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Condolences to the people of Thailand. Today (October 13, 2016) we bid farewell to world’s longest reigning king, Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, also known as Rama IX.  Born in 1927 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bhumibol became king in June of 1946 and has continuously reigned since then.

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Ferrebeekeeper blogged about the king of Thailand before.  He was the richest and most powerful monarch in the world (with the possible exceptions of the king of Saudi Arabia or Vladimir Putin).  His subjects treated him as a living bodhisattva or god and he lived in vast palaces and rode on huge golden dragon barges. To a citizen of a Republic, it seems obscene for one man to personally control so much of a kingdom’s wealth (although frankly America has been falling short on our own austere Republican virtues these days).  It is strange to think that all of this power and wealth was going to go to Bhumibol’s brother, King Ananda Mahidol —before Ananda was murdered by being shot in the forehead. Fortunately a privy court hanged some random low-status servants after a shabby show trial—thus laying any questions about the exceedingly mysterious events to rest forever.

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King Bhumibol was a very loyal friend to America for 7 decades.  It startles me how swiftly the Cold War is passing from everyone’s memories, but Bhumibol helped the Western Democracies to win it.  His intelligence, forbearance, and natural political savvy helped Thailand stabilize South East Asia and prevent communism from spreading there (it also made Thailand the preeminent regional power). Bhumibol, a constitutional monarch eschewed direct levers of power. He was tremendously beloved by his subjects, which has always been difficult for a leader and is even more difficult in today’s wired world..  People who met him praised him as warm and sincere.

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Rereading this obituary I realize it sounds like a backhanded compliment.  It isn’t meant to be.  The papers today are full of claptrap which obscure Bhomibal’s political skill, his adroit ability to run Thailand from the shadows while ministers and generals came and went, and–above all–his iron will. He will truly be missed.  It will be majestic to see the Great Crown of Victory come out of its vault so that the playboy Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn can set it upon his own brow (for nobody else has sufficient status to grant the throne of Thailand to him) and become the new king. However it is sad to bid farewell to such a stalwart ally, gifted political player, and interesting man.  It also raises worries about the stability of Thailand once a period of national mourning has passed.

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It has been a while since Ferrebeekeeper has written about politics.  This is partly because everything everywhere this year has been about politics, and I wanted a break from the relentless annoying noise (at least in my own little patch of the internet).  Also, in general it seems like the vastly increased media/internet attention has not led to better outcomes:  instead the “anything for clicks” mentality has made a volatile situation worse.  Also I did not want to fan the flames by writing about Donald Trump.  Like the screaming kid grabbing people’s hair and kicking desks in 5th grade, he draws his strength from demanding all of our attention.  If we could just ignore him, he would lose his dark power to enthrall.

But, now that Donald Trump is officially the candidate of the Republican Party, my strategy of pointedly ignoring him has failed.  It is time to actually pay attention to a clickbait election so shrill and mean-spirited that it makes one long for the days of Andrew Jackson, Polk, Goldwater, or even Nixon….

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Except of course we don’t really long for such things.  Those days are gone and good riddance. Saying otherwise is hyperbole; and hyperbole is our enemy right now.  The Republican Convention makes it sound like we are all going to die. “Enemies are at the gate!  Our cities are coming apart because of violence and dissembling immigrants!  Economic depression and stagnation will doom us all to servitude and starvation!”  This is a dishonest and dangerous strategy.  It will fail in unexpected and dangerous ways.

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I grew up at the end of the Cold War, and I was an anxious child.  I read things and knew about the state of world affairs back then.  It seemed pretty improbable that we would survive an era when twitchy old men with endless arrays of poorly computerized nuclear weapons stared unblinking across the world at each other.  Looking back at those times with nostalgia is madness! The fact that we didn’t all perish in nuclear hellfire sometime between the fifties and the nineties is a miracle.  This world is all gravy—an improbable bonus round (and, let’s face it, the fact that we have this impossibly ephemeral bubble of consciousness between two infinities of oblivion is already pretty miraculous).

