Dystopian and Unthinkable…

Activist holds a candle during a vigil in Lafayette Park for nurses who died during the COVID-19 pandemic on January 13, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Topics: Civics, COVID-19, Epidemiology, Existentialism, Politics

With all due respect to the recently departed former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, she started using the phrase “indispensable nation” after political reporter Sydney Blumenthal coined it. From Foreign Policy Magazine:

In his memoir of the Clinton presidency, The Clinton Wars, Blumenthal elaborated on what the phrase was intended to represent: “Only the United States had the power to guarantee global security: without our presence or support, multilateral endeavors would fail.” Albright, then secretary of state, began using the phrase often, and most prominently in February 1998, while defending the policy of coercive diplomacy against Iraq over its limited cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors when, during an interview on the “Today Show,” she said: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”

The Myth of the Indispensable Nation, Micah Zenko, Foreign Policy

Though politically expedient, and in the parlance of activism, it “chants” well, we’re not indispensable, nor are we exceptional. We allowed the worst of a pandemic to spread by ineptitude and Twitter addiction, science denialism, and conspiracy theory. Since the introduction of cable news and siloes of news consumption, we have citizens that believe in different versions of reality. It puts the “United States” in the realm of the oxymoron.

Now, we’re at this grim milestone. Conservatives live to push buttons, “own the libs,” grift off culture issues, and keep their constituents at high levels of anxiety and anger with right-wing echo chambers to ensure they vote for them to “own the libs.” Progressives think high-minded logic, social media presence, “woke-ness,” diversity, equity, and inclusion by proximity will produce a Star Trek utopia, because of high-minded logic. I purposely made each perspective a grammatical ouroboros. We’re at a grim milestone because our major political parties have wholly different means of evaluating reality, and because compromise is frowned upon: “DINO, RINO.” There are dark, nefarious forces that only the well-connected to Q-drops or Alex Jones can decipher.

431,000 non-farm jobs were added, and the unemployment rate fell to 3.6%. Yet, the 46th president’s approval numbers are in the toilet largely because he isn’t as entertaining as the last spastic, pathologically lying, hand-waving caricature of a mob boss with a dead ferret toupee, a metaphor for a life of hiding hard truths from himself.

We are codependent on being perpetually angry, and not wed to the idea of speaking to our neighbors who might not consume the same media. We thus base our understanding of the world and facts on separate lenses we view reality through.

Tom Nichols, former professor at Annapolis Naval Academy, opined about “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters” in 2017, and it doesn’t look like we’ve turned a corner from that analysis of our national death spiral. Because we can “Google it,” we’re a Dunning-Kruger nation of narcissists and debase people who put a lot of work into understanding how the world works. We are a byword and a proverb. We are Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle.”

“The whole idea of a democratic application of skepticism is that everyone should have the essential tools to effectively and constructively evaluate claims to knowledge.”

― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Good Reads

*****

Laura Jackson feels the loss of her husband Charlie like she is missing a part of herself. He died of COVID early in the pandemic, on May 17, 2020, just weeks after the couple celebrated his 50th birthday. Charlie was an Army veteran who served in Iraq during Desert Storm, and Laura finds herself returning to images of war and loss—to those who have lost a limb but still feel its phantom tingle, who unthinkingly reach for a glass of water or try to step out of bed before realizing what has been lost forever. Even now she still turns to find Charlie, eager to share a joy or a disappointment, only to remember with a jolt that there is a missing space where he once was.

“I don’t know that you ever get over it,” says Jackson, who lives in Charlotte, N.C. “Your person who was supposed to be there for life—to have that tragically ripped away has been a huge, huge adjustment to make.”

The U.S. will record one million confirmed deaths from COVID in the next several weeks. This toll is likely an undercount because there are more than 200,000 other excess deaths that go beyond typical mortality rates, caused in part by the lingering effects of the disease and the strain of the pandemic. These immense losses are shaping our country—how we live, work, and love, how we play and pray and learn and grow.

“We will see the rippling effects of the pandemic on our society and the way it impacts individuals for generations,” says Nyesha Black, director of demographic research at the University of Alabama. “This is definitely a huge marker in the way we will think about society moving forward—it will be that anchor event.” COVID has become the third leading cause of death in the U.S., after heart disease and cancer.

