Thursday, April 29, 2010

A true ghost story

First, the kid's version. Then details.


Years ago, I was one of the parents with a bunch of kids at Camp Catoctin, a Quaker Camp
near Camp David. In the dark, surrounded by deep forest, in a solid old stone building,
the counsellors decided it was time for people to tell each other ghost stories. I remember there was one story about a ghost with its head cut off, dripping blood all over, and that sort of thing, and I remember the kids laughing. Then they turned to me: "Paul, it's your turn."
Me:"But I don't have any stories like these... nothing much.... and I don't feel very creative right now."
Them:"Yes, but tell us what you have. It doesn't have to be much."
Me:"OK. It's not much, but it's a true story.
When I was a kid, I really didn't believe in ghosts. I thought they were the silliest thing there ever was -- just a silly crazy idea.
When I was in high school, I went away to school, far away, to New Jersey. One day,
I called home to Philadelphia, to call my mother, to make arrangements to come home for Christmas vacation. On the phone, my mother said:
'And Paul, there's one more thing I have to talk about. I really don't want to talk about it,
because I know you won't believe me, but I really do need to warn you before you come home.
Paul -- it's about Aunt Mary.'
Me: 'Aunt Mary? But Mom, didn't you just have the funeral for her a little while ago?'
Her: 'Yes, yes, but the problem is that she doesn't really want to leave just yet. You remember
how she was a very strict Catholic, and she always kept after me to follow every little rule? Well,
she's still doing it. Every time anyone in the house does anything that violates the strict Catholic rules, she bangs on the walls and makes a racket until they stop. And she keeps turning on televisions and radios to tell us to go to Church all the time.'
Me:'Mom, that is SO silly!'
Her: 'Yes, I knew you would say that, but I just felt you needed to be warned.'
Me:"OK, Mom, you warned me. No need to worry. See you in .....'

Of course I did not take it seriously. No way. And I came home.

One other part of Christmas -- since it was a two-week vacation, I planned to
spend a couple of days with a friend from New York City. He was a kind of wild guy,
certainly not a ghost or Catholic kind of guy. In those days, a long distance call
all the way from Philadelphia to New York was a very big deal, and we thought of it as
expensive. So when I made the call, I first went to the quietest, most isolated
part of the house that had a telephone -- my sister's big room, over the garage,
with a solid lock on the door. I went in there, and locked the door, and checked everywhere,
because I didn't want to risk being interrupted. I made sure the closet was empty,
and that no one else was there. I didn't want to turn off her TV, because I knew that
would be bad for the picture tube, but I turned the volume all the way to zero,
and checked to make sure it was ALL the way to zero. And then I dialed my friend.
After a few rings... suddenly the television went up to maximum volume. All by itself.
So loud I couldn't hear the phone ringing any more. I turned around to look...
it was a commercial saying: 'Go to the church of your choice.. any church... but GO TO
CHURCH this Sunday.' And there was stained glass in the image...

And that's really all there was, kids. Nothing more. No blood. Nothing really bad.

But I can tell you.... when I went to bed in my own room that night, just down the hall,
it was kind of hard for me to get to sleep. I told myself very loudly in my mind:
'I really do not believe in ghosts. This is really silly...
But then, realizing this is the same house just down the hall...
'But please, Aunt Mary, I don't mean that personally...
What I mean is, I'm really not ready for this kind of thing right now...
'I don't believe it, it's impossible, isn't it?...'

I didn't have any idea how to explain it. The volume switch was a mechanical switch,
and only real mechanical force could have moved it. I checked. But I figured
there had to to be SOME explanation. A week or two later, back in school, I put it
away from attention, and returned to my solid conviction that this was impossible.
And that was the end."

I looked around, and I still remember the look of almost terror in the face of one small kid
who had been laughing loudly about dripping blood just a few minutes ago.

One of the kids called out... "OK, let's have ANOTHER ghost story..."
But that small kid said: "Yes, but not a TRUE one.
That's TOO scary...."


This was late 1963, when I was going to Lawrencevillle school,
taking a graduate course in logic from
Alonzo Church and also number theory at Princeton,
after differential geometry the year before
that, and advanced calculus long before.

In spring 1967, it took much stronger evidence to change my mind
about how things work. That's described in the chapter on "why space"
on my web page...

