Smart People Syndrome (SPS)

This is my term for the “geniuses” that can’t help themselves and do incredibly stupid things. Some people are fortunate and are born with strong intellectual abilities. These talents are spotted early by parents and schoolteachers who then lavish praise on these youngsters. They are told again and again how special they are and that they are destined for greatness.

This unfortunately backfires. These really smart young people begin to believe that they are so smart that they can’t ever be wrong. This blinds them to their shortcomings. They surround themselves with sycophants who either can’t see the truth or happily hide the truth so they can continue to ride on the coat-tails of these “geniuses.”

It doesn’t always end well. Case in point: Elizabeth Holmes.

The former founder and CEO of Theranos was sentenced to an 11-year prison term for fraud. She made up a phony blood test and sold the idea to a bunch of rich, famous people (all of whom clearly suffer from SPS) and rode the wave of celebrity worship to its breaking point. When the whole thing was revealed as a con Ms. Holmes used her youthful, doe-eyed countenance to try to bullshit us into believing it wasn’t her fault. It was all because of her mean boyfriend/husband/partner! Thankfully the judge and jury didn’t buy it and she got a well-deserved punishment.

Holmes either believed her own nonsense about her scientifically impossible scheme, which makes her delusional, and a fool of the first order. Or she knew she was full of shit but carried on with the big lie because that’s what rich, entitled fucks like her do when the real world crashes the party. That would make her a sociopath. Either way the world is better off without her crap.

The next case is crypto-currency big-shot Sam Bankman-Fried.

SBF, as he’s known, created and ran FTX which was supposedly an exchange for crypto-investors to buy and sell tokens. Turns out he and his cabal of techies were running a really bad Ponzi scheme. They took the money and made a lot of really dumb “investments” and also squirreled away a bunch for themselves. They were also terrible accountants and made a giant mess of the books. The entire FTX empire was built on woo-woo and hand-waving.

SBF hid his greed and shiftlessness behind a wall of charitable giving called Effective Altruism which is just another Silicon Valley bullshit scheme. Crooks love things that make them look good! I hope Mr. B-F gets the Holmes treatment. He’s a thief and a con artist and should go to jail.

The world champion SPS sufferer is of course Elon Musk. It must be hard to have so many people tell you what a brilliant visionary you are all the time. After a while you actually believe it. Musk, as we have seen, is not nearly the great businessman everyone thought. He made a vanity bid for Twitter, thinking he could weasel out of the purchase if it went south, then discovered he was stuck with his over-priced toy. So what did he do? He trashed it! He fired everyone who made the thing work and then shit on everyone who stayed. He is actually going to lose a lot of REAL MONEY on this deal. In fact, I expect Twitter itself to gradually fade away. I’m no fan of the medium, but a lot of people use it and it has some social utility. Leave it to an asshole like Musk to mess it up just because he can.

If I’m an employee or stockholder of either Tesla or SpaceX (two other companies in the smelly grasp of Musk’s grubby paws) I’d be worried. He’s clearly irrational. And he’s so in love with himself that whatever stupid shit he does he’ll spin it to make himself look like a hero. It should be clear by now that Elon is NOT an engineer and has no real idea about the technological feasibility of his many claims. We aren’t going to colonize Mars and we aren’t going to have hyperloops between cities!

The problem with these three twits is not just that they are amoral jerks. The problem is that people believe them! We desperately want heroes and we just as desperately want magic techno-solutions for everything. Life ain’t like that. There are no quick fixes. But we live in a world where being a celebrity is more important than being a good person. We think that wealth means you are smart and we judge a person’s worth by the size of their bank account.

Smart People Syndrome is all around you. Keep an eye out for it. It is usually easy to spot. Plenty of smart, accomplished people are humble and decent. Those folks fly under the radar and we don’t notice them. The real assholes make themselves known. Remember that just because someone is brainy that doesn’t mean they can’t also be stupid.

Krypton, #36

The Greek prefix krypto-, Latinized to crypto-, means “hidden” or “concealed.” The science of codes and ciphers is called cryptography. For the longest time the only people who ever talked about “crypto” were computer scientists and mathematicians who worked with sensitive data. They came up with all kinds of schemes for hiding (encrypting) and then revealing (decrypting) that information. Our entire economy now depends on the robustness and practicality of these cryptographic tools. Every time you log on to the internet you rely on cryptographic technologies to protect your identity and your transactions.

