Get Off Of My Cloud

Had enough of the universe? That’s OK because we’ve got an alternative. These days we can head for the meta-verse if “real” life gets us down.

Virtual reality is now, uh, a real reality. Seriously. Head over to Somnium and become part of their “community.” Or maybe you’d prefer Sandbox or Upland.

Believe it or not you can actually buy real estate in these virtual worlds. The metaverse is now fully commercialized! Thank goodness. I was worried that the metaverse would be filled with hippies and anarchists preaching communal love and group sharing and all that other utopian socialist crap. I’m relieved that the long arm of capitalism has punched through the electronic walls and given these places real value!

Decentraland is “owned” by its users. Cool, huh? It’s a space where you can build things, make art, explore, recreate, and engage in various transactions. What sort of transactions? Oh, you know, buying and selling stuff!

Except it isn’t stuff, not in the usual sense of the word. It’s all digital. All virtual. All bought and paid for with crypto-currency. It’s real, just not made out of molecules. Well, the servers that hold the blockchain that stores all the information are real, and made out of molecules, so there’s that. But the land and the art and the swag you buy and sell in this metaverse are just photons.

NFTs are a big thing these days. Non-fungible tokens. These are unique digital assets. You can purchase or otherwise acquire NFTs and that will make you a real hipster. Unlike crypto-currency tokens, these are individual things (non-fungible). One bitcoin is the same as any other—they are interchangeable, like real dollar bills. NFTs are “valuable” because they are unique. My NFT is not the same as yours.

Artists have found a home in the metaverse. Digital art sales (as NFTs) are burgeoning. The NBA likes it too. You can get NFTs of basketball players, kind of like collecting cards. Except there is no card, just an image. That image is safely stored on the blockchain but it is still yours.

I try not to be a grumpy old man. I try not to be too cynical about new stuff. And I think virtual experiences like music festivals are pretty cool. I mean, no one dies at a metaverse music festival. One of the big names in the virtual music world is rapper Travis Scott. He’s done concerts via the game platform Fortnite. At his last real-world show in Las Vegas dozens were hurt and some killed in a crowd frenzy . Maybe he should get out of the real-life music scene and stick to his computer! Then we could avoid real tragedies like people dying at a goddamn concert.

But I must say this new definition of “real estate” has me a bit baffled. There’s nothing “real” about it. You can’t park your mobile home on your metaverse plot. I suppose you could park a virtual one there and live in it and save on rent. I suspect rents will get really high in these meta-locales. After all, there will always be someone who can spend more money (crypto- or otherwise) than you can.

I suppose it is inevitable that if I put on my VR headset I’ll want more than just shooting bad guys or going on an adventure quest. That is, the games won’t hold my interest long enough. I’m going to want to make friends, shop, go to parties, etc. You know, live a real life. Maybe even buy a place of my own and fulfill that ultimate American Dream of really “making it.”

It’s hard not to think that this is just another gigantic bubble. Speculators and con artists and their ilk are all over this stuff. It’s almost entirely unregulated, which appeals to the libertarian types, but that says CAVEAT EMPTOR to me. I know some folks are going to make money in the metaverse. Real money, not just tokens. That means even more folks are going to lose their shirts. Their real shirts.

I think digital transactions and digital currencies have a place in our future. The blockchain is here to stay, as are crypto-coins and crypto-platforms. But it’s the Wild West out there. If you want to jump in and play you better be well-armed and have someone watching your back. It ain’t all love and kisses. There’s too much (real) wealth at stake to be anything but another cut-throat dog-eat-dog enterprise.

So, have fun. And stay on your own cloud.

Local bourbon

Etna’s Denny Bar Co. is both a restaurant and a distillery. On Saturday, November 13th, they released their first bourbon. Since it was my 62nd birthday I considered the event auspicious, and we scooted over to the Scott Valley to get some of the local spirit.

Denny Bar has previously produced small batches of whiskey, gin, and vodka. But bourbon is not just whiskey. It is a particular kind of whiskey. What kind, you ask? The answer is as simple as A-B-C.