I gave up Catholicism at age 8, and, after some due diligence at age 12, I never felt
any inclination at all to turn back. Reality is not exactly what it seems
at a superficial level, but ... I still think for myself.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

survival and nuclear issues -- where is a way out?

So much has been happening lately that it reminds me a bit of the folks who theorize
about "the singularity." (Odd footnote: I received an email a week ago saying that it was John Von Neumann,
and not the transhumanist crew or the mystics, who coined the notion of .. global singularity...)

And not all is good.

Nuclear things are just as important a part of energy as oil, so I think it fits the list, even though it connects
with a lot of nonenergy issues. This is a survival issue. The level of interconnection between different levels
of the system is really incredible; I apologize that it's hard to make a linear story of the tangle.

For simplicity -- let me begin with a twelve year old's version. The school complains: "We think there is a problem. He seems to be depressed.
He's talking about everybody dying." I ask him: "What's the problem?" He says: "Dad, you know I watch
the news, not cartoons or stuff like that. Don't try to kid me. You know that Iran is going to have the bomb pretty soon --
maybe really soon, maybe 3-5 years, but soon enough. When they do, you know they are going to give it to Hammas,
which will immediately vaporize about half of Israel, and pretty much flatten the rest. The US won't take this lying down, but
there will be long-range missiles on all sides, and we will have World War III. You know where that goes."

Three obvious questions -- Would Iran really give it to Hammas and Hezbollah?
Would the US really retaliate if there is mutual assured destruction?
Would Iran also give the bomb to Chechens and folks in Venezuela and Afghanistan working with drug lords?

All of this is near term, and worrisome enough. But the need for sustainable electricity, at prices lower than the
high price of wind and solar today, worldwide, in the face of limitations of the simple "one cycle" nuclear fission we use in the US...
is a critical backdrop to this. What if we end up seeing not one but a hundred Irans in a couple of decades,
new nuclear states which may not even start out wanting bombs but which can't help having high-grade nuclear materials floating around.
The President's recent conference is a very important positive step, but no matter how strong the safeguard system...
it's a matter of life or death that we not OVERLOAD that safeguard system. Right now, the world is on course to doing precisely that,
moving us into problems much worse than the near-term Iran tangle I just mentioned.

Getting solar to 6 cents per kwh or less, and making it fully available to the entire world, is one part of a rational strategic response to this.
US renewable energy standards, focusing on sustainable nonfission sources, is another part, because of what it helps
all of humanity do with wind and solar. A fourth generation intelligent grid could help, if it lowers the effective price of wind.
But given the risks and costs of those two important efforts -- we really ought to be adding energy from space as a major,
large "third leg" of the core push on renewable electricity. Like the others, it is not economically ready yet to compete
in the baseload electricity market, but it really does have the potential, if we did what we need to do. What's more -- it
has far more support than American political people would think in the developing and multipolar world.

But "for want of a nail the war was lost."

In order to break the rather negative logic with Iran and Hammas -- to make it clear that the US **COULD** retaliate
if Iran's clients vaporized half of Israel -- the US **COULD** realistically develop and deploy affordable space-based missile
defense, if a few affordable things were done, most critical being the development of something like $200
per pound-in-low-earth-orbit (pound-LEO) access to space within something like 5 years. Turns out -- this IS doable.
Technologically, it is doable. Politically -- well, there are all those politically savvy cynical people who don't really care whether they and their families
may get physically dead. (This is an important study in psychology in itself, but maybe we should hold those details for later.
Some of us would like to proceed from the simple assumption that we would prefer our people to survive, and would like to
ask what it takes.) $200/pound LEO **IS** doable, but only if you know how....

It turns out that $200/pound-LEO is also crucial for making energy from space economically plausible.
Because the idea of energy from space arouses strong human emotions (which are already blinded by partisan emotions already
in Washington!), it is hard to get a straight objective story on this... but NSF ran a joint effort with NASA on this in 2002 which did
get the basic facts to me. At $200/pound, the best life-cycle cost estimate for space solar power (SSP) designs which were fully vetted
was 17 cents per kwh (from SAIC). In the neighborhood, but not good enough. IN ADDITION to access to space, SSP would require
an efficient (maximum information, minimum cost) research program to try to develop technologies beyond that vetted option, to reduce cost. (Not so different from earth solar that way!) John Mankins, who was my NASA partner in running the NSF-NASA effort in 2002 (but later purged by
the Ares people), has stated that he has improvements in hand to the vetted designs, which he expects would get to 10 cents per kwh
for baseload power. But with no money at all for this kind of thing, there are no SAIC numbers for that improvement. 10 cents per kwh
is not so far from the fully loaded cost of safe nuclear fission (especially if national security externalities are considered,
and we think global).

