Sunday, February 17, 2019

No to Nukes!

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant

Although I would like to see this country and the world transition from fossil fuels for electric generation,1 I am no fan of nuclear power. I say this as a technical writer and communicator who worked for six years at an engineering and construction company that built large-scale power generation, including two nuclear plants, and then at a public utility that built two units of nuclear generation along the California coast. I supported those efforts with my writing skills but, all the time, I was not a “believer” in nuclear power.

The first large-scale, commercial nuclear power plant in the United States was the Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania. It started operating—or “reached criticality”—in 1957. In the years that followed, and with the support of the Atomic Energy Commission under the rubric that atomic energy in the hands of local utilities would be “too cheap to meter,” more than ninety reactors were installed and brought to power in this country. Usually, two or three reactors would be placed at one site by a utility, to effect economies of scale.

Oddly, this burst of nuclear activity lasted less than twenty years. No ground has been broken on new nuclear plants after 1977, except for four reactors in the current decade at two existing plants which have been licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to start construction and have not yet been completed. Only one reactor has entered commercial operation since 1996.2

What happened? This dearth of plants in a promising new technology occurred two years before the accident at Three Mile Island. And while the beginning of this falloff in construction was roughly simultaneous with President Carter’s executive order in April 1977, which banned the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, building a “nuke”—as the utility business calls these plants—is a long-term endeavor. It usually takes ten to fifteen years from the initial planning stages and application for a license to begin construction until the reactor finally fires up. Nothing that happened in April of that year would have caused this process at so many utilities to stop on a dime.

I happen to remember the reason. My father was a long-time subscriber to Fortune magazine, and I had access to his copies as a young reader. In 1968, while I was still in college, I read an article that laid out the truth behind the “too cheap to meter” claim. A decade later, when I was a communicator at the engineering company, I helped write a similar article for our business development magazine. Here is the story.

The nuclear fuel cycle begins with uranium ore in the ground. That ore has to be dug out, transported to a processing plant, and refined into an intermediate material, uranium oxide, which is called “yellowcake” because it looks just like Duncan Hines cake mix. The chemical formula is U3O8. Mining, transporting, and processing take a lot of energy, usually in the form of fossil fuels.

Uranium is radioactive because its top-heavy atom exists in a number of isotopes. The most common form, accounting for 99% of ore, is U-238—referring to the number of protons in the nucleus that define the element plus the neutrons that provide the final atomic weight of this particular isotope. U-238 is the most stable form. The least stable—that is, most likely to have its nucleus split apart and create some fun—is U-235. A bunch of uranium ore or a block of metal out of the ground is going to kick off the occasional fast neutron or other bit of radiation, which makes it relatively unsafe to be around, but it’s not going to explode or melt down or anything. To make the kind of uranium that will work in a reactor, or a bomb, you have to enrich it by bumping up the percentage of U-235. To do this, you chemically change it into a heavy gas, uranium hexafluoride (UF6), and spin it in a centrifuge to separate the lighter U-235 from the heavier U-238. Spinning those centrifuges takes a lot of energy, usually in the form of electricity.

Once you have the isotopes separated, you can then blend your mix of U-238 to U-235 for either making reactor fuel rods or bomb parts. You want a mixture, not just the pure U-235, for various reasons. First, the most reactive isotope in its pure state is going to be terribly unstable, not good to handle, and won’t last long. Second, your fuel rod makes use of the more stable U-238, because when its nucleus gets hit by a fast neutron from the naturally decaying U-235, it will also tend to split and release heat. And sometimes, instead, the U-238 absorbs that neutron and become plutonium-239, which will eventually decay on its own.

Once you have your mixture, you form the uranium metal into pellets, encapsulate them in a long, cylindrical clay matrix, and clad that matrix in stainless steel. When you have enough rods, you bundle them into a fuel element that is designed, by content and configuration, for a particular type of reactor. After you load the reactor with fresh rod bundles and add a moderator—in the Westinghouse reactors I’m familiar with, it’s boron in the water, which slows the fast neutrons from decaying uranium atoms just enough for them to profitably impact other uranium atoms—you get criticality and a chain reaction. It’s this chain reaction that produces useful amounts of heat to boil the water that drives the power station’s turbine. The reaction also creates byproducts in the pellets, like isotopes of strontium and cesium from the split uranium atoms, and the occasional plutonium atom.

After about eighteen months in the reactor running at full capacity, the percentage U-235 is depleted, the remaining U-238 can’t be induced to split, and the pellets have a high concentration of those unpleasant strontium, cesium, and other isotopes that aren’t good for the reaction. You now have spent fuel waste. If you don’t do something productive with it—and we’ll get to that in a moment—you have to keep the rods cool, because the spent fuel is still radioactively and thermally hot. And you have to watch over them for about 10,000 years.

The reason most utilities have given up on nuclear power is simple: the energy cost of mining, processing, concentrating, and fabricating those fuel rods—think of diesel fuel, trucking, chemical processes, and electrically powered centrifuges loaded with heavy gas—is greater than the energy produced by “burning” the rods in a reactor. Nuclear power becomes a net drain on your energy economy. It might be more convenient to burn those rods in a reactor sited along a scenic coastline than to build a coal plant there and have to deal with railcars, coal piles, stack gas, fly ash, and a long plume of carbon dioxide wafting over the nearby valley. But you’re still running at an energy deficit. That was the point of the Fortune article: nuclear power is a way for your energy economy to go broke slowly.

