2020 Is Already the 2nd Worst Year in US History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The passive solar greenhouse and garden, click for source

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SananBio farm factory in Xianmen

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

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

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

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Moore’s Law In Spaaaace: Data Rates from Mars

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

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

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

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

Click for spreadsheet, with lists of all missions

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

The rates have improved because of:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Nature Advances Fast When Humans Retreat

The last two months of quarantine have been beautiful here in the Boston area:

This is the Boston skyline from Robbins Farm Park in my town of Arlington.   I have never seen it be this clear; there’s usually a white haze obscuring the view.   That would turn gray as you looked through miles and miles of smog to the horizon, but not any more.

The reason is obvious – driving and flying are way down:

Data from EIA – click for spreadsheetGasoline usage usually rises a bit as the weather warms, but it collapsed in March.  It bottomed out at half of normal weekly supplies, and is currently down by a third.  Jet fuel is down 80%, unsurprisingly, but heating oil is just doing its normal seasonal drop.

It has been weirdly windy these last few weeks, and we actually got a snow flurry on this May morning.   Is all this affecting the famous Keeling Curve of atmospheric CO2?

Click for site

Not that I can see.  It’s still rising by 3 ppm per year.  Maybe we’ll see it drop later this year as the reductions in China and the US get all the way to Hawaii, but maybe not.   Those big swings from September to May are normal, and are caused by the shutdown of  plant growth over the northern hemisphere’s winter.

Getting back to the local level, the lack of traffic has made the neighborhood coyotes more active.  They’re finally cutting into the rabbit population.   This has been a boon for my dog!  He’s too old and slow to catch them, but hates it when they taunt him by hopping about on people’s lawns.  The drop in traffic noise has also made the spring bird calls a lot easier to hear, to the point where they wake us up in the morning.

The main effect on animal populations, though, is that you now see far more people on the streets.  They used to be in their cars and schools and workplaces, but now they’re out enjoying the sun.  Most people are wearing masks (Massachusetts now has a public mask order), and most are home-made and stylish.  They stand and chat, but at a social distance.   Our block does a “6 at 6”, where everyone comes out at 6 PM to stand 6 feet apart, usually with drinks in hand.  I’ve learned more about my neighbors in the last month than in the last ten years!

For a lot of people this quarantine has been a tremendous hardship, and for some it has been fatal.  Of course we want this plague to be over, and of course we need to get back to our regular lives.   But I hope that when we do, we don’t lose the clean air, and the bird song, and the friendly neighbors.

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Some Firsts Who Were Women

The Web keeps throwing stories at me about remarkable pioneering women, so let me get down a few before It gets mad:

First Known Author – Enheduanna, Ur, ~2200 BCE

That is, the first writer whose name was recorded.  Seems late, doesn’t it?  The Sumerians had already had writing for about a thousand years by this date, and there were already personal names being recorded by 3100 BCE (See Kushim and Iry-Hor).  She was a major figure, though – a daughter of the the first emperor of Mesopotamia, Sargon of Akkad, and high priestess of the goddess Inanna in her ziggurat in Ur.   Here is the only image of her, where she is approaching an altar with three male priests:

Restored Disk of Enheduanna, U Penn Museum, click for description

Her name is on the back, and has also been found on cylinder seals.  She wrote a set of hymns to the goddess which were in use for centuries, and have been found at many other temples.   Performing the works of the emperor’s daughter is a good career move, and that might account for their popularity, but the hymns themselves are quite striking, and outlasted the Akkadian Dynasty.

First Named Chemist – Tapputi, Babylon, ~1200 BCE

The Babylonian cuneiform to the right is a fragment of the first description of a chemical process assigned to a named person, Tapputi-Belatekallim, who was a palace overseer.  It describes the purification of various scented materials like myrrh and balsam, and heating results to collect the vapors.  The tablet was translated by Erich Ebeling, a German Assyriologist, and the pieces are in European collections. The description is long and elaborate and is given here: “A Group of Akkadian Texts on Perfumery”, by Martin Levey (an historian of chemistry at SUNY Albany), Chymia, Vol. 6 (1960), pp. 11-19.   Perfumes were a big deal both there and in Egypt, so it’s no wonder that manuals for them survive.  I first read about her in Derek Lowe’s fun The Chemistry Book, and he also has an informative blog, In the Pipeline.