What's more... I see an unproven (risky as in 50-50 probability) way to get it down to 5 cents per kwh with room for less, low
enough to really eliminate the economic pressures for a nuclearized planet. Have published this in a few obscure places,
and talked about it in somewhat less obscure places. IT IS A FORM OF NUCLEAR POWER -- but NOT ALL NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGIES
ARE THE SAME. The breeder reactors that the earth is now on a path to disseminate worldwide are far more
hazardous than the various forms of US-style regulated fission. The alternative nuclear power I will discuss is far LESS hazardous.

Working in energy, you have probably heard the old saying "fusion is the energy source of the future and will always be so."
Back in the 1970's, I visited some of the top fusion folks at MIT, and was depressed by what they told me in all candor.
"Most of the high (6 cents?) cost of existing fission reactors is the cost of the high cost heat-to-electricity systems required
to handle radioactive materials. In 50 years, if we do perfect big magnetic bottles to do fusion, they will be very expensive,
and we will have to ADD their cost to the basic 6 cents for the heat exchange and radiation." In short, Mankins' 10
cent solution is probably at least as good or better, and more likely to be available sooner.

But that's magnetic bottles. There is another mainstream, credible approach to nuclear fusion -- laser or inertial fusion, where large lasers are used to ignite fusion in small fuel pellets. The US has been wise and unique in putting more energy into THAT approach, and becoming the world's leader in it,
rather than throwing too many billions into buying a ticket to watch what Japan and Europe do with magnetic bottles ("ITER").

Of course, paying for big lasers is now as hard as paying for big magnetic bottles. BUT -- laser technology is part of the world of Moore's Law
(my part of NSF!), where radical changes are happening, and even more radical opportunities are appearing on the near-term horizon.
GIven proper funding and encouragement and focus, our community probably could make it possible and affordable to build
lasers which can fuse deuterium-deuterium pellets (which dramatically reduce the problematic neutron production). If I were running
such a research program today, in today's climate, I'd put about half the effort into the kind of lasers Lawrence Livermore has been thinking about
(earth-based lasers powered by a surge in the electric power grid), and half into lightweight lasers to be deployed in space using mirrors
and solar light to power them. Using the second type of laser IN SPACE, IN VACUUM, there is no need for that six cents heat exchange system;
the energy comes out DIRECTLY as electrical currents! It all computes ...

but only if we have access to space.

Some people believe in the ultimate possibility of a third generation of nuclear energy, beyond both fission (first generation) and fusion (second generation).
I tend to believe that the probability of that is over 70%. But we will never get it if all we do is erect monasteries to worship superstrings
or the theories of the past. We will never get to it if all of our experiments go one proton at a time, at great expense. We would have to do
experiments which really probe the unknown, whose outcome we cannot predict, which evoke much higher energy levels than we have ever deployed
before in our history. To do this, at minimum risk to our survival and under maximally controlled large-scale conditions... I wouldn't
want to start the relevant experiments until we have the ability to do them in space. That too requires $200/pound, if we remember that
even physics has to live within budget constraints.


So will we get to $200/pound-LEO?

At, I have posted a couple of simplified basic explanations of what the problems are.

The President
has actually announced a new direction for NASA which could theoretically get us there, in time. That's incredibly encouraging...
BUT it will be no small matter to arrange it such that we really get the relevant technology.

For the Iran aspect... it would be better just to go ahead and develop the RLV which Chase has proposed ASAP (for which I have many more details
in various places, and he has many times more). And at the same time, to make arrangements with China and others
to get the full civilian electricity benefits from energy from space which access to such an RLV ("launch services") would allow.

Not easy, but there is hope.

Even if the probability should be more than 90% that we will all fail at this, and all die in the end, a rational
person does not just give up on a 10% chance of survival. Nor does he/she just ignore what's
coming. The rational response is to focus very, very intensely on maximizing what hope we have.


Nuclear things and oil are STILL not the whole game in the Middle East, not even remotely so.
There are also deep cultural aspects in play, but they do stretch the scope of this list and the length of this email.