These deaths have wide-ranging consequences. The effects on children may be the longest-lasting. In the U.S., an estimated 243,000 children have lost a caregiver to COVID—including 194,000 who lost one or both parents—and the psychological and economic aftershocks can have lifetime negative impacts on their education and career.

What One Million COVID Dead Mean for the U.S.’s Future, Melody Schreiber, Scientific American

The Way It’s Supposed To Be…

Topics: Civilization, International Space Station, Politics, Space Exploration

ALMATY, March 30 (Reuters) – A U.S. astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts safely landed in Kazakhstan on Wednesday after leaving the International Space Station aboard the same capsule despite heightened antagonism between Moscow and Washington over the conflict in Ukraine.

The flight — carrying NASA’s Mark Vande Hei and Russians Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov back to Earth — had been closely watched to determine whether escalating strife had spilled over into longtime cooperation in space between the two former Cold War adversaries.

Russian space agency Roscosmos broadcast footage of the landing from the Kazakh steppe and said a group of technical and medical specialists had been dispatched to help the astronauts out of the capsule.

“The crew is feeling good after landing, according to rescuers,” Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin wrote on Telegram messenger.

Vande Hei, who had completed his second ISS mission, logged a U.S. space-endurance record of 355 consecutive days in orbit, surpassing the previous 340-day record set by astronaut Scott Kelly in 2016, according to NASA.

U.S. astronaut, two Russian cosmonauts return home from ISS, Olzhas Auyezov and Steve Gorman, Reuters

Thermo Limits…

A radical reimagining of information processing could greatly reduce the energy use—as well as greenhouse gas emissions and waste heat—from computers. Credit: vchal/Getty Images

Topics: Climate Change, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Global Warming, Semiconductor Technology, Thermodynamics

In case you had not noticed, computers are hot—literally. A laptop can pump out thigh-baking heat, while data centers consume an estimated 200 terawatt-hours each year—comparable to the energy consumption of some medium-sized countries. The carbon footprint of information and communication technologies as a whole is close to that of fuel used in the aviation industry. And as computer circuitry gets ever smaller and more densely packed, it becomes more prone to melting from the energy it dissipates as heat.

Now physicist James Crutchfield of the University of California, Davis, and his graduate student Kyle Ray have proposed a new way to carry out computation that would dissipate only a small fraction of the heat produced by conventional circuits. In fact, their approach, described in a recent preprint paper, could bring heat dissipation below even the theoretical minimum that the laws of physics impose on today’s computers. That could greatly reduce the energy needed to both perform computations and keep circuitry cool. And it could all be done, the researchers say, using microelectronic devices that already exist.

In 1961 physicist Rolf Landauer of IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., showed that conventional computing incurs an unavoidable cost in energy dissipation—basically, in the generation of heat and entropy. That is because a conventional computer has to sometimes erase bits of information in its memory circuits in order to make space for more. Each time a single bit (with the value 1 or 0) is reset, a certain minimum amount of energy is dissipated—which Ray and Crutchfield have christened “the Landauer.” Its value depends on ambient temperature: in your living room, one Landauer would be around 10–21 joule. (For comparison, a lit candle emits on the order of 10 joules of energy per second.)

‘Momentum Computing’ Pushes Technology’s Thermodynamic Limits, Phillip Ball, Scientific American

Getting Back Mojo…

Artist’s representation of the circular phonons. (Courtesy: Nadja Haji and Peter Baum, University Konstanz)

Topics: Applied Physics, Lasers, Magnetism, Materials Science, Phonons

When a magnetic material is bombarded with short pulses of laser light, it loses its magnetism within femtoseconds (10–15 seconds). The spin, or angular momentum, of the electrons in the material, thus disappears almost instantly. Yet all that angular momentum cannot simply be lost. It must be conserved – somewhere.

Thanks to new ultrafast electron diffraction experiments, researchers at the University of Konstanz in Germany have now found that this “lost” angular momentum is in fact transferred from the electrons to vibrations of the material’s crystal lattice within a few hundred femtoseconds. The finding could have important implications for magnetic data storage and for developments in spintronics, a technology that exploits electron spins to process information without using much power.

In a ferromagnetic material, magnetism occurs because the magnetic moments of the material’s constituent atoms align parallel to each other. The atoms and their electrons then act as elementary electromagnets, and the magnetic fields are produced mainly by the spin of the electrons.

