Think small

microscope image of blood

My blood yesterday, magnified 1,200 times.

My 12-year-old daughter has generous grandparents. Her paternal grandmother inquired about Christmas-gift possibilities. My daughter came up with the idea of a microscope. Her grandmother was all over it.

My daughter’s grandmother’s father had given me a microscope when I was around the same age. I remember it well. There was a light that eventually burned out with a mirror on the flip-side. I had some prepared slides — bug legs and such. I remember attempting to manually adjust the slide, touching it ever so slightly and being surprised, over and over, as the object under inspection leaped far from the field of view. The optics weren’t great when the magnification ramped up. Ultimately its flaws grew tiresome, and I grew older and lost interest.

This microscope is a completely different animal. Probably, inflation-adjusted, no more expensive — a $244 LW Scientific Student Advanced number. But highly evolved from the brown thing I had as a kid. Smooth dials to move the slide around, an LED light, much heavier, crisper optics.

My daughter has prepared slides also–pancreas cells, heart-muscle cells and so on. But the real fun is stuff that’s alive. We collected some mossy, cold pond water and were astounded at the Wild Kingdom that appeared, just a cavalcade of critters, in the smallest of drops. No need to worry about her drinking from a stream, ever again.

Blood is another good one. The photo up top is my blood, taken with a an $80 attachment from Celestron. You replace the eyepiece with a 5MP digital camera and connect it to a laptop via a USB cord. This would have been difficult to pull off with my 1970s microscope, given the lack of USB, laptops and digital cameras. It lