Niobium, #41

Niobium is another one of those elements of the modern world. High-strength steels—like the kinds used to make car frames—need a small percentage of niobium in the alloy. It is also used in superalloys which is the stuff they use to make gas turbines and rocket engines.

If you look at the periodic table, you can see that niobium is in the same family (column) as Vanadium (#23) and Tantalum (#73). Both are used in a variety of alloys. These are hard, shiny, corrosion-resistant, high-melting point metals and they contribute those characteristics to steels and other mixtures.

Niobium is used in jewelry and coins. The Royal Canadian Mint has a series of moon-themed sterling silver collectibles that feature niobium on the reverse:

You can get different colors. A thin film of oxidized niobium is anodized (electrically deposited) on the coin. The thickness determines the amount of light diffracted and the resulting interference patterns, thus the color. Varying the voltage of the anode (hence “anodizing”) in the circuit varies the thickness of the layer.

Cool coin, eh?

Worldwide production of niobium is about 80,000 tonnes. Most of it comes from Brazil. If you want to imagine 80,000 tonnes that’s about how much one average-sized oil tanker (AFRAMAX class, empty) weighs. And just for comparison the world produces annually about 70,000,000 tonnes of aluminum!

Technology and ideology

Crypto-currency has generated quite a bit of interest over the last few years, and quite a lot of money was dumped into crypto-schemes. The collapse of FTX and other crypto-related companies shined some light on the whole mess and now we can see things a little better.

Crypto-currencies are based on a piece of technology called a blockchain. It’s sort of like a database just slower and more cumbersome. In fact almost every use of the blockchain has proved to be a failure. Existing technologies like databases are orders of magnitude faster and more secure. Nonetheless interest in blockchains remains high.

That interest is mostly ideological. The idea behind crypto-currency is that the system requires no oversight. It is trust-less. Individuals can send and receive crypto-currency payments without resorting to a bank or other institution. The transactions can happen “peer-to-peer” and thus escape government oversight. This has a very big appeal to libertarians, anarchists, and of course criminals.

Just about every transaction we make in our society involves a trusted third-party service. If you buy a house you need a title and escrow company. If you use a credit card the merchant knows the bank backing the card will pay. The bank backing the card also protects the buyer if the card is stolen. Refunds, reimbursements, and cancellations are easy with credit cards. The system is set up that way and we are willing to pay the fees to the big banks to keep it going.

Complex deals require lawyers and contracts. This protects both parties. Our society relies on this trust-mistrust dynamic. Because we engage in so many transactions we have to place our trust in institutions (like the legal system, or the banks, or the F.D.I.C). We can’t possibly trust every person or entity we deal with so we have to have backstops and fail-safes to protect our interests.

Crypto-currency does away with all this. Many people don’t trust the government to protect their rights so they’d rather do things outside the government’s reach. This is not unreasonable as governments often betray their citizens’ trust. People don’t trust the banks or the entire global financial system. This is not unreasonable either. I remember very well the S&L scandal in the 80s and our most recent shit-storm in 2008. Bankers don’t look out for the little guy. It’s not crazy to be suspicious of Big Finance.

Enter the blockchain and its spawn, Bitcoin. Finally there was a way to send and receive money without relying on all those crooks and creeps! Alas, crypto-currencies failed almost immediately as currencies. You couldn’t buy anything with these digital tokens. You couldn’t pay the rent or the water bill with them. You couldn’t buy groceries with them. You couldn’t buy weed or ecstasy at a concert with them, either. All the existing forms of money were far, far superior. In fact, most people found that they had to exchange their digital tokens for real money, and this is where it all fell apart. The “exchanges” that grew up around crypto-coins were run by rip-off artists. They were the high-tech version of check-cashing places.

But ideology is powerful. The appeal of doing something outside of the mainstream remains strong. The crypto-enthusiast is not much different from the back-to-the-land hippie or the 60s radical. Those folks mistrusted the modern world and wanted to create an alternative. There’s nothing wrong with that.

The problem is that the blockchain and crypto-currency are poor solutions. Hell, they aren’t solutions at all! They don’t solve any of the problems presented by government over-reach or the massive power of financial institutions. They just created a playground for criminals. And the gargantuan energy requirements of these crypto-schemes makes them a global environmental disaster. (The same can be said for “AI” or machine-learning systems.)

These days investors in crypto-currency don’t expect to actually use the stuff as money. A crypto-token is a collectible, like a Mickey Mantle baseball card. You are gambling that it will increase in value over time. Of course I’m gambling that my traditional, regulated securities (stocks and bonds) will increase in value over time, too!

There are lots of people who’ve made money on these un-regulated crypto-securities. But there are way more folks who’ve been cleaned out. Not all of them bought into the crypto-ideology but they got burned by it nonetheless.

We have a tendency to imbue our technology with characteristics it does not possess. We seem to project our desires and our values onto the technology and that can blind us to what’s happening. Crypto-currency can’t do what its makers envisioned. That’s not surprising as most of our inventions fall well short of our expectations.

Promethium, #61

Promethium (Pm) is named for Prometheus. In the myth, the god of fire shares his knowledge with humanity. Zeus punishes him for this transgression by having him chained to a rock. An eagle eats his liver but it grows back, only to be eaten again on and on in eternal torment. Herakles (Hercules) ultimately sets Prometheus free. The gift of fire is a metaphor for all the arts and sciences that were once the exclusive province of the gods. Prometheus took a liking to people and tried to help them out, earning the wrath of his fellow deities. When wealthy, aristocratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to help poor people during the Depression, he earned the hatred of other rich people because he was a traitor to his class!

A team of Manhattan Project veterans (Jacob A. Marinsky, Lawrence E. Glendenin, and Charles D. Coryell) isolated the first sample of promethium at Oak Ridge in 1945. It was found in the decay products from the experimental graphite reactor. Their results were confirmed in 1947. The name was suggested by Coryell’s wife Grace Mary. The Promethean myth symbolizes the benefits and the perils of technology.

Element 61 was found after #60 Neodymium and #62 Samarium. The obvious gap in the Periodic Table led to predictions of the element’s existence and its properties. Several people claimed to have found what eventually become known as promethium, but the analytical techniques available at the time weren’t good enough to know for sure. The urgency of nuclear research during WWII produced a lot of improvements in the separation of isotopes. All the isotopes of promethium are radioactive. Only about half a kilogram of natural promethium is thought to exist on earth, possibly as a result of the decay of uranium minerals. Promethium is produced in the lab by bombarding U-235 with neutrons.


I visited the site Neural Love ( to find out about AI-generated art. I told it to create an image, photo-style, of a hard-boiled detective walking in the rain. Here’s what I got:

The suspended, no-hands umbrella is pretty cool, don’t you think? And the guy looks more like a banker than a shamus.

Then I asked it to make a painting with the prompt alcoholic novelist slumped over his typewriter. Here’s what I got:

I love the fur! And I suppose a drunk would use his typewriter backwards.

Anyway that took about five minutes.

In computer science class in college I learned about GIGO which stands for Garbage In, Garbage Out. We were taught that computers were dumb machines that needed to be told what to do. The instructions had to not only be clear and specific but also syntactically correct. Anything else was just GIGO.

I’m sure that a careful, hard-working person could use Neural Love to create something that looked good and more importantly looked real. That is, the final product would be close enough to human-made art that the audience could not tell the difference. And that’s the big thing with so-called Artificial Intelligence or AI. It’s a big game of fakery. We don’t care if a machine has actual intelligence, we only care that the machine seems intelligent. If that machine can fool people into believing it has intelligence then AI has succeeded.

In today’s big data world you can’t do science without computers. Machine learning is an essential component of almost all contemporary scientific research. These big, complex programs are “trained” by their human users. The stuff they feed the computer determines the stuff the computer will spit out. If you train the system on crappy data then it probably won’t help you solve your problems.

We live in a sea of pop culture. We are drowning in content. Almost all the stuff we know as “art” (TV shows, movies, books, songs, etc.) is controlled by a handful of media conglomerates. Multi-billion dollar trans-national corporations like Disney and Apple and Universal are our artistic gatekeepers. They decide what is worthy. If they take a turd and give it enough hype we will eventually be convinced it is not a turd but a work of art.

