Monday, January 30, 2023

Keeping Time with the Doomsday Clock


In a recent piece in The Dispatch, Jonah Goldberg takes issue with the seriousness surrounding the Doomsday Clock, a kind of visual metaphor put out by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that turned 76 this year.  


Back in 1947, a group of nuclear-weapons scientists who felt remorse about working on development of The Bomb came up with the idea of the Doomsday Clock, and set it to a metaphorical "seven minutes to midnight."  Goldberg hails the Clock as one of the finest examples of successful publicity stunts, a gimmick that keeps on giving.  Every time the scientists advance the clock, news outlets have an opportunity for a good graphic—the hands of the clock creeping menacingly toward midnight—and dutifully relay the cause du jour for the advancement, whether it's bad behavior by Russia, the election of Donald Trump, or what have you.  Out of necessity, the scientists (and journalists—most of the management structure of the non-profit Bulletin are not professional scientists) who manipulate the clock have had to pull it back from midnight every so often, but the news-grabbing events always advance it toward the end of the world. 


Goldberg doesn't mention what I consider to be the crowning irony of the thing:  the fact that supposedly objective and rational scientists use as a publicity vehicle one of the most important scientific instruments of all time—a clock—to convey what amounts to an entirely subjective and even emotion-laden message.  But in a twisted way, the metaphor reflects the paradoxical nature of what the board of governors behind the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is trying to do:  trade upon their reputation for being smart in one area (nuclear physics) to persuade the general public that they know what they're talking about in a different area (arms control and international relations). 


As Goldberg points out, scientists have a legitimate role to play in public policy.  If a technical issue is too complicated to be understood by the average politician, the politicians should ask the technical experts for their technical advice.  But such experts have a way of getting swelled heads.  I suppose when the President asks your advice about some technical matter, a certain personality type will start to think that government leaders will listen to you no matter what you're talking about.  It's an understandable failing, but a failing nonetheless.


In the nature of things, nuclear scientists who work on weapons development are more intimately familiar than laypersons with the way these weapons are deployed and the command structures that control them.  But that doesn't make them clairvoyants or mind-readers who can sense the states of mind of bad actors such as Vladimir Putin to decide that he is just that much more inclined to push the nuclear button, that we need to move the minute hand from 11:55 to 11:56.  Such an action is exactly as meaningful as if I told my new dog that I now like her 5.5 instead of 5.3.  They both mean "more than before," but neither love nor danger is measured in metric units.


Such logical arguments are wasted on those who cover each advance of the Doomsday Clock, and most of those who read about it.  Everybody knows danger isn't a quantitative thing, but the metaphor takes advantage of the strong and enduring trope that embedded itself in our subconscious in the 1950s when nuclear Armageddon was a novel and frightening thing.  Hundreds of cultural products—novels, plays, movies, TV series—have profited from exploiting this fear either directly or in sublimated form, as the spate of 1950s sci-fi B movies attests.  So in that regard, the Doomsday Clock was truly a stroke of genius, as it taps into this fear that has never gone away, and probably won't until the unlikely happens and nuclear weapons are banished from the planet.


And if nuclear war is Armageddon, a total abolition of nuclear weapons is the New Jerusalem.  As a Christian, I believe that nuclear weapons will have no place in the kingdom of God, so I do anticipate a day when the earth will be free from them, and free from a lot else besides.  But as long as people like Putin control substantial amounts of thermonuclear bombs and the ability to deliver them, it seems irresponsible for the U. S., as the leading nuclear-armed opponent of Russia, to divest itself unilaterally of such weapons. 


Back when the old U. S. S. R. was led by less irrational people, it was worthwhile to negotiate nuclear-arms reduction as long as we had means of telling whether the other side was cheating.  Not being either a nuclear scientist or an espionage expert, I do not know what shape our "national technical means" are in these days.  I suspect, not too hot.  But it's pretty clear from Putin's recent actions that this is not the time or season to try nuclear-arms-reduction talks.  Instead, I hope we are keeping our hands near the trigger, so to speak, while taking every precaution to ensure that mistakes or errors don't set off a nuclear war.