There are people who can make nuclear power work. France and Japan depend on it. In 1987, at a conference sponsored by Energy Daily, I heard the head of Électricité de France S.A. explain how. He noted that the national utility draws about 64% of its power from nuclear because, as he said, “France has no coal. France has no oil. France has no choice.” Unlike the United States, where local utilities run a hodgepodge of reactor makes and designs—Westinghouse, Brown & Root, boiling water reactor, pressurized water reactor, etc.—France installs one design only. And when the nuclear fuel is spent and it’s time to open up the reactor vessel and replace the rod bundles—along with fixing anything else that’s broken in the plant during this downtime—the local operators don’t have to suddenly become reactor maintenance specialists. Instead, EDF sends a flying team of refueling specialists to the plant to break it down and reload the core. And then EDF takes the spent rods and reprocesses them. EDF also takes the spent fuel from Japanese reactors and reprocesses it at a profit.

Reprocessing closes the nuclear fuel cycle. The rods are broken apart and the steel and clay discarded as low-level radioactive waste. The pellets are chemically processed to separate the remaining U-238 and valuable Pu-239 for reuse, while the cesium, strontium, and other isotopes are mixed with molten glass to form pellets of high-level waste that can be more easily cooled and stored. Then fresh amounts of U-235 are added to the fuel mix and new pellets, rods, and bundles are fabricated. By reusing most of the fuel over and over again, nuclear power becomes a net energy producer instead of an energy drain.

But Jimmy Carter banned this reprocessing in the United States and closed down the sites where it could be done out of fear of creating a “plutonium economy” and enabling worldwide nuclear terrorism. We’ve also been slow—to nonexistent—about moving and processing spent fuel from our commercial reactors for long-term underground storage. So each nuclear utility must hold, cool, and watch its growing inventory of spent fuel bundles for an indefinite period of time.

Perhaps there are other forms of reactor that don’t have these problems. One hears promising things about thorium—which is transmuted into U-233 for the nuclear reaction. And physicists have been trying for thirty years to create usable fusion reactions with magnetic containment and laser ignition, but these fusion experiments still haven’t produced more energy than they consume, and the promise of fusion has always been—and still is—“ten years away.”

So it wasn’t the inherent dangers, public reaction, activist agitation, government regulation, or any event at places like Three Mile Island or Fukushima that killed nuclear power in this country. That blow was struck years earlier, when utilities began to discover that for all its clean, efficient, modern, science-fiction-sounding promises, nuclear power just isn’t very efficient and never was “too cheap to meter.” And as the efficiency of turbine technology has improved over the last thirty years, largely due to advances with jet engines, spinning a generator with the heat of a natural-gas flame—essentially putting a jet engine and a generator on a flatbed truck—has become competitive with a huge, cantankerous, steam-powered, baseload generating station.

I wish it weren’t so. I wish we could push banana peels into a household appliance like “Mr. Fusion” and power a flying car that also travels in time. But so far … not.

1. And it’s not because of the industry’s “carbon footprint” and the prospect of anthropogenic global warming. Sure, the United States has enough coal to power our society for a thousand years, but it’s still a limited resource in the larger scale of things and a pesky resource to find and use cleanly. Our other fossil choices, oil and gas, are more limited than our coal resources and far more valuable as chemical feedstocks than as fuel in a generating plant. And when I say “larger scale,” I’m thinking two or three thousand years ahead.
    Energy is the stuff of civilized human life: it has been so since the first cave man burned a stick of wood for light and warmth. Eventually, we will have to find a more efficient, cleaner, renewable source of electric power than carbon-based fuels. Wind and solar are too diffuse for reliable, large-scale energy generation. So we might as well start looking for the as-yet undiscovered—and at this point largely theoretical and magical—technology that will power us in the long run. And fission-based nuclear is not that.

2. For a short history of nuclear power in this country, see this Wikipedia entry.

Sunday, February 10, 2019


Time warp

As I’ve noted before,1 I am neither a mathematician nor a physicist. I’m an English major by education and a writer of both technical documentation and science fiction by profession. I’m not equipped to analyze a claim mathematically, but I know a good story when I hear it. And I can pick apart a story line when I detect a subtle falsehood.

For a long time I thought of gravity as a “force,” similar to an electromagnetic field or the strong or weak forces in atomic nuclei. In this I was not alone. After all, the mathematical and physical definition of a force is mass times acceleration, F=ma. That is, the force needed to throw a baseball equals the mass of the ball times the acceleration of the pitcher’s arm from the start of the pitch until the release of the ball. Mass times acceleration. Once the ball leaves the pitcher’s fingertips, it is no longer accelerating but just traveling at its final—and perhaps slowly decreasing, due to air resistance—velocity toward home plate.

Similarly, the force exerted by gravity, at least on the surface of planet Earth, is whatever mass is involved—say, a person weighing 150 pounds—times the acceleration of gravity, which in this particular place is 9.8 meters (or, if you like, 32 feet) per second per second, g=9.8m/s2. A thousand kilometers above the surface, and so farther away from the planet’s center of mass, that value drops to 7.33 meters per second squared. And the farther out you go, the slower the acceleration becomes.2

The one thing that physicists could not figure out, however, was how the Earth or any other large body exerted this force to pull people, houses, cars, plants, water, dirt, and everything else downward. Since most forces in physics are represented by a field—the electromagnetic force, for example—with an accompanying particle—in the case of electromagnetism, the photon—quantum mechanics comforts itself by representing gravity with the graviton. And, presumably, the force of gravity is achieved by an exchange of gravitons, from my body to the Earth, and from the Earth to my body.

But for a particle we’ve never seen, touched, or even detected, that’s a lot of gravitons. The Earth is supposedly exchanging these particles back and forth all the time and with every person, car, seed, grain of sand, and even with parts of its own mass like the planet’s layers of atmosphere, lithosphere, mantle, and outer iron core. At the same time, the Earth is also exchanging gravitons with the Moon to hold her in orbit, and with the Sun to stay in its own orbit around the star. You might as well say that tiny pixies grab your feet and hold you down.