A:

Bourbon must be made in America. It does NOT have to be from Kentucky. That’s a common myth. Anywhere in the US of A will do, and that includes Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

B:

Bourbon must be barrel-aged. Specifically, it must be matured in charred oak barrels. And they must be new oak. The old casks get sent to Scotland—they like their whisky to have a less woody character.

C:

Bourbon must be made from corn. Specifically, the grain mixture has to be at least 51% maize. Barley, wheat, and rye are common ingredients in the grist.

Denny Bar calls their bourbon Heart’s Creed and it is listed as four years old and 94 proof (47% abv). The tasting notes tell of “saddle leather” in the nose, “caramel and burnt honey” on the palate, and “smokey butterscotch” in the finish.

Your mileage may vary, but I will say that Heart’s Creed is a smooth, rich, and full-flavored spirit. They did a superb job and crafted an excellent drink. They seem to encourage drinking it on the rocks, but we preferred it neat. A little splash of water perhaps, but no more.

I understand there were only 300 bottles produced and that means 298 for the rest of you. We were very impressed by the quality, complexity, and quaff-ability of Heart’s Creed bourbon whiskey. If you can get your hands on some we highly recommend it.

Greenland says “naamik”

That’s “no” in Greenlandic in case you were wondering.

Greenland is part of Denmark but mostly autonomous. They have their own Parliament, for example. There are 57,000 people in Greenland which is just a little less than the population of Gilroy or Petaluma.

Greenland is really big. It’s the world’s largest island. At over 800,000 square miles it is bigger than Mexico but smaller than Argentina. Most of the people (primarily Inuit) live near the southwest coast.

https://ggg.gl/project/

Kvanefjeld is a region rich in rare earths and the worlds’ miners want to get their hands on the stuff. The rare earths, that is the lanthanides, aren’t all that rare. They are just hard to work with. The ores contain multiple elements with similar properties and so are difficult to separate.

There is an increasing international demand for these materials for both civilian and military uses. The US has designated them as critical minerals and is on the lookout for stable future supplies. Kvanefjeld appears to be a dream mining site—a rich deposit in a socially stable jurisdiction. Mining companies like to work in places that have law and order!

But the Greenlanders have other concerns. Kvanefjeld has uranium, too. Uranium is another critical international commodity. You can’t run nuclear power plants without the stuff. World demand is about 60,000 tonnes of uranium oxide (U308) annually. The Greenland Parliament just passed a bill that bans uranium mining, which will or course halt any further development of the Kvanefjeld resource.

Greenlanders don’t want to despoil their natural environment. They also want to grow economically and achieve more independence from their mother country, Denmark. It’s tough to do both.

People are naturally suspicious of mining companies. These outfits have a long track record of abusing the earth and ignoring the social fallout from their projects. The problem remains, however, that we need the materials they produce. We have to find a way to dig stuff out of the ground and process it into the stuff we need without destroying ourselves in the process.

I don’t know if Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat) is making the right choices. I do know that all of us will be making the same choices, if we aren’t already, going forward. We are going to need (literally) mountains of minerals to make our world! That’s a fact, an unavoidable fact. And we need clean air and pure water and good soil and healthy fisheries and all that other stuff, too.

Can we pull it off?

Modern Retro

I’m a big fan of Hard Case Crime. Their latest is a novel by James Kestrel called Five Decembers. I think you should put it on your Christmas list.

The story is set in Hawaii just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. A policeman—our hero—stumbles into a gunfight at a ghastly crime scene. He barely makes it out alive. The victims, naturally, have a powerful benefactor. The criminals, it turns out, are spies. Off our man goes to the Far East to track down a killer. The war interrupts his search for justice and he spends the bulk of it as a prisoner of the Japanese. His adventure resumes when the war ends and a gripping finish ensues.

We meet Joe McGrady at a bar over a glass of bourbon and we find out straight away that’s he’s cool and tough. He’s the classic American hard-boiled detective but his experience in the novel is unusual in its scope and suffering. It’s a unique plot and a different kind of war story. The writing made me think of John Toland, especially his novel Gods of War.

Five Decembers gets five stars. I know you need a new book to read so buy this one!

