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:

“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:

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?


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?


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.


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.


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:


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 . . .”

PM 2.5

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic gave us the Isolation Apocalypse. Wildfires are giving us the Inhalation Apocalypse. Here’s the report this morning from Purple Air:

The numbers are PM2.5, or particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. The measurement is in micrograms per cubic meter of air. A cubic meter is about 35 cubic feet or 264 gallons. You can fit about two cubic meters of air into the bed of a compact pickup truck. A microgram is really small, 0.000001 gram. A dollar bill weighs about one gram which is one million micrograms.

It’s hard to imagine that 200 micrograms of tiny stuff, dispersed into a big ball of air, could be hazardous to your health. A human hair is about 70 micrometers across, so we are talking about things too small to see with the naked eye. We get a lot of haze around here and that is often the result of suspended fine particles like these. You can’t see them but you know they are there because, off in the distance, visibility is reduced. You are looking at the accumulation of refracted, reflected, and diffracted sunlight. Here in wildfire country we also get large particles—ash and smoke—that you can see just fine!

Fine particulates enter your lungs and get to your bloodstream. It often does not matter what the source is, or what the particles are made of. You don’t want to get that stuff in your body. Wildfires may be organic and all-natural, but you still don’t want to breathe in the by-products. After all, we burn wood in our homes but we have chimneys! If wood smoke was good for you we’d just let it fill the house. And on camping trips everyone stands around the fire pit but if the breeze pushes the smoke in your face you move to a new spot.

So make no mistake particulate pollution from wildfires is a serious health issue. I’m in good health but I’m also 61 so I’m in those risk groups they always talk about. I don’t have heart disease or anything, thank goodness, but I still stay indoors when the numbers are bad. I’ve missed out on walking and bicycle riding, two things I count on to stay healthy, but the trade-off isn’t worth it. Breathing fouled air isn’t good. The fitness gain from outdoor activity is negated by the exposure to pollutants. Worse, exertion means more breathing, which means more bad air in the body. So it’s not a break-even, it’s a loss.

For the PM2.5 air quality measurement 0-50 is considered satisfactory, 51-100 is moderate, 101-150 is unhealthy for sensitive groups, and 151-200 is unhealthy for all. Anything over 201 is obviously very unhealthy and by the time you get to 301 the air is hazardous to breathe.

You can keep track of air quality in several places. The EPA has and I already mentioned Purple Air, which I use all the time. is another useful website for keeping tabs on the air quality.

Let’s hope for some fresh air soon.

The Big Con

I’ve always been fascinated by con artists. These folks flourish in a free market economy. In capitalism everything is for sale because everything is a commodity. You can sell your soul. You can buy love. You can sell your house. You can buy crypto-currency, and so on.

Con artists sell you back to yourself. They play on your vanity, your sense of importance. They exploit your fear of missing out. They encourage you to open your wallet so that you can fulfill your wishes and buy your dreams.

We’ve all heard P.T. Barnum’s “there’s a sucker born every minute.” And we’ve all heard some version of caveat emptor (buyer beware) from our elders.

But we still get suckered. Bernie Madoff showed the world that you can bilk famous, highly accomplished celebrity-type people, and do it for years before they’ll catch on. It was just too cool to be one of his special clients and it was just too easy to believe in his impossible investment returns. After all, when you are a famous, highly accomplished celebrity you won’t get suckered by a common huckster. Madoff was a huckster, that’s for sure, and good thing he seems to have a been an uncommon one.

L. Ron Hubbard created a religion for rich people and other famous, highly accomplished celebrities. It was a stroke of genius to target people with lots of money. I’ve thrown money at nonsense, but I don’t have the means to do it on the scale the Scientologists work on. Rich people do and it doesn’t hurt them—financially, that is—to swallow that nonsense.