In the meantime, the atomic scientists who get to adjust their clock hands however they feel the times dictate will get media attention for every second they move the hands closer to midnight.  Goldberg makes the point that if you've heard someone cry "Wolf!" every so often for seventy-six years and no wolf ever showed up, you might be inclined to disregard the next such announcement.  But that old nuclear fear is still there, the media find that it still garners eyeballs, and so we might as well get used to the broken clock of the atomic scientists which is no good keeping time, but gathers reporters as reliably as clockwork every time it moves.


Sources:  Jonah Goldberg's "Threat Level Midnight Forever" appeared in the paywalled online journal The Dispatch on Jan. 27, 2023 at, but non-subscribers are allowed limited views per month.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Conservative Futurism and the Internet


In the Winter 2023 issue of The New Atlantis, lawyer and author John Ehrett points out that the bloom of enthusiasm that greeted the advent of the Internet has now faded from that particular rose.  There is now a consensus that the negative effects of social media in particular, and also the whole economic basis of "free" services that charge by taking time-slices of one's life, may have begun to outweigh the positive effects.  The question is, what to do about it?


Rather than simply parrot various policy ideas that are floating around—as he puts them, "prevention of censorship" or "limitation of corporate power"—he begins with the legacy of an almost completely obscure Russian thinker named Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov (that's the way Wikipedia spells him, anyway).  Fyodorov published almost nothing during his lifetime (1829-1903), but he knew or influenced a lot of people who were or became well-known for their writings and discoveries, including Leo Tolstoy and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian scientist who discovered many of the founding principles of rocketry. 


Ehrett picks up one thread of Fyodorov's thought, which was saturated in a conservative Russian Orthodoxy that viewed God as the eternal constant presence behind the shifting sands of visible experience.  In Ehrett's words, "A conservative futurism must root itself in the principle of eternity, mirroring that divine timelessness where possible."  It's hard to think of a mindset more diametrically opposed to the "move fast and break things" motto of Facebook, and indeed of the entire software-centric Big-Tech world, which seems to be driving us toward a future that changes much too fast for us to get used to.


The proposal Ehrett makes that I'd like to examine concerns the Internet infrastructure, broadly defined:  not only the hardware (backbone, wired and wireless networks, etc.) but the software-based hosting, payment transfer systems, and everything else that makes the Internet work the way it does.  By now, the Internet has made a place for itself in modern society that has become well-nigh essential, just as essential as electric power, water, and sewer systems.  The latter three are regarded as public utilities. 


A public utility is like a similar category in the transportation regime, a "common carrier," in the sense that anyone with the money to pay for the service must be entitled to the service, regardless of the individual's particular characteristics.  My electric company doesn't inquire into my politics or religion before connecting my service drop.  But politics or religion have been the cause of many discriminatory actions by social-media operators against certain users. 


Suppose a miracle occurred, and there was universal agreement that we would henceforth treat the Internet as a public utility.  Local political units—towns, counties, states—get to regulate their public utilities.  So the nature of the Internet services provided in a particular locale might well depend on the sensibilities and inclinations of a certain region.  The Internet as viewed from Pocatello, Idaho, might look very different from the view it would present to a penthouse apartment in Manhattan.  Not better or worse, necessarily—just different.


We have gotten so used to the idea that everything on the Internet must necessarily be global—it's even built into the old name "the WorldWideWeb"—that it's hard to get one's mind around the idea of controlling it locally.  But hey—one of the boasts of software developers is that they can make their machines do virtually anything you can imagine, and we can imagine an Internet that is tied to geography, just as construction practices and architecture vary from locale to locale.


And that's another thing that Ehrett's conservative futurism would promote:  a renewed emphasis on the physical as opposed to the virtual.  The "slap together today, tear it down tomorrow" attitude that software developers seem to have taken an oath to enact has bled over into other areas of life, notably construction.  More and more parts of the world are beginning to resemble downtown Houston, where they put historic plaques on structures that have endured as long as five years (I exaggerate, but only a little).  Why have past cultures (Venice in the 1400s, for example) created structures whose beauty has endured to the present day, whereas the architecture and building practices of the twenty-first century seem determined to move us all closer to our origins in tent-dwelling nomadic tribes? 