Because an ultrashort laser pulse can rapidly destroy this alignment, some scientists have proposed using such pulses as an off switch for magnetization, thereby enabling ultra-rapid data processing at frequencies approaching those of light. Understanding this ultrafast demagnetization process is thus crucial for developing such applications as well as for better understanding the foundations of magnetism.

Researchers find ‘lost’ angular momentum, Isabelle Dumé, Physics World

Microbots and Chemo…

Credit: Gao Wang

Topics: Biology, Cancer, Chemotherapy, Robotics

Chemotherapy disrupts cancer cells’ ability to reproduce by frustrating cell division and damaging the cells’ DNA. In response to the pharmaceutical onslaught, cancer cells acquire mutations that reduce the therapy’s effectiveness. Compounding the challenge of fighting cancer: Under chemical and other stresses, mutation rates increase.

A team led by Princeton University’s Robert Austin and Chongqing University’s Liyu Liu has developed a novel approach to study—and potentially thwart—cancer cells’ adaptation to chemotherapy. Their cancer cell analogs are wheeled, cylindrical robots about 65 mm in diameter and 60 mm in height (see photo above). Fifty of the robots roll independently of each other over a square table, whose 4.2 × 4.2 m2 surface is covered by 2.7 million LEDs (see photo below). Light from the LEDs serves as the robots’ food. Once a robot has “eaten” the light beneath it, the corresponding LEDs are dimmed until they recover a fixed time later.

The bottom surface of each robot is equipped with four semiconductor-based sensors that can detect the intensities and spatial gradients of the three colors of light emitted by the light table: red, green, and blue (RGB). Each robot’s six-byte genome analog determines how sensitive it is to the three colors. The sensitivity, in turn, determines how readily the robot moves in response to the colors’ intensities and spatial gradients.

Evolving robots could optimize chemotherapy, Charles Day, Physics Today

Quantum Charging…

GIF Source: Sci-Tech Daily

Topics: Alternate Energy, Battery, Green Tech, Nanotechnology, Quantum Mechanics

Note: I’m in the semifinals of the 3-Minute Thesis competition, so I decided to focus on my presentation. Wish me luck. This does, however, relate to our need as a species to get off fossil fuels as soon as possible, so things like Ukraine, Crimea, and the dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi are not facilitated by our need for energy and our tolerance for tyrants.

Whether it’s photovoltaics or fusion, sooner or later, human civilization must turn to renewable energies. This is deemed inevitable considering the ever-growing energy demands of humanity and the finite nature of fossil fuels. As such, much research has been pursued in order to develop alternative sources of energy, most of which utilize electricity as the main energy carrier. The extensive R&D in renewables has been accompanied by gradual societal changes as the world adopted new products and devices running on renewables. The most striking change as of recently is the rapid adoption of electric vehicles. While they were hardly seen on the roads even 10 years ago, now millions of electric cars are being sold annually. The electric car market is one of the most rapidly growing sectors, and it helped propel Elon Musk to become the wealthiest man in the world.

Unlike traditional cars which derive energy from the combustion of hydrocarbon fuels, electric vehicles rely on batteries as the storage medium for their energy. For a long time, batteries had far lower energy density than those offered by hydrocarbons, which resulted in very low ranges of early electric vehicles. However, gradual improvement in battery technologies eventually allowed the drive ranges of electric cars to be within acceptable levels in comparison to gasoline-burning cars. It is no understatement that the improvement in battery storage technology was one of the main technical bottlenecks which had to be solved in order to kickstart the current electric vehicle revolution.

New Quantum Technology To Make Charging Electric Cars As Fast as Pumping Gas, Institute for Basic Science, Sci-Tech Daily

Reference: “Quantum Charging Advantage Cannot Be Extensive Without Global Operations” 21 March 2022, Physical Review Letters.

Helium and Ukraine…

Transport dewars like this carry crucial cryogens for scientific instruments.

Topics: Chemistry, Instrumentation, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, Physics, Research

Scientists who need the gas face tough choices in the face of reduced supply and spiking prices.