Long before I became concerned with this matter of force, Albert Einstein resolved the issue of gravity in another way. The masses of the Earth, the other planets and moons, our Sun and the stars don’t exert a force per se. Instead, they shape or bend both space and time in their immediate neighborhoods. You and I shape space and time with our own masses, too, but the deflection is so small as to pass unnoticed in even the densest of crowds.

To show that this bending of space and time is equivalent to the pull of gravity, Einstein conducted a thought experiment. He mentally placed a person in a room far out in space, away from any stars or planets, and attached a long cable to the room. He then began drawing the room upward, in a direction opposite to the room’s floor, at an acceleration of 9.8 meters per second squared. To the person inside the room, that acceleration was identical to the apparent “force” with which gravity holds him to the floor at the surface of the Earth. The person is allowed to perform whatever experiments within the room that he pleases: throw baseballs, drop coins, pour out pitchers of water, and so on. So long as the pull of that long cable remained at a constant acceleration of 9.8 meters per second per second, the person could not tell he was anywhere but on the home planet.

This, as I understand it, was Einstein’s proof of equivalence, that gravity and acceleration were the same thing.

I don’t doubt that they are equivalent, at least conceptually and mathematically. But I detect a hitch in the story: the equivalence is purely subjective. From the viewpoint of the person in the room, and only so long as he doesn’t look out a window, the acceleration of the room and the acceleration of gravity on the Earth’s surface are the same. But objectively, they are different.

Objectively, a person standing in a room on Earth isn’t going anywhere, at least relative to the center of the planet’s mass. He may be traveling eastward at a thousand miles an hour if the room is at the equator, or around a little circle with a circumference of only a few feet during a whole day spent at the North Pole. He may be moving with the planet along its orbit around the Sun, and with the Sun in its orbit around the galaxy. But relative to the center of the Earth, he moves not one millimeter, so long as the floor holds.

Meanwhile, objectively, a person in a room being hauled along at an acceleration of 9.8 meters per second squared is traveling through space at an ever-increasing speed. Within a finite amount of time, something on the order of ten years, at that acceleration—initially about 22 miles per hour, but speeding up all the while—the room and the person would achieve about ten percent of light speed. Within a hundred years or so, if the physics of spacetime allowed it, the person would be traveling at and then exceeding light speed. Of course, according to Einstein, the person’s mass would then increase toward infinity while his perception of time would stop. But otherwise, the person would have no sense of any difference from being quietly positioned on Earth—except that if he had a window, he would see the stars outside blur their colors into the bluer part of the spectrum ahead of him and to red behind him. And if he made a radio call to a friend on Earth, his own voice would be getting lower and slower, while his friend would start sounding more and more like a chipmunk.

Objectively, traveling in a long-haul elevator or on a runaway rocket is not the same as standing on the Earth. The fact of physical acceleration matters. In one case, on the planet’s surface, the acceleration is merely conceptual, the equivalent of increasing speed time over time, but without the actual effects of acceleration. In the other, in the elevator or the rocket, the acceleration is a real motion and has predictable consequences.

The fact is, each of us is accelerating toward the center of mass of the planet from the day we’re born to the day we die and our atoms disperse, and then they keep accelerating in some other form. Conceptually and mathematically, we are all going faster and faster, eventually exceeding theoretical light speed, and yet going nowhere. This is the conundrum I find with any current definition of gravity. And it is associated in the posts referenced at the beginning of this piece as well, which deal with our definitions and conceptions of space and time—the two key components of either gravity-as-force or gravity-as-distortion of that slippery thing called “spacetime.”

We can measure gravity, space, and time. We can envision them as forces or dimensions or other real things. We can write equations about them and manipulate them mathematically. But we don’t really know what they are. And until we do—or meet up the people who have solved this conundrum—our notions of the physical world will remain those of a child.

1. See previous posts in this vein, starting with Fun with Numbers (I) from September 19, 2010, and (II) from September 26, 2010.

2. Need I say here that when orbiting at a comfortable near-Earth distance—say, the Space Shuttle’s maximum service ceiling of 643 kilometers—the apparent weightlessness of people and things is not at all due to this drop-off in, or any kind of final disappearance of, the accelerations of gravity? Instead, in order to achieve a stable orbit, the ship moves fast enough that its fall toward the planet, due to gravity, is countered by its forward momentum, so that the ship is still falling but its point of impact is forever over the horizon.
    In the same way, if you jump out of an airplane and fall toward the planet’s surface, you will apparently become weightless for the time you are still falling. If you take, say, a coin from your pocket and release it from your hand, it will appear to be weightless, too, while falling beside you—except for any difference in wind resistance which may allow the thin coin to fall somewhat faster than your large and obstructive body. Above the atmosphere, however, with no resistance you and the coin would drop in perfect synchrony.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Basic Civility

Munch Scream

This is not a new topic, and I don’t have many original ideas on the subject. But I feel I have to comment on the decline in civil discourse in this country in the past few years.

Public discussion has become toxic, especially in the wonderful new social media, which was supposed to open the internet to a free exchange of ideas. And this exchange was supposed to be a good thing. It still is, mostly, in my opinion. The fact that so many people can go on exchange forums like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram tells me that a large portion of our population is literate, interested, able to type, enjoys abundant leisure time, and has access to the internet with a convenient computing device. Those are all positive characteristics in a developed society.

