Extremely Cool

Here’s a 22-year-old who builds microchips in his parents’ garage.  His most recent production contains 1200 transistors, he made a 6-transistor version when he was a senior in high school.  The famous Intel 4004 microprocessor contained 2300 transistors, and he’s hoping to get to that level soon.

The article also mentions Jeri Ellsworth…in 2002, she created a system to emulate the old Commodore 64 computer, and also other systems of that period, so that she and other people could play old games that had been developed for them.  This led to Mammoth Toys hiring her to create a computer on a chip for the C64 Direct-to-TV joystick…it sold over half a million units.

Haven’t watched it yet, but she describes her own adventures in making microchips at home in the YouTube series Cooking with Jeri.

Great to see this kind of spirit!

 

 

 

The Great Liquidation

America is hanging by a thread.  A great liquidation is underway, with many of the structures that support American society..or, in some cases, any viable society…being kicked away, sold off piecemeal, or just wantonly destroyed.  I’m talking about physical structures, legal structures, and social structures.

I do not think it is too late to turn this trend around, but the situation is very serious, and I’m going to ask you to gaze into the abyss with me before I discuss some reasons for hope.

Consider:

–Significant parts of America’s energy infrastructure are being destroyed or targeted for destruction.  For example, the Indian Point nuclear plant, serving NYC, was closed in April, despite the fact that this closure will likely create grid instability–and will certainly result in the zero-emissions power it had previously produced being generated instead by sources which do generate emissions. (Yet at the same time, NYC is banning the use of natural gas in new buildings–which will further increase the demand for electricity!) The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, the largest source of electricity in California, is also scheduled for closure in 2025.  The cost of Diablo Canyon was $14.5B in present-day dollars, and I estimate that this represents at least 50,000 person-years of labor.  Something like 1200 working lifetimes, being wantonly trashed. Only a society which is very rich (for now)–disrespectful of its past accomplishments–and uncaring about the future would act in this way.

And these examples represent only a small portion of the assaults being conducted on America’s energy infrastructure. Peaker plants which ensure continued output under tough conditions, are being closed, with much hand-waving about how ‘demand management’ will solve any problems.  Oil and gas production are being squeezed. Pipeline construction is being suppressed, at the same time Putin is given the US green light for a Russia-Germany pipeline.  Energy is being transformed from an American asset into an American vulnerability.

–Billions of dollars of America military equipment were abandoned in Afghanistan and are now in the hands of the Taliban.  If we use a conservative estimate of $40 billion, that represents at least 400,000 person-years of human labor, thrown away. But that’s not the worst of it, of course: much of that equipment will now be used against us or our allies.  There are already reports of formerly-American weapons on their way to Iran.

The effect of the horribly-executed Afghanistan withdrawal on our credibility as an alliance partner will be devastating.  While many foreign policy types expressed worry about what expecting Germany to pay a larger % of the NATO bill would do to our alliances, any imagined impact of that was trivial compared with the impact of the current debacle.  The negative effect on American military recruiting, also, will be considerable, as discussed by several commenters at this blog.  Overall, America’s actual and perceived power position in the world has been greatly reduced over the past few months.

–American manufacturing has been negatively impacted by numerous policy choices and social factors, and America is no longer the world’s facto ry: that role now falls to China.  We have become extremely dependent on China and other countries for many products and components of products–as we found out during last year’s Covid crisis when we were subject to threats that we would ‘burn in the fire of Covid’ if China should choose to deny us critical pharmaceuticals and ingredients thereof.  We have become highly dependent on other countries for electronics manufacturing, especially microchips: a single Taiwanese company, TSMC, acts as the ‘foundry’ for a whole range of chips produced to the designs of many different American companies.  A Chinese takeover of Taiwan could be devastating to our industry, and such takeover appears considerably more likely than it did a couple of months ago.

Manufacturing was, for a couple of decades, considered by the approved-expert classes to be an increasingly-unimportant industry, populated only by those with inferior and uncreative minds. There is some recognition growing lately that this field may actually matter. But American politicians generally have so little comprehension of how the economy actually works that it is hard to believe that any remedies that they propose will be efficacious ones.  As example #1, I give you Joseph Biden: a man who asserted that anyone who can mine coal can ‘learn to code’, and who apparently believes that manually shoveling coal into furnaces is an actual substantial occupation in America today.  Biden also said, referring to China: “They’re not competition for us.”  This was in mid-2019!

America has given up much of its potential in manufacturing. and the consequences are severe for national security and for millions of people.  

–And, speaking of China: the United States has increasingly adopted a submissive position regarding to that country.  Major corporations are bending over backwards to avoid offending the leadership of that country…see my post here for some examples.  Universities, too, have become increasingly dependent on Chinese students and money.  At MIT, a board member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research raised concerns about whether a certain research collaboration with China was appropriate on national security grounds…other board members took offense, and even said that any serious inquiry into the ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party would be “racist.” She was told to ‘stick to science’ and not to mention China again.