First Named Alchemist – Maria Hebraeus (Mary the Jewess), Alexandria, ~200 CE

Sadly, we have none of her works, but she is credited by a later writer, Zosimos of Panopolis with the invention of  a lot of alchemical equipment.   Here is her tribikos:

From a drawing in Zosimus

This is a kind of alembic with three copper spouts instead of one, and with glass jars sealed on the ends, and is used for distilling.  There was some evidence of stills before this, but this is the first full description.  It could have been used for distilling alcohol, as Adam Rogers postulated in Proof – the Science of Booze (2014).   That would have been a major advance for humanity, but there is sadly no evidence of spirits in Roman times.

Marie also invented the double boiler, which is known to this day as the bain-marie (bath of Mary) in France and the Marienbad in Germany.

First Programmer – Grace Hopper, Cambridge MA, 1944

She was working on the Harvard Mark I machine during the War:

Hopper at Mark I console

when she discovered the first actual computer bug:

“Relay #70 Panel F,  (moth) in relay”.  The Mark I used relays, and the bug was caught in its mechanical contacts.

And cartooned them!

From her notebook: “Table worm”, “Kitchee Boo Boo Bug, He who goes around loosening relays”, “NRL bug, He who sends wrong data”, “He who brings good data”

Her  remarkable career is well-known, so let me just add that  I actually heard her speak in 1976.   She handed out her famous nanoseconds!   This was a piece of wire about a foot long, which is how far light travels in one billionth of a second.  She then brought out a huge coil of almost a thousand feet of wire.  “And this is a microsecond!  Don’t waste them!”  She said that the wires were useful for explaining computer time scales to children and admirals. She appeared in her dress uniform, and there were tears in her eyes when she talked about serving in her beloved Navy.

Now, some consider Ada Lovelace to be the first programmer, because there were some notes about algorithms in her 1843 translation of a description of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.  But it appears that Babbage himself came up with those, and in any case the machine was never built.  She did apparently realize, unlike Babbage, that computers could manipulate symbols besides numbers, E.g. musical notes, which is a major insight.

First (and Only!) Person To Swim the English Channel Four Times – Sarah Thomas, 2019

She swam about 130 miles in 52 hours and 10 minutes in September 2019.  That’s over two days in the water, swimming at 2.5 miles/hour!  Hardly anyone can even walk for that long.  Her average time of 13 hours for a single crossing would have been the world record  in 1951.   And this after beating breast cancer the year before! She also holds the record for the longest open water swim in a course without currents: 104.7 miles down and up Lake Champlain in 67:16.  Her day job is recruiting for a health care company in Colorado.

Long distance swims are the main place where women hold absolute athletic records.  This list – LongswimDB Course Records – shows 175 open-water courses of which women hold 30% of the records, 55 out of 175.   It’s probably a matter of buoyancy and energy storage.  There’s definitely something different about these people’s stamina and endurance!


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Mad Science #7 – Radioactive Lighting

Charles Fraser-Smith had a problem.  He had a lot of problems actually;  he was the chief gadgeteer for the British espionage agency MI6 during WWII.  He was responsible for all the gear that agents would need on the Continent, from the right styles of clothes and shoes and cigarettes, to maps hidden in buttons, to cameras and radios that could be concealed anywhere.  Ian Fleming happened to know him, and based the character of Q in the James Bond books upon him.

His problem was that British planes couldn’t find the French fields that they needed to land on to supply the Resistance. With German soldiers and planes everywhere you could hardly set up bright landing lights.   You couldn’t even give them powerful flashlights for fear of being stopped and exposed.   He tried making flashlights that looked like innocuous other objects:

But the batteries failed when needed.  He needed something bright and reliable and so came upon this:

Plastic balls painted on the inside with glowing radium paint.  Just toss them on the edges of a field before the plane was due to land, and they would stand out against the dark ground of the countryside.  Then stash them in the woods afterwards in an opaque bag for next time, since they’ll still be shining. Radium was in regular use for glow-in-the-dark watch and clock faces, so there were supplies of it even in wartime.

