The Golden State

The forty-niners with their pickaxes and burros may be long gone from the California landscape, but folks still pull gold out of the ground here in the Golden State. There’s a mining company from Vancouver, B.C. called Kore that has two potential California projects on their website. One is on the east slope of the Sierras in Long Valley, Mono County. The other is in the Sonoran desert of Imperial County, not far from the Arizona line.

A million tons of earth contains ten pounds of gold. At least, that’s roughly the frequency at which gold is distributed in the crust. It’s not uniform, of course. Gold occurs in concentrated deposits of which the famous Mother Lode is an example.

These days gold mining is done on the surface in giant pits. Much safer for the miners and much more profitable for the companies. Here’s the interesting thing: they only need one gram of gold per ton of ore to make it work.

Here’s a gram of gold, the smallest investment you can make in bullion:


A ton of ore is about 13 cubic feet or roughly 100 gallons of rock. Can you picture that? Two of those big 55-gallon oil drums. Twenty 5-gallon paint buckets. That’s how much rock you have to process in order to get the amount of gold you see in the picture.

It doesn’t seem like a lot of rock, but the Imperial project mentioned above is supposed to produce around a million troy ounces which is thirty million grams! So that’s thirty million tons of ore to process. Three thousand million gallons of rock—that’s three billion—has to be crushed and treated on-site. Mostly the stuff is piled up on top of a clay layer and some plastic and sprinkled with a cyanide solution. That reacts with the gold and the effluent is collected and the gold bits extracted via some process like carbon adsorption. Cyanide heap leaching, as the process is called, also works for silver. Copper, nickel, and uranium are also extracted using heap leaching but with sulfuric acid instead of cyanide.

They have mining trucks that can carry 200-400 tons of ore in one load. I saw haulers like that when I toured the McLaughlin Mine, the tires alone are mind-boggling. That mine, located at the intersection of Napa, Yolo, and Lake Counties produced 3.5 million troy ounces (that’s over 100 million grams) from 1985-2002. There are 38 million tons of mill tailings from that project and that does not include the overburden and material that was moved but not processed. You can’t make low-grade ores work financially unless you can deal with massive quantities of them.

Speaking of massive quantities, one of the biggest open-pit mines in the world is just outside Salt Lake City. The Rio Tinto/Kennecott Bingham Canyon Mine is two-and-a-half miles wide and half a mile deep. That is a really big hole in the ground! It has been operating for 100 years.

If you can’t grow it then you have to mine it. Californians are lucky that much of the (non-fuel) mineral wealth of their state is located in remote places like deserts and high mountains. The extraction of minerals from the earth is usually not pretty. But if we want to stay golden we have to keep digging.

Keep it in the ground?

California oil production is half of what it was thirty years ago. In 1985 the Golden State produced about a million barrels of crude oil per day. In 2018 that number dropped below 500,000. California is the largest consumer of gasoline and jet fuel in the nation as well as the second-largest consumer of all petroleum products. The state ranks third in refining capacity and accounts for one-tenth of all crude oil refining in the country.

Domestic production is declining but the population continues to grow. In 1985 there were 27 million of us and now there are almost 40 million and we have about 15 million cars. That means we have to import more oil. In fact, about half of the oil refined in California comes from foreign sources. Here’s a chart:


Those are some charming places. Angola? Really? And do we have to get in bed with the Saudi Arabians? At least we are buying oil from Colombia instead of just cocaine. This chart does not include oil from Alaska, of course. Here’s another chart:


The Trans-Alaska Pipeline starting flowing in 1977, the year I graduated from high school. There is a large shipping and refining infrastructure in the Bay Area and Alaskan crude was a big part of that. Many of the refineries near where I grew up relied on regular deliveries via tanker from Alaska. We also get a lot of oil by rail, particularly from North Dakota, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

California sees itself as a leader in fighting climate change. We are a very green place, man. We lead the nation in solar energy, for example. That’s good. We need action on global carbon emissions. The problem is that we consume a lot of fossil fuels. Still. And we will continue to do that. Natural gas is an important fuel for home heating and cooking and gas turbines supply about one-third of our electricity. We use a lot of hydrocarbon products, just like all Americans and those of us lucky enough to live in wealthy, developed countries.

There’s a movement afoot that wants to keep fossil fuels “in the ground.” The assumption is that will lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions. In other words if you don’t drill for it then you can’t burn it, and if you can’t burn it you won’t pollute.

