Life on Earth, Supervolcanos, NASA, and Tom Petty

“I must have started drinking again, because the woman who tried to activate a supervolcano with a giant fork is standing here, and you’re all acting like it’s a potluck.” – Warehouse 13

DSC04285A picture of Abraham Lincoln as he was fighting against both the Confederacy and German engineers.

“The world was a web.”

This wasn’t the quote from a Tom Petty song.  These were words that would echo through my head for two decades.

I started to write a novel back a long time ago.  It started with those words.

I still have it somewhere, buried in a backlog of data on one of my computers, right next to a resume that I first entered into a computer on . . . WordPerfect© (yes, that was a word processor before Corel® ate it).  I’m sure they still sell dozens of copies of it a year.

And the novel itself?  Oh my.  I’m sure that if it ever saw the light of day someone would name an award in its honor for the worst novel of the year.

But . . . “The world was a web.”

There are words that haunt you through your life, and this sentence haunts mine, just like wondering how it felt while the Roman Empire was ending (LINK).  I have been, since as long as I can remember, really fascinated by the unravelling of society.  Once I went to the Wikipedia entry for “Apocalyptic Novels” and just nodded.  I’d read nearly all of them.  (I just revisited the page, and it’s all filled with editorial stuff, so, much less useful.  I won’t link it.)

But the late author James P. Hogan (I read most of his stuff) wrote a novel called “Voyage to Yesteryear.”  It’s a good one, though out of print, but to me, it had a fairly stunning philosophical analogy.

We as humans think a lot (and live with) more or less reversible processes.  I put ice in the freezer, it freezes.  And then it melts.  Though once upon a time, I don’t think that there was anything at all in physics that would have predicted that the ice would have floated on the water (most frozen liquids sink – if you freeze gasoline, the frozen stuff drops to the bottom), but it turns out it’s pretty important, especially if you’re a fish.  You can stay in the nice liquid water while the ice freezes above you, which, I imagine is important to a fish.

But the second discussion from the novel is that some changes are irreversible – if you burn your laptop in your charcoal grill, there is simply no thawing it out afterwards to get your keyboard to not look like a bunch of charred Doritos®, or get back all of those downloaded pictures of Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones® or all of your Tom Petty MP3s.  Those are gone, dude.

The fire (presumably from a dragon?) goes beyond the phase change represented by freezing and thawing.  The physical structure has been changed to the point that it’s not remotely recognizable.  And you can’t go back.  There’s no way to find all the carbon atoms that baked off your display and combined with oxygen and put them back in the screen, let alone the same place in the screen that previously held them.

It’s gone, dude.  And even the Roman Stoics (LINK) knew this prior to Rudolf Clausius coining the term “entropy,” which led indirectly to the U.S. Civil War through a series of humorous translation errors that made Abraham Lincoln think that Clausius was making fun of his big hat.

But let’s go back four score years (that’s 80 years, for those who are used to the metric system) from that hatastrophe.  What happened then?  Besides Ben Franklin being in the prime of chasing every young lady who could spell “yes” there seemed to be this revolutionary event.  Pardon.  Revolutionary event.  Like the American Revolution.

If a president being elected every four years is a phase change from ice to water and back again, the American Revolution was burning King George’s laptop and then going after the glowing hard drive with a sledgehammer.  In a real and literal fashion there was no way to go back.  Instead of a political phase change, you had political chemical reaction – there was simply no way to go back from what the Founding Fathers had done.  They changed the way the entire world viewed government with the result that today almost every nation in the world where you can order a Big Mac® has emulated to the greatest extent possible the precepts of the American Revolution.  McDonalds® and Thomas Jefferson© changed it all.

And you just can’t go back.  You can morph into something different, but you can’t go back.  There are some ideas that are so radical, so amazingly simple that once they pop out – they hold the attention of almost everyone who hears them.  The American Revolution was one such thing – you could never turn back after that.

Unless you hit reset.  I was leafing through the Internet as The Boy piloted our car up the road for a short road trip – I alternated between reading and a light nap.  The light naps were ended with (small) bursts of adrenaline when our cars trajectory was different than my half-snoozing mind expected.  It’s like Dad radar.  Even asleep I was looking for that change we could never recover from.

On article popped up during the ride about the Yellowstone Volcano, and how NASA was developing a plan to stop it.

Reread the sentence above.  I’ll wait.

NASA has become convinced that a massive volcano is of greater threat to humanity than asteroids.  I mean, both would ruin your day, but Yellowstone seems to pop off a continent cleansing burst every 600,000 years or so (last one 630,000 years ago) and some folks with a LOT of time on their hands at NASA are convinced that they should be the ones that handle it.

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What NASA thinks might be in the volcano.

They’ve even advanced plans on how to stop it.  And, I’ll admit that saving the lives of upwards of two billion people might even be considered a laudable goal in some circles.  But not me.

It’s not the saving all of those people that I object to.  I’m probably neutral on that, unless one of them is me.  Then I become a raving supporter.

I don’t give NASA any slack.  If it doesn’t involve activities that directly get humanity to Mars, I’m thinking that they should just close up shop and give the money to Elon Musk (LINK), who actually seems to be interested in space exploration.

But even worse, it appears that NASA is letting people write stuff that have NO understanding of math:  the NASA plan involves pumping water (which is not exactly in huge supply in the Rocky Mountains) into the magma chamber and to extract the heat.  Which has how much to do with NASA’s mission?  Zero.  Maybe less.

Here’s the latest mission I could find:

To pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research.

So, if this involves trying to cool hot coffee so you can drink it faster by adding an ice cube or two, I’m on board. Takes a few minutes, doesn’t distract NASA from their actual day job.

But in this case the coffee is 11,500 cubic miles of coffee.  At 1300˚F to 2400˚F.  And NASA wants to cool that.  With water.

Okay, I’m pretty sure that drug testing isn’t required to work at NASA.  But the amount of heat we’re talking about is simply staggering.  At a depth of five miles (that’s 8km to the “people who use money that looks like Christmas paper, and also happen to use metric”) to the top of it, keep in mind that this magma pocket sends pockets of superheated boiling water five miles through rock.  The amount of energy is stunning – almost as much energy as a D.C. NASA bureaucrat with a liberal arts degree uses to avoid doing work on a typical Tuesday.