Best of luck to us all,


Sunday, April 4, 2010

deeper issues in polarized health care and energy debates

A friend of mine recently posted some thoughts about the health care debate,
which got me to think about analogies to energy issues and bigger issues:

On Fri, Apr 2, 2010 ... wrote:

There were many many details to the healthcare bill, and other things such as student loans were covered, but the fundamentals were established early on and they were debated extensively. It came down to two entirely different approaches:
1. Treat medical care as a market-related good, stimulate competition, add transparency, reduce legal-related costs, and confront people with the true cost of what they are buying.
2. Treat medical care as a kind of public good, and extend free or heavily subsidized coverage to many people who do not get much now. Panels and other devices will be established to find cost effective approaches to healthcare delivery, but demand can be expected to grow and that is a good thing.
In parallel with this, other folks are organizing debates about whether the government should pick winners and losers
(related to energy and jobs), or not. Industrial policy, or not.
A few years back, the electric power community was deeply divided on the question of whether that sector should
be deregulated, or not.
This reminds me of a guy I used to work with, Lotfi Zadeh of Berkeley, who leads a major movement arguing that
binary yes/no white/black thinking has become an extreme curse which needs to be transcended; his alternative approach
to reasoning is widely used in areas like industry in Japan. But I have replied -- we don't need shades of grey;
we need to think in colors, in more dimensions, when black and white pictures simply don't fit.
For example -- with the electric power system, the free market alternative to the ideology of regulation relies
on the behavior of consumers as rational (actually, clairovoyant) actors. It delegates all the details to the consumer.
Thus comes the idea of sending signals to the consumer every 5 minutes, day and night, and expecting the consumer to
constantly reset a thermostat or turn things on and off. The "little ring" that flashes red when electricity prices rise
is proof that people really have gone to that extreme. That's binary thinking. At the same time, equally thoughtless
adherence to ideas of central power have gotten some utility people to define "smart grid" as: "We have the power to turn off
people's air conditioners whenever we choose to, in our operations room." Neither of the old paradigms is powerful
enough to fit the realities of human life and hnuman needs here. It is possible to build a society based on either of the two extremes,
but either one could get worse and worse in choking off the human spirit...
For the grid case, a coherent kind of third way has begun to emerge. Besides the "red ring" (waking people up when electricity prices rise)
and the central authority... why not develop automated intelligent agents which represent the interests of the consumer?
Why not have the price signals available every 5 minutes to the home, but let the consumer choose higher level POLICIES, in effect,
which he/she leaves it to the intelligent agent to IMPLEMENT? There is a phrase ("price-responsive intelligent appliance")
which I find myself using over and over again, in defining the fourth generation concept of an intelligent grid.
(See .)
Though I am not a specialist on health care... I have lived in this country long enough to have seen a lot of the pieces
that people need to think about here. A central problem in health care is that consumers simply cannot afford
to keep up with the incredible complexity of what they have to deal with, HERE AND NOW under the existing system,
to the extent that a model of clairovoyant markets would require. It makes the red ring look tiny by comparison.
There is ALREADY excessive cognitive pressure, based on misconceived kinds of ideal thinking. People
die as their paperwork is being processed. Maybe you've been lucky enough to have missed all that, but in my case,
I would simply not be alive today if I hadn't been able to do some end runs around the system, using resources
that most people don't have.
I can't say that I know what the best balance would be for health care -- the sort-of Parto optimum between the
competing considerations that need to be dealt with. It generally requires full application of all the intelligence we have,
and real dialogue, to approximate that kind of optimal balance. (And even ongoing research.) The partisan
approach doesn't get there.
When it comes to breaking our addiction to oil, the same kind of need for rational balance applies.
Neither extreme -- the traditional overprescriptive 2,000 page bill building up unnecessary bureaucracy,
nor the extreme of doing nothing or imposing a simple gas tax -- would do much at all in the real world
to capture the clear opportunities we have to solve that problem before it wipes us out.
(See for a worked-out middle way.)
Larry Summers said recently that he isn't hearing much talk now of double-dip recession or
"W" curves. I understand the desire to reduce the fear which inhibits some economic activity.
But the price of world oil has not become less threatening in the past few weeks.
(Didn't it just go up? There was that gas station in Maryland where gas was $3.15 again...
but who besides a nagging technical expert would notice that sort of thing? Is it
really "too deep in the weeds"?) If I were planning to run for office later this year or in 2012,
I wouldn't be hiding from the most serious possible thoughts about how to affect
reality on the ground....