All these ideas are good ones, but they rest on the foundation of a worldview that acknowledges the importance of eternity.  Historically, the leaders of a culture have had to embrace such a view for it to have much of an effect on the culture's direction.  For reasons too complex to go into here, we are going through a period in which the notion of eternity is ignored at best, and more likely scorned or mocked.  As philosopher Richard Weaver said in a book title back in 1948, ideas have consequences.  And the underlying beliefs of those who call the shots in the halls where important economic, political, and social decisions are made do not presently harbor ideas that are favorable to conservative futurism.


Nevertheless, the idea is out there, and I find it encouraging that Mr. Ehrett seems to be fairly young—he was in Yale Law School as recently as 2016.  If an idea doesn't appeal to young people in large numbers, it doesn't stand a chance.  As old duffers like me pass from the scene, the ideas that will survive are the ones that young people are attracted to.  And they are not bound by old habits of mind that are very hard to break out of. 


The obstacles blocking the progress of conservative futurism seem insurmountable.  Imagine the howls of outrage from Silicon Valley if the town councils of a thousand burgs all voted to restrict their Internets in the ways described above.  But there was a time back in the 1970s when Ma Bell seemed like the only possible way to do U. S. telecommunications, and we've managed to overcome that preconceived notion, despite AT&T's struggle to keep what it termed a natural monopoly.  So maybe it can happen.  But if it does, it will be because of the efforts of young people like John Ehrett and his ilk.


Sources: "Can There Be a Conservative Futurism?" by John Ehrett appeared on pp. 46-55 of the Winter 2023 issue of The New Atlantis.  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov. 

Monday, January 16, 2023

Mustard Sauce, or The Turn of Two Screws


Trust me, I'll get around to engineering ethics before the end of this column, but right now I'd like to tell you about my family's mustard sauce recipe.  It's good on sandwiches, and here's the recipe:


2 oz. (60 ml) Colman's dry mustard

1 cup (230 ml) cider vinegar

Mix in blender - stand in refrigerator overnight.

Next day:  add 1 cup brown sugar and 2 eggs.

Blend all together, cook in double boiler until thick.  Stir constantly.

Keep in jar in refrigerator.


That's it.  The acid in the vinegar does some interesting chemistry to the mustard, and the result is a sweet-sour flavor that is popular with several people we've shared the recipe with.


Last fall, my wife's old blender died after several decades of service, so I bought her a new one for Christmas.  It is a PowerXL Boost Blender Plus, and I got it at Walmart.  The other day we decided to try it out on the mustard-sauce recipe, so my wife got it out of the box and put it together.  Like most blenders, it has a blending jar with thick glass walls and a big glass handle, a plastic jar base that the jar screws into (screw No. 1), and a motor assembly at the bottom that the jar base fastens into with a quarter-turn locking system (screw No. 2).  I watched her put the jar base on the motor assembly, and then we mixed the mustard and vinegar and poured it into the blender.  So far, so good. 


The blender quickly turned the stuff inside the jar to a foamy yellowish liquid, and then we wanted to get it out of the jar.  We faced a problem.


With the previous blender, the blending jar and its base would simply lift off the motor assembly, so you could carry the full jar over to a saucepan and pour out the contents.  But it wasn't clear to me, nor to my wife, how you were supposed to do that with this unit.  We could have lifted up the whole thing, motor and all, but it had suction cups at the bottom that held it to the counter and that didn't seem like a good idea.


Being bibliophiles, we turned to the page in the manual entitled "Using the Boost Blender Plus."  Item 8 said to press the off button to stop the blender.  Fine, we did that already.  As far as we could tell, the relevant passage was item 9, which I quote in its entirety:


"To remove the jar, grasp the handle, turn jar counterclockwise, and lift up.  NOTE:  Always unplug the appliance when not in use."


Those instructions are pretty unambiguous.  There's only one handle:  the glass handle on the jar itself.  "Counterclockwise" took a little thought, but I figured they meant as viewed from above, so I grasped the handle and gave a good half-turn counterclockwise.


A veritable Yellow River of mustard-vinegar mixture cascaded out from under the jar, over the base, the cutting board, the countertop, the cabinet, the floor, and our pants and shoes.  I will not reproduce here all the things I said during this catastrophe, but they were not complimentary. 