The situation is unpleasantly like what Churchill observed in the Britain of the late 1930s, where he wrote of “the unendurable..sense of our country falling into the power, into the orbit and influence of Nazi Germany, and of our existence becoming dependent upon their good will or pleasure”…A “policy of submission” would entail “restrictions” upon freedom of speech and the press. “Indeed, I hear it said sometimes now that we cannot allow the Nazi system of dictatorship to be criticized by ordinary, common English politicians.” (quote from William Manchester, The Last Lion)

At the same time that the Biden administration is pushing for total electrification of transportation, they seem to have little concern about the fact that the US is far from self-sufficient in the minerals required for electrification technologies–and Biden’s son Hunter has been involved in a deal to give China a strengthened position in the supply of cobalt, a key material needed for battery production.  We are being positioned for a return to the kind of extreme energy dependence on other nations that for years gave the OPEC nations so much power and hence contributed to Middle East instability.

America’s relative strength vis-a-vis China is under threat not only as measured by traditional military, economic, and geopolitical factors, but in terms of the influence of the CCP on American internal politics and affairs.

–Media, academia, and increasingly business, indeed the majority of institutions in our society…are being taken over by an obsession with race and ethnicities.  People are not seen as individuals, but rather as members of ‘communities’, which term now refers to demographic categories.  Those who dare deviate from the political and social views assigned to members of their groups are denounced; see for example the attacks on the new Virginia Lt Governor Winsome Sears.

According to this 2018 survey, favorable race relations in the US peaked in 2009, with 66% of people rating them ‘good’…falling to only 26% assigning a ‘good’ evaluation in 2018.  A more recent Gallup poll shows that favorable views of race relations have fallen sharply over the past several years.

America’s colleges have been particularly race-obsessed:  see for example some college reading lists, with their assumption that ““diversity is defined by race or gender.” The link in the last sentence is from 2017…the obsession has clearly gotten much worse since then.

And it has gone way beyond colleges. “I’m so exhausted with being reduced to my race,” a girl at Grace Church School, an upscale private school in Manhattan said. “The first step of antiracism is to racialize every single dimension of my identity.” Kindergarten students at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx are taught to identify their skin color by mixing paint colors. The lower school chief in an email last year instructed parents to avoid talk of colorblindness and “acknowledge racial differences.”  These cases are only one example of a much wider phenomenon.

If this sort of thing continues, then at best…at best…America becomes something like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, about which historian AJP Taylor wrote:

The appointment of every school teacher, of every railway porter, of every hospital doctor, of every tax-collector, was a signal for national struggle. Besides, private industry looked to the state for aid from tariffs and subsidies; these, in every country, produce ‘log-rolling,’ and nationalism offered an added lever with which to shift the logs. German industries demanded state aid to preserve their privileged position; Czech industries demanded state aid to redress the inequalities of the past. The first generation of national rivals had been the products of universities and fought for appointment at the highest professional level: their disputes concerned only a few hundred state jobs. The generation which followed them was the result of universal elementary education and fought for the trivial state employment which existed in every village; hence the more popular national conflicts at the turn of the century.

A creaky and dysfunctional society like Austria-Hungary is the best outcome for America if the race obsession continues on its current path…it is possible, even likely, that the actual outcome will be something much darker. Categorizing people by groups and defining them by the single dimension of membership in such groups is very, very dangerous.  I’m reminded of something Ralph Peters wrote:

“Man loves, men hate. While individual men and women can sustain feelings of love over a lifetime toward a parent or through decades toward a spouse, no significant group in human history has sustained an emotion that could honestly be characterized as love. Groups hate. And they hate well…Love is an introspective emotion, while hate is easily extroverted…We refuse to believe that the “civilized peoples of the Balkans could slaughter each other over an event that occurred over six hundred years ago. But they do. Hatred does not need a reason, only an excuse.”

Excuses for inter-group resentment are now being manufactured at high speed, even mass produced.  Really want to go there?

Read more

The French Army in 1940…and the American CDC in 2021

Andre Beaufre, later a general, was in 1940 a young Captain on the French general staff.  He had been selected for this organization a few years earlier, and had originally been very pleased to be in such elevated company…but:

I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.

The consequences of that approach became clear in May 1940.

It is interesting that Picasso had somehow observed the same problem with French military culture that then-captain Beaufre had seen. As the German forces advanced with unexpected speed, Picasso’s friend Matisse was shocked to learn that the enemy had already reached Reims.

“But what about our generals?” asked Matisse. “What are they doing.”

Picasso’s response: “Well, there you have it, my friend. It’s the Ecole des Beaux-Arts”

…ie, formalists who had learned one set of rules and were not interested in considering deviations from same.

I was reminded of this history by a sequence of posts at twitter.  Joanna Masel, a theoretical biologist, says the CDC contacted her (following an NYT story) about an app she helped develop to notify people (anonymously) about possible covid-19 exposure. Her group put a very informal preprint on github nearly immediately, and a more formal one on medrxiv soon after. A CDC coauthor was added to shepherd it through MMWR, which is described as “CDC’s primary vehicle for scientific publication of timely, authoritative, and useful public health information and recommendations.”