Twenty Million Tonnes

One tonne is one thousand kilograms. It is also called a metric ton. It is about 2200 pounds or 10% larger than the standard US ton of 2000 pounds.

In 2020 the world produced about 20 million tonnes of copper. Here’s a chart of copper use:

https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/minerals-mining/minerals-metals-facts/copper-facts/20506

“Transportation” includes automobiles. Right now about 3% of all vehicles sold in the world are fully electric. That’s about 2+ million EVs out of 75 million total vehicles sold globally each year.

Here’s another chart:

https://www.copper.org/publications/pub_list/pdf/A6192_ElectricVehicles-Infographic.pdf

Can you see the problem?

A battery-powered, all-electric vehicle (BEV) needs much more copper than a conventional vehicle. 183 is ten times bigger than 18 and nearly four times bigger than 49. No matter how much copper your car needs now your future electric vehicle will need a lot more.

Where’s the copper going to come from? The rest of the copper consumers aren’t going to use less copper so that we can all have EVs. No, the copper will have to come from copper mines. And we will have to get really good at copper recycling!

The world’s biggest copper mine is in Chile. Minera Escondida produces about 1 million tonnes of copper annually or about 5% of the world’s supply. It supposedly has at least another ten years of life, and there is supposedly another 30 million tonnes of copper worth getting from that spot. I say “supposedly” because no one is really sure. There may be plenty of copper, but it may be too hard and too expensive to get. Or there may not be as much quality ore down there than they think.

Mining is a tough business. It’s hard to open a mine. They cost a lot of money up front. And until there is a steady stream of ore processing and thus a steady sale of the mineral product most mines lose money early in their lifespan. Once the cash flow comes then you have a decent business. But commodity prices are volatile and subject to a lot of odd market shocks and even a money-making mine can suddenly become an expensive burden.

Mining is hard on the environment. And the water and power requirements are usually enormous. Mines are typically far from civilization and thus transport and infrastructure impacts are large. Mining companies have a lousy track record on environmental issues, and are often even worse when it comes to labor and community relations.

The Green New Deal is going to require one hell of a lot of copper. Obviously EVs will drive much of that demand. All of the push toward renewable energy and increased electrification will depend on an abundant supply of copper.

Copper demand is expected to increase by 50% in the next twenty years. That means ten million more tonnes of copper per year! In fact, a five million tonne deficit is expected by 2030. The mining industry will have to invest perhaps $100 billion dollars in the next ten years to meet rising demand.

It is hard to locate copper deposits. The easy-to-find ones are already being exploited. There is a massive copper region in Arizona but there is a lot of opposition to developing that resource. We need the stuff, but it’s a mess to get and leaves a big mess behind so people are (rightly) suspicious of mining companies.

So, what to do? We need to “go green” but it’s going to cost us. Are we ready to pay?

Auto-pilot

I want my car to drive itself. I really do. I’d love to say “take me to the ski park, robot-driver!” and arrive there safely after a smooth and quiet drive.

But it’s not going to happen. Autonomous vehicles are here, and here to stay, but they won’t make it on America’s roads any time soon. Mining companies use self-driving trucks, for example, but they drive around where there aren’t a lot of people or other hazards. That’s not the case in American cities or on American roads. The self-driving car in the typical American driving setting is a futuristic fantasy. Oh, it will happen. Just not fast enough for any of us to really care.

This is a blow to America’s Biggest Blow-hard Elon Musk and his army of Twitter-Bros who lap up all his idiotic utterances. Tesla just announced they won’t be upgrading their latest Autopilot software. Why? Because it is a piece of shit. Tesla’s cars don’t self-drive and their “driver-assist” features are no better than ones from any other car manufacturer.

Speaking of car manufacturing, Tesla makes 500,000 vehicles per year. They just agreed to sell 100,000 Model 3s to Hertz and that caused their stock price to jump and the company valuation to briefly top one trillion dollars.

VW sells over nine million vehicles per year, Toyota sells about seven million, GM about the same, and Ford about four million. Yet Tesla is more valuable! Why? Because people love the bullshit Musk and minions are spewing. Elon says he will grow the business by 50% every year and will soon be selling twenty million cars per annum.