Artists of all stripes (musicians, actors, writers, etc.) are chronically under-employed. They can’t find enough work to make a living. A tiny percentage of creators produce the majority of what we consume. The individual artist is at the mercy of that great fiction, the marketplace, which is just a cute name for billionaires’ playground.

Ultimately AI will create most of our popular art. Pop songs will be the easiest to fake. An AI has, potentially, the entire corpus of human musical output to play with. An AI never gets tired (these systems, by the way, are enormous energy hogs) and thus can crank out thousands of new combinations which will be called “songs” and we, the audience, won’t be able to tell them from songs written by actual songwriters. We’ve already seen the proliferation of digital art that computers generate. Right now, like the above images, it is easy to spot. But soon it won’t be. And even experts in the visual arts will be fooled. Again, that’s the goal of AI: fake it ’til you make it.

I welcome our machine overlords. I hope they bury us in crap. I think it might just be the thing we need to open our eyes to real art made by real people. If we assume that everything is noise, then we might get better at tuning in the signal.

Perhaps that’s a silly notion. Maybe AI will just make everything worse. In the meantime, go out and find some real artists and support what they do.

Arsenic, #33

Arsenic is a famous poison. It is still used to kill insects and other pests but many of those compounds are being phased out. The other big use is as a wood preservative. Chromated copper arsenate (CCA) treatment gives construction lumber that pale green color you see mostly in outdoor applications. They used to make picnic tables and playgrounds from it but the EPA put a stop to that.

Arsenic can kill you by repeated exposures to very low doses. Groundwater (and thus well water) can often have high concentrations of arsenic. It is found in sulfide minerals which are widely dispersed throughout the American West. Mine tailings are a particularly troublesome source of arsenic but many aquifers are contaminated by natural processes from natural sources.

If you drink well water you should test it for arsenic. You should test it anyway, just to be on the safe side, of course. Municipalities are required to test their water and report its chemistry to the users. I have just about every one of the annual City of Yreka water test results. Water that has too many minerals or other such problems can usually be treated and made safe.

Arsenic is used in the semiconductor industry. Two spaces to the left on the chart is Gallium (Ga, #31). You can see that arsenic is one column to the right of the carbon family (the column with C, Si, Ge, Sn, Pb, Fl) and that gallium is one column to the left. Silicon, like carbon, has four valence electrons. What we call the Information Age could be called the Silicon Age. Elements to the left of silicon have three valence electrons and elements to the right have five valence electrons. This means that both arsenic and gallium work as dopants or impurities that are deliberately added to silicon to change its electronic properties. Arsenic and gallium also combine to form gallium arsenide (GaAs) which is used in many integrated circuits, diodes, and solar cells.

Arsenic is added to the lead used in car batteries. Imagine how many millions of car batteries there are. And I mean the old-fashioned 12-volt starter-type batteries, not the new-fangled EV batteries. Just think about how many cars there are and how many of those have had multiple batteries. That’s a lot of lead and thus a lot of arsenic.

Arsenic in the global food supply is a matter of international concern. Contaminated irrigation water can cause arsenic accumulation in cereal grains and particularly in rice and rice products. Arsenic also gets into the air from the burning of fossil fuels.

Starship, part 2

The latest big rocket from SpaceX (i.e., Starship) exploded shortly after its test launch last week. Leon Skum really wanted the blast-off to happen on 4/20, every stoner’s favorite day, and it seems maybe they weren’t quite ready for prime time. SpaceX is a private company so I doubt we will know for sure where the faults were in the system, but I expect the engineers and scientists will have learned quite a bit from this recent failure.

Blasting off rockets into space is difficult stuff. Failure is part of the process. That’s why we have “proving grounds” or big empty spaces out in the desert where rockets can blow up safely and people can learn how to make them better.

Starship, in my mind, is a failed concept. Not because the rocket blew up. That stuff is going to happen. If and/or when the next Starship is launched I suspect it will go a lot better. Eventually they will get a working rocket.