Recently we’ve had the Power Poop Couple. Zachary Schulz Apte and Jessica Sunshine Richman created uBiome, which was breathlessly promoted on a TED talk (among other places), and it turned out to be a fraud. These two phonies are now fugitives and face federal fraud and money laundering charges. The scary part of this disaster was how easily they conned their way to fame and fortune. People were falling over themselves to give them money and praise them for their supposedly revolutionary approach to health care.

It was all jive. But they knew the con artists greatest trick which is “tell people what they want to hear.”

And then there’s Elon Musk. He literally robs Peter to pay Paul, raiding one company to pay off the debts of another. He talks constantly and relentlessly assures his fanbase that the next big breakthrough is just around the corner and it will be even better than the last one. I’m still waiting for the first one! Like a Musk company that makes a profit, for example. Or pays a dividend. Or does not depend on government contracts, handouts, subsidies, or tax incentives.

I’ll give Musk his due. He gets more free money than anyone. Venture capital flows into his gaping corporate maws. When he spends it he asks for more and more flows in. It’s the greatest of all capitalist acts: selling nothing!

I suppose he’s selling dreams. Dreams of hyperloops and Martian colonies and neural links or whatever. Those dreams DON’T COST ANYTHING. They are already FREE! You don’t need Elon to dream, and if you do you might think about watching less TV or eating fewer potato chips or something because your mind has been poisoned.

America is the home of the con artist. Upward mobility and dreams of riches are essential to the American character. We all believe we will find our own land of milk and honey. And those of us who don’t will have plenty of schemes to choose from. The con artist will come into our lives with his (or her) charm and effortless grace and convince us that we are SO IMPORTANT we have to open our wallets to them.

And then they will take us for a ride. And if you don’t want to go on that ride, watch out for the bilkers, fleecers, and grifters of the world. Some are low-lifes. Some are rich and glamorous. But they are easy to spot. Here’s the rule: if it is too good to be true, then it (most likely) isn’t true. Anything that promises the moon (like Musk) is lying. All you get out of that is an airless rock!

It would be great if some of the bullshit was actually true, but that just doesn’t happen. Real life has a way of barging in and writing all the rules. That sucks, I know, but it’s the reality we inhabit so we might as well get used to it. And real life is in fact much better than any fantasy these hustlers and tricksters can try to sell us. And if it isn’t, you need a new life, not a new sales pitch.

Out of the Past

Writer, film scholar, and TCM host Eddie Muller has a new book out. It’s really an old book but in a new edition. It’s beautiful. Get yours now from Larry Edmunds Bookshop!

I have the 1998 paperback edition which I devoured years ago. I have consulted it dozens of times since then. It’s my go-to reference for all things film noir.

Dark City is the hidden history of modern America. Everything in it is true, even if we don’t want to hear it. Sometimes you watch movies from the bygone Hollywood eras and they seem hopelessly dated. Post-WWII American television is particularly un-watchable for that very reason. But so many of the “crime pictures” from the 1940s and 1950s still resonate. Lumped by French critics into a bin called film noir these stories tackled anger, alienation, desperation, passion, jealousy, greed, corruption and almost every other venal and mortal sin you can conjure up.

What makes them so appealing? Their refreshing honesty about human nature, certainly. Mostly melodramas, they are enlivened by a brisk pace, terse writing, and a distinct visual style. Fedoras and spats never looked so good! The women aren’t just victims or femmes fatale. They get much better roles than in the more tepid mainstream fare at the time. They get to run, hide, shoot, give orders, take a punch, and run a racket, just like the men, all the while looking glamorous. In today’s media-saturated world, modern actresses can never be as glamorous as the stars from that time. If you want a picture of Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson in a ratty t-shirt and no makeup you can find it. It doesn’t take away their beauty—it just shatters the illusion.

We met Eddie Muller at NoirCon in Philadelphia in 2014. That was just after the Giants won the World Series. He’s a San Francisco native and a huge baseball fan so we had plenty to talk about besides movies!

Get a copy of Dark City and re-learn your American history, and have a rollicking fun time while doing it.