Helium supplies, already dicey, got worse this past week when production shut down in Arzew, Algeria. The curtailment joins ongoing disruptions in supplies from Russia and the US Federal Helium Reserve as well as planned maintenance at facilities in Qatar. Helium users in several locations say they are struggling to get the gas they need to keep their scientific instruments running.

“The shortage is scaring most NMR spectroscopists,” says Martha Morton, the director of research instrumentation at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Nuclear magnetic resonance instruments and related tools use liquid helium to cool superconducting magnets.

War in Ukraine makes helium shortage more dire, Craig Bettenhausen, Chemical & Engineering News

Breadbaskets and War…

Image Source: Hub Pages

Topics: Biology, Civics, Civil Rights, Climate Change, Democracy, Existentialism, Politics

The cornucopia’s history lies in Greek mythology. There are a lot of different stories it might have originated from, but the most common one tells the story of the lightning god, Zeus. As an infant, Zeus was in great danger from his father, Cronus. Zeus was taken to the island of Crete and cared for and nursed by a goat named Amalthea. One day, he accidentally broke off one of her horns, and in order to repay her, he used his powers to ensure that the horn would be a symbol of eternal nourishment, which is where we get the idea that the cornucopia represents abundance.

The History Behind the “Horn of Plenty”, Winnie Lam, Daily Nexus

*****

Russia’s war highlights the fragility of the global food supply — sustained investment is needed to feed the world in a changing climate.

Six boxes of wheat seed sit in our cold store. This is the first time in a decade that my team has not been able to send to Ukraine the improved germplasm we’ve developed as part of the Global Wheat Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Texcoco, Mexico. International postal and courier services are suspended. The seed had boosted productivity year on year in the country, which is now being devastated by war.

Our work builds on the legacy of Norman Borlaug, who catalyzed the Green Revolution and staved off famine in South Asia in the 1970s. Thanks to him, I see how a grain of wheat can affect the world.

Among the horrifying humanitarian consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are deeply troubling short-, medium- and long-term disruptions to the global food supply. Ukraine and Russia contribute nearly one-third of all wheat exports (as well as almost one-third of the world’s barley and one-fifth of its corn, providing an estimated 11% of the world’s calories). Lebanon, for instance, gets 80% of its wheat from Ukraine alone.

Broken bread — avert global wheat crisis caused by invasion of Ukraine, Alison Bentley, Nature

M.A.D…

Image Source: Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, John A. Dutton, e-Education Institute

Topics: Alternate Energy, Battery, Biofuels, Climate Change, Environment, Politics

Want another reason to loathe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Just look at how it may completely doom the Paris climate accords — and our planet.

According to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the problem of climate change — which he admitted was “not solved” during the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow at the end of 2021 — “is getting worse” as Russia invades Ukraine.

As if things weren’t bad enough, Guterres insisted that the conflict is making climate change much worse, given how it’s disrupted fossil fuel supply chains in Europe.

“Countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or knee-cap policies to cut fossil fuel use,” Guterres said in a speech to The Economist‘s Sustainability Summit, his first climate change-focused addressed since COP26, continuing: “This is madness. Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.”

UN: Ukrainian War Fossil Fuel ‘Madness’ Might Destroy The Planet, Noor Al-Sibai, Futurism

“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” John Kerry, C-SPAN, as spokesman for Veterans Against the Vietnam War, now the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.

Paraphrased, “how rich are you as the last richest man on a dead planet?”

Kalashnikovs and Switchblades…

A screenshot of the loitering munition known as the KUB-BLA in English. Credit: Kalashnikov Group.

Topics: Civics, Civil Rights, Existentialism, Fascism, Human Rights

Note: Coming up for air (briefly). Still writing the dissertation. My plan is to post Tuesday – Friday of next week. Blogging will be my sanity in an insane world.

Using pictures out of Ukraine showing a crumpled metallic airframe, open-source analysts of the conflict there say they have identified images of a new sort of Russian-made drone, one that the manufacturer says can select and strike targets through inputted coordinates or autonomously. When soldiers give the Kalashnikov ZALA Aero KUB-BLA loitering munition an uploaded image, the system is capable of “real-time recognition and classification of detected objects” using artificial intelligence (AI), according to the Netherlands-based organization Pax for Peace (citing Jane’s International Defence Review). In other words, analysts appear to have spotted a killer robot on the battlefield.