The preproposal was rejected. Informal feedback was that they liked it but were so backlogged that a peer reviewed journal was likely faster. This initiated 6 months of clearance procedures needed for CDC coauthor to stay on paper.

What CDC staff spend a LOT of time on: rewriting manuscripts with meticulous attention to style guides. Eg, Methods must follow exactly the order they are used in Results, all interpretation must be in Discussion not in Results, etc. to a point truly unimaginable in my field.

and

6 months and endless CDC work hours later, after new CDC edits overclaimed efficacy in ways we deny, at CDC’s urging we removed the CDC coauthor in order to terminate clearance to instead make the deadline for a relevant CDC-run special issue…On top of minor revisions from reviewers, more style guide edits required by CDC journal editors. Eg because style bans reference to an individual as a primary or secondary case, we now refer to individuals who test positive v. infected individuals v. those infected by each. After resubmission in <30 days, rejected months later despite green light from peer reviewers. Bottom line from CDC editor: because our data is now too old, we longer conform with journal guidelines….

So after the manuscript spend the vast majority of the previous 12 months on CDC desks not ours, we were rejected by the CDC because the data had become >12 months old.

Doesn’t this sound like a replay of what Andre Beaufre observed?

I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.

See the costs of formalism and credentialism.

1/4/2022:  Updated to correct name of Picasso’s artist friend.

Christmas 2021

Newgrange is an ancient structure in Ireland so constructed that the sun, at the exact time of the winter solstice, shines directly down a long corridor and illuminates the inner chamber. More about Newgrange here and here.

Grim has an Arthurian passage about the Solstice.

Don Sensing has thoughts astronomical, historical, and theological about the Star of Bethlehem.

Vienna Boys Choir, from Maggie’s Farm

Snowflakes and snow crystals, from Cal Tech. Lots of great photos

In the bleak midwinter, from King’s College Cambridge

The first radio broadcast of voice and music took place on Christmas Eve, 1906. (although there is debate about the historical veracity of this story)

An air traffic control version of  The Night Before Christmas.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, sung by Enya

Gerard Manley Hopkins

A Christmas-appropriate poem from Rudyard Kipling

Another poem, by Robert Buchanan

I was curious as to what the oldest Christmas carol might be:  this Billboard article suggests some possibilities.

The story of electric Christmas tree lights

Mona Charen, who is Jewish, wonders  what’s going on with the Christians?

The 2017 Christmas season, in combination with the Churchill movie Darkest Hour, reminded me something written by the French author Georges Bernanos:  A Tale for Children.

Here’s a passage I’ve always liked from Thomas Pynchon’s great novel Gravity’s Rainbow.  The setting: it is the grim winter of 1944, just before Christmas. The military situation in Europe is not good, and WWII seems as if it will never end. London is under attack by V-2 rockets and V-1 cruise missiles (as they would be called today.) Roger and Jessica, two of the main characters, are driving in a rural area in England and come upon a church where carols are being sung. They decide to go inside.


They walked through the tracks of all the others in the snow, she gravely on his arm, wind blowing her hair to snarls, heels slipping once on ice. “To hear the music,” he explained.

Tonight’s scratch choir was all male, epauletted shoulders visible under the wide necks of white robes, and many faces nearly as white with the exhaustion of soaked and muddy fields, midwatches, cables strummed by the nervous balloons sunfishing in the clouds, tents whose lights inside shone nuclear at twilight, soullike, through the cross-hatched walls, turning canvas to fine gauze, while the wind drummed there…..The children are away dreaming, but the Empire has no place for dreams and it’s Adults Only in here tonight, here in this refuge with the lamps burning deep, in pre-Cambrian exhalation, savory as food cooking, heavy as soot. And 60 miles up the rockets hanging the measureless instant over the black North Sea before the fall, ever faster, to orange heat, Christmas star, in helpless plunge to Earth. Lower in the sky the flying bombs are out too, roaring like the Adversary, seeking whom they may devour. It’s a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one–something to raise the possibility of another night that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are: for the one night, leaving only the clear way home and the memory of the infant you saw, almost too frail, there’s too much shit in these streets, camels and other beasts stir heavily outside, each hoof a chance to wipe him out…….But on the way home tonight, you wish you’d picked him up, held him a bit. Just held him, very close to your heart, his cheek by the hollow of your shoulder, full of sleep. As if it were you who could, somehow, save him. For the moment not caring who you’re supposed to be registered as. For the moment, anyway, no longer who the Caesars say you are.

O Jesu parvule
Nach dir is mir so weh…

So this pickup group, these exiles and horny kids, sullen civilians called up in their middle age…….give you this evensong, climaxing now with its rising fragment of some ancient scale, voices overlapping threee and fourfold, filling the entire hollow of the church–no counterfeit baby, no announcement of the Kingdom, not even a try at warming or lighting this terrible night, only, damn us, our scruffy obligatory little cry, our maximum reach outward–praise be to God!–for you to take back to your war-address, your war-identity, across the snow’s footprints and tire tracks finally to the path you must create by yourself, alone in the dark. Whether you want it or not, whatever seas you have crossed, the way home…