First, the good news!

I won’t bore you with all the mathy stuff, since The Boy and I figured it out.  It’s not hard, it’s just thermodynamics done in hotel room on three sheets of hotel room note paper.

Let’s say you had to cool the Yellowstone magma chamber.  Latest number that I had on how big it was?  11,500 cubic miles.

Cubic miles.  Drive from Seattle to Los Angeles.  That’s 1137 miles.  Do it 10 times. Next to a mile high wall of magma.  Or just once.  Next to a ten mile high wall of magma.  That’s a mile thick.

Hmmm.

But, let’s pretend we can cool that 52,800 foot high wall with water.  Where do we get it?

Well, the Colorado River is a big one.  Let’s pump all of that to Yellowstone to cool it down.  I’m not going to bore you with even more thermodynamics, but you have to heat the water, and then add even more heat so it boils.  (I actually saw one billion dollar business venture implode because they didn’t know you had to add the extra heat to make it boil).

At the current flowrate of the Colorado River, it would take 435,843 years to cool the lava.

I know that NASA seems to not math very well anymore, but, given past rates, Yellowstone would have exploded at least one more time, if not two.  And the people in Los Angeles would have to go nearly a half of a million years between bottled-water drinks.

And that’s the good news – that only half a million years of concerted effort beyond anything the world has ever seen will maybe stop one human extinction.

But some scientists worry that the addition of the cooling water might turn the magma chamber brittle – increasing the likelihood that Yellowstone would explode in a big catastrophe.  And that’s the good news!

Second – the bad news.

But that’s really not the point.  There are a whole host of things that are much more likely (given the last 100 years or so) than a 600,000 year periodicity (like Yellowstone has) volcano to mess with our world.

But most folks look at this risk incorrectly – there’s a probability of occurrence, but also a severity related to the risk.  Low probability events occur everyday, but they have low severity.  I might lose yet another hair on my head, never to return.  But the impact?  Not very big.

An asteroid the size of Dallas heading towards, well, anywhere at 50 miles per second?  Bad day.  For everyone.  Yet heart disease is more likely to kill me than the kinetic impact of an asteroid.

As catastrophes go, that’s pretty bad.  But research (dating back 15 years or so) on genetics of humanity indicate that it’s likely that 70,000 years ago after the supervolcano Toba lit off, only 2,000 humans remained.  Not on Toba.  Anywhere.

We were that close to the lights going out on us forever.

These big, nonlinear events are very low probability, but they have a huge impact, and may impact the ability of the human race to appreciate Tom Petty.

Think aliens like Tom Petty?  They should.  But who can account for taste?

 

Elon Musk: The Man Who Sold Mars

“Actually, they theoretically can separate the hydrogen from the oxygen and process that into providing fuel for man’s space flights. Ostensibly, turning Mars into a giant gas station. So it’s a . . . yeah. We live in an amazing time.” – Breaking Bad

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The featured picture above the title is of the Saturn V.  It’s longer than a Harry Potter novel.  This picture shows the engines from the main stage of the Saturn V.  About 275,000 horsepower for all five engines, you can totally tell by the lens flare!  But it got over two miles per gallon of kerosene used (TRUE)!

This is the third and final part of Elon Musk Week® (sort of like Shark Week©, but with 100% less Discovery™ channel).  An annual feature?  Maybe!

Part 1 is here (LINK) where we take apart Tesla®, and Part 2 is here (LINK) where we understand Elon’s Matrix® plan.

I first read about Elon in (probably) 1977 or 1978.  Oh, sure, you’re saying, that would have made him six or seven years old, and at least a continent and two hemispheres away from me.  My only response is, “so what?”

When I was a kid, I lived fifteen miles from the town I went to school in.  My house was the farthest away on the school bus line, so I was the first to get on in the morning (7:15, every morning) and the last to get off (4:30, so I missed F-Troop).  I could stare out the big picture window and see the bus a mile away – Ma Wilder taught me it would be rude to keep the bus driver waiting – and out I would go to be there waiting when the big yellow bus pulled into my driveway.

For about two hours a day as the bus stopped to pick up and then let off children, I could either stare out at the mountain scenery, or I could drop with Johnny Rico and The Roughnecks into Klendathu.  Or I could visit Trantor, first with Hari Seldon, and then later with The Mule.  Or ride Sandworms on Arrakis with Paul Atreides.  Or be shocked at the mysteries when we Rendezvoused with Rama.  Or finish all the science fiction anthologies at the middle school library by the middle of my seventh grade year.

And reading wasn’t confined to just bus time.  There were only three channels of television available (no one ever counted PBS, unless Monty Python was on) an half the time nothing interesting was on.  So, if I had built all the model kits around (the usual condition – they didn’t last long) and it was too cold to go hiking or fishing, I always had a book ready to read.   And Ma Wilder said I had to go to bed, but she never said I had to go to sleep . . . my parents bought me a reading lamp that clipped on my headboard for my tenth birthday.

But I remember reading the Hugo®-winning “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” by Robert A. Heinlein fairly clearly – it wasn’t on a bus, but on the couch by a crackling fire on a cold (-20˚F) winter’s day.  And that’s when I met Elon Musk.

The_Man_Who_Sold_the_Moon_Shasta_Ed

(source, Wikimedia)

Delos David Harriman (better known as D.D. Harriman) is the billionaire who decides to go to the Moon.  Why?

He envisions a new economy – an opening of the Moon is the first step to opening the Solar System to humanity.  Rather than living in a world which with a fixed horizon, D.D. realizes that getting off this rock is the only possible positive future of humanity.  But getting there is possible, and only takes will.

To quote Harriman:

“In fact, the real engineering problems of space travel have been solved since World War II.  Conquering space has long been a matter of money and politics.”

Contrast with Musk:

“Boeing just took $20 billion and 10 years to improve the efficiency of their planes by 10 percent. That’s pretty lame.”

And how was Harriman going to do it?