Unfortunately, so many people who participate in social media are also wildly unhappy. For every picture of a pretty sunset or a charming kitten, or a positive comment about life in general, we get reams of political comment laced with vitriol and innuendo. It used to be, in this society, that people with strongly held views could “agree to disagree.” One person might not agree with another’s viewpoint, conclusions, or grasp of basic facts, but that did not invalidate the other person’s basic humanity or his or her right of free speech.

Somewhere along the way, the notion has crept into public discourse that the people who disagree with us are not merely wrong but dangerous and evil. Their thoughts and the supposed actions that will stem from those thoughts—particularly in the voting booth—will damage society, invalidate other people, and poison the planet. Silencing them, stopping them, is not merely a matter of desired public policy but in the interest of saving the world.

When thoughts and their expression become, in your opinion, not merely wrong or ill-considered but an active danger that must be opposed with force of law if not direct physical action, then we are on the slippery slope of fascism. There are many definitions of “fascism,” colored by historical example and political persuasion, but the most basic would be a paradigm under which the public good and presumed public safety outweigh personal freedoms. For the good of the nation, the state, the party, the environment, and people of a particular ethnic, or cultural, or sexual orientation—or whatever else you hold dear—these others must be silenced and prevented a priori from speaking and taking action.

We have already reached a point that, while notions of racial and sexual differences between human beings are held to be equally if not more important than individual achievements and character,1 any mention of those differences is also irredeemably tainted as racist and sexist. We have already reached the point where it is taboo to suggest that all human beings are one kind, one species, with only minor physical differences, and that most differences attributable to “race” are instead cultural—is irredeemably racist. We have already reached the point where it is taboo to suggest that women are in any way different from men, and yet to acknowledge openly that they still need special treatment, such as revised physical standards to perform the rigorous or dangerous jobs traditionally held by men, or particular encouragement to enter academic fields traditionally attended by men—is irredeemably sexist.

Now we have a movement to deny that gender, the condition of being either male or female, is binary but instead to insist that human sexual orientation and, presumably, physical and emotional characteristics as well, are represented by a spectrum of possibilities. More, that these possibilities are not fixed but instead are fluid and subject to change with the opinion and preference of the person stating his or her or its or their identity. This is personal freedom that has run off the cliff and into the thin air. And yet people are willing to scream that this is so and to denigrate2 anyone who denies it as “sexist,” “homophobic,” “transphobic,” or some other irredeemably bad thing.

Aside from the fact that our society, especially in the most educated, literate, technologically sophisticated, and vocal segments of the population, has gone crazy, this current level of civil discourse tells me we have a lot of truly unhappy people here. Our best and brightest people seem to be suffering huge existential angst, despite the fact that we live in a country that has never been richer, freer, or more advantaged. We have more and better food, access to education and information, access to medical advances and health care, access to energy resources and computing power assigned to personal use, access to housing and transportation, entertainment, and every other human comfort than in any other country today and in any other human society throughout history. But we’re still unhappy.

Perhaps it’s because we have so much that is so readily available without our having to work too hard for it, that we can imagine the last unobtained one percent of such availability and access and so cry for physical and existential perfection. Why can’t everything be freely available right now? If a person can imagine this condition of perfection, in the most advanced society in the world, then why can’t he or she (or it or they) have it?

As someone raised since childhood not to cry for the Moon, because I’m simply not going to get it, I find this level of discourse to be borderline insane. It is also useless and ugly. But there we are …

The only good thing I can say is that most of the people you meet in the street, rather than online, are still basically civil. Casual encounters in the grocery store with, say, two carts contending in a narrow aisle, are generally resolved with a smile and one party giving way. Casual encounters on the street with, say, two cars meeting at a stop sign, are generally settled with a wave. We haven’t devolved into fistfights in Safeway and rammings on the freeway. So we still have some basic civility in physical life.

But if this trend of dehumanization towards people of different opinions, stations in life, and complexions doesn’t change, we may end up in a war zone both online and in the streets.

1. That old content of character vs. color of skin thing, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., described.

2. And yes, sigh, that word is probably considered racist because of the four letters at its core, although it comes from a Latin root meaning simply “to blacken.”

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Connecting Minds

Immortal Dream

First, let me say that I do not believe in “psi powers.” By this term I mean the various presumed ways that the human brain generates a signal of some type—probably electromagnetic, but possibly some other form of energy—that allows it to transfer thoughts directly from one brain to the next, commonly called “telepathy,” without passing through the brain’s speech centers, nerves, and vocal chords. In some cases, these presumed powers include manipulating physical objects, or “telekinesis,” without actually touching them. Of course, we can communicate by looks, words, touches, and the implications of our physical actions. We can also manipulate thoughts and move mountains by building and programming our wealth of machines. But the naked human brain is not able to directly communicate or manipulate anything outside the bony enclosure of the skull—or so I believe.

Note, however, that the operative word in the above paragraph is “believe.” This is a feeling I have, a view of the world, that is largely based on negative data. I have not conducted a methodological study of these claimed powers, such as the Rhine Research Center at Duke University has conducted. My presumption is based upon my bias that people who claim to practice these powers are charlatans, and those who claim to have witnessed them have been duped by charlatans. But negative data is not proof. So I allow that there may be, somewhere, perhaps in hiding, people who can communicate directly mind-to-mind and perhaps even move mountains just by thinking about it.

And yet, in my own life, I can feel the tug of these presumed powers. My mother often spoke of being “fey,” a word derived from Old English and meaning otherworldly, subject to apprehensions and visions, and possibly touched by the fairies—not that my mother believed in fairies per se. What she meant—or rather, what I took from her use of the word—is someone attuned to an unseen world, and perhaps a world that cannot be explained rationally. And she did not mean the world of the Christian God, His Choir of Angels, and Holy Mother Church. She meant that other, native-English kind, where fairies and other unseen creatures and forces might wait outside the door.

