Show Notes - Week of July 15, 2019
It was a good week. Went fishing with the family and we caught a walleye (note: singular), and then the next day saw the world's biggest fishing lure. Then we visited the Ellis Bird Farm and I stood up in front of a sign that displayed the wingspans of various common birds. It turns out my wingspan is roughly the same as a Bald Eagle. Perhaps the universe is trying to tell me something.
This week's reading was consumed almost exclusively with finishing up "Command and Control" by Eric Schlosser. This was a history of an explosion at a Titan II missile facility in Arkansas in 1980, interspersed with an exhaustively documented account of the near misses with nuclear weapons from a few days before the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, through to 1980. The book's subtitle is "Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety". Schlosser admits to being struck as he researched and wrote this book as to how lucky we have been to have never had a major nuclear accident. I wholeheartedly agree.
It was a long book clocking it at 485 pages, and then with a staggering 147 pages of acknowledgements, notes, bibliography, and and index. I found it well written, but I suspect one has to be interested in the subjects of nuclear weapons history or safety engineering to enjoy this book. I like both, but there are few people I would recommend this to. My good friend Chris recommended it to me, and he listened to it as an audiobook. I'm not sure how much that would work for me since it would be hard (impossible?) to pop between the current section, the List of Characters, and the Notes.
I mentioned last week that I enjoyed the Expanse short story, "Gods of Risk", at least in part because the story revolved around a young man, but really it was about his aunt, Gunny Draper, who readers met in the previous Expanse novel. "Command and Control" had a similar feel in that it was about the main players of nuclear weapons since 1947 - Oppenheimer, Teller, Einstein, Kennedy, Kruschev, LeMay, McNamara, Kissinger - but one central character in America at least was Bob Peurifoy, a Texas engineer who worked his entire career at the Sandia Labs. Schlosser introduces him early in the retrospective portion of the book since Peurifoy joined Sandia in 1952. The index lists 19 entries for Peurifoy, meaning that he appears every 25 pages or so. To compare, JFK has 14 entries, Kruschev has 11, and Kissinger has 7.
Back to Peurifoy, how often he comes up in the story is a testament to his role in nuclear weapons safety over nearly a half century. He would be an interesting cat to have a conversation with.
Lastly, there was an interesting quote in the book that struck me about the science of missiles beyond the nuclear physics required to make the devastating explosions.
Ballistic missiles were extraordinarily complex machines, symbols of the space age featuring thousands of moving parts, and yet their guidance systems were based on seventeenth-century physics and Isaac Newton's laws of motion. The principles that determined the trajectory of a warhead were the same as those that guides a rock thrown at a window."
Maclean's had an interesting article this week on the impact mosquitoes have had on humans. The article estimates that 108 billion people have lived on Earth in all of the time that there have been humans. Fascinatingly, the article estimates that 52 billion humans have died from mosquito-borne disease. That is 48% of people. Ever. I had no idea the impact was that great, and that explains the Gates Foundation's focus on malaria.
The article also described efforts to use CRISPR gene-editing technology "to exterminate captive malaria-bearing mosquitoes in seven generations". CRISPR is amazing technology, with potentially catastrophic consequences. The ethics of species annihilation, even one with such a toll on humanity, is something that needs significant debate and discourse, but the articles states that the genetically engineered mosquitoes could be in the wild in five years.
CRISPR Gone Bad:
Speaking of CRISPR, I watched "Rampage" last night. It was a great romp, with a few dazzling one-liners delivered by Dwayne Johnson. The movie justifies the existence of huge, savage monsters wreaking havoc on downtown Chicago with a backstory consisting of a brilliant scientist using CRISPR to inject gene sequences of several species into the DNA of a patient. This then naturally led to the weaponizing the technology, ultimately resulting in the creation of the super beasts out of a hapless wolf, a crocodile, and an amicable gorilla. The movie is fiction of course and there is no known way to do what the movie proposes at the present time, as this article summarizes nicely. It was a pretty good movie though, especially on the last real night of vacation.
Quote - Why TV Typically Sucks:
This quote is from David Simon, lead writer of "The Wire" from an article in August 2007. So like, forever ago. Thanks again to Warren Ellis's weekly newsletter, which is how I found this article.
Most smart people cannot watch most TV, because it has generally been a condescending medium, explaining everything immediately, offering no ambiguities, and using dialogue that simplifies and mitigates against the idiosyncratic ways in which people in different worlds actually communicate. It eventually requires that characters from different places talk the same way as the viewer. This, of course, sucks."
Imputed rent is the economic theory of imputation applied to real estate: that the value of a good is more a matter of what the buyer is willing to pay than the cost the seller incurs to create it. In this case, market rents are used to estimate the value to the property owner.
A vernier thruster is a rocket engine used on a spacecraft for fine adjustments to the attitude or velocity of a spacecraft. Depending on the design of a craft's maneuvering and stability systems, it may simply be a smaller thruster complementing the main propulsion system, or it may complement larger attitude control thrusters, or may be a part of the reaction control system. The name is derived from vernier calipers (named after Pierre Vernier) which have a primary scale for gross measurements, and a secondary scale for fine measurements.