“I’ll hire the proper brain boys, give them everything they want, see to it they have all the money they can use.”

Contrast this with Musk:

“The path to the CEO’s office should not be through the CFO’s office, and it should not be through the marketing department. It needs to be through engineering and design.”

And I could go on and on about the similarities but the one thing I know is this:

Musk read the same stuff I did when he grew up.

Musk knows D.D. Harriman.  Just like I did, Musk admired D.D. Harriman.  However, Musk has become D.D. Harriman.

And for that, my hat is off to him.  D.D. Harriman is much more important than Tony Stark®.

And Harriman was willing to do absolutely anything to open space to humanity, convinced it was too important to leave to governments and bureaucrats.  Harriman manipulated stock, forged fake space-diamonds, and extorted advertising dollars from soda companies.

Musk feels the same way.  Musk formed SpaceX™.  Musk got involved in Tesla®.  One is his passion, one (even though he believes in the mission) is there to fund his passion.  Make no mistake:  Musk has created more applied rocket engineering faster than any person in history except maybe Von Braun (though Bezos is giving him a run for his money and has super-cool biceps for an old man).

Why not NASA?  Isn’t it their job?

During the 1960’s, NASA had a mission.  It was going to get three guys to the Moon, by the end of the decade.  Lots of engineers worked lots of long hours and made it happen.  In July of 1969, NASA dropped the mic after “One Small Step” and walked off the stage.  Mission done!

Well, almost fifty years on from that date, and six of the twelve men who walked on the Moon are now dead.  During the middle?  NASA developed one (anemic) space launch system – The Space Shuttle, whose sole purpose appeared to be to construct the International Space Station.  Why construct it?  So the Shuttle had a place to go, silly.

And now we have no space launch systems available to us except through the Soviets, er, Russians, and . . . Elon’s SpaceX™, which currently plans to have a manned launch of its Dragon/Falcon taking place in early 2018.  The first manned Orion flight?  Maybe 2023.  Maybe.

Why is NASA so sick?

The original group they hired were engineers.  Their job?  Get into space, get onto the moon.  Then they fired most of them, but kept enough to send out a fairly constant stream of unmanned probes as well as lame manned space missions.  But during the 1970’s they also hired a lot of administrators.  And people who had no connection in any respect to a spacecraft, or science, or aeronautics.

Except for brief bursts of public interest when something worked really well (Viking and Voyager) or when something worked really poorly (Challenger and Columbia), NASA has reached an irrelevance in national policy.   NASA appears to only be important when it comes to funding large amounts of money to projects that take place in certain Congressional Districts in certain strategically important states.  In Houston they love NASA, or at least NASA dollars.  Efficiency?  Progress?  Why would you need those things?  Heck, we can have astronauts but not have spaceships!

These are the depths that NASA has fallen to showcase its technical bankruptcy:  it has a division called the “Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute.”  This division produced 5,000 braille books about the eclipse for the blind.

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These are the official shot glasses of the Manned Spaceflight Center.  At least it’s one way to blast off?

I am not opposed to a company doing this – I’m not even opposed to a government agency producing books in braille, especially those that aren’t available on audio.  But I am opposed to NASA doing it.  Why?

NASA’s mission is:

To pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research.

Nothing at all in there about getting blind people books about an eclipse.  Nothing close, so this is a symptom of a system that has gone beyond dysfunctional to trivial.  A dysfunctional system (or in this case, organization) just can’t get anything done.  A trivial organization works on everything.  It invents steps where none need be, make-work (like the books), bureaucracy (credentials for everyone!), and hurdles (did you file the right form?) until Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy is achieved:

From Jerry Pournelle himself:

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people:

First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers’ union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.

I think that in NASA they actively look for jobs that they can do that are:

NASA could spend time and effort designing a new hypervelocity spaceplane, but that’s hard!  And someone could get hurt, and that would be bad publicity.  And we know that we as a society will only allow people to be put upon the equivalent of 2,000 tons of TNT (Saturn V) if it’s totally safe!  Otherwise, it’s an outrage!

So, faced between making a new launch system that might help get people into space OR putting together a braille book?  Let’s go with the book.  It’s A. Easy and B. Safe.

DSC03616

These are the official flip flops of the Manned Spaceflight Center.  They look Safe, unless you blow out your flip flop and step on a pop top and cut your heel and have to cruise back home.  It’s okay, because there’s booze in the blender and you have the Official Manned Spaceflight Center shot glasses.

The only way to avoid the Iron Law and the A. Easy and B. Safe people is to have a personality that keeps focus on the goal.

And since NASA administrators don’t go in and fire everyone in NASA not involved in the mission, you can be certain that they’re fine with . . . whatever the heck it is that NASA is doing.

How is SpaceX® Different?

Elon Musk is a laser of focus on getting spacecraft into the air.  People at SpaceX® want to work long hours, and if you look at jobs on their website, it notes that long hours, working evenings and weekends are probably going to be a thing for you.  And, want to get fired?  Talk about part of your “mission” at SpaceX® being producing coloring books on planetary nebulae.

Sounds like old Harriman himself, “. . . sweet talk them into long hours – then stand back and watch them produce.”

Some Libertarians HATE Musk because of the government subsidies that have driven money to Tesla® and even SpaceX©.  I can understand that, especially if their goal is less government.  Heck, I’d like less government.  But even though Musk has to go through roundabout ways to get only a portion of NASA’s funding, he’s running circles around them on talent recruitment, technology development, and actual results.  We have a choice if want to really get into space.  Elon appears to be the only winning answer (unless Bezos is holding back on a few aces).

Musk could fly people in space tomorrow, if they’d let him.  NASA is six years out.  Six years out.

What does Musk plan to do in the next three?  Send a capsule (unmanned) to Mars.

I’d be surprised if Orion ever actually flies people.  NASA seems incapable of spaceflight, and, really incapable of anything more complicated than Twitter.  But if Orion ever flies, I imagine that in orbit the Orion astronauts will get to see Elon’s butt pressed firmly against the window of his Mars Transfer Ship (Red Dragon 11) as he gives them a full moon (pardon) as a parting gift as he heads to Mars.