What had happened, of course, was that I had applied torque to two screws in series.  Turning the jar put torque—a twisting force—on the screw holding the jar to the jar base, and also put torque on the screw-like arrangement that held the jar base to the motor assembly.  When two screws are in series, the one that is less tight always unscrews first.  Evidently, the makers of this infernal device designed it to be assembled by The Hulk, who would tighten the glass jar onto the jar base so tight that it would hold while the base would unscrew from the motor assembly, leaving you with the jar and its base together.


Needless to say, that didn't happen.  The No. 2 screw between the jar base and the motor assembly held fast, and allowed the No. 1 screw to come unscrewed from the base, releasing the flood of mustard. 


Later—much later, after many paper towels and expostulations—I tried to remove the jar base from the motor assembly.  The only way I could figure out how to do it without causing another flood was to hold the motor assembly with one hand and press on a projection of the base with the other hand to unlock just the No. 2 screw, without touching the blending jar.  That's the only possible way to take the intact jar and base apart without spilling anything.  The manual says nothing about doing it that way, but it's the only way I can see it can be done.


At first, my wife wanted to pack the whole thing up and donate it to Goodwill, but I objected that their customers hadn't done anything bad to us, so why should we do that?  So we are slowly working up to considering another attempt at mustard sauce, but we will ignore anything the manual says from this point onward.


In fairness to the designers, they were trying to innovate in a legacy product (blenders).  The "boost" function lets you essentially move the blades up and down while they turn, which can help with viscous mixtures, but it complicated the base to the point that it's hard to remove, and the proper way to remove the full jar with the base got lost on the way to the manual.  Some day we'll get up the nerve to try the mustard-sauce recipe again, but I can't say whether we'll try this blender again, or go to a store where they will let us take a new model apart before we buy it. 


The best product in the world is useless if people don't know how to use it properly, and so this is a lesson to all designers:  don't assume that the instructions supplied with the product are correct.  Pretend you've never seen the thing before, follow the instructions, and see what happens.  You might be in for a surprise.


Sources:  The PowerXL Boost Blender Plus is distributed by HPC Brands Inc., Middleton, Wisconsin, and the product is made in China.

Monday, January 09, 2023

Fusion Energy Is Still A Decade Away—At Least


Last December 5, at 1:03 AM in California's National Ignition Facility, 192 lasers fired into a tiny metal can called a "hohlraum" which contained a peppercorn-size fuel pellet consisting of frozen deuterium and tritium.  In response, some of the atoms in the pellet fused and released more energy than it took (in the form of laser beams) to start the reaction. 


At a news conference afterwards, U. S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm called the experiment a "fusion breakthrough" and the hundreds of scientists who have labored for years to achieve what is technically called "ignition" were thrilled to learn that they had finally achieved a goal they had worked toward for decades.


They indeed deserve congratulations, because they are the first group in the world to demonstrate ignition with their type of fusion reactor, which is termed inertial confinement.  At the same time, it's a little premature to sell all your fossil-fuel stocks and order your Back to the Future fusion-energy car that runs on a glass of water.


Inertial-confinement fusion is one of those simple-sounding ideas that turns out to be fiendishly complicated in practice.  Not long after the laser was invented (1960), it occurred to somebody that the short intense burst of energy that certain pulsed lasers could make might be able to heat up deuterium and tritium enough to cause their nuclei to fuse, leading to a fusion reaction.  Nuclear fusion has been the pot of gold at the end of the energy rainbow ever since fusion was demonstrated in the first thermonuclear hydrogen bomb test called Ivy Mike in 1952. 


The device that made the nuclei fuse in that explosion was a conventional nuclear-fission bomb, of the type dropped on Japan at the end of World War II.  So far, bombs are the only reliable way to get a lot of energy out of nuclear fusion, but they are hardly a practical energy source.


Fusion is an attractive source of energy because the raw material—deuterium, mainly—can be extracted from ordinary water, the energy output per weight of fuel is even better than fission reactors, and the waste products tend to be less nasty than those from fission reactors, which is the only way we get practical amounts of energy from nuclear reactions these days.  Most efforts in making fusion practical try to work with ways of containing a hot ionized gas called a plasma inside various tricky confinement chambers in a continuous process that would put out a steady flow of energy.