But these days when people say “crypto” they mean that crypto-currency nonsense. It seems like all of a sudden everyone is an expert on “blockchains” (an interesting technology that emerged from cryptographic applications), much like everyone was suddenly an expert on viral epidemiology when COVID hit!

Krypton wasn’t isolated until 1898. It’s a so-called noble gas meaning it is mostly inert and does not react with other elements. It was hard to separate krypton from the others of its kind (helium, neon, argon, xenon) and thus it seems appropriately named.

Superman comes from the planet Krypton. And we all know he is vulnerable to kryptonite. I always had to spend time in science class explaining that Superman is make-believe and that there’s no such stuff as kryptonite. Comic books present a more appealing reality, I suppose. The periodic table is pretty dull by comparison!

Krypton is used in lasers and for fluorescent lighting. It is a fission product of uranium decay and can thus indicate the presence of nuclear fuels. People could tell that North Korea and Pakistan were able to process those materials by detecting krypton in the air. You might find krypton (or argon) in the gap in your double-paned windows. Over time that stuff leaks out and the insulating properties are compromised. Krypton causes narcosis if breathed in and could have potential as an anesthetic. Our atmosphere contains only 1 ppm of krypton compared to about 5 ppm for helium, 18 ppm for neon, and over 9300 ppm for argon.


We are finally free of the dreaded imposition of Daylight Savings Time. I prefer to think of it as Darkness Squandering Time. But most people want their days to last as long as possible. And they don’t like their days to start too soon. So they mess with the clocks and we all have to “spring forward” and add an hour. I much prefer to “fall back” and dispense with that annoying adjustment.

What everyone hates, I think, is the time change. Folks want to pick one over the other.

People in the tropical zones don’t worry about this stuff. Day lengths are pretty much the same all year long. In the northerly and southerly extremes the day lengths vary dramatically. The coastal city of Galway in the West of Ireland is at the same latitude as Juneau, the capital city of Alaska. 58º North. I remember being astonished at the late sunsets when visiting there in July. They add an hour to their clocks at the end of March and in fact call their summer time Irish Standard Time (UTC+01). They turn the clocks back at the end of October and align with Greenwich Mean Time (UTC) for winter.

Here in the mid-latitudes the subject is up for debate. Obviously you add an hour if you live far from the equator, say perhaps at 45º of latitude or higher. If you live between the Tropic of Cancer (23.5º N) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5º S) you keep your hands off your clocks and keep the same time year round. Those of us in the temperate zones (like California) are literally caught in the middle. The Oregon border is 42º N and the Mexico border is between 32 and 33º N. That means we get some benefit to the time change in the high summer, but by the time autumnal weather hits we really need to turn the clocks back.

The Romans lived in a temperate region but they didn’t have modern timepieces. So they just had shorter hours in the winter and longer hours in the summer. That would never fly in our hyper-speed, hyper-competitive world marketplace. We have to chop time up into very small bits and we have to synchronize it with each other continuously. The Sun is a lousy timekeeper. Fortunately the Time Lords (er, Geeks) of the United States Naval Observatory are on the job:

We visited the Royal Observatory in the aforementioned Greenwich, a village on the Thames River on the edge of London. That’s the home of the original Time Geeks. Turns out it was clock-makers and not scientists or mathematicians who solved the biggest time problem of them all—finding longitude. The modern mercantile system of global commerce was perfected by the British Empire in the 19th century and their mastery of navigation was crucial to its hegemony. It had to have galled the aristocrats and philosophers that mere tradesmen were responsible for Britannia’s glory. But that’s the story of all empires: the plebians are buried and forgotten and the patricians write the histories.

Here in the American Empire we are more egalitarian: we are all slaves to time! There is a movement afoot to create permanent Daylight Savings Time in the U.S.A. with the perfectly politically-named “Sunshine Protection Act” (S.623). Only a vainglorious dipshit like Marco Rubio (the bill’s sponsor) would think the sun needs his protection!

In the meantime, enjoy the fall and its promise of cold temperatures, rain, snow, and lengthening nights!

Fluorine, #9

The first syllable of fluorine rhymes with FLOOR. As in FLOOR-een.

But it really ought to rhyme with FLEW. As in FLEW-reen.