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Yet Cold War shadows linger: the conflict was a decades-long existential crisis which caused us to come together and work in tandem.  It demanded good leadership and lockstep order at home, and the gravity of the fight allowed us certain freedoms abroad.  Now that the long grim conflict is over, we have great opportunities: opportunities of being closer to other nations and helping people. We can undo some of the great power meddling which was necessary to win that conflict (while making goods and services cheaper for everyone). We can learn astonishing new things. All of humankind can move forward to a brighter world where everyone has opportunities. However to get to such a place will require creative thinking, nimble pursuit of rapidly-changing opportunities, and the ability to adapt quickly to surprising circumstances.

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The Republicans make it sound like they want to go back to the past.  But, for goodness’ sake, we don’t want to go back to a time when everyone could die because of a rogue bear! And if they want to go back to the time just after the Cold War, when America was the only great power, well it wasn’t a Trump who was in the White House then. In fact we know exactly what Trump was up to during that time because New Yorkers lived through it.

I have lived in Brooklyn a long time, and New Yorkers know Trump.  He has refined his act here. There have been times when Trump’s hair-pulling hissy fits and histrionics (and spouse abuse and mistresses and bankruptcies) have sucked up all the oxygen in the local tabloids.  It has given us a measure of immunity to his damnable act…and a valuable insight about his nature.  Like liars who talk about truth all of the time, or broke people who talk about money with every breath, Trump talks incessantly about winning.  It is not because he is a winner.

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So here is what is going to happen in this election: This is the biggest act of Trump’s mendacious life and he is going to lose spectacularly to a woman. He will drag his ticket down with him, but not so much that we can escape the deadlock which is hurting our nation by preventing us from researching and creating.

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You definitely need to vote, and you need to pay attention, but also remember that, in the bigger picture, things are ok.  Don’t be afraid! What people say about the end of America isn’t true.  Race relations are improving. People are being drawn out of poverty.  The pie is getting bigger here and abroad (although the pie hogs are getting stronger and more shameless too).  Heck, even if Trump gets elected through some nightmare circumstance, America has survived presidents who were ninnies, racists, incompetents, or even in a coma.

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Or all of the above

We need to put on our grown-up clothes and calm our anxieties and deal with a world of great change and great opportunity. Now excuse me while I go back to ignoring politics and send out some applications and proposals.

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Have you ever wondered about how deep humankind is capable of digging into the planet? During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to answer this question with vast drilling projects. These two drilling operations were opposite but strangely complimentary. The United States tried to drill through the oceanic crust to reach the Earth’s mantle through an oceanic tectonic plate (which are much thinner than continental plates, but made of dense basalt). The Soviets attempted to drill through a continental plate–which are massively thick but not nearly as dense as oceanic plates (and not underneath thousands of feet of water!). Each operation failed due to the nature of geophysical reality and to the particular weaknesses of the respective nations. In the United States, the project was abandoned because of a lack of funding caused by congressional intransigence and general scientific apathy. The Soviet project was set aside because society collapsed and the Soviet Union broke apart.

 

The Main Drilling Ship used for the Mohole Project

The Main Drilling Ship used for the Mohole Project

The American project was an outright attempt to drill into the Mohorovičić discontinuity, the line which separates the Earth’s crust from its mantle. The discontinuity is named after a Croatian geophysicist—and the project took its name from him as well when it came to be known as “the Mohole”. Various boreholes were sunk into the oceanic crust off the coast of Guadalupe Island, Mexico. The deepest drill hole reached 183 m (600 feet) below the sea floor—which was already beneath 3,600 meters (11,700 feet) of seawater. Yet the oceanic crust is ten kilometers (6.2 miles) thick, so the project was still far from achieving its goal. The Mohole project was plagued by mismanagement, underfunding, and incongruities between the government, scientific, and private institutions which were working together. Yet it was the first time dynamic positioning technology was used for deep sea drilling—today this technology is critical to offshore oil projects. Additionally scientist learned more about the composition of oceanic plates. Unfortunately the project was canceled in 1967.