But confining a plasma is a little bit like nailing Jell-O (TM) to the wall:  it doesn't want to stay put.  So in 1994, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) began to study ways of doing it in a batch process, rather than continuously.


Rather than having to keep the plasma confined constantly, their idea was to shoot a whole lot of laser-beam energy onto a small pellet of fuel, that would then get so hot part of it would fuse, and the burst of fusion energy coming out would be larger than the energy it took to make it.  In the meantime, it would be confined by its own inertia—hence the name "inertial confinement."


It sounds simple, but the NIF people have been working for nearly thirty years to do the thing that their lab is named for—namely, achieve ignition.  So at last, in December the lab lived up to its name.


Are we home free?  Not yet.  For one thing, the amounts of absolute energy we are talking about are trivially small.  Two megajoules of laser-beam energy went into the pellet and produced fusion energy of three megajoules.  A megajoule sounds like a lot until you realize that three megajoules of energy is contained in about a fourth of a measuring cup (100 ml) of gasoline.  So the process will have to be scaled up seriously before practical amounts of energy are produced.


Also, the lasers are not 100% efficient.  One scientist at the news conference admitted it took "well over 400 megajoules" to charge the lasers that created the 2-megajoule beam.  That reminds me of the guy who went into business and admitted he was losing money on each transaction, but he'd make it up in volume.  Sometimes you can do that, but sometimes you can't.


So while the NIF folks deserve congratulations for their achievement, one wonders if inertial confinement fusion for practical energy generation will ever see the light of day.  It begins to look like one of those things that would work given indefinite amounts of resources, but at some point, other researchers will overtake it and further work will be pointless.


I was once engaged in an engineering project that lost my company six million dollars.  Some years later, I ran into the manager I worked for, who said about it, "Well, if we'd just had a little more time and money, I think we could have made it work."  Yes, but we didn't, and it was a good thing for the company that we stopped.


A huge project based in France called ITER is pursuing a different approach: a giant "tokamak" style continuous-plasma reactor that is scheduled to make its first plasma (of any kind) in 2025.  From what I can tell, ITER's main use so far has been as a way to employ thousands of European physicists, engineers, and auxiliary personnel.  But it may turn out to work. 


Personally, I hope all these behemoth-like government-funded decades-long projects are shown up by one of the dozens of small startup fusion companies that are pursuing off-the-wall fusion ideas, ranging from boron fusion (with hardly any dangerous waste products) to modifications of a thing called a "fusor" developed by Philo T. Farnsworth, the guy who didn't invent television.  Actually, he did invent an alternative approach to the TV camera tube that was not as good as the one RCA and its Vladimir Zworykin came up with, but Farnsworth was an independent inventor and RCA was tied in with the government and dominated the entire radio-electronics sector.  Sometimes the big guys win and the little guys lose, but not all the time. 


Chances are that I will no longer be around to see the first commercial electric power delivered from fusion energy.  But if it ever happens, I hope somebody like Philo Farnsworth invents it.


Sources:  USA Today carried a report on the NIF breakthrough on Dec. 13, 2022 at  The energy content of gasoline was from and I also consulted Wikipedia's articles on the National Ignition Facility and ITER.

Monday, January 02, 2023

What? Twitter Neutral?


Back when I started this blog in 2006, the phrase "social media" was hardly used by anybody, according to Google Trends.  It began to climb above 1% of its current frequency of use around 2008, possibly in connection with the elections of that year, and has been climbing ever since. 


Twitter, the social-media format that has become the default medium of choice for announcements by Presidents on down, was also founded in 2006.  From an obscure techie-speak term, it has turned into a routine and near-universal medium of expression that its leadership has claimed is as neutral as they can make it.  But a recent article by political scientist Wilfred Reilly details how the medium's claim of neutrality is false. 


Specifically, in 2018, Twitter's CEO Jack Dorsey said, in response to accusations that the firm was silently suppressing or banning certain conservatives, that "We don’t shadow-ban conservatives — period."  Similar assertions were made by company officials testifying before Congress and in other public venues.


Then along comes reporter Bari Weiss, who used Elon Musk's recently released Twitter files last month to demonstrate dozens of examples in which Twitter silenced or suppressed certain accounts. 