I know, people look at you funny if you say FLEW-reen instead of FLOOR-een. But the “u” comes before the “o” doesn’t it? Try typing “flourine” in your word processor or a search box! I used to teach chemistry and I can assure you that fluorine is the single most misspelled word in the class. In fact I had to say FLEW-reen just to remind students of the goofy spelling.

Fluo is the first person singular (in the present tense) of the Latin verb fluere so we can blame the u-before-o mess on the damn Romans. The variety of English forms that emerged from fluo, fluere, fluxi, fluxum* is astonishing: fluid, fluent, flume, fluvial, fluctuate, flux, fluorescent, affluence, confluence, influence, effluvium, reflux, influenza, superfluous, and so on.

Fluorine is the devil’s spawn. It is the most reactive of all elements. Small amounts are deadly. It also burns but cannot be put out by ordinary firefighting methods. Both water and carbon dioxide merely feed the flame. The acid it makes—HF or hydrofluoric—is terribly corrosive and requires special handling and storage. It is one of the serious “bad boys” of industrial chemicals.

But because of this reactivity fluorine finds itself in many, many compounds. And it has uses in almost every industry. Did you know that Prozac is a fluorine compound? Its generic name is fluoxetine and it has the hideous official name of (R,S)-N-methyl-3-phenyl-3-(4-(trifluormethyl)phenoxy)propan-1-amine.

Fluorine makes the common inorganic salt sodium fluoride. We are very familiar with this stuff. It is in our toothpastes and mouthwashes. If we are lucky we have fluoride added to our water supply. Most of us have been consuming it all of our lives. Fluoridated water is one of the great public health success stories. People who consume fluoride in their water have healthier teeth. By a BIG margin! Don’t listen to pinheads who think fluoridation is bad. They are stupid. Wish them luck on their next “cleanse and detox” regime and hope it flushes out their heads.

In the meantime, enjoy all those beautiful smiles out there. And don’t forget to floss.

*Latin verbs are known by their four so-called “principal parts” of which the second is the infinitive.

Water, water, everywhere?

What’s the best website? That’s easy. It’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, known to its fans as APOD. They have something new every morning and I never fail to be amazed, inspired, or overwhelmed.

The above image was yesterday’s post. The source was Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, a private, non-profit research facility located in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

There isn’t much water on earth. And there is even less fresh water! Now, there may be incalculable amounts of water trapped in the rocks of the earth’s interior, but that’s not really helpful. At least not right now. (Check out Stephen Baxter’s novels Flood and Ark for more on that topic.)

Right now we need to view our water supply as fixed. We aren’t going to get any more “new” water into the system. What we got is what we got so we oughta take better care of it!

Lanthanum, #57

This metallic element gives its name to a whole series of similar substances—the lanthanoids or rare-earths. That name is a bit of a misnomer as lanthanum is three times more abundant than lead in the earth’s crust. The lanthanoids are noted for their many similar chemical properties and thus were not isolated and identified until the 19th and 20th centuries.

Most periodic tables show the lanthanoids below the main body of elements. This is due to the tyranny of 8-1/2 by 11 inch paper. They had to squeeze the damn table into a chart that would fit in a chem student’s binder! Here’s what I mean:

The lanthanoids are the numbers 57-71, La through Lu (Lutetium). It’s the brownish row, the top one of the bottom two. Lanthanum ought to fall in column 3, nestled between Barium (Ba, #56) and Hafnium (Hf, #72) and underneath Yttrium (Y, #39) and Scandium (Sc, #21). In fact both Y and Sc are often included with the rare-earths because of their similarity to La and the other lanthanoids. You can see the arrow from that empty spot in column 3 where they plucked out La and pasted it to the end of a the new row (Ce-Lu).

But the periodic table really ought to look like this:

You can see that this form would be a pain-in-the-ass. In the old days we would have folded the thing to make it fit. Nowadays you can just turn your phone sideways, I suppose. It’s not that important, mostly a matter of aesthetics. The lanthanoids are “f-block” elements (they fill the 4f electron shell) and this wide chart illustrates that a little better. Note the row below the lanthanoids: these are the actinoids and they are also f-block (they fill the 5f shell).

Lanthanum is used in alloys, particularly nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. It’s also used to make specialized types of glass. Interest in all the lanthanoids has exploded in recent years due to their usefulness in a wide variety of high-tech applications. Rare-earth mining has been in the news because the current world supply is dominated by China. There is a push to develop domestic mines and ore processing plants to meet the country’s growing needs and reduce reliance on a sketchy foreign power.