SpaceX created the Falcon series of rockets and they’ve been tremendously successful. The company has shown it can put things into orbit on a remarkably regular basis and for (apparently) a much lower cost per launch than anything else. I say “apparently” because, it bears repeating, SpaceX is a private company and we really don’t know how much they spend and how much they make.

But Leon Skum has a man-child’s vanity problem. He’s not content with a high-quality product. Falcon should be enough for anyone’s résumé but because of its routine successes it has disappeared from the headlines. Note that Starship dominated the news for a few days and there were a lot of gushing stories about how the fiasco was really a success. Certainly the data collected and the analysis to come will be valuable, but just as certainly the whole mess was NOT a success.

Let’s start with the name. Starship? Really? This rocket, like every other rocket, goes NOWHERE NEAR THE STARS. The nearest star is trillions of miles away. That’s right, TRILLIONS. No rocket will ever go a trillion miles. Ever.

Let’s examine the payload. Right now it is listed as 150 metric tons. They claim this will go up to 250 metric tons in a later configuration. Once again we have a claim, not a fact. So let’s stick with 150, and that number is for low-earth orbit (about 200 miles up). The Saturn V that powered the moon flights was built in the 1960s and it could put 140 metric tons into orbit. Sixty years later we have this massive new rocket and it can carry a mere 7% more cargo. I’d say the emperor is lacking some clothes.

Finally let’s think about the Starship’s mission. We are told by Leon Skum and his breathless fanboys that Starship will be used to colonize Mars. Can we please stop with this childish fantasy? We are not going to send colonists to Mars. We are not going to build human societies on Mars. Mars is on average 140 MILLION miles away. The distance between earth and Mars can vary from as low as 35 million miles to as high as 250 million miles. And Mars is a moving target! Rockets don’t take a straight-line path!

At best a flight to Mars would take nine months. Nine months! The best we can do with human spaceflight is a trip to the moon and back. The moon is 250,000 miles away. Saturn V and Apollo sent three guys to the moon and brought them home and it took about a week. Astronauts live in the Space Station for months at a time but they have to be re-supplied every three months. It took DOZENS of missions just to assemble the thing. Those folks are only a few hundred miles away. A “few hundred” is <<<<< (waaaaay less) than “140 million.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: robots make better astronauts. Space exploration will be done remotely. Think about the Hubble Space Telescope, for example. Every day that satellite tells us more about space than any human space explorer could possibly do. Human space explorers have to work hard every day just to stay alive. Breathe. Drink. Eat. And of course void themselves, and sleep. Hubble works 24/7. Space travel means earth orbit. Maybe a few folks will go to the moon (and back). But that’s about it.

Rockets are an old technology. The physics that Werner Von Braun worked out for the Nazis and NASA is the same physics for the SpaceX scientists. The technology is improved, certainly. But the physics is the same. Starship is not a breakthrough. It’s still a rocket, it can only go so far, and it can only carry so much.


The hype machine is back in full-time operation as tech-bro hero Leon Skum’s company (SpaceX) prepares a new launch of their very big rocket. The Starship is a big rocket. It weighs about 330 tons and can generate 16 million tons of thrust. The Apollo moon rocket, the Saturn V, was about 220 tons and could crank out 7.5 million tons of thrust. Starship can put about 150 tons of stuff into space (low-earth orbit). The Saturn V payload was about 150 tons.

Fifty years of advancements and we have the same capability as before! SpaceX says that Starship will eventually put 250 tons of payload into space, but that’s not happening yet. They still have to get the first model to work.

The big difference is re-usability. The claim is that they can reduce the cost of launches by an order of magnitude. Again, this is a claim, not a fact. It seems reasonable that a re-usable rocket would be better and cheaper than a throwaway rocket. But this has not actually been demonstrated. SpaceX is a private company. They can say whatever they want. We’ve seen how Uber can carry on for years without ever making a profit. We have no idea if SpaceX is a sustainable, profitable venture or just another gigantic vanity project for everyone’s favorite man-child.