Bullshit. There’s not enough copper in the world to make that many EVs. There’s probably not enough nickel or cobalt or lithium either, but I’ll stick with what I know. And there isn’t enough copper for that many cars. And 50% growth is unsustainable. It may in fact be un-achievable in that industry.

But people are still “betting on the come” with Musk and Tesla. Hey, it’s their money. If they think that fatuous jerk can make them rich they’ve missed the point. Musk is really good at getting people to give him money. In fact, he’s the best in the world at that skill. But the money goes to HIM. He doesn’t distribute that wealth. His companies don’t pay dividends, for example. You’d think a trillion-dollar company would reward its shareholders with nice payouts, but you’d be wrong. Elon cares about Elon, and his worshipful followers can go fuck themselves.

A Tesla looks like a pretty nice car. I’m sure it is a decent value for the money. But it is not going to transform the world. I’m reminded of Apple Computer and their early Macintosh ads. They were going to change the world, too. We were all going to “think different.” But then we found out that a Mac is still just a computer, nothing more.

And a Tesla is just a car.

I’ve been told Elon Musk is a “visionary” and I figured out what that means. It means someone who ignores basic physics. And engineering. And accounting. It means someone who says fantastic things and has followers who accept them unconditionally. Sounds like a great job!

If you want your car to run on auto-pilot, hire a chauffeur.

We’re number four!

What’s the biggest country in the world?

Russia.

If you split Russia in two, the European part would be the biggest country in Europe and the Asian part would be the biggest country in Asia. Russia has just under seven million square miles of the earth’s surface.

If Antarctica were a country, it would be second. Its land mass is over five million square miles.

Canada has almost two percent of the earth’s area—almost four million square miles. It’s the second biggest nation.

China edges out the United States for third place with just over 3.7 million square miles, the U.S. just under that number. Brazil comes in fifth, Australia sixth. Australia, with not-quite three million square miles, represents one-and-one-half percent of the earth’s surface. All other countries are under one percent. India (#7), Argentina (#8), and Kazakhstan (#9) all occupy over one million square miles. After and including number ten, Algeria, all the remaining countries have less than that.

So by land area the U.S. is fifth, by nation-size it is fourth.

Does it matter? Is bigger better?

It might when it comes to mineral wealth. After all more land area means more chances of finding something useful. Like coal or oil or gold or copper or whatnot.

And there’s population density. Life in the U.S. and Canada means a only a few people per square mile. Canada, with all its vast wilderness and semi-wilderness, comes in at ten. Russia is about twice that. The U.S. is at eighty-eight. China has almost four hundred people per square mile, Bangladesh almost three thousand.

But people don’t live that way. We don’t space out eighty-eight people every square mile. Huge swaths of land in any country are uninhabitable. Here in the West most of the land is too arid to occupy. Thus most of our population resides in cities, suburbs, and exurbs. Even in a rural county the bulk of the residents live clustered into towns rather than dispersed over the countryside.

I remember traveling in Ireland and the United Kingdom and finding that they were beautiful and comfortable places to live. But from the airplane they were tiny. The immense landscape of the American West dwarfed the Isles. There were no comparable stretches of wild land that we Westerners take for granted.

I knew then I couldn’t live on an island. California is twice the size of the U.K. It is five times the size of Ireland. And that’s just California! I find the immensity of North America comforting.

But it is also worrisome. Life in a big place like the American West means food, water, fuel, and electricity all have to travel long distances. Far-flung regions are dependent on great, overlapping grids of wires, towers, roads, pipelines, and railways. We need a massive infrastructure, coupled with high energy expenditures, just to live what we think of as a normal life.

The fires and the severe drought conditions have made this a difficult summer. When our forests burn, they burn big. When our reservoirs dry up, they dry up big, too.

I guess we’ll need some big solutions going forward. We are number four, after all.

1000

The sun delivers about 1000 Watts for every square meter of land. This is why we burn fossil fuels. These substances (peat, coal, petroleum, natural gas) store ancient—and concentrated—solar energy. This energy density makes them desirable as they can be transported from their source of origin and exploited elsewhere.