The Kola Superdeep Borehole in 2007

The Kola Superdeep Borehole in 2007

The Soviet team began drilling began on 24 May, 1970. They chose to drill on the Kola Peninsula, which juts into the Arctic Circle between the Barents Sea and the White Sea (and is a sort of sinister eastern mirror to the great Scandinavian nations). The Soviet scientists and technicians were trying to drill through the Baltic continental crust which is estimated to be 35 kilometers (22 miles) in thickness. For decades, they worked on this project, sinking new holes as extant drillings became broken, collapsed, or unviable. The deepest they managed to drill was 12,262 metres (40,230 ft)—about a third of the distance through the continental plate. This remains the deepest drill hole in human history–although today there are a few boreholes which are longer than this (however they are not deeper–such super-long drillings are generally horizontal or diagonal for the specialized purposes of oil drilling). The Kola borehole project also produced useful and unexpected results. At the maximum depths which the drill bore reached, temperatures were much higher than expected and there was a great deal more water in the continental rock. The core samples from the drilling reached all the way through Earth’s geological history back to rocks of Archaean age (greater than 2.5 billion years old) although these were distorted by heat and pressure. Additionally the mud which came from the hole was described as boiling with hydrogen. As we dig into the underworld things get stranger and stranger! Sadly, the project was abandoned and the works are now a deserted ruin in the grim chaos of Putin’s Russia.

 

The Kola Superdeep Bore hole mission center in 2012

The Kola Superdeep Bore hole mission center in 2012

A perspicacious reader will note that we never actually got anywhere close to the Earth’s mantle with either of these projects. Geologists, geophysicists, and drilling engineers learned much from the attempts, but the fundamental questions about the Earth’s crust and mantle which lead to the two missions remain unanswered. All we know about the Earth’s mantle comes from the reading of various sorts of waves which pass through the Earth—not from direct observation. The only rocks we have seen from the mantle are strange xenoliths which became caught up in esoteric igneous events and traveled as tiny crystals from the mantle to the surface through volcanoes or basaltic flows. Fortunately the world’s scientists are putting together a new mission–the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) to try again to reach the Earth’s mantle by penetrating the oceanic crust. This mission is being organized and funded mostly by the Japanese and the NSF (although there are a number of other contributing members and associate members). The Japanese in particular regard it as their premier scientific mission. Hopefully they can use today’s greatly advanced drilling technology to improve on the abortive attempts of the Americans and Soviets to pierce the crust of the planet.

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Living during the communications revolution, it sometimes seems impossible to imagine how quickly the world has changed.  Today is the 50th anniversary of an important step towards the instantly connected world of today:  on July 10, 1962, a Thor-Delta rocket (launched from Cape Canaveral) carried the communication satellite Telstar 1 into orbit.  The satellite was built by collaboration between AT&T, Bell Labs, NASA, the British General Post Office, and the French National Post, Telegraph, and Telecom Office. It was the first satellite ever to relay television, telephone and high-speed data communications.  It was the first time that humans could beam such complicated information across an entire ocean via electromagnetic transmission.

It sort of looks like 2 of R2D2’s heads or a primitive disco ball.

Telstar was tiny and crude by today’s standards.  The entire spacecraft weighed only 77 kg (170 lbs). The power generated by its solar panels was a mighty 14 watts (which is about what is necessary to operate a dim fluorescent nightlight). Since Telstar 1 was in non-geosynchronous orbit, its ability to transmit transatlantic signals was limited to a 20 minutes window during each 2.5 hour world orbit (and because satellite broadcasting stations only existed in England, France, and on the East Coast, the rest of the world didn’t matter) .  Most contemporary telecommunications satellites are in geosynchronous orbit (and stay in place despite the solar wind thanks to thruster burns), but Telstar came in an era before all of that.  The satellite’s first broadcast (on July 23rd) consisted of President John F. Kennedy talking about the dollar’s rapidly appreciating value. The initial broadcast also showed a baseball game, the American flag, Mount Rushmore, and, of course French singer Yves Montand.

Yves Montand (apparently)

Telstar 1 had a brief and memorable life broadcasting one grainy channel of black and white television and relaying perhaps a few hundred phone lines, but it has not been broadcasting since 1963.  High altitude nuclear tests carried out during 1962 supercharged the Van Allen belt and overwhelmed the fragile electronics on the craft.   As of May 2012 Telstar was still in orbit around Earth—presumably it is still up there, circling our planet, simultaneously a communications milestone and a cold war victim.

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