The problem is that crude oil resources are ubiquitous. They are located all over the world in all kinds of places like the North Sea, Nigeria, Malaysia, Canada, Guyana, Qatar, the Arctic, you name it. What happens is that if the supply is reduced or curtailed in one locale another will pick up the slack. Oil demand is robust because people need the stuff. If Californians don’t like oil exploration and development in their back yard that’s OK because they can buy it from somewhere else.

And as you can see that is exactly what is happening. We have a stable society in California. We have laws and a functioning legal system. We have a representative democracy. This means that citizens can actually impact policy decisions and can counter-balance, somewhat, the enormous political power of corporations. Much is made of the influence of the oil and gas industry on the Office of the Governor and the State Legislature. That may be so, but it is also clear that the “voice of the people” is having an impact. There’s substantial political momentum in the state for new restrictions on the fossil fuel folks, reducing or even eliminating new oil wells, pipelines, and other such infrastructure.

If we don’t dig it up, we won’t use it, right?

Wrong. We will just buy it from other places. You can see those other places—do you think they do as much as California does to regulate their oil industry? Do you think they do a better job with environmental laws, public health monitoring, and employee workplace protections? I don’t.

Californians have already indicated their hostility to one power source that could help us with our energy transition to cleaner fuels: nuclear. There aren’t going to be any new nuke plants in the state anytime soon, in fact, the whole country has mostly soured on atomic energy (with the exception of the US Navy, of course). We are blessed with a well-developed hydro-power network but that source can’t really grow. We are going “all-in” on solar and the mild, sunny climate helps with that, but that source can’t help the transportation and manufacturing sectors. Those need oil, and will continue to need oil.

So, we can drill our own or we can buy it from Mexico, Iraq, Ecuador and other places.

You decide.


Elon Musk used to be an interesting character. Certainly all the SpaceX stuff is very dramatic and exciting, not to mention even somewhat useful, if only to serve as a model for possible modes of space exploration. Tesla looks like an interesting venture but the business woes seem to keep piling up for the company. The mainstreaming of EVs is bound to happen at some point and I’ll give Tesla credit for giving it a shot regardless of the outcome.

But now we are on to Boring. Yes, The Boring Company, one of Musk’s other ventures. It digs holes. Tunnels, actually. There’s not much you can do with tunnels, but Musk is convinced that this sort of thing requires his particular brand of “disruption” and “innovation” which are the Silicon Valley Cult’s two favorite words.

Neither SpaceX nor Tesla invents anything new. Rocket technology has not changed much since the 1950s and electric vehicles have well-known, well-established engineering constraints. Musk’s gift seems to be to find more efficient and economical ways to do these things. Though it should be noted that SpaceX is privately-held and thus little is really known about its financial health. And Tesla’s stock is volatile in the extreme and appears to this market amateur to be insanely over-priced.

I want Tesla to succeed. We need EVs and other such solutions. But I’m wary. I’m tired of the hoopla. After all, the first four letters of Hyperloop spell “hype.” And there’s too much hype with Musk.

Case in point: Boring. They claim they can build tunnels cheaper than anyone else and then fill them with electric vehicles (Teslas!) and “revolutionize” transportation. I neglected to mention “revolutionize” in my list of the Silicon Valley Cult’s favorite words.

The problem, if you look at this stuff with a critical eye, is that it is mostly crap. I know it is exciting to ride the coattails of a billionaire while he “re-imagines” (there’s another for the list) our future. But my goodness does anyone really believe he can dig tunnels ten times better than the next guy? And even if he could, would stuffing them with Teslas actually do a better job of moving people than existing transit systems? If you look at the numbers the answer is unequivocally “no.”

And let’s not get started on Hyperloop. There are existing maglev trains that go 200 mph! Do we really think maglev trains in a vacuum tube is that significant of an innovation even if it were possible? It certainly is not practical, but practical doesn’t play well in the Silicon Valley Cult culture, where the pronouncements of futurists and other bullshit artists are treated like sacred scripture.

These days Elon Musk sounds a lot less like his hero Nikola Tesla and more like P.T. Barnum. That’s too bad because the world needs creative, intelligent people to tackle our many problems. But some of those problems don’t need bored billionaires bullshitting local governments into buying their goofy schemes. Public transit systems actually work. They move people around. They could be better, but that is mostly due to a lack of commitment. We don’t have the political stamina to invest in these things. The wealthy decision-makers in our country don’t ride BART or Amtrak or the MTA or any of those things. They wouldn’t be caught dead on a public bus system. But the rest of us need our governments to believe in public transit systems and do the mostly dull work of revitalizing them and keeping them healthy and effective for today and tomorrow.