Click for link to exhibit at the Tangmere Museum

He describes this in his memoir The Secret War of Charles Fraser-Smith (1981), but doesn’t talk about how well it worked.  It’s possible that it was used only once or perhaps not at all.

Maybe that’s because it was a really terrible idea.  Radium is poisonous even in microgram quantities, and these would need a lot of it.   Even so they wouldn’t be all that bright.  Radium paint glows by phosphorescence, which isn’t that efficient.  The phosphors do get damaged by the radium’s alpha particles over time, so present-day antique radium clocks no longer glow.  Also, the Germans had Geiger counters even then (they used them to find their own radioactive land mines), so if the radium ever got on someone’s hands they could be discovered.   Fraser-Smith had plenty of ingenious ideas, and his book is a really fun read, but this wasn’t one of them.

The US military actually did make use of glowing radium disks for marking people, ship decks, and bridges:

Radium Personnel Markers – click for good article.  Note the Poison marking

These had a belt clip so that you could wear them right next to the family jewels.  They switched to Strontium-90 in the 1950s because it was cheaper and lasted longer.  This was in use right up into the 1960s, incredibly.  Oak Ridge Associated Universities has a big collection of radioactivity-related items, and discusses these here.

The other big use of radioactive lighting was for uncrewed lighthouses in remote places.  These used the heat from radioactive decay to power thermocouples to generate electricity, a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator.  They generally used strontium-90 and produced 10 to 100 watts for about 10 years. The US and UK built a few, but the big user was the USSR.   The Russian-Norwegian environmental watchdog Bellona estimates that there were 1000 abandoned units like this scattered around Russia:

Looted Soviet RTGs.  Note the cooling fins around the hot core

Records of them were lost when the USSR fell.  They’ve gotten looted for scrap metal, and people have come into ERs with radiation burns.  Tens of millions have been spent on finding them and disposing of them properly.  They’ve been largely replaced by systems with solar panels and batteries, but Rosatom has announced that they’ve come up with a new scheme based on nickel-63.  This one will be completely safe, honest.

This highlights the real issue with this whole concept – you only get light out of them for a few years and then they become dangerous radioactive waste.   The more broadly they get used, as on bridge markers or beacons, the more likely they are to be mishandled.  50s SF stories were full of eternal atomic light bulbs, but the reality is much nastier.  The 20th century put so much radioactivity into the ecosphere that it’s a mark of the Anthropocene, and here was another example.

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William Gibson Reading “Agency”

Click for link

Gibson is on a book tour for his new novel, and I got to see him read from it and take questions in the First Parish Church in Cambridge. There was a big crowd! It was nearly full, largely with people who, like me, read Neuromancer when it came out in 1984. They now have long grey hair or beards. He said “I can’t tell if I’ve read here before, or if there are a lot of churches like this in Cambridge, but it’s really nice.”

He then read Ch. 3 of Agency, “The App Whisperer”, where we first meet the novel’s protagonist, Eunice, a snarky AI cobbled together out of an upload and various military programs by Valley bros. Eunice introduces herself to the viewpoint character, Verity Jane, through an earbud and a pair of AR glasses.  Gibson spoke slowly, and still has a southern drawl after all these decades in Vancouver, and with a fair number of pauses while speaking. He’s now 71, and confesses that these tours are wearing. It’s a fun, dense chapter, like the book as a whole. He then took questions, which I’m reconstructing from memory:

Q: How did Agency end up being on a stub timeline?
A: I had pitched the novel as a parodic romp through Silicon Valley, and then Nov 9, 2016 happened. From one week to the next everything turned stupid. My plot was ruined. But I had an epiphany a couple of weeks later. This is a sequel to The Peripheral, where the oligarchs up in the 22nd century are messing around with timelines for their amusement. One of them could be doing it out of sadism. I could keep this story in a plausible timeline, and leave the actual one to turn into the 22nd century dystopia. Saved!

Q: Would you ever do another collaboration like The Difference Engine? Please do it with Kim Stanley Robinson!
A: I really haven’t done that many: a couple of short stories, that with Sterling, and a script with the actor Michael St. John Smith called Archangel. No one was interested, until it got picked up as a graphic novel. Now people are saying it should be a screenplay! I did some commissioned work in Hollywood, but it doesn’t work for me unless I have a really close relationship with the person. No one but Sterling could stand working with me.

Q: Your style has gotten leaner as you’ve gone along. What is your writing process like?
A: Ugly. I don’t think we as writers are here to talk about it, but to do it. No one else can give you writing advice. But for me, I start with a character, like Verity. I put them in a room like Joe-Eddy’s apartment, and come to know it as well as my own house. Soon they get full autonomy and the story flows from there. It never starts with an idea.

Q: How did you end up with so many female protagonists?
A: When I first started writing SF in the late 70s, I had a Post-It note list in my head of things to do. One was to avoid “The Future is American”. Another was to put literary realism into a genre that really didn’t have it. But another was to get women into the stories. I remember going to Norwescon in Seattle and hearing Joanna Russ talk about feminism in SF. I had never heard the word. I’d read it a few times, but didn’t really know what it meant. On hearing her I got it.   That led to Molly Millions being the kick-ass co-protagonist in Neuromancer.

Q: This will probably be the most boring and nerdy question this evening, but you seem to use a lot of null subject sentences. This comes up in Arabic and Japanese; people say “Jack picked up the apple. Ate.” The subject and object are implied.
A: I’ve never heard it so clearly described! It just seems to pass my internal editor as a natural way to speak. I catch myself doing stuff like that sometimes. I was using “liminal” way too much, and so made sure to put it in the second paragraph here, even though we’re in liminal times.

Q: How do you react when people ask you about the Future?
A: I have a cladding about that. All SF is actually written about the present. It’s like taking an ice cream cone from the store; it’s melting away as you carry it out. People credit me with coining “cyberspace”, but no one except the military uses it without air quotes. The actual Internet is nothing like what I described. In Neuromancer it was still a thing separate from the world, a different space. Some time ago it all everted, and now we’re living inside it. I also used “cyberpunk” with air quotes when it first came out, and parts of that did come true.

He then apologized for fading (this is only the first week of the tour!) and sat down to sign. I had hoped to get my Neuromancer hardback signed, but there were hundreds of people ahead of me.  It’s great to see someone who can still deliver after over 40 years in the field!


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What Has the US EV Tax Credit Cost?

Last month the US EV tax credit expired completely for Tesla. I happened to get my Model 3 lease just under the wire, and actually saved something. The dealership was really busy in the credit’s last few days!  The credit has clearly been a great success in kick-starting the electric vehicle industry, but how much has it actually cost?

The credit, which is called IRC 30D, was passed in 2009, and is $2500 for any car with a battery of 5 kWh or more, plus $417 for every kWh above 5 up to $5000. The amount per model is given here: Federal Tax Credits for All-Electric and Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles.  Everything above 12 kWh gets the full $7500.  Full EVs of decent range need at least 50 kWh, while plug-ins tend to have 8 to 16 kWh. The credit applies to the first 200,000 cars made by a company, and then gets cut in half to $3750 for the six month after that, to $1875 for the next six months, and then to zero.  The credit was meant to encourage the design and marketing of these cars, but not be an open-ended subsidy.

So first let’s see how many EVs have been sold in the last 10 years.   This data comes from the InsideEVs  EV Sales Scorecard and I’ve put it all into this spreadsheet: EV Sales and Tax Credits.  Here it is, sorted by the units sold in 2019:

The first major EVs, the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, were introduced in 2011.  The Volt was updated in 2016 but cancelled in 2019.  The Leaf did well until it was superseded.  Toyota introduced a plug-in Prius in 2017, which make it now #2.  Tesla introduced the Model S in 2013, but sales exploded with the Model 3 in 2018.  That was such a hit that it threw the growth curve off for 2018.   There have been 57 EV models all told, of which 46 are still in production.  Overall sales are doubling about every 2.5 years.