She and I felt we shared a mental bond. It was not a form of telepathy, where we could put whole thoughts and complete sentences into each other’s heads and get a coherent reply. Rather, we would find ourselves thinking the same thing at the same time. For example, once when she was pulling into a gas station, I said, “I’m thinking of a tiger.” And I had a clear image in my mind of a jungle man-eater. “So am I,” she replied. It was that kind of link.

Of course, this was a period when Exxon (back then “Esso”), who owned many gas stations in our area, had the advertising slogan “Put a tiger in your tank.” So it was possible that our thoughts were influenced by advertising imagery if not an actual sign as we drove into the station. However, I am pretty aware of my visual surroundings—and I was even more so back in my childhood. I would have made the link to any sign on the premises. Besides, it might have been a Gulf station.

Aside from any link to my mother, I can usually get a feeling about people whom I meet in person that I don’t sense when looking at a photograph or video, or from reading a description or a message in an email or letter. Sometimes, this is an immediate feeling of trust and security. More strongly, it is an aversion: something in my subconscious mind is screaming Danger! Dislike! Go away! Get away! I have not actually gotten up and left a room that such people were occupying. But my guard was up. I was uncomfortable. And I made every effort to avoid them after that. Not love at first sight but quite the opposite.

Am I actually picking up on some malign “vibe”—to use a word from my college days in the 1960s? Am I actually reading intentions through some kind of psi power? Or am I reacting to a cast of the eye, a squint, a sidelong glance, or perhaps a shape of the mouth, a slight sneer, or a curled lip? I might recognize any of these as danger signals, either from previous personal experience or from the cultural portrayal by artists and actors of what villainy might look like.

Being able to “read” another person from his or her facial expression, tone voice, and body language is a survival characteristic. Being able to intuit another person’s probable intentions from the nature of what they are saying and how they say it—the verbal sneer, the hollow ring of false friendliness or concern—was how our ancestors—or the ones that lived, anyway—avoided chicanery, capture, destitution, and possible vivisection. Generations of interaction with the real human animal, rather than the cheerful and benign creature we carry in our imaginations, has made most of us expert at sizing up strangers from verbal and nonverbal clues.1 No psi powers are needed.

And yet … I’m pretty good at distinguishing what I see and hear from what I know. Yes, I get the visual and aural cues: they can also be picked up from a picture, a video clip, or a recording, too. Modern cinematographers and the actors they capture on film are expert at conveying whole story lines with a subtle look—and most of the audience gets it. But beyond that, I also get a sense from a person’s physical presence. Before he or she speaks and acts, I get that vibe.2 And I don’t think it’s only my imagination.

And where would we all be if the entire world was rational, subject to logical analysis and explanation? It would be a duller place. We would all starve for lack of the juice that feeds our imagination.

1. Of course, there are also many people who are amiable, hopeful, gullible—and can’t tell a damn thing about the people they meet. My father was not any of those things, and yet he had a hard time reading people. He maintained a few good, close friends during his life, but for the most part he kept to himself. And yet he twice put his trust in people whose very presence had both my mother and me internally screaming Danger! Keep away!

2. And yes, it does work both ways. This is the “chemistry” that people talk about when they meet someone and fall in love. Things just click. You just know. That other person just lights up in your mind.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Working Together

Hands at piano keyboard

The other day I was driving on the freeway and noticed an odd thing. Even at 80 miles per hour,1 I was keeping perfect pace and relative station with the car in the next lane to the right that was twenty feet ahead of me and also with the car in that lane thirty feet behind the other. We went along in a stable triangle for mile after mile. Unlike following a car in my own lane, where I might for reasons of safety hold a certain distance, in this case I was just part of an unplanned, uncoordinated trio going down the road in perfect formation.

This wasn’t a conscious decision, either on my part or—I’m sure—on that of the other two drivers. And the fact that our relative positions did not change by as much as a foot while going up and down modest grades suggests it was not a random coincidence. The three of us just naturally fell into a pattern that did not need changing. It was not an act of cooperation but more the unconscious or subconscious adoption of a formation that was … comfortable.

Birds do this when they flock together in a tight pattern that fills the sky with wheeling bodies, all of which maintain the same distance one to another during relatively high-speed maneuvers. Fish do this in their schools, too. They react to changes in the speed and direction of the members around them as if telegraphically transmitted, although the transaction is more like the individual’s perfect awareness of its surroundings and the positions of others. Perhaps, too, they are guided by subtle changes in air or water pressure caused by the presence of those other bodies.

Geese also fly in perfect V-formations—although I understand that this shape provides physical lift to the birds along the outer edges of the V through a process akin to an aircraft’s wingtip vortices. Proof of this is suggested by the fact that the leader position will change from time to time, because it takes additional effort and energy to cleave the clean air ahead than to ride the moving air that another bird has roiled.

Pilots of both airplanes and helicopters are trained to fly in formations and echelons, too. Here, however, the intention is not any benefit from vortex lift but to create a mutual, overlapping pattern of observation and protection from attack. Still, after much practice—because human pilots first learn to fly with freedom of motion and to fear brushing another plane in close contact—the pilots are relying on some part of the human brain that is attuned to the positions and intentions of others of its kind. Motorcycle officers in the California Highway Patrol, when riding in a group, maintain a perfect, square formation of uniform side-to-side and fore-and-aft distances—although I suspect this is more a demonstration of rider skill than a need for protection.

We see the same sort of coordination, again with practice, among dancers, whether it’s two people are engaged in a waltz or twenty in a chorus line; soldiers, whether they are marching in step or moving to attack a position; athletes when they execute a pattern play; and singers and musicians, whether they are performing a duet or a chorus, or playing in a quartet or a symphony orchestra.