One of the things that con men and carnival barkers do is continuously move the goalposts. It wasn’t long ago we were told that Falcon Heavy would usher in a new era of crewed space flight. Now SpaceX tells us that Falcon Heavy will NOT be used to lift their Dragon capsule into space. That will be later when they build their even bigger, better rocket. Now we have Starship. It’s bigger and better but still in the same league as the retired Saturn V. You know you are dealing with bullshitters when they push promises further and further into the future and never go back and acknowledge the string of lies behind them.

I would like to see Starship succeed. Satellites, those in low-earth orbit and especially the geostationary ones thousands of miles up, are essential to human welfare. We need the information (like weather data) and services (like communications) that these technologies provide. Human spaceflight is dramatic and inspirational, even if it is mostly just theater, and there is a continuing desire to see ourselves out there in the black. I can accept that. But we aren’t going to colonize the moon anytime soon, and Mars is a Heinlein-esque fantasy that would require advances far past our current knowledge base. No, we will not have Matt Damon out there in the red sand with a nuclear reactor. That stuff is movie material, not real life.

Rockets are big, wasteful things. It is hard to put something into space. It is exponentially harder to put human beings into space. The amazing successes of the un-crewed Mars missions (Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity) are proof that robots are much better at being astronauts than people will ever be. As a boy who hero-worshiped Neil Armstrong I understand the emotional appeal of the explorer. But as far as “bang for the buck” goes we are better off sending our remote eyes and ears to these hostile places.

SpaceX obviously has talented and accomplished people or they wouldn’t have pulled off what they’ve done in the rocketry business. It is too bad they have a boor for a CEO. That puts a taint on the whole mess for me. That being said I want to see this re-usable rocket stuff work. The parts get pretty beat up going into space and it takes a lot to refurbish them. I suspect it will cost more (in dollars, energy, and resources) than the projections. Musk is good at painting rosy pictures and people love to give him money. He may be the best salesman in all of human history. Maybe he’s second to Jeff Bezos, but you get my drift.

Starship is supposed to launch within the next few days.

Thallium, #81

Prussian blue isn’t just a pigment. It is also a medicine of great importance.

Hokusai’s The Great Wave is famed for its use of Prussian blue:

You can make Prussian blue in the lab. I used to call it “ferric ferrocyanide” but the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry lists the stuff as iron (II, III) hexacyanoferrate (II, III).

Iron has two oxidation states, +2 and +3, and they used to be called “ferro-” and “ferric-” but the modern convention is to use Roman numerals as in Fe(II) and Fe(III). The above would be rendered to the formula: Fe4III[FeII(CN)6]3.

It is a very cool and very simple chemical reaction and the product is strikingly colored. I used to mix solutions of potassium ferrocyanide and ferric chloride in class. It’s a mess—the precipitate is super-fine and it sticks to everything. The individual crystals are so small they get suspended and form a colloid. You have to dry it out to get a usable powder. I once tried to make paint (mixing the stuff with linseed oil) but that was a mess of gigantic proportions. The blue stains were impervious to cleaning! Ferric ferrocyanide is not toxic as the cyanide is tightly bound to the iron.

What does this have to do with Thallium? I mentioned that Prussian blue was a medicine. It comes in 500 mg capsules. Thallium, it turns out, forms lots of compounds and all are toxic. Thallium also has radioactive isotopes. Prussian blue is used to treat heavy metal poisoning. It seems the iron in the compound will switch places with certain other metals. Prussian blue is also an antidote for poisoning by radioactive cesium.

We used to kill ants and rats with thallium sulfate. The US outlawed the practice in 1972. Although toxic, thallium is not a carcinogen. Thallium compounds have many uses in the electronics, pharmaceutical, and glass industries. World demand is about 10 million tonnes annually, and it is produced mostly as a by-product of copper and zinc mining.

Thallium sits between Mercury (Hg, #80) and Lead (Pb, #82) on the periodic table.

Blue corn

I love tortilla chips. Lately we’ve been eating these blue ones. Turns out that blue corn is a bit of niche product. Heirloom and open-pollinated varieties of grain cultivars are enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Small farmers and those targeting the organic market have to get creative to compete with the big boys.

And corn is Big Farming, Inc. America is the King of Corn. The rest of the world calls it maize but it is the same plant. Here in the States we grow corn (Zea mays) on over 90 million acres. That’s almost as big as the entire state of California!

