives.  When housing prices fell in 2007 and the rates were reset, massive numbers started defaulting, and the dominoes toppled.  The company collapsed in late 2007 and was bought for nothing by Bank of America in 2008.    While Mozilo was engineering all of this, he was cashing out his own stock for about $300M.   The SEC later charged him with bank fraud, and he had to return about $50M.  Boo hoo.  At least he can never work in a public company again.

Compared to these people, Trump comes off as a piker.  Sure, he’s ripped off a lot of contractors and investors, but that’s more in the several hundred million range rather than many billions.  Sure, he’s made a fair amount of money in fees for managing things badly and in laundering oligarch money via real estate, but that’s also more in the several hundred million range.  Yes, he has embarrassed and humiliated dozens of women, including his wives past and present, but hasn’t actually injured anyone, as far as we know.

No, Trump’s opportunity to do big damage is right now.  He has already harmed Puerto Rico by botching the cleanup from Hurricane Maria, and has enabled the brutal Saudi war in Yemen, which has killed tens of thousands.  As a businessman, he didn’t have the opportunity to harm as many people as those listed above, but as president, he can far exceed them.  He’ll be the biggest yet!


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Google Is Getting Creepy

Facebook has always been creepy, of course, with its reliance on selling your personality to advertisers.  People are shocked, shocked, that this would be used for political ends by Cambridge Analytica and other manipulators, but that’s basic to what they do.

But Google has been getting creepier too with time, and not just because they also try to infer your preferences from your search choices.   They’re also using the new tech of machine learning to do creepy things.

I saw this directly at a talk last month by  Olivier Temam of Google Paris called “A Shift Towards Edge Machine-Learning Processing”.    This was at ISSCC 2018, and the slides are here  and abstract here.  The talk started by describing the recent successes of machine learning, and those are impressive and uncontroversial.   It has now gotten quite good at difficult tasks like language translation and image recognition, even of things like cancer cells.  The rest was about how to do machine learning on small systems, ones that could go into gadgets, instead of having to communicate with huge servers in distant buildings.   These need interesting hardware techniques to run fast and at low power, and are now the subject of massive research efforts.

But they’re getting applied to hackle-raising things.   Temam talked about occupancy detection for offices, where a camera tries to count the number of people in a room in order to control the temperature and ventilation.   They want to do the counting in the camera itself for “privacy reasons”, so that the whole video stream does not get uploaded to some server.   But who would believe that it isn’t being uploaded?   Or that the camera isn’t looking at you or your screen to monitor what you’re doing?  This kind of counting can be done much more easily and cheaply with an infrared sensor, with no such privacy concerns.

Then there’s Google Clips, a new camera they’ve developed that can run their machine learning package:It uses a brilliant new chip called the Movidius Myriad 2, now owned by Intel, that can do huge amounts of work at low power.  It has 16 GB of internal storage, but links wirelessly to your phone to upload everything.

So do they have it cleaning up pictures, allowing you to get the best shot no matter what the lighting?   No, they want it to take the video, not you.  They got a team of professional photographers to work with a crew of babies and pets.   They captured the entire video stream from their cameras, and looked at when the pros actually pressed the shutter button to capture a clip.  Then they set their neural nets to work on the stream, trying to determine just what the cutest moments were.   Should it capture when the baby is facing you?  The net detects a large round blob in the middle of the image.   When it’s smiling?  When it’s raising its arms in glee?   When it’s rolling over?  The net doesn’t care – it’s just trying to predict when the professional would push the button.  It knows when the actual push happened, and adjusts the synaptic weights on all of the filters it runs on the images to generate features that map to cuteness.

As Elon Musk said “This doesn’t even *seem* innocent.”  This widget is watching and judging your baby constantly.   It’s assuming that you’re too busy or stupid to film your own baby.  God knows what it actually does with the video, but somewhere a Facebook type is thinking about how to monetize your baby videos.

OK, but creepier still is their AIY camera kit:This contains a lens, image sensor, button, and a cardboard box for the body.  You supply a Raspberry Pi processing board, and load their software onto it.   The demo is, and I’m not kidding, a joyfulness detector.   You point it at someone’s face, and it gives you a measure of how joyful their expression is.  An LED turns yellow for joy and blue for sad, just like the emotions in the Pixar “Inside Out” movie.    “And if your joy score exceeds 85%, an 8-bit sound will play. Cool!”  That’s one reaction, but not the one I would have.

This is still all kind of minor, though.   Where this attitude starts to matter is in their self-driving cars.  For the last ten years they’ve been saying how wonderful it will be when driving is taken away from fallible humans.   30,000 people a year are killed on the road in the US!   If you’re skeptical about this, you’re some Luddite delaying the self-driving millenium, and costing thousands of lives in the meantime.  Cars shouldn’t even have steering wheels!   Trust the machine!   Put your lives in our hands!

I would believe more of this if Google (now spun off into Waymo) were actually selling car safety systems.  They’ve spent billions on this by now, but haven’t offered a single product.  Real car companies are steadily adding safety features: blind spot detection, back-up collision alerts, and automatic forward braking.  I have them on my 2017 Chevy Volt, since they really do make a difference in accident rates.  I find the braking to be annoying, to be honest, since the alert goes off constantly in harmless situations, and every few months it applies the brakes when it shouldn’t.  But Google isn’t doing any of this.

I think the reason is money.   The Volt’s collision detector is based on a camera built by an Israeli company called Mobileye:

A Mobileye camera and processor, usually built into the back of the rear view mirror

They were acquired by Intel in 2017 for $15B, but in 2016 they sold about 6 million systems for $400 million.   That’s terrific for a small company, but chump change to Google.  Even if they sold ten times as many systems, 60 million a year, enough for 75% of the cars built each year, that’s still only $4 billion.  Google makes over a $100 billion a year.

No, serious money in self-driving cars only comes when they can sell car-when-you-want-it subscriptions.  Charge $500 per month, and have one car handle four or five subscribers, since each one only uses it for an hour or two a day.  Now you’re making $25K / car / year.   Run a million of those and it’s $25 billion.   When the tech really works, run 10 million of them, and you’re making $250 billion.

That’s what this is about, not safety.  It’s certainly what Uber is going for, since they’re presently losing money on every ride.  Actually doing full autonomous driving (called Level 5) is an enormously difficult problem because the driving environment is really ill-defined.   Just because Google’s Alpha Go program can beat a human champion doesn’t mean it handle situations without fixed rules.  No one cares if it makes a bad Go move, but people care a lot when your software kills someone.  The current accident rate in the US is about one fatality per hundred million miles, or several million hours.  It’s extraordinary hubris to think that computers can do this a lot better, and that hubris is going to kill people.

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