Weiss found a variety of ways Twitter can cripple the reach of a given account.  One way is by making the person unsearchable, which is more effective these days than the class of untouchables maintained in some cultures.  Encumbering tweets with warnings, suppressing the sharing of certain tweets—the list of technical means goes on and on.


As wonky as I am about engineering details, I'd like to pull back to examine a broader question:  has Twitter behaved unethically in (a) saying they don't "shadow-ban" while clearly doing so, and (b) favoring some tweets and suppressing others?


We can dispense with (a) pretty quickly.  Unless Dorsey wants to play a Clintonesque definition game with the phrase "shadow-ban" ("It depends on what you mean by 'shadow-ban.'"), it's obvious that he and his corporate minions have lied repeatedly about how they treat certain accounts.  Companies lie about what they do for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes it's simple ignorance—nobody told the boss what was going on.  That seems hardly likely in this case.  Sometimes it's a deliberate strategy to avoid public embarrassment and financial loss.  That would explain Dorsey's behavior, certainly, and imagining what would have happened if he'd said, "Well, yes, we think we have a duty to the public to protect it from some opinions, and so we do shadow-ban," I can see why a lie would be appealing. 


Reilly makes the point that we shouldn't be surprised when we find that Twitter or any other social-media outlet shapes its content to suit its own purposes, whether those be profit, a desire to shape the political landscape, or other things perceived as of more value than telling the truth about what one is up to.  What is disappointing, if not surprising, is the ease and frequency with which Twitter lied about it, and the gullibility of much of the dominant media to believe them, and to criticize so-called conspiracy theorists for claiming that certain stories and outlets—the Hunter Biden laptop episode comes to mind—were intentionally suppressed.  Musk's revelations of internal Twitter documents basically confirm many of these claims that were so scornfully dismissed before.


What about (b)?  Regardless of whether they are honest about it, should Twitter mold and shape their content by hyping some tweets and squashing others?  And we shouldn't limit the scope of the question to Twitter.  Facebook, search engines such as Google, and the whole megillah of social media and the way we look for information these days should be included in this question.


Most people would agree on certain outer limits to stuff that people post or tweet.  Blackmail, bullying, the lowest dregs of the human imagination—these things should not be allowed into the public arena.  The problem comes when you ask about the rest of what comes into a place like Twitter for potential publication. 


Strictly speaking, Twitter and virtually all other social media are private companies which are, and probably should remain, in control of what they publish.  Twitter is not like a public park, paid for with taxes and therefore available to any taxpayer who follows some basic rules.  It's more like a private estate in that sense, where once you are allowed in on the owner's terms, almost anything goes that doesn't break the law.  There is no intrinsic right to express yourself on Twitter or any other private platform.


The practical problem is that in replacing the old-fashioned print and one-way electronic media, social media have become the default public square.  Stuff that used to be announced in press conferences before cameras and reporters now gets tweeted routinely first, and press conferences come later, if at all. 


The legacy media repressed things silently too.  I can't recall the details, but I remember reading about some reporters who showed up at the house of a prominent public official to ask him something.  His wife came to the door drunk as a skunk, and the code of behavior back then (this was in the early 1960s, I think) made them ignore her state and behavior, and they went away without any story at all.  These days, of course, a live video of her would go viral from the reporter's phone, likely as not.


So the news that Twitter shapes tweets to suit itself isn't really news in the sense of a radical new thing happening.  What needs to happen is that people who use social media—and for most of us, that means readers rather than the relatively few producers of viral tweets—need to be aware that everything is biased:  Twitter, Facebook, Google, the newspapers, and even emails from your friends. 


With your friends, you probably know them well enough to allow for whatever biases they bring to the table.  And with Musk's revelations about Twitter, we are effectively learning more about Twitter's personality—what things it likes and what things you aren't likely to hear from it.  The bad part of this is that if you want to says something that Twitter doesn't like, you are going to have to find another way to say it.  And that's a problem, but as Reilly pointed out at the end of his article, there's always dictionaries and encyclopedias, and I'd add snail-mail to that, too.


Sources:  Wilfred Reilly's article "The Conspiracy Theories Were Real, and Other Revelations" appeared on the National Review website on Dec. 30, 2022, at