Mountain Pass Mine in the Mojave Desert is the largest known US deposit of rare-earth ore. There is also a new rare-earth mining venture in Texas called Round Top which aims to produce lithium as well. If it can’t be farmed, it has to be mined. There is no “green” future without some big holes in the ground!

Bring it on

OK so 30% plus 60% plus 70% is OVER 100% so that means IT WILL RAIN FOR SURE!!

Get ready to be wet by Tuesday. That’s not me, that’s math.

I used to tell my students that a 30% chance of rain meant that if 10 of them went outside 3 of them would get wet. Fortunately they didn’t buy it.

We had some rain already and that’s great but I really hope we get some more. It sure was nice to see new snow on Mt Shasta today. Even better is the air quality—we are finally free of smoke. Of course if the weather continues to cool the wood stoves will get fired up all over town and we’ll be inhaling the stuff again! Actually the forecast suggests we’ll be back to our more familiar warm and dry September experience once this autumnal interlude ends.

This Friday the 23rd at 01:03 UTC is the equinox. If you subtract seven hours* for PDT you get Thursday the 22nd at 6:03 p.m. Happy Fall!

*rewrite 01:03 as 25:03, subtract 7 hours to get 18:03

#68, Erbium

The village of Ytterby, Sweden is on the island of Resarö which is part of the Stockholm archipelago. It is immortalized on the periodic table. Yttrium (#39), Terbium (#65), Erbium (#68), and Ytterbium (#70) are all named for Ytterby. A centuries-old local quartz and feldspar mine produced an unusual black rock that was later found to be the source of the four eponymous elements. Four more elements—Scandium (#21), Gadolinium (#64), Holmium (#67), and Thulium (#69)—were also discovered there.

Here’s a map:

Erbium makes a Er3+ ion that is pink-colored and used in certain lasers. The lasers have applications in dental surgery and in optical communications. Erbium is also used in nickel and vanadium alloys and in control rods for nuclear reactors. Erbium is one of the so-called “rare earths” or lanthanoid elements.

My next post will be element #57, Lanthanum, which lends its name to the entire group!

Thacker Pass, lithium, and mining

U.S. Route 50 across the State of Nevada is called “The Loneliest Road in America” and it’s a reasonable description. There’s a whole lotta nuthin’ out there. But I would like to nominate State Route 140 for consideration. In Nevada SR 140 emerges from US-95 just north of Winnemucca. It travels west to the Oregon state line (but retains the 140 designation) and continues to the isolated burg of Lakeview, on to Klamath Falls, and ultimately terminates near Medford in the Rogue Valley. The highway in effect connects I-80 to I-5.

The stretch of 140 from Denio Junction in Nevada to Adel in Oregon (just east of Lakeview) could be the far side of the moon. It’s as bleak and desolate as any stretch of road here in the rural West. Do not attempt the drive in an unreliable vehicle—the only creatures that will find you if you break down are the vultures.

This lonely place could soon be a lot busier. A Canada-based multinational corporation called Lithium Americas wants to build a mine near Thacker Pass. Here’s a map:

Nevada is a mining state. Gold, silver, and copper are produced in large quantities and the industry is crucial to the economy. In fact The Silver State is considered by many as the top mining area in the world. This is not just due to the abundant resources. It is a reflection of the social and political stability as well as the excellent infrastructure. The rule of law still works in the US of A, a fact miners are well aware of. Investments in unstable and volatile regions of the world are much riskier. Even a modern, civilized country like Chile, the world’s largest copper producer, presents formidable political barriers to economic development. Codelco is a state-owned company, for example, that was formed in the 1970s by nationalizing the foreign holdings in the country. Our southern neighbor, Mexico, just announced the formation of a state-run company to exploit that country’s lithium resources.

Enter Lithium Americas and their Thacker Pass project. This is the kind of thing international mining outfits are interested in. It’s a private venture (but a public company, it trades on the NYSE) and obviously subject to local, state, and federal oversight, but it’s in a (mostly) free-market economy. This means the company and its investors can make money.

Lithium is a key battery material and thus critical to electric vehicles. Demand for lithium is surging and expected to keep growing. Most of the world’s lithium comes from less desirable jurisdictions so there is a lot of excitement about a large-scale domestic lithium mine.