It’s a long trip to Mars.  I imagine that Elon might take a book or two along with him for the trip.  Probably not “The Man Who Sold the Moon.”  But maybe Dune, or Starship Troopers.

What would D.D. Harriman read?

I’d like to think he’d bring my blog . . .

Hey, everyone (including you, Elon) you can subscribe, and it gets sent out directly when I hit the publish button.

The Lighter Side of The Collapse of Complex Societies

“But on this Earth, Rome never fell. A world ruled by emperors who can trace their line back two thousand years, to their own Julius and Augustus Caesars.” – Star Trek

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Wilderus, Welthius, and Wisus, the original Roman Edition.

 

When a star starts its fusion cycle, it starts off with nice, ecologically friendly hydrogen.  The star transforms this into helium, using just a bit of energy to send to nearby planets so that they can make Pez®.  Eventually, the star will start fusing helium in its core.  This causes the boundary of the star to move outward, and the star becomes a red giant.

If the star is big enough, it will continue creating heavier and heavier elements through fusion, each of them in turn making heavier elements.  Until the star starts creating iron.  Whereas the fusion reactions (including those that form iron) all produce excess energy, iron fusion actually consumes energy.  The collapse of a star that starts fusing iron is rapid – the energy required to push the mass away from the center of the star disappears.  The mass begins to (quite rapidly) fall inward back to the star.  All of it.  All at once.

And we call that a “Supernova,” which I hear is a pretty neat surf ride.   I voted to name it “Wildernova” but was overruled on the grounds I hadn’t been born yet.

Great cultures have fallen in the past – Rome is forefront among them, since, from founding until the fall of Byzantium (that’s the Eastern Roman Empire) it lasted 2200 years.  But there were others, the Mayans, the Greeks, and my next door neighbor when I lived in Alaska.  All of those cultures passed away over time.

Since you can’t be a professor and not make up theories and stuff (the job has to look like work at least some of the time) Joseph Tainter came up with his theory of The Collapse of Complex Societies, which he published in a book in 1988.  Like many people who have really good ideas, Tainter has been milking this one for quite a while, which I heartily approve of.  If they’re gonna buy the same stuff from you again and again?  Keep selling it!  Heaven knows Aerosmith hasn’t had a new song since 1985.

Tainter’s book is quite accessible, and much shorter than one would imagine with a good idea.  Most people take twenty pages of fascinating ideas and stretch them into several thousand pages of books, PowerPoints, and training sessions.  Not Tainter.  He packs his twenty pages of ideas into a Spartan 267 pages, including end notes.

A note about buying the book:  DON’T.  I spent $35 for my copy nearly a decade ago, and now a new copy is $47.  Plus tax.  So, unless you like paying $0.176 per page of book, DON’T.  Why did I spend so much?  Dunno.  I’m cheap, but this book kept being referenced EVERYWHERE, so I thought I’d buy it.

I think it’s so expensive because it’s technically a textbook, and thus normal supply and demand economics don’t work with textbook publishers.  Boy, when the Internet takes that group down, I’ll be smiling.

Anyhow . . .

Tainter suggests that societies start small, and aren’t very complex at the beginning.  As the society grows in size and scope, it begins to become more complex.  And then?  Problems start.  We have a water heater that supports four normal-human length showers, or one shower by The Boy.  Thus, a new rule.  Everyone showers BEFORE The Boy.  But that has unintended consequences.  Now I have to get up earlier to make sure I don’t have to take a shower in water colder than Shia LeBeouf’s jail cell.

Now I have to get up earlier.  Since I have to get up earlier, I’m groggy while I drive to work.  Since I’m groggy, I forget my coffee, now I’m double groggy and less sharp at work, and don’t create as much value.  Then the Cubans invade, sensing weakness, and we have to move to the Rockies to defend against the Soviets.  Go Wolverines!

You see how this works.

Actually, the above is a (slight) exaggeration of Tainter’s theory.  You start with one rule, and it has unintended consequences that require other rules.  Which . . . create more unintended consequences, requiring . . . more rules.

Pretty soon, most of society is either closely governed by the rules, or is so enmeshed in all the rules that they just want to get out – rather than society’s efforts going to create a comfortable life for the citizens, society’s efforts go into . . . supporting society’s rules.

I was reading Seneca’s (the dead Roman) Letters several years ago when one passage struck me . . . Seneca was writing to his friend and mentioned in passing boating regulations in Imperial Rome.  Boating regulations.  From that you can infer that the Romans had entire bureaucracies working on the correct size of a gladiator’s loincloth to the proper number of grapes in a bowl to be served to the Caesar.  And, eventually, people got tired of the regulation.  How bad did it get?  Bad enough that they had to make a regulation stating that if you were the first born son, you had to do what your dad did.  Farms were going unplanted because farmers’ sons were walking away to go do something less regulated, so they had to force them to be farmers.  Except they just ignored the rule and walked away, in time.

Additionally, Rome had to support the infrastructure required by the Empire.  An Empire requires food, roads, and bridges.  And slaves.  And Pez® factories.  And an Army.  And this stuff costs money.  Retard the economic progress of the productive folks through regulation and add in a bunch of stuff they have to pay for, and you’ve got trouble.

Plus, let’s say you’re a Roman dealer in granite countertops.  When your great-grandfather started business, all the granite was nearby, but the best stuff was used 20 years ago.  Now they have to bring it in by ship.  The cost of your business goes up and so does the societal energy required to get that granite.  Food and wine have to be brought from farther and farther away because, in order to feed over a million people living in Rome, you had to get the stuff here, and it wasn’t like you could walk down to Caesar-Mart to get Hot Pockets® at 2AM.  It took much more energy to feed the people of Rome.

And did you see that there were a million people living in Rome?  There were as low as 200 million on the whole planet, which would be like a modern city having 0.5% of the world’s population living there, or 350 million people living in one city.  (Tokyo is currently the biggest in the world, at only 33 million.)  While not overpopulation, this population concentration was costly in an economic sense.