Silicon Valley’s response is to give us Uber and Lyft which did a great job of destroying the taxicab industry and adding thousands of additional private vehicles to already traffic-choked streets. Neither of these companies makes money! When drivers for Uber and Lyft start charging fees that actually cover expenses for the company and deliver proper wages to the employees (er, I mean “contractors”) then fewer people will use them. Revenues will decline and stock values will plummet. But don’t tell that to the IPO-obsessed public! They can’t wait to get in on the ground floor and become full-fledged Silicon Valley Cult members.

I’m not a Luddite or techno-phobe. Just the opposite. I have faith in human ingenuity. I just think people should not be afraid to yell “bullshit” when bullshit is coming at them, even if it is coming from rich guys and other celebrities.

The Energy Problem

A former coal-fired power plant in the Canadian Province of Ontario was decommissioned a few years ago and has been mostly dismantled. The site, called Nanticoke, is now home to a solar facility. The new power plant consists of 192,431 solar panels and produces 44 megawatts (MW) of electricity. The old coal plant, at full capacity, produced 4000 megawatts (MW).

Using coal to produce energy has a myriad of drawbacks of course, from the massive air pollution to the degradation of the soils and waterways in places where coal is mined. So replacing coal-burning power with cleaner sources is a good thing.

But 4000 MW is a hell of a lot more than 44 MW! How did Ontario deal with this rather significant shortfall? For one thing technological improvements in the transmission of electricity and the devices that heat, light, and cool our homes have resulted in greater efficiency. Even with growing populations we can do more with less. But that’s not enough.

It turns out that Ontario is heavily invested in nuclear energy. Over half of the electricity generated in the province comes from the Pickering and Darlington Nuclear Power Stations. Their combined capacity is about 6600 MW.

The Green New Deal seems mostly agnostic on the subject of nuclear power. Or maybe that’s not the right word—perhaps “confused” would be better. Right now the world gets about 10% of its electricity from the atom, and in the States the figure is about 20%. How much do we get from solar? About 2% overall.

The transition to “clean” and “carbon-free” or “carbon-neutral” sources of energy will require enormous investments in our existing energy sources. Manufacturing solar panels, building wind turbines, improving efficiency in our buildings, and all the other things we need to do take energy. LOTS of energy. The terrible dilemma we face is that we are going to have to drill for lots more oil and gas and burn lots more fossil fuels in order to wean ourselves off these sources!

Cheap energy is our primary source of wealth. Without abundant, available energy, our economy cannot create the foodstuffs, manufactured goods, and other things like a transportation infrastructure that we must have in order to live. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are dependent on access, by everyone, to adequate sources of energy. And that’s not just for Americans. Hundreds of millions of people in the developing world want a better life, one that they see Americans enjoying. And we enjoy those things because of our energy system which supplies us with inexpensive electricity as well as affordable fuels.

Humans use about 20,000 terawatts (TW) of electricity per year. That’s 20,000,000 gigawatts (GW) or 20,000,000,000 megawatts (MW). Note that this is just ELECTRICITY consumption, not total energy use! (That 6600 MW from the Ontario nuclear plants would be 6.6 GW and 0.0066 TW.) Combustible fuels (coal, oil, natural gas, biofuels, etc.) account for 2/3 of the world’s electrical generation.

The most optimistic estimates for solar energy project to a possible 2700 TW by 2030. That’s 13.5% of current consumption. Where’s the rest supposed to come from?

There are no simple solutions to the energy problem.

On Bullshit, part two

There’s a current course at the University of Washington (INFO 270/BIO 270): “Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World.” The two instructors, one an information scientist and the other a biologist, are entirely serious:

The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit — and take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with bullshit of the second order. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.

We’re sick of it. It’s time to do something, and as educators, one constructive thing we know how to do is to teach people. So, the aim of this course is to help students navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combating it with effective analysis and argument.

There was a time when the idea of a “liberal education” was attractive. That is, you learned a wide range of scholarly subjects in order not only to be informed but to understand how people, over the centuries, have thought about things and expressed themselves. Seeing the world from a variety of perspectives was meant to open the mind and give it a certain flexibility. These days “liberal education” makes certain folks froth at the mouth about left-wing indoctrination. Plus the cost of college has become prohibitive and people who can barely afford to go tend to pick professional majors (business, engineering, health care, etc.) so they can be employed straight away. It is considered frivolous to go to college “just to learn.”

This is unfortunate. Not that I have anything against professional majors—we need geologists and accountants and architects and whatnot. But learning is good, not bad. Good thinking can come out of any course. You don’t have to take Linear Algebra to learn some logic and analytical skills, a good teacher can make any subject rich with intellectual challenges. By that I mean things like guided inquiry, Socratic dialogue, rhetoric and argumentation, and other so-called “critical thinking” activities. There’s no reason why every course on campus can’t be that way.

But schooling is limited in time and space. And students are constrained by money and they have to get the most bang for their buck. So teachers lecture (mostly a waste of time when it comes to retention) and cram as much information into the semester as they can. We think that information is the same as knowledge, but it is not. Knowledge only comes about when we process that information and try to understand it, make sense of it, give it context, and evaluate it. That’s the important part: evaluation.

The Latin verb valere means “to be well, to be strong.” The Romans greeted each other with vale, the imperative form. In English to evaluate means to decide the worth of something, to find the value (health, strength) within it. (The e- prefix in Latin means “out from.”)

But we don’t spend enough time and intellectual energy on evaluation. We usually decide in advance what is bullshit and what isn’t. If you are an engineering major you probably think Art History is pointless. It’s not! It’s about how people see the world and how they decide what is important and how they’ve expressed their feelings and ideas. We all need that sort of thing. If we had more of that we wouldn’t need a course on bullshit because we would know something about truth and authenticity which are fundamental to art.

Scientific types think they are immune to bullshit. They think the scientific method protects them from falling into intellectual holes. That’s crap, of course. Scientists are people, and people are biased. We can’t help it, it’s the way we are made. Social and cognitive biases are present in every human activity. Not to mention that most science is damned expensive and thus scientists are answerable not to the truth but to those footing the bill.

Here’s more from the UW BS guys:

What do we mean, exactly, by bullshit and calling bullshit? As a first approximation:

Bullshit involves language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.

Calling bullshit is a performative utterance, a speech act in which one publicly repudiates something objectionable. The scope of targets is broader than bullshit alone. You can call bullshit on bullshit, but you can also call bullshit on lies, treachery, trickery, or injustice.

In this course we will teach you how to spot the former and effectively perform the latter.

All I can say is “bravo” and let’s have more of this sort of thing!

Ultima Thule

‘Thule’ is an ancient Greek word meaning a far northern place. Historians have considered such locales as the Shetland Islands or coastal Norway as the source of the idea. Prince Valiant, Hal Foster’s famous comic-strip hero, is from Thule. The United States Air Force has a base in Greenland (at 76°31′52″N) less than a thousand miles from the North Pole called Thule. The Romans added the modifier ‘Ultima’ (the last or final) and gave us the modern expression meaning “the furthest reaches of the world.”

Nit-picking Latinists will tell you to say OOL-tim-uh tuh-HOO-lay but modern English speakers will likely stick with ULL-tim-uh THOO-lee. In classical Latin you say all the letters (tuh-HOO), you don’t smush the “t” and the “h” together, something inimical to our native tongue. But Cicero (KICK-air-oh) and Caesar (KYE-sar) aren’t around to correct our speech so we can say SIS-er-oh and SEE-zer if we want.

NASA just released their best composite photograph of the farthest object ever explored, a hunk of rock in the Kuiper Belt they’ve dubbed Ultima Thule:


They say it is like a flattened pancake attached to a dented walnut. The Kuiper Belt is a massive circumstellar disk of material that lies outside the orbit of Neptune and extends about two billion miles beyond that. Neptune is 30 AU from the Sun and the Kuiper Belt reaches another 20 AU further. An AU is an Astronomical Unit, that is, the approximate distance of the Earth to the Sun (93 million miles). The Earth is 1 AU from the Sun. Ultima Thule is 44 AU or about 4.1 billion miles away.

When distances are this vast it becomes appropriate to talk about them indirectly in terms of time. The fastest phenomena we know about is light. Light travels 186,000 miles per second, and thus a light-hour is about 670 million miles, a light-day about 16 billion miles, and a light-year almost six trillion miles. Our nearest stellar neighbor other than the Sun, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 light-years (25 trillion miles) away. ‘Proxima’ is Latin for “closest.”

Ultima Thule is 6.1 light-hours from Earth. The spaceship that photographed it was traveling about 32,000 miles per hour and got within 4,000 miles of the object on the first of this year. New Horizons was launched in 2006! That is an extraordinary feat of navigation. A signal from New Horizons, because of the distance, takes 6.1 hours to return to Earth. A “light-hour” or a “light-year” is really a distance measure, not a time measure. You may remember from high school that distance is rate times time, so the rate (186,000 miles per second) multiplied by time (a second, an hour, or a year) gives you a distance.