The question of singing and playing in a group raises the issue of timing as well. Yes, the group usually has a conductor to establish the beat with his or her hands and a baton. And a band usually follows the beat established by the drummer or bass player. But the four, ten, or a hundred other members in the group can surrender their own sense of timing—their mental independence—to follow that beat and coordinate the action of their individual voices or instruments in support of it.

Clearly, this ability to work together with almost telepathic precision is not unique to human beings, because fish and birds do it without training, and predators like wolves can move in a coordinated attack out of instinct. But I don’t remember observing the same level of precision among other primates. Chimps and gorillas might follow a hierarchical leader in a course of action, but none of the nature shows I’ve seen suggest that apes can cooperate efficiently to execute a complicated football play; throw from the area of third base to second to first in a baseball double play; or drive race cars competitively at 150 miles an hour, often moving wheel against wheel, and yet not consistently end up in horrendous wrecks.

Human beings have remarkable freedom of thought and inventiveness, and yet we can both consciously and unconsciously surrender our independence to perform as a team—or even just adapt to a traffic pattern on the freeway. We not only have the advantage of interpersonal and group communication, using shared and agreed-upon symbols and values, so that we can negotiate an approach to a common problem. We also have the ability to blend our actions and sense of timing, with or without prior agreement, to coordinate in a common action. If you doubt this, think of the times you’ve seen someone start to play the piano and a relative stranger will walk up to sing along, in time and in key, without a word being spoken between them.

We are individuals, with our own purposes, intentions, and interests, but we are also capable of amazing cooperation on both a conscious and an unconscious level. Our brains evolved both to work independently and to cooperate completely and seamlessly.

It is this dual quality of the human mind that gives me faith we will one day travel to the stars—and deserve to be there.

1. Yes, in California, with a posted speed limit of 65 miles per hour, traffic sometimes still travels at about 80—the supposedly verboten 15 miles over the speed limit—unless congestion forces everyone down to a crawl. It’s not legal, but the Highway Patrol ignores you unless you are moving outside the ambient speed and pattern—say, doing 100 and weaving in and out. The patrol cars themselves are moving right along with traffic, too, and they’ll quickly pass you in disgust if you poke along at the posted speed while everyone else has adopted a higher speed. And, if you travel in the two left lanes at that speed limit, you’ll likely get run over by a panel van.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Performance vs. Composition

Hands at piano keyboard

I have taken lessons in playing the keyboard for about three years now.1 I started in order to fill a huge gap in my music education. While I love music and have been listening to classical as well as contemporary music my whole life, it was a one-sided affair. I loved music as a listener, an observer on the outside, but not as a practitioner on the inside. And for all that interest, there was still much I could not explain. For example, when a work was titled So-and-So’s Symphony in D-major or in E-minor, what did those letters mean? And what was the difference between “major” and “minor”? I knew it had something to do with the key signature, but I could not tell, just from listening, what that difference might be. And, anyway, I really was not sure what the keys meant or how they worked.

Although I took trombone lessons starting in fourth grade and actually played first chair in the junior high school band,2 my knowledge of music theory was rudimentary at best. I could play the notes as written on the page, provided we stayed in the bass clef, and I had been told the convention—and tried to follow it in practice—of sharping or flatting each of the notes that had a sharp or flat written on that line at the beginning of the piece. I knew enough to figure out that if, say, F was marked as sharp on the second line of the staff, then all the Fs, and not just the ones on that particular line, were also sharp. It was like a code for how to play the Fs in the piece. But beyond that, I didn’t know why the code existed.

And since the trombone, like all brass instruments and most of the woodwinds, plays just one note at a time—meaning it can’t play chords by itself,3 in the way a piano or guitar can—the trombone wasn’t going to teach me anything about harmony and why certain notes sounded better together than others. I knew from listening to music that when some chords are played in sequence they have a stunning, almost heartbreaking, emotional quality. But why?

So, to resolve all these questions, and rather than taking a dry course in music theory, I decided to study an instrument that was natural to harmony and the comparative treatment of sounds. After three years on a keyboard, I am beginning to understand the different keys, the circle of fifths, and harmony. But all this is only an introduction to my main topic.

What I also learned is that I am a lousy musician. Playing an instrument is directed not so much at inquiry as at performance. You practice scales, chord progressions, and fingering not for their own sake but to limber up both the fingers and the mind for playing a song, melody and harmony together, in tempo, for an audience. If you accompany a singer or join a band, you also have to learn which of the notes on the page—the melody, the harmony, or the bass line as timekeeper—fall to your role. A piano player does not play the melody over a singer. In a group, the keyboard player does not take the timekeeping function away from the actual bass player, if present. But still, you are practicing a particular song and your role in it with a view to performing for an audience.

This all requires what my teacher calls “pounding” on the individual piece and making it your “swan song.” You go over and over the notes in order until you can play all of them correctly, in time, without stumbles or hesitations. Along the way, you might also learn to play with expression and feeling, and then ultimately you might also adapt your own interpretation of what sounds and feels right. But first, you are tasked with becoming a meat robot that plays the whole piece through, in time and without error.

This, I found, was hard for me. For one thing, signal repetition without significant variation is boring. My inner sense is: if I managed to do it right—or at least ninety percent right—that one time, I should not have to do it again. Or again and again. For another thing, keeping time is difficult. Sure, I understand tempo and rhythm. But every so often my brain does it little reset twitch—think of it as a “brain fart”—and I lose my place. I can tap my fingers along to someone else’s music and hold the beat. But holding the beat by myself, even with the aid of a metronome, is difficult. Sooner or later—usually twenty to forty beats from the beginning—my brain does its little reset and my fingering falls apart.

Yes, I have practiced pieces until I can play them well enough, beginning to end, with a minimum of stumbles. But that effort goes against my grain.

This is not unusual or inexplicable. In everything else I do—mostly in writing articles and stories, but in other arts as well—I am not asked to function as a meat robot. Perfect replication of a prescribed sequence is not what I have been about. Just once, and only briefly, I worked as an administrative assistant, where a typing speed of so many words per minute, and accurate replication of someone else’s words, whether spoken or written, counted for anything. Truth to tell, I am a lousy typist. Oh, I can use all eight fingers and my right thumb on the keyboard, and ninety-five percent of the time I hit the right keys in order. But I make lots of typing mistakes. That was embarrassing when I worked with a typewriter, because then I would have to cover the errors with whiteout, or backspace with the correction ribbon on my IBM Selectric, and retype the wrong word and the following half a line. Now, with a computer screen and word processor, I fix typos and misspellings automatically, on the fly, as I write. Accuracy is not a big deal unless the error goes uncaught.

The difference is that my mind, my reflexes, and my previous practice have all been aligned with composition rather than performance. In composition, especially in my writing, I seek to have the first draft be “mostly right.” The goal is ninety-five percent. Get the story down in one long rush, just making corrections on the fly as I catch them, and move on. Later I will read through and correct (on the word processor) or retype (if I were doing a formal, second draft on a typewriter) not only any spelling and grammatical errors and misplaced punctuation, but also garbled or awkward sentences, checkable errors of fact, unfavorable elements of plot and foreshadowing, and otherwise just things that might be made better. This will improve the story by another ninety-five percent. And the next read-through and correction will improve it by a further ninety-five percent. Sooner or later, with the original forging of the first draft, then the hammer blows of a first edit, then subsequent taps, and finally the polishing strokes of succeeding read-throughs, I can arrive at a fixed structure and presentation that I am ready to have live as the finished story.4

Composition like this can reach a state of perfection, but not in real time. That’s okay, though, because your reader can’t tell which sentence was produced in the white heat of a first draft and survived intact in every read-through, and which sentences had to be painfully hammered and polished into their present state of elegance and meaning.

Performance has to put in all that hammering, too, entered into during the same kind of not-real time. But the goal is not a fixed string of words that sit comfortably inside a word processor or on a typewritten page. Instead, the goal is to train your eyes, nerves, muscles, and fingertips to reproduce that state of perfection one time, in a recital hall or on stage, before an audience. And then do it again each time thereafter for a gig or on a concert tour.

I am constitutionally and spiritually able to commit the hammer time for a work that I can then publish for posterity and go on to something else. I am less able to commit to an ephemeral event, a single performance or even a whole string of them. And when I know that I will never perform the music on stage anyway, all that effort seems—in my father’s favorite phrase, born of the Great Depression—“too much like work.”

1. I first thought of taking music lessons at my age because of a story I had heard at the biotech company, about a reporter interviewing a woman on her one-hundredth birthday. The reporter asked the old woman if she had any regrets, hoping to hear about missed chances and lost loves. The woman replied that she wished she had started taking violin lessons when she was sixty, because by now she would have been playing for forty years. This is a reminder that we are all living longer these days, and retirement is not a time for shutting down and wrapping up but for trying new things and making ourselves a new story.

2. Mostly because I was taller than the other trombone players, and on that side of the band the first chairs sat on the inside end, toward the back of the stage. Since we also played for parent appreciation, this gave some visibility to all the other chairs in the trombone section. If I had been where I belonged—third chair, at least—all the other trombonists would have been hidden from sight.

3. If a composer wants the trombones to play a chord, he assigns a different note to each chair in the section. But if you’re sitting in one of those chairs, and you don’t understand music to begin with, you know that the player next to you is sounding a different note, but you don’t know why.

4. But if that first draft—the “forge work”—is significantly off track, I can’t correct and polish it into shape. If I am not ready to write, if the story is not shaping comfortably in my mind, then I don’t bother to sit down to write at all. This is not “writer’s block” or some kind of laziness. I know it is a waste of my time to write something that is simply wrong, just for the sake of doing some writing.
       Think of this first draft as the beginning of a road trip: if you are going to drive from San Francisco to Portland, say, you can make the choice of following Highway 101 over the Golden Gate Bridge and north through Marin County and the Coastal Range, or you can take Interstate 80 over the Bay Bridge and Carquinez Strait to join Interstate 5 and go up the Central Valley. Either route will get you to Portland, but with different scenery. If, however, you find yourself going south through San Jose and the Salinas Valley, you need to stop right now and turn around because no amount of course correction can get you to Portland. A wrong turn in conceiving and executing a plot or the thread of an article can be like that trip through San Jose.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Hot Metal

Linotype machine

I’ve been involved with small computers since buying an Apple II in 1979. After I tired of drawing little horses and Christmas trees in colored blocks on the screen with its BASIC program and playing an early form of Star Trek video game, I quickly fitted the machine out with a CP/M card, WordStar word-processing software, and an NEC SpinWriter impact printer, which cost twice as much as the computer itself. Then I could use what was essentially a programmer’s toy to produce professionally typed manuscripts. I’ve been a digital geek ever since.

In the early 1990s we began hearing about a new type of computer programming, Hyper Text Markup Language, or HTML, that allowed one page of text to expand into other pages to display detailed descriptions, photographs and illustrations, and the introduction of other topics. I immediately conceived of this HTML editor as a new way of writing. The basic argument of an article or the story line in a novel would take place on the main page, but the reader could choose—or not—to take these side tracks to gain richer understanding, to have unfamiliar words and concepts explained, or perhaps, in the case of fiction, to explore alternate plot twists and endings. That was only my fertile brain at work, because readers at the time wanted—and still want today—a piece of writing to be linear, going from beginning to end, with the argument or story unfolding according to a single structure as conceived by the narrator-who-is-god.