The outward signs of Rome’s weakness were the Goths, Vandals, and Jocks sacking Rome – but Rome had to defeat itself first, just like the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

Eventually, Rome fell, but primarily because its citizens decided, quite voluntarily and rationally to shed a layer of complexity that no longer served their purpose.  It was as if they were a star, and started fusing iron.  And all the Romans ran together at once at full speed into the center of Rome and mushed into each other.  And exploded outward at the speed of light.

Ummm, metaphorically.

Gold Panning, Little Dogs, and Opportunity

“Ever prospected? Ever hit pay dirt? I’ve dug for gold, silver, lead, mercury. I’ve dug more holes than a whole regiment of gophers. I ain’t never dug a decent day’s wages yet.” – Bite the Bullet

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How can you not find the river???

Mankind has been chasing gold forever (Gold, Relativity, Black Holes, Niburu, and Warren Buffett).  Probably the most iconic image associated with prospectors is the gold pan.  Oh, and the whiskey.  But gold panning has been documented to exist at least since the Romans did it, and gold panning exists across cultures – the Japanese gold pan is called the Yuri-ita, and gets much better mileage than one made in Detroit.

The Boy, Pugsley and I headed towards a small river, intent on prospecting.  The Mrs. came with us, intent on trout fishing.

This, of course, is where the trouble started.  I had fished this river as a young boy, but it had been many presidents since I had hiked down there, since the only reason that I had gone fishing was for the adventure.  I had never had, not one time, even one fish bite on any lure or worm or fly I’d ever put in the water.  Half the time I went fishing with my friend, C.R. (you would use initials too if your first name was Clyde) we’d end up just playing in the ice cold river.  Because?  Because we were 11.

As I said, I’d hiked down there dozens, if not hundreds of times, that had been long ago.  The walk to the river started as a nice walk along a sage brush plain.  Then there was steep gravel drop off – as steep as a gravel slope could be.  As an 11 year old, I’d have half jumped down the slope.  Now?  Not so much.  Plus there was the factor of the gear we were carrying:

  • Two five gallon pails
  • Shovel
  • Pick
  • Metal detector
  • Sluice box (only about 36” long, and more about this later)
  • Waders for The Boy and Pugsley
  • Gold pans
  • Snuffer bottle (sucks up itsy bitsy pieces of gold)
  • Lunch
  • Fishing pole
  • Folding chair
  • Two small dogs on leads
  • Bug spray
  • Sunscreen
  • A drone (that’s what took I took the pictures on)

So, we were carrying nearly everything we own.  But the drone allowed me to take videos like this:

The Mrs. was carrying her folding chair, fishing pole, and previously listed two idiot dogs.  The dogs, relatively unused to being on leashes, would constantly attempt to kill The Mrs. as she walked down the steep gravel slope by wrapping the leashes around each other and her legs.  As we stepped into the thick forest, it got worse, since now, in addition to trying to kill The Mrs., the dogs now had the option of trying to kill themselves by wrapping their leashes around trees.

To top it off, the smaller of the two dogs had to be carried over some of the fallen timber, being, apparently afraid in its dog brain of falling down a cliff on the other side of the dead tree.  To top it off, there had been record snowpack, so areas that had never been wet when I was a child were swampy.

Everyone who has a wife recognizes “that” tone, when they’ve nearly reached the end of their rope, and the emotion will be jumping out full force.  “That” tone showed up.

“Okay, everybody put the stuff down.  I’ll go ahead and find the easiest way.”

I dropped the things I was carrying and headed toward the forest, and, I hoped, the river.

I could hear the river, and started that way.  I wove around trees and over fallen trees, and through at least one (small) swamp.  Right next to the river, however, I was faced with a relatively impenetrable wall of willows.  I could have made it through, but would have needed a machete.

So, falling the wall of willows, I made my way back around and found . . . the steep gravel slope.  I had come in a full circle.  Fortunately, I found both the way to the river, and an easy way for our stupid, frightened dog to walk.  The big plus?  An easy path back out for when we left.  And right there was the fishing hole I hadn’t seen since the Soviets were a thing.

The Boy, Pugsley and I got to work.  We used the metal detector in the water (it’s waterproof) and then The Boy and I began to dig up the area.

Now, I had panned for gold before, but only in a half-hearted way.  This time?  I wanted to get serious and really understand it.

The gold pan kit that I’d bought (LINK) came with a screen that we used to get rid of the bigger rocks.  I figured that if we started getting gold nuggets the size of my fist that I might be able to recognize them, and screening out the bigger rocks allowed us to fill the bucket with smaller material so we could go to step two . . . the sluice box.

A sluice box is a device that uses the current from the flowing river to wash most of the smaller material away.  The idea is that gold is quite heavy, and will fall down in the water faster than the surrounding soil and will get caught in the carpet, riffles, and parts of the sluice box.  A good picture of the sluice box we used is here (LINK).

After you wash the sluice box, then it’s time to pan.

And one thing I will say – the biggest mistake I made was being too gentle with my initial panning.  Again, gold is heavy.  Gold is ten times denser than sand.  It is four times denser than magnetite sand (also called “black sand”), which is what is left over after you’ve panned out the regular sand, and are getting to the point where you’ve eliminated most of the material.  And you won’t just swish the magnetite out of the bottom of your five gallon pail – it, like gold, drops out fast.

So, as we panned, we got down to the black sand, and I’d use the snuffer bottle (it came with the gold pans) to pick out the very, very small flecks of gold – nearly gold dust – that would appear in the bottom of the pan.

I still have about five pounds of black sand to go through to find all the gold dust – I imagine that by the time I’ve gotten through it we’ll have gotten $10 or $20 worth of gold, which is the product of three people working eight hours.

Pretty quickly I realized that gold panning was like life and opportunity.