Pipelines are inherently safer than railroads and highways when it comes to the transport of these fuels, but pipelines are no longer politically popular. Resistance to things like LNG facilities is no longer the province of environmentalists. Cities are even banning natural gas from new construction, citing its climate impacts.

Of course the burning of fossil fuels is replete with ecological consequences, well-known and well-documented consequences, I should point out. This point is not arguable.

There is a great deal of enthusiasm for solar power and other renewable sources like wind. But there’s a limit to what these can do.

Let’s start with 1000.

A square meter of land can collect, in theory, 1000 watts worth of the sun’s energy. Imagine a plot of land one square kilometer in size, that is, one thousand meters by one thousand meters. That’s one million square meters. One million times 1000 watts is one billion watts or one gigawatt (GW).

That’s about power-plant size. The Palo Verde Nuclear Station in Arizona is the biggest power plant in the US and is rated about 3 GW.

A square kilometer, with a perfect collector, is limited to one GW. But there is no such thing as a perfect collector. Modern single-junction solar panels are about 25% efficient. There is a physical limit, called the Shockley-Queisser, that says it can’t get better than 33.7%. That’s physics, not economics.

Multi-layered (multi-junction) solar cells can bypass this limit and achieve up to 68.7% in normal sunlight. Right now such cells are imaginary, the best we can do is about 40% efficiency in specialized applications.

The sun is capricious, too. It doesn’t shine all day. And if varies from place to place and day to day. That 1000 watts per square meter is an average. It’s not a steady stream. So you have to store the electricity for the lean times. Fossil fuels are the first storage devices. Plants collected solar energy and photosynthesized carbohydrates. When they died and were buried that carbon was preserved and later ingenious humans learned to burn it.

But nature’s storage devices come at a cost. All that carbon gets released and messes with the atmosphere and the climate. So ingenious humans are inventing new storage devices (like batteries) to capture sunlight that won’t release carbon by-products when the energy is used.

And these storage devices come with a cost, mostly the mining of the materials needed to make them. And they are just a link in the chain. Sun –> PV panel –> battery –> wires –> end user. Another limit is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In effect, it says that at each step you’ll lose some of the energy. You can’t convert it perfectly.

We already cut our 1000 down to 400 with our ideal (past the Shockley-Quiesser Limit) solar cell, by the time we get to the end we’ll have even less. And this is true of EVERY energy transition, whether you use coal or nuclear or hydro- or whatever.

Two things are competing. One is the continuing increase in energy demand and energy use. The other is the need to conserve, to prevent continuing environmental degradation.

We need to figure out how to do both. People in poor countries want to gain the benefits of the modern world and the only way to do that is to use energy. People in rich (high energy use) countries want to maintain their wealth and comfort. It takes energy to do that.

Nature sets the limits. 1000 watts per square meter, for example. It’s up to us to live within them.

Trillions

How many different types of living things are there in the world?

I don’t know, but two fellows at Indiana University took a stab at this question. They focused on microbial life, which is smart, because there is more of that than any other kind of life.

Plants are the dominant life form on earth if you measure by mass. The amount of carbon stored in plants is estimated at 450 Gt. Bacteria weigh in at about 70 Gt. Those units are giga-tonnes. The giga- prefix means one billion or 10^9. So a Gt is over two trillion pounds!

A trillion is not an easy number. It’s a lot of zeroes:

1 000 000 000 000

Or if you prefer commas:

1,000,000,000,000

An easy way to think of one trillion is “a million times a million.”

I suspect that one million is about as big of a number that most people can visualize. There are about a million seconds in twelve days, for example (12 x 24 x 60 x 60 = 1 036 800).

One million times one thousand will get you a billion. So 12 000 days (~32 years) is about a billion seconds.

One billion times one thousand will get you a trillion. So 12 000 000 days (~32 000 years) is about a trillion seconds.

The latest infrastructure bill from Congress and the President comes to about one trillion dollars!

Back to the first question: how many different kinds of living things are out there in the world?