But while HTML as a new way to write enriched articles and novels never got off the ground, it was a godsend to the budding internet, which was just taking off at about the same time. HTML coding and its more recent variants and implementations (e.g., XHTML, or Extended HTML) became the backbone of web-based structures. By using the embedded links, the web developer can land you on the home page of a website, and from there you can choose to branch to other landing pages or to individual entries. This structure is now so familiar that I hardly need to describe it, but in the early 1990s it was a miracle. Modern applications like Adobe Dreamweaver®, the one I use, let people with only a modest knowledge of coding create fully serviceable websites and pages almost as easily as a good word processor lets them format a printed page.

One of the early HTML-authoring software packages played upon the acronym and called itself HoTMetaL. But, of course, printing with “hot metal” has been around for a century or more. And therein lies my tale.

Right after I graduated from college and moved to California in the early 1970s, I took a job as an editor at Howell-North Books in Berkeley. This was an incredible experience for two reasons. First, the company published railroad histories, Western Americana, and Californiana. As a transplanted Easterner who knew very little about the area, it was a crash course in the history and heritage of this part of the country. Soon I learned as much about the West Coast as any native.1 Second, Howell-North was one of the few publishers in the country who handled every part of book production—editing, typesetting, page proofs, layout, plate making, printing, binding, warehousing, and shipping—under one roof. And they had been in business a long time, so that their equipment represented the prime of mechanical book production. As a young editor, I learned firsthand how the nuts and bolts of publishing worked.

Every manuscript I edited went straight from the front office into the hands of the Linotype® operators. And they brought back galley proofs, pulled from a tray of lead slugs still warm from the machine, for me to read and compare with the manuscript. That was real “hot metal” publishing.

The Linotype is a fabulous machine,2 about as complicated as a pipe organ and featuring a reservoir of molten lead as one of its components. At the top is a magazine holding hundreds of little molds, called “matrices,” for casting individual letters. The machine has a different magazine for each font style and in each type size. The operator works a keyboard that arranges all the letters, both upper and lower case, and punctuation according to their frequency in the English language, rather than the QWERTY pattern of a typewriter. There is no shift key, so that upper-case letters are on a different part of the keyboard from lower case. Each time the operator presses a key, the corresponding matrix drops out of the magazine into a rack in the middle of the machine. Spaces are held separately from the magazine, because they don’t cast any particular typeface or size, and they have the ability to expand sideways to fill out a line of justified type with equal spacing between words.3

The operator reads from the manuscript and types just one line at a time—but it is the line as it will appear in the book, not as it was typed on the manuscript page. So the operator has to mark his4 place as each line is set. Then he spaces out the line, locks it up, and casts it with hot metal from the reservoir. Hot lead solidifies quickly, and the operator can then eject the slug of type into the galley tray and release the matrices to drop by gravity into a holding area. The Linotype machine then—and here was its special genius—sorts the individual letters according to the pattern of teeth cut into the matrix and returns them to the appropriate slot in the magazine, ready to again be called out and drop into place as needed in the next line.

It’s a complicated process. The operator has much to be mindful about: typing the manuscript without losing his place; considering spacing and sometimes letterspacing to achieve a good-looking line; dealing with special type treatments like boldface and italic, as well as any foreign characters and symbols not in the matrix, such as letters with diacritic marks; changing the magazine as required; and working with hot lead without getting burned.

Howell-North was, of course, a union shop under the International Typographers Union. All of our printers and typographers were old and experienced hands, who commanded top wages. Their time was money—of which the company president, Mrs. North, continually reminded me.5 Because of the company’s origins in printing signs and documents for the local shipyards during World War II, the style guide I had to follow was the U.S. Government Printing Office, or GPO. It uses a stripped-down style and rejects the Oxford or serial comma, which is more common with publishers who follow the University of Chicago’s Manual of Style, on which I had previously trained. GPO style suited Mrs. North just fine, because she saw every stray piece of punctuation and fancy type variations like bold or italic print as a dollar sign. And with Linotype, every error I made or let pass in editing, and every change the author made in reading his or her set of proofs, meant the whole line had to be retyped, spaced, and cast. So the watchwords in our shop were simplicity and accuracy.

That was good training in many ways. My four years at Howell-North made me a better editor and gave me insight into the publishing world that I never would have gotten working in a New York office and sending manuscripts to be typeset in Japan or China—or working with computerized typesetting from the beginning and never quite understanding how easy the process is these days.

Hot metal—and little blocks of wood or lead with letter shapes carved in reverse on their faces—go back to the beginnings of the printing industry. And printing, perhaps more than the Reformation and the Enlightenment of the past millennium, shaped the modern world we have inherited from our grandfathers.6

1. I also met my wife of 41 years—and a proud San Francisco native herself—while researching photos for a book project at The Bancroft Library on the UC Berkeley campus. Ah, the amazing choices we make early in life!

2. Read a complete description of how a Linotype machine works.

3. If a line is really sparse, the operator can also to insert letterspaces between the characters of certain words, expanding them to even out the appearance of the text.

4. I’m dispensing with the usual “he or she” here, because all of our typographers were men. They were all older men, too, in their 60s, because even back then hot metal typesetting was a dying artform.

5. As fascinated as I might be with the workings of the machine, I was strongly discouraged from asking questions and pestering the operators.

6. See also Gutenberg and Automation from February 20, 2011.