  1. If you don’t pan, you won’t get any gold. This is true of opportunity.  You might have a wonderful idea for a novel.  You might have a great business idea.  If you don’t get up and get going?  You’ll never know.
  2. The more material we processed, the more black sand, and thus, the more gold we’d get. If we had stopped after the first bucket, we’d only have had 1/6 of the gold.  And opportunity is like that – the harder you work, the more opportunity you’ll have in life.
  3. Most of the gold is very, very small. Most opportunities are small.
  4. There’s gold everywhere, but in most of those places it’s not worth getting because it’s too diffuse. There’s 20 million tons of gold in the world’s oceans, but only a 13 billionths of a gram in each liter.  Nuggets are rare everywhere.  Most huge opportunities are rare, too.  That doesn’t mean that you should stop looking, but you should look in the right places (LINK).
  5. The better I get at panning, the more gold I’ll find. The better I get at reviewing places that might hold opportunity, the more of them I’ll find.
  6. More experience will tell me what’s worth panning, and what I should ignore. Many opportunities (most!) aren’t worth your time.  Experience tells you which ones to focus on.
  7. Most people who strike it rich in gold spend every bit of what they found . . . looking for more gold. I’ve seen this in life, too.  How many people look for that same set of conditions to arrive again and again and fail as the moment has past?
  8. Everything goes better with big, heavy equipment.   Huge pumps!  Water cannons!  Now we’re talking!  If you have a business with tax lawyers and accountants and experts?  The size of the opportunity you can jump on increases.

Oh, and The Mrs. and her fishing?  A nice trout hit her lure on her second cast.  But she didn’t get that one reeled in.  But still that was a better fishing day than any I’d ever had there, but I did get another insight on life, and got to play in the rivers of my youth one more time.

Fortunately, my fishing streak is still unbroken!

Kiyosaki and Sources Of Wealth

“You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your khakis.” – Fight ClubDSC02988

Someone’s Rich Dad?  Yeah, no marble sculptures of Poor Dad.  The Romans took “Got Your Nose” seriously.

I think that Robert Kiyosaki wants you to be rich.  I’m certain he wants you to think that he’s on your side, and he’s also spent a lot of time and effort doing presentations long after I would have retired to my private island off the coast of Antarctica (I like it cold) with my laser penguins.  Kiyosaki has made a metric ton of quarters selling the concepts in his Rich Dad/Poor Dad series of books (Amazon LINK) through both the books and personal consulting (rumor has it personal coaching can cost $45,000, and those are real American dollars, not fake Canadian metric currency).

Kiyosaki’s story is that his natural father was “Poor Dad.”  I’m assuming this book was NOT originally released on Father’s Day.

Poor Dad was very smart, and had a Ph.D. and worked in high government posts, but had a worldview that didn’t set Robert up for financial success.  By contrast, “Rich Dad,” a mentor and friend, explained how getting to financial freedom and wealth really worked.

Kiyosaki breaks the ways that people make money into four categories:

  1. Being an employee. This is most of us, and society works to perpetuate this role.  What is an employee?  One who works for a salary (or hourly wages) and benefits.  We live with a misconception that being an employee carries with it a degree of security, even if it’s less security today than it was in, say, 1970.  If you work for the government, however, it’s more likely that you’ll get malaria from a married vampire bat than get fired. (really)

Being an employee is generally based in . . . fear.  And the ultimate fear that employees have is . . . termination.  The threat of being fired, for many, is a direct threat to the core of who and what they are.

Being fired brings with it:

  1. Reduction in Resources – Most jobs pay enough to keep you coming back, but only a very few offer sufficient extra income to build real wealth. To the astonishingly high 78% of Americans that sometimes or always live paycheck to paycheck, the threat of job loss is especially dire.  It doesn’t help that we, as consumers often increase our individual spending so that it matches our income.  But, I’ve posted about that before (LINK).
  2. Loss of Status – Many men (especially) think of themselves AS their job. When you think about it, this makes sense.  The first question you ask a working-age man that you’ve just met is “What do you do?”  This establishes him the social hierarchy.  Society really does define a man by his work.  Time at work can represent half of your waking time.  In 2015, I spent 48% of my waking time at work or commuting to work, meaning I interacted more with co-workers than I did with my family that year.  Status drives many important hormones, and, for men, stress and job loss actually cause testosterone levels to plummet.
  3. Loss of Purpose – I’ve discussed before (LINK) that purpose is necessary for a real life, and it’s necessary to have a big one. Given the hours and time spent at work, it’s inevitable that work can become our purpose.  When you lose that purpose, you’re set adrift until you find a new one.

In a sense, the employer/employee relationship is a kinda like an “on speaking terms” hostage situation.  They have a job that represents status, purpose, and life-giving resources.  You have all of your time, effort, and passion to trade for that job.  Kiyosaki thinks that’s a bad trade.  But he could buy his own island.

  1. Small Business Ownership is the second income generator that Kiyosaki talks about. And, if possible, it comes off even worse than being an employee.  Being a small business owner entails all of the work of being and employee, plus lots more risk.  His reasoning is that employees at least have the business to fall back on if they have a bad day, week, or year.  Kiyosaki defines a small business as a business where, if you take a day off, the business cannot go.  You’re the spark, the fuel supply, and the tires.  Essentially, you become the whole car.  Or Taco Truck.
  2. Business Owner, which Kiyosaki defines as someone who hires employees (smart ones!) to work for him (or her). Kiyosaki feels that small businesses can’t compete at all against these larger entities, since he can hire great legal, accounting, and HR people and small businesses have to do all of that themselves, generally not very well.  Given that the business has support staff in place, the business owner can focus on the business itself.  The owner can also take a day or a week off and the business will continue to function and generate wealth.  Kiyosaki likes this, since money invested into the business makes more money.  And Kiyosaki breaks with many financial advisors here – debt is just fine in his book as long as the debt is generating more revenue than it costs.  This is his formula for building personal wealth, as well as freeing up time to do . . . whatever it is you want to do.
  3. Investing is the end stage for Kiyosaki. Investing allows for all of the time freedom, plus financial freedom.  All of the wealth you could want.  Kiyosaki would NOT classify your house as one of your investments – it doesn’t generate revenue, and you have to pay for it, so it’s a liability.  Investments generate income.  Oh, and risk?

“Investing is less risky than being an employee.  Skilled investors are in control of their investments, employees are controlled by a boss.”