And this is the lesson of Ultima Thule. It is really, really, really far away. And in between here and there is a whole lot of nothing. Actually there is a lot of stuff, but weird stuff like solar winds, electromagnetic fields, dark energy, cosmic rays, and whatnot. Not the normal stuff we think of like rocks and water and air. And the other lesson of Ultima Thule is there is not much to it as its diameter is only 18 miles. By comparison the dwarf planet Pluto (New Horizons’ original mission goal) is 1447 miles across.

I’m really impressed by the NASA scientists, engineers, and technicians who pulled off this marvel of exploration. What a journey! Those are moving targets, you know, and the launch pad—Earth—is moving, too. I remember during the heyday of the moon flights critics would often say something like “we can put a man on the moon but we can’t solve world hunger.” Well, yeah. Launching a rocket is mostly an engineering problem. World hunger, poverty, pollution, the exploitation and victimization of persons, the impacts of climate change—the list goes on—are not so amenable to analysis. Those are much more multi-faceted things and touch on the un-quantifiable: human nature, politics, nationalism, philosophy, religion, sociology, history, etc. Economists do an awful lot of math but I’m still suspicious of any field that comes up with half a dozen different reasons for the same damn thing. What we learn to do in one field doesn’t necessarily transfer to another.

But I do think the big problems like how to build a free, just, sustainable world for all of humanity can be attacked even if they can’t be solved in the mathematical sense of the word. Differential equations only have to be approximated to be useful, for example. So solutions don’t have to be comprehensive, they can focus on little pieces at a time, and they can evolve as we learn more. The important thing is to make the effort and not be daunted by the scope of the task. After all we have no place nearby to go to, and the places we can get to aren’t exactly hospitable. I do think we will find life on Mars, but it will not be anything we can relate to, something more like a virus, a mold, or a chemosynthetic hydrothermal vent creature. It will be a opportunity for wonder and excitement, but we’ll still be stuck living here, so in the meantime we ought to do right by our home.

On Bullshit

I came across something called the “bullshit asymmetry principle” on Andrew Gelman’s blog. I don’t understand a lot of stuff there as he is a math whiz at Columbia (professor of statistics) and the discussions are rather advanced. But THIS topic I can wrap my brain around!

The bullshit asymmetry principle is also known as Bandolini’s law and goes like this:

The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude* bigger than to produce it.

I tend to believe this. The truth is often hard to find. And it is often boring. Or, at least, it contradicts your beliefs or your hopes. The truth occupies a smaller space than the rest of the the stuff out there. There are lots of ways to be wrong. There a few paths that lead to the truth.

And what is the path to the truth? Being wrong! The mistakes, false leads, and dead ends are the signposts that keep you on the path. In science people have to publish their work and let it be ripped apart by other scientists. It’s the essence of the process—you have to find out what’s wrong in order to make it better. But even science suffers from bullshit. People of all stripes are prone to vanity, self-promotion, and stubbornness. Those are good hooks to hang your bullshit hat on.

So how do you counter bullshit? It’s hard, because you have to play the skeptic and go on the offensive. No one likes a whiner, nit-picker, or cynic. Bullshitters know to get their stuff out first because any claim can be made plausible enough to accept conditionally. Most folks take things as true first, then think about them later. That puts the debunker at a disadvantage, time-wise, and then puts them in the position of having to attack, which alienates the bullshitter’s audience.

Perhaps the best weapon against bullshit is more bullshit. That is, if the bullshitter cares not about the truth, why should his or her critic? Fight bullshit with better bullshit! I suppose that’s ultimately self-defeating. The amount of truth in the world is small enough, adding more layers of bullshit won’t help.

If you make a claim, it seems to me, the burden ought to be on you to test the claim and provide some support for it. But it doesn’t work that way. Bullshitters make claims that seem valid, or claims that are stupid but sufficiently intriguing to keep folks interested, but don’t do the legwork. They don’t provide what a reasonable person might consider proof. They leave it to the contrarian to do all the grunt-level stuff. Bullshit just has to feel right, it doesn’t have to be subject to a test. It is a lot easier to mold the world to fit my world view than it is to change my world view when the world intrudes with ugly truths!




*An order of magnitude, in science, is a ten-fold difference. 500 is an order of magnitude larger than 50.