Russia may have used a killer robot in Ukraine. Now what? Zachary Kallenborn, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

And we have Switchblades.

President Biden signed a bill allocating 800 million dollars of military aid short of an official no-fly zone by either US forces or NATO. It does include anti-aircraft missiles and drones, specifically the Switchblade. Both organizations have argued establishment of a no-fly zone isn’t casual: it means enemy planes will be challenged in the air, and enemy planes, Russian planes, if not retreating, will be shot down. We then go from World War Two and one half to WWIII.

Wars are like avalanches. They may start with a snow flurry someone rounds into a snowball. Someone, a child perhaps, throws it innocently. As it descends the incline of a mountain, it gathers speed and adds mass. By the time it reaches civilization, the accumulated mass and momentum make it all but impossible to divert or stop. It starts with a snow flurry, then it escalates. Tit for tat. Switchblades for Kalashnikovs.

There are some things that give me simultaneously hope and concern:

Casualties: The Russians have lost more troops in three weeks than the US lost in 20 years in Afghanistan.

Cyberwarfare: It hasn’t happened. The Russian GRU used ransomware to shut down Colonial Pipeline. The threat of shutting down power in Ukraine (or here): hasn’t happened.

Putin was a mid-level bureaucrat in the KGB, and not looked at as an asset. He had one main talent of getting kompromat – compromising information – and using it to leverage someone to betray their country for Russia. His problem is like his Manchurian Candidate in America that he pushed into the presidency, he’s a malignant narcissist, and quite the opposite of a “strongman.” He, like the former faux billionaire host of “The Apprentice,” is acting. Two euphemisms come to mind: “fake it until you make it” and “faking the funk.”

To answer that question, you have to understand the power and information ecosystems around dictators. I’ve studied and interviewed despots across the globe for more than a decade. In my research, I’ve persistently encountered a stubborn myth—of the savvy strongman, the rational, calculating despot who can play the long game because he (and it’s typically a he) doesn’t have to worry about pesky polls or angry voters. Our elected leaders, this view suggests, are no match for the tyrant who gazes into the next decade rather than fretting about next year’s election.

Reality doesn’t conform to that rosy theory.

Autocrats such as Putin eventually succumb to what may be called the “dictator trap.” The strategies they use to stay in power tend to trigger their eventual downfall. Rather than being long-term planners, many make catastrophic short-term errors—the kinds of errors that would likely have been avoided in democratic systems. They hear only from sycophants and get bad advice. They misunderstand their population. They don’t see threats coming until it’s too late. And unlike elected leaders who leave the office to riches, book tours, and the glitzy lifestyle of a statesman, many dictators who miscalculate leave office in a casket, a possibility that makes them even more likely to double down.

Vladimir Putin Has Fallen Into the Dictator Trap, Brian Klaas, The Atlantic

At Nuremberg, Hermann Goering was asked by Gustave Gilbert as to “why he and the others had been such abject “yes men,” Goering replied: “Please show me a ‘no man’ in Germany who is not six feet under the ground today.”

Yes Men and No Men: Hermann Goering and Johannes Steinhoff in the Age of Trump, The Inglorious Padre Steve’s World

The “Dictator’s Trap” is set by his narcissism (it almost always is a male pronoun leader). Unable to “handle the truth,” he surrounds himself with yes men, whose careers and livelihoods are directly proportional to their degree of sycophancy. In sadistic cases, their lives depend on kowtowing to limbo levels. People do tend to get shot, poisoned, die of radiation poisoning, and fall spontaneously out of windows in the eleven-time zone prison known as Russia. He’s also such a pathological liar, and so keenly good at gaslighting, he has a tendency to believe his [own] press, thus gaslighting himself.

I don’t speak Russian. However, the body language in this rant (Twitter link below) is shouting to the rooftops. This man is panicking.

He didn’t house arrest his intelligence chiefs because he’s displeased: they’re KGB like him. He’s isolating the competition for power before he outright eliminates them.

I don’t speak Russian, but I can tell when someone is terrified:

This is not only a nutball fascist rant, but man, it is *full* of projection. Putin’s own inner circle could be the people he’s talking about – and especially their children, who are watching all of this from London and Paris, and New York. Tom Nichols, @RadioFreeTom

When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard. Sun Tzu, “The Art of War.”