Furthermore, Kiyosaki makes this Zen-like statement:  “ . . . you do NOT (emphasis in original) invest with money!  You invest with your mind!”  In other words?  Find the deal and the money will show up.

As I said, this is a different way to look at life – a different lens.  I’ll easily admit that my life since I was 22 has been focused on being a great employee.  At some point, it seems I need to have better investments, but note that Kiyosaki says . . . “Skilled investors,” but, alas, tonight I learned that my Pez® collection is not an investment because it generates no revenue.

Thoughts?

Rome, Britain, and Money: Why You Can’t Find Fine China after the Apocalypse

“For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph – a tumultuous parade. . . The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. . . A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”- Patton

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Is it just me, or is that Tom Cruise’s profile on that coin?

In the spring of 407, a Roman citizen stood on the dock and watched as the last Roman Legionnaire placed his sandaled foot on the deck of a boat, preparing to cross the English Channel.

That last Roman soldier turned and looked back at the island as the sea winds blew on the fair spring day and powered his ship to Gaul (now France).  He had voted for his new Emperor – Constantine III, a usurper and common soldier in Britain.  Constantine III had decided to take his Legion across to set up power in Europe, and eventually march on Rome to solidify his claim to the throne.  Constantine died in 411, beheaded after abdicating his power.  Legend says that Constantine III was the great grandfather of Arthur, but those days are lost to history, and anything said about them would be nothing but speculation.

But the Roman on the dock, waving goodbye to the Legion, he is the one that has always fascinated me.  What were his thoughts as he watched the ships containing virtually the entire organized military of Britain sail off?

“They’ll be back soon.”  That’s always been my bet.  He expected that the Legion would return after Constantine III took Rome.  Or, worst case, another Emperor would send a Legion in – for the last 360 years the Romans had at least some presence in Britain.

The man, we’ll call him Marcus, walked back to his villa that overlooked the sea.  He had central heating, and a personal bath that was likewise heated.  He was fairly well off, as he made significant money importing plates from southern France and selling them to almost everybody.  They were cheap, and everyone dropped plates, so he had a guarantee of repeat business.

The winter came, and the Legion didn’t return.

The spring came again, and with it came the Saxons, raiding in force.  Again in 409 the Saxons raided.

And in 408 no plates came.  The stone masons that Marcus had hired to build an addition to his villa didn’t show up.  Marcus took his treasure of coins from his business, and buried them so that he wouldn’t lose them in the raids.  He never told his son, Lucius where the coins were buried, so when Lucius buried his father five years later in the shadow of the burnt and wrecked villa, he was within two feet of hitting the pottery the coins were buried in.  It wouldn’t have mattered much, since by that time coins were used less frequently, and most deals were built around bartering one thing for another.  Without the army there, most people didn’t care all that much about the copper coins.

Lucius lived through 450, and heard of the last request for the return of the Legions to the Emperor in Rome as the Saxons decided to stay.  The Emperor’s surviving Legions were busy elsewhere.

Rome never returned, even though on Rome’s version of Facebook®, FaceusLibrium™ some scribe wrote that under the “Relationship with Britain” box that “It’s Complicated.”

Wow, that was dark, am I right?

I’ve been thinking about Marcus for about 20 years.  This is the first time I gave him a name, but I do know that there was a Roman citizen who watched as the last soldiers marched on to the boat, and I do know he expected them to be back – sooner rather than later.  Rome was forever, right?

Some of the Roman roads in Britain are still in use today – the Romans were excellent engineers, and built to last, which shows that they never built dishwashers.  Roman place names still echo down the centuries, not the least of which is Londinium, the Roman name for Scotland.  Okay, I’m kidding, the Romans called Scotland “Jim,” because, well, why not.

But after the dark days started, things changed.  Let’s take the plates that Marcus imported.  That was a real thing.  In the south of what is now France, an entire industry was created that made china plates and bowls, and these were shipped throughout the Roman Empire.  Fortunately Pugsley didn’t work there, as he would have accidently broken scores of plates each day, but each time in a humorous way so that they would still love him, because after all, Jerry Lewis is considered a genius in France.

When Empire ended, so did the trade in plates and bowls.  And archeologists love ceramic plates, because every family has their own little Pugsley that drops crockery day and night. (Truth be told, The Mrs. and I were out on the deck last night when we heard the tell-tale crash of plate under influence of gravity and a tile floor turning it into a future archaeologist’s Ph.D. dissertation, “Plate Fragments Dating from the Time of Emperor Pugsley Wilder the First.”) Trade itself also dropped off, since people are notoriously bad at sending their ships and cargo to places that have no money and no law.

Where I get too close to today.

One of the symptoms of the failing Roman Empire was its currency.  The Romans had a currency known as the Denarius.  This is not the same as Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, and is not planning to invade Westeros.  The denarius got its name because, (I swear I’m not making this up) it was originally worth 10 asses.  Not just any asses, but the Roman bronze coin called the asses.  Why, what did you think I meant when I said asses?

Anyhow, the Roman denarius was quite popular – it was silver, and was the more common coin used in Rome.  It was so common that its name is still in use today – the Spanish word “dinero,” meaning “burrito with sour cream” is derived from the denarius.  And as it was the common currency, it was how soldiers were paid and how most people bought wine and proto-Pez®.  Rich people used gold to buy bigger things.  (An aside:  One coin name that amused me was the “solidus,” which gives me the thought that one Roman said to another, “Pray, Cassius, do me a solidus.”)

Back when the denarius was just getting started, it was really silver, 95%-98%, and was stable at that weight and purity for around 250 years.  As you can see in the graph below?  At the later stages of Empire the coin was worth nearly nothing, being smaller and having only 5% silver.  The denarius is the ancestor to . . . the penny.

devaluation_denarius

Would you buy this stock?

The Roman Empire was really strong – it had great Legions, and even better roads.  For the Romans, the road was military technology, and the roads allowed their Legions to move farther, faster to the borders of Empire than the barbarians that they had to constantly fight possibly could.  This consistently terrifying military allowed the Romans to rule an Empire for a long time, because it allowed them to also stipulate that Roman currency would have to be used.  You might say he who has the gold, makes the rules?  I’ll counter that with he who has the best military in the world says what gold is.