American farms routinely harvest 150 bushels per acre and can approach yields of 200 or more, an astonishing level of productivity that has increased steadily over the last 100 years. Maize is an ancient grain, native to the Americas, and a staple of indigenous peoples’ nutrition for millennia.

These days corn is something else entirely. At least a third of America’s crop goes into the production of ethanol. Ethanol is mixed with gasoline to meet clean-fuel mandates. The industry is subsidized and enjoys strong political support. Biofuels seem appealing until you realize that we are taking FOOD and putting it in our cars. It would be far better to extract fuels from agricultural wastes, for example. Using prime arable land to grow industrial feedstock instead of actual food is not a sustainable practice.

Another one-third of America’s massive corn haul goes to feeding livestock. Meat-based diets require large grain footprints. It takes about 25 kg (55 lbs) of grain to make 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of beef. The ratio is 15:1 for lamb and just under 7:1 for pork. It is between 3:1 and 4:1 for poultry. Now you see why we have 20 billion chickens in the world. Clearly beef (25:1 ratio), other than from small-scale pasture-raised animals, is not sustainable as a global food source.

Of the remaining third about half is exported. Most of the rest goes into making high-fructose corn syrup and other stuff. We eat very little of our corn directly. Our enormous industrial corn production scheme does a pretty poor job of actually feeding people.

The blue corn chips come from Hain Celestial Group. They make a lot of products for the organic market. I could not find any specific information on their sources of blue corn. I’d be interested to know who grows the stuff and where they grow it. I found some links to blue corn farming in New Mexico and blue corn seeds in Arizona and blue corn milling in Montana but I have no idea how my chips get put together.

Guess what? You can buy blue corn seeds at Wal-Mart:

Germanium, #32

Germanium is a semiconductor and is used in a multitude of electronic devices. It is in the same column as Silicon (#14) which is the most well-known of these so-called semi-metals or metalloids.

A chemist would put germanium and silicon in the Carbon Group. That’s Group 14 on a modern chart but the old notation Group IV is still much in use. All the substances have four valence electrons hence Group IV.

Tin (Sn, #50) and Lead (Pb, #82) are familiar substances of course as they have been mined and used for centuries. Last on the list is the synthetic Flerovium (Fl, #114) which was hatched in and named for a Russian laboratory in 1999.

Carbon is the element most essential to life. All of our organic substances are built on carbon molecules. There is an entire section of chemistry called organic chemistry and they don’t mean “no pesticides.” Organic chemistry means the chemistry of carbon compounds. Petroleum and all its by-products are “organic.” Coal and natural gas are as well. Carbohydrates and hydrocarbons fuel our world. Gasoline and diesel are organic, man!

Anyway, I got distracted. I think it is interesting that silicon and germanium are grouped with carbon. One does not think of chips and circuits being alive and I consider most talk about Artificial Intelligence to be nonsense, but there is a tremendous desire out there to imbue our electronic machines with life. Science fiction has long speculated on the idea of computers gaining consciousness or at least hosting the minds of other beings.

I remember punching holes in cards in a basement late at night and then running those cards through a reader that executed a program and created a print-out. It was 1977 and it was called Computer Science 1 and the language was FORTRAN. That seems like using stone tools nowadays! Our computer “minds” will be able to do a lot of marvelous things and the technology can most certainly be used to do some vile and stupid things as well, but they will not be humans even if they can mimic humans. Nor will they be intelligent or conscious, at least not in the sense we mean when we apply those terms to ourselves.

What’s this have to do with germanium? Like I mentioned it is a semiconductor and used in computer chips. Its main use is in fiber optics and we all want to have our internet delivered to us via fiber, don’t we? The point is that the stuff is a crucial component of our high-tech world. Oddly only a few hundred tonnes of the stuff are mined each year, most of it as by-products of zinc ore. A little bit goes a long way. Next to germanium, in the same row (called a period), are Gallium (Ga, #31) and Arsenic (As, #33). Both of those are also used in chip manufacture. The compound gallium arsenide (GaAs) is found in LEDs, lasers, microwave circuits, and numerous other applications.