Given the raw sales and the credit per model, we can calculate what the total credit cost if everyone took it:

The biggest year was 2018 when at most $2.4 billion would have been granted.  The actual amount could be much less, depending on how many people filed for it.  Even that was only 0.06% of the US federal budget.  The budget can’t even be tracked to that precision.  It dropped in 2019 to $1.3B because the Tesla credit was way down.   Chevrolet hit the 200K limit in April 2019, and its credit will expire in April 2020, so it was down too.  Nissan has sold 140K all told, and Toyota and Ford are at 120K, so they’re not all that close.

The total credit available from  2011 to 2019 was $8.8B.   Spread over 1.5M cars, that amounts to $6000 per car.  Tesla has gotten a total subsidy of $3.1B, followed by Chevrolet at $1.5B, Nissan at $1.1B, BMW at $0.5B and Toyota at $0.5B.

The Trump Administration has proposed canceling the credit altogether, unsurprisingly, but it has been renewed every year.  The House Democrats have proposed extending it to 600K units. That would mainly help GM, which has already exceeded the 200K limit, but will help Ford soon.  All of the other companies have 2.1M cars left before they hit the limit.

This year a lot of new models will be introduced, so Tesla will get some real competition.  The Kia Niro is the only one that’s close right now, because it’s bigger and significantly cheaper.  GM has faded, as I’ve mentioned before, but VW is all in because they need to get over the scandal around their hacking of diesel emissions tests.

Overall, this credit has done exactly what it’s supposed to.   It’s enabled the creation of a new category of cars, and they’ve sold about $70B worth so far.  The whole world is converting over to EVs, and this helped. It’s been particularly important to the growth of Tesla, which was up to about $25B in sales for 2019.  It’s the first successful new car company in the US since Jeep in 1941.   After driving my Model 3 for a couple of weeks I can see why.  It’s the fastest, smoothest car I’ve ever driven.  It could use more space, and the touch screen is annoying, but once you’ve driven on juice, you never want to go back.




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The Carboniferous and the Anti-Carboniferous Eras

Here’s a cool recent discovery – the reason the earth has so much coal is that it took fungi 60 million years to figure out how to digest lignin, the compound that gives wood its strength.  Before that the trees were free to coat the earth.  They just lay where they fell until they burned or were buried in sediments.  This was the Carboniferous Era, the time from about 360 to 300 million years ago when almost all coal was laid down.  There was just an enormous amount of plant life on land then.  The oxygen level hit 35% (vs 21% today), as the trees consumed CO2 to build themselves and released O2.   Invertebrates, which have to breathe through their shells, reached enormous size, meters long.   Don’t click on this if you’re arachnophobic.   Plants with roots and leaves first appeared about 390 My ago, so that marks the start of the era.

So what caused the end?   People have thought that it was climate change or a reconfiguring of the continents, or the evolution of new kinds of trees.   This fungal explanation appeared in 2012, as published in Science“The Paleozoic Origin of Enzymatic Lignin Decomposition Reconstructed from 31 Fungal Genomes” by Dmitrios Floudas of Clark University in Worcester, and 70 other authors at 25 other institutions.   This is not easy work!   A lay explanation from Scientific American can be found here.

White rot fungus eating oak wood

Lignin is the brown stuff in wood.  Most of the rest is relatively clear cellulose.  The lignin is what gets removed to make paper.  It’s a tough molecule that consists of long chains of carbon clusters with lots of cross links.   It repels water, and apparently originally evolved to form the surface of tubes to transport water throughout a plant. Then it became the main structural compound of woody plants.  Once plants could hold themselves off the ground, they raced upwards to capture as much sunlight as possible, since tall plants shade out short ones.

Nothing could eat this stuff until white rot fungi came along.   People still don’t know quite how the enzymes in it work, but they can track the genes that make them across a lot of different fungal species.  By looking at the number of random mutations in those genes, and knowing the rate at which those mutations accumulate, they can work backward to when the common ancestor to all those species began to diverge.   This happened about 290 million years ago.  Given the inaccuracies here, that’s pretty close to when the Carboniferous closed.