Biologists Kenneth J. Locey and Jay T. Lennon suggest in their study (“Scaling laws predict global microbial diversity” in PNAS vol. 113 no. 21) that the earth is home to one trillion species of microbes. This does not include insects or mammals or other such creatures. Just micro-organisms.

Now that’s not one trillion total microbes, but rather one trillion different kinds of microbes. As far as the total number of microbes on the planet, that’s a really, really big number. Case in point: the number of bacterial cells in your gut biome is at least as large as the total number of cells in your body.

According to IC Insights, the number of semiconductor devices that will be shipped to users in 2021 exceeds one trillion. This milestone was also achieved in 2018 and 2019, and even in the midst of the pandemic, 975 billion were shipped in 2020. Seems like one trillion is the new benchmark. Here’s a graph:

From roughly 33 billion in 1978 to 1.1 trillion in 44 years is about five doublings. That is, the number doubled every eight years or so. That’s about 9% annual growth! Wouldn’t you like to earn 9% every year?

There are not one trillion different kinds of semiconductor devices of course, but there are certainly many hundreds and perhaps many thousands of them, and that number keeps growing. There are about 9 500 different kinds of mobile phones, for example. If you add in all the bits and pieces that make up these devices the number of different artifacts humans have created becomes enormous. Just imagine all the different kinds of fasteners—screws, nails, nuts, bolts, rivets, etc.—and the staggering variety of objects they are needed for. My head is going to explode. I’m still trying to get a handle on “trillions.”

At some point the manufactured world will exceed the natural world in both number and variety of things. Are you ready for that?

“OK, well, maybe . . .”

The precursor to the laser was the maser. A maser is a laser that uses microwaves. Or you could say a laser is a maser that uses visible light. Either way, the maser came first.

The words are acronyms: Microwave (or Light) Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

A fellow named Charles Townes had an idea for a maser one day back in 1951 and sketched it out to his colleague Arthur Schawlow. Both men were experimental physicists and three years later they produced a working maser.

But that’s not the story. The story is that when Townes went to his friend with the idea Schawlow said:

OK, well, maybe . . .”

I love that answer.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the perfect balance of enthusiasm and skepticism. By enthusiasm I mean the openness to something new. By skepticism I mean the lack of credulity.

Both are essential. You have to be receptive or you’ll miss out. But you also have to be critical. That way you won’t get fooled. Experimental physicists are more like engineers. They like to keep their feet on the ground. Two renowned theoretical physicists, Neils Bohr and I.I. Rabi, both told Townes his idea wouldn’t work. You never tell an engineer that something won’t work. These people spend their lives making things work!

Neils Bohr was one of the few physicists in the world that could go toe-to-toe with Albert Einstein. Their debates about quantum mechanics are famous in the scientific world. The theory of quantum mechanics is about 100 years old and one of the most significant results of that theory is, you guessed it, the laser.

Einstein’s paper “On the Quantum Theory of Radiation” introduced the concept of stimulated emission which is the basis of lasers. That was in 1917. In a weird twist, Einstein spent much of his professional life opposed to quantum mechanics, a field he helped create, and one in which Bohr holds an esteemed place. The Einstein-Bohr debates were mostly philosophical as quantum mechanics raises many interesting questions about reality and our attempts to perceive it.

Engineers and experimental physicists are feet-on-the-ground types, like I said, and don’t have much use for philosophy. Inventors always believe a solution is just around the corner, and that means they can’t be too particular about theories. They have to be flexible, and know that their working assumptions are just that. Philosophers and theoreticians spend a lot of time building their intellectual constructs and are quite invested in them. They can’t pull them apart so easily.

I don’t mean to disparage those with their heads in the clouds. There’s no laser without Einstein’s paper and Bohr’s theories. And those were built on theories from others like Max Planck and James Clerk Maxwell. Inventions don’t happen in a vacuum. There are a lot of people thinking and working at the same time. We love the idea of the lone genius but it is mostly a myth.

In fact, we are all inventors. We invent our own reality every day. And reality presents us with a lot of problems. That means we need solutions. And what do inventors say when considering solutions?

“OK, well, maybe . . .”