Naturally there is opposition. Mines are messy. The industry has a poor track record. It’s legacy of boom-and-bust, toxic waste, and colossal traffic impacts is well known. Air and water quality both suffer in mined regions and mines can make some places uninhabitable when they are finally closed.

Modern mining companies like Lithium Americas say they can do things better. There is a much bigger industry effort toward so-called ESG concerns—environmental, social, and governance. Corporations don’t have a lot of credibility in these matters, I think that is safe to say, but I’m not sure we have a choice. Wouldn’t we rather have a domestic mine where we have at least a chance of public oversight than import our commodities from some half-assed third-world despotic regime? I think the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Humans make a big impact on the earth. Citizens in comfortable and wealthy first-world societies like to push their environmental problems overseas. Don’t want to see the local forests cut? No problem, just import logs, or worse, finished lumber, from some other place. Don’t want to see oil wells or offshore drilling platforms? Then buy oil from the Saudis. Don’t like mines in the wild, wide-open spaces? Just buy what you need on the international market and don’t worry if kids are digging the stuff out of the ground and poisoning themselves and their communities in the process.

I say “bullshit.” We are big boys and girls. If we need lithium we should dig it up ourselves and clean up our goddamn messes. And we should employ local people and see that profits find their way to local communities impacted by the mining. This is what economic development is supposed to do! So I say let’s make it work. And if we fail it will be our failure, and we will have to work to make it right. Do we really think we will be better served by pushing such problems away?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words so I’ll leave you with a photo of the Thacker Pass area where they hope to be mining lithium soon:

Fire season, and beyond

We recently experienced a scary forest fire within just a few miles of where I sit right now. The so-called McKinney Fire burned some 65,000 acres or about 100 square miles. Think about that—one hundred square miles is a square ten miles on a side. Ten times ten is a hundred.

A useful fact of North American geographical history is that one square mile of surveyed land is equal to 640 acres. Multiply that by one hundred. You can see now that a 65,000 acre fire is a little bit more than 100 square miles.

Try to imagine a quadrilateral of open land ten miles in length and ten miles in width. Ten miles is a real hike. Over flat ground and at a relaxed walking pace of two miles per hour that’s a five-hour excursion. To walk the entire boundary of the parcel is a forty-mile expedition. That’s a lot of ground.

Now imagine those one hundred square miles are not flat but steep, and even worse, rocky, and cut with numerous gulches and canyons. Add a covering of timber and heavy brush and you have the setting for the McKinney Fire.

The firefighters did an amazing job and with help from the weather gods they got the big blaze under control. Later they sent in the post-fire teams and called it over and went on to the next assignment. The professionalism and skill of the entire firefighting apparatus was a thing to behold. They are getting scarily good at this stuff. Lately they’ve had more than enough practice and it looks like that’s going to continue. That’s what happens when summers are hotter and winters are drier.

I can see remnants of the McKinney Fire out my window as I type. Big, new bulldozer tracks have been carved into the scrubby woodlands that cover the flanks of the ridge. They’ve been cleaned up nicely and look like real roads. They will be excellent firebreaks if anything ever comes down that hillside, and they will serve as access and escape routes.

These bare-dirt swaths mark up the wildland with a fierce urgency. They aren’t put in for looks but for emergency utility. They radiate a no-nonsense vibe.

But I have come to appreciate their artistry. Every town should have these moats around them. Fire season is year-round now. Every wildland interface needs at least a nip and a tuck if not full-on plastic surgery. We need a new aesthetic. One that adapts to a new vision for natural landscapes. These landscapes need open stretches of bare ground. They need trees removed. They need brush cleared. They need the obvious hand of humankind managing them.

We have a great love of wildness. And we like to see unspoiled nature. But that is an increasingly impractical notion. We are too vulnerable to fire. We have to re-imagine where we live to include stuff that says, loud and clear, “this is for the next big one.” I really like those ribbons of new road criss-crossing in my viewshed. It makes me feel like the folks who put them in were indeed thinking about “next time.”

Two more fires, the Mill Fire and the Mountain Fire, have hit nearby since McKinney. They are both still active incidents. Ash and cinders from both fires were blown into our yard. It has been a painful summer around here. Let’s hope it gets better soon. And let’s hope we can be more resilient in the future.