The trees of the Carboniferous weren’t like those today – they were mainly an extinct species called Lepidodendrales, or scale trees.    Here’s a fossil of one that I found near the coal town of Joggins, Nova Scotia:

That’s how common these trees were – you can find them lying by the side of the road 300 million years later.  They were huge, up to 30 m tall, with meter-thick trunks of mostly bark.  The bark was green and photo-synthesized, unlike modern trees.  Those little indents were actually pores on the trunk for taking in air and water.   They weren’t as strong as modern trees, but they didn’t need to be because white rot wasn’t around.  They went for maximum growth instead of defense from attackers.   That worked great until it didn’t.

A long time after this a vertebrate came along with an unusually developed nervous system.   It found that the remains of these trees could be digested by steam engines, and used for rapid locomotion and for the construction of artificial skins out of wool and cotton.  Thus began the Anti-Carboniferous, when all these ancient deposits began to be consumed.

There appears to be about 1100 billion tons of mine-able coal today, and a couple of trillion more tonnes that cannot be mined.   The number keeps going up as new deposits are discovered and mining techniques improve.  There’s no telling how much was laid down originally, since it can be destroyed by plate tectonics.    Compare that 4000 billion tonnes total to the 750 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere, and the 600 billion that are in modern-day trees.  Those scale trees sure took out a lot of CO2.  Maybe the Earth would have been Venus were it not for these incompetent fungi.

Humanity has burned somewhere between 300 and 400 billion tons of coal since the early 19th century.   It’s hard to tell because there are only good worldwide statistics for recent decades.   The oil company BP has stats from 1981 to 2018 in this spreadsheet.  This probably covers the majority of the coal burned, since the world population is so much higher now and so much more industrialized than it was earlier.

According to BP, humanity has burned 216 billion tons of coal in the last four decades.  The breakdown by region looks like this:

Region % World Consumption
1981 to 2018
% World Consumption
in 2018
China 33% 50%
Europe 19% 8%
USA 17% 9%
India 6% 12%
Rest of World 25% 21%

China now consumes far more than anyone else, but India is coming on strongly. Both countries are ruining their air as a result. Both are still building coal plants, while Europe and the US have been shutting them down as uneconomic.

All this consumption is one piece of evidence that there have been no other industrial species on Earth before us. They would have mined this stuff too. We’ve consumed 20-30% of it in just two hundred years, and there won’t be much left after ten thousand. Anyone before us would have taken it all, along with all the readily available iron, copper, and gold.

The Anti-Carboniferous is going to be a lot shorter than the Carboniferous! For our sake it had better end in the next couple of decades. Let’s hope the trees can then put all this carbon back into the ground where it belongs.

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Mad Science #6: Nazi Fusion Fraud

I can’t believe I’ve never come across this story.   An actual Nazi scientist, Ronald Richter, was working on an actual super-technology, lithium-hydrogen nuclear fusion, in an actual secret lair, the island of Huemul, surrounded by razor wire, machine guns, and patrol boats.  All of this in Argentina! And it used a spectacular technique, shock waves in plasma arcs, that would shake the whole building when they went off.  His work was fraudulent, but his ideas sparked (so to speak) research that continues to this day.  It also shows a lot of the standard elements of engineering fraud, ones that we see in the biggest recent one, Theranos.

Richter with his reactor instruments

I came upon this through another great chapter in Atomic Adventures by James Mahaffey, and it’s fully described (albeit in German) by Dr. Paul Hahn here: Das Richter- Experiment.

In 1948 the new dictator of Argentina, Juan Peron, asked a German refugee engineer, Kurt Tank, what he could do to Make Argentina Great.   Tank was a serious guy, a major aeronautical designer at the German company Fokker-Wolf.  He did the Fw 200 transatlantic passenger plane in 1936 and the Fw 190 fighter plane in 1941,  and had come to Argentina after the War to build a jet fighter. He said “Get Ronald Richter out of Europe”.

Richter was born in 1908, and got his physics doctorate from Prague University in 1935. He then kicked around for the next ten years doing miscellaneous tech jobs in Germany.   There were lots of openings in those days even for erratic figures like him, since the Nazis had removed all the Jewish scientists and engineers.  He didn’t do well, but all the while he had been working on the side on unstable plasma arcs. 