In that manner, a Roman Emperor finally decided that he’d stop using silver (except for a whiff) in the denarius.  He could make the currency worth less, because he had Legions that were expensive, but could also be counted on to enforce the currency laws of the Empire.  Essentially the Empire was so strong that it could use the military to enforce use of the currency.  And this system worked for quite a while, (like everything) until it didn’t.

And what happened to all of the currency when the Romans issued the crappy, near worthless denarius?  People took the good stuff and kept it.  “Bad money drives out good,” is known as Gresham’s Law, which he sent in a letter to Queen Elizabeth I.  Others had stated the law before he did, including Copernicus who wrote a whole book about it the year Gresham was born.

This has happened even in the United States, and recently.  Back when we used to pretend our money had value, we used actual silver in the coins.  Congress decided that was silly – if we had to spend money to make money, then we cut out the profit margin of government, so in 1960’s they passed an act that removed silver from US coinage.  If you wonder why you never find a 1962 quarter in your change, it’s Gresham’s Law:  everybody took all the coins that had actual value (the good) and replaced them with base metal coins (the bad).  Bad money drives out Good.  And that’s what happened with the Romans, too.

The Roman denarius was worth less than 1/2000th of its original value when it was discontinued, but all of the cool silver ones were melted down pretty early, because they were worth more than their face value, like a 1962 quarter is worth $3.36 of our current bad money, which is backed by . . . nothing, except the Army, Navy and Air Force.  And the missiles.

But, back to Britain!

In Britain the archeologists looked at the plate parts.  They found that 100 years after the Romans left, the king ate on plates that were . . . crappy.  These plates, in fact, were worse in every respect to the plates that a common citizen of Roman Britain could buy quite cheaply 100 years earlier.  The British had forgotten how to make plates, and had to figure that technology out all over again.

Literacy took a hit, too.  If the Romans had a Department of Counting People Who Can Read, that information is lost to us, but when you look at excavated Roman cities, there was sufficient Roman literacy that graffiti artists would leave nasty “Your Momma” jokes almost everywhere.  “Epaphra glaber es.”  That translates to, “Epaphra, you are bald.”

Yikes, Epaphra isn’t very popular, but somebody also wrote that “Epaphra is not good at ball games.”   But if we have enough people who would write on walls about the food, the barmaid, or their girlfriend, we had way more people who could read and write in Britain 100 years after the Romans left – it’s likely that Marcus could, and probably his son, Lucius could read as well.  But reading became less important of a life skill than “not getting murdered by the Saxons” as time went on without Roman rule.  If Lucius had a son, he’d not ever learn to read much at all.

It’s because of this that we end up not having much of a written record of Britain during this time frame – whereas we know Epaphra sucked at football and probably needed to wear a hat, we don’t even know when the Battle of Badon took place.

What happened there?  Oh, just that maybe King Arthur defeated the Saxons in a comeback victory straight out of a Hollywood boxing movie.  So we don’t know when.  We at least know where, right?  No.  There are guesses, but the Battle of Badon details are lost to history, though some accounts (written hundreds of years later) said that Arthur mowed through the Saxons like a Doberman pinscher through a pot roast.  I hope I get someone like that writing about me in 200 years . . .

One of the great things about civilization and a rule of law (besides this blog) is that it allows for us to have cool things, and not have the Saxons up in our face all of the time.  But for forty years after the Roman Legions left, the people of Britain were hoping and expecting that they would come back.  Our world is an interconnected web of commerce and information that allows our life to happen in amazing comfort.

And it’ll always be this way, right?

Seneca’s Cliff and You

My heart attack didn’t kill me, so why act like it did? See, Tim, it was the Roman philosopher Seneca who said “if we let things terrify us, then life is not worth living.” – Home Improvement

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There is nothing that says “I’m never giving up” like a stop sign duct taped to a lamp post.

Back in 2011, I was reading Italian chemistry professor Ugo Bardi’s blog (LINK) and was struck by his quoting of the dead Roman, Seneca, who wrote that “increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.”  I know it sounds like he’s writing about Adam Sandler’s acting career, but in reality, Seneca’s talking about everything, and it struck me as a universally applicable truth:

Everything that can be built, is built relatively slowly fighting entropy all the way.

And when it’s built?

The greater the effort, the higher it has risen, the faster it falls.

This is especially true when it comes to organizations – large companies that have been in business for decades close up in an afternoon.  Sears was founded in 1893, 114 years ago.  It became larger and larger over time until in the 1980’s it encompassed not only its department store business (the last remaining bits today) but also the Discover Card, Allstate Insurance, Land’s End, among other brands.

Today?  It’s (possibly) worth less than a handful of magic beans.  Nearly certainly by 2020 Sears will be just an answer to a trivia question.

And if you look at life, you see the same pattern again and again, that progress in your own life is built up only slowly, mainly over the course of years.  And losing it?  It’s a precarious balance, and (sadly) in the end all of our Jenga™ blocks fall down.

That was one of Seneca’s other lessons – you absolutely know that your blocks are going to fall over, and, most importantly, the blocks don’t care.  There will be a time when you will lose.  A business venture might fail, a book might not end well, or a blog post might be much shorter than you’d usually expect (this is foreshadowing).

In my personal life, I’ve seen this happen again and again – when I was first out of college and working for a big company, I put in 80 hour weeks for nine months to build a project – the biggest that company had ever built up to that time.  They bulldozed it fifteen years later – and I assure you it was done in a month and a half – it came down a lot quicker than it went up.

After I got my Master’s I put all the notes, all the disks, and everything associated with my thesis in the fireplace.  It was May, but I still put a match to it, willing to pay for the air conditioning just to give my academic career a Viking funeral.  It was over.  The months of research, the months of writing, all up in a matter of 20 minutes.

But, perhaps, Seneca might have been a bit wrong.  He spent his life building his ideas.  And we’re still talking about them today.  Perhaps there is a force that defies entropy – that can withstand ages.

Perhaps it is those very ideas.

And Adam Sandler’s hair.