These are formed by two graphite electrodes when they’re put close together.  When a voltage is put across them, a spark will jump the gap and form a brilliant arc.  This was the first form of electric light, and was still used in bright sources like searchlights and movie projectors right up into the 1980s.  But if a little too much current is put through them, the arc expands and explodes with a deafening bang.  Richter thought that there might be enough energy in that explosion to actually get hydrogen atoms to fuse.  He claimed he had measured the gamma rays that would be emitted by such fusions.  Mark Oliphant had already demonstrated the fusion of deuterium and tritium in 1933 at Cambridge, so the theory was in place.

He was unemployed and broke after WW II, and so jumped at the chance to work in Argentina.  His talk of building miniature suns to generate unlimited power convinced Peron, and he was given a lab in the corner of Tank’s aircraft plant.  When one of his experiments exploded, he cried “Sabotage!” and flew into a rage.  He insisted on working somewhere more private, so Peron set him up on Huemul island on the border with Chile:

Prime supervillain lair real estate

There he specified the construction of huge concrete reactors:

And quite nice housing for himself and his family.   The reactor itself consisted of an arc setup driven by a huge bank of capacitors and transformers.  The arc electrodes were hollow, and he would squirt some hydrogen and lithium into the arc when it went off. 

He knew that an arc had nowhere near the temperature and pressure to really do fusion.  Arcs get up a few thousand degrees Centigrade, and fusion needs many millions.  He hoped, though, to exploit two things:

  1. Resonance induced by Larmor Precession, an effect used in MRI machines that can make nuclei bop around in strong magnetic fields.  Maybe this would let the hydrogen and lithium nuclei get close enough to one another.
  2. A fusion chain reaction, where the fusion of a few atoms would release enough energy to heat up the others to where they fused.

In  1951, he finally thought he saw evidence of fusion, or maybe Peron was pressing him for results after the huge amounts he had spent.  He and Peron gave a big press conference, announcing that backwards Argentina had achieved fusion, accomplishing what the world’s leading science countries could not.  The local press had no idea what to make of this, but the news excited and dismayed physicists in the US, UK and France.  Few believed it.  

Local physicists demanded a look at his equipment.   They found that his radiation detectors were behind the shielding, and so could not have picked up anything.  That’s a pretty basic mistake. The radio antennas needed to induce the Larmor effect were not even connected.   The fusion evidence that he claimed, a broadening in the spectral lines of the arc, could not be seen.

Peron was humiliated, and cut him off at once.  He had to leave Huemul, and tried without success to find physics work elsewhere, applying to the US, France, and even Libya.   He died in penury in Buenos Aires in 1991.  The buildings in Huemul are still there but in ruins:

Ruins of Richter lab

credit Katia Moskvitch, click for nice article

So how does this compare with Elizabeth Holmes and her Theranos blood-testing company?  A few common elements:

  • A good pitch – They both offered something quite valuable: science glory for Argentina here, and easy tracking of health problems for Theranos.
  • A reputable validator – Hardly anyone can evaluate the quality of a proposal, so you have to rely on experts.  Here it was Kurt Tank, and there it was Channing Robertson, an engineering dean at Stanford who had taught Elizabeth Holmes when she was an undergraduate, and still backs her.
  • Deep secrecy – Richter made sure that his lab was far from anyone who knew anything about nuclear physics, and wouldn’t let anyone see his work. Holmes made everyone sign strict NDAs and threatened dissenters with major lawyers.  They were both right about this; exposure did them in.

But there were some positive outcomes here.  A physics institute, the Bariloche Atomic Centre was established at the nearby town of Bariloche using Richter’s equipment, and it has done good work on cosmic rays and nuclear waste management.  The initial report of Richter’s work prompted a lot of people to think seriously about fusion, and Lyman Spitzer of Princeton then came up with the stellarator scheme, a magnetic confinement plasma system that underlies most of current fusion work.

Of course, fusion still doesn’t work after almost 70 years of intense effort.  It seems ludicrous now that anyone thought it could be done on some remote island, but no one would have known that at the time.  The credulous Peron was convinced by the Nazi reputation for tech wizardry.   Maybe that’s the most important lesson for tech fraudsters – find ignorant but rich patrons.  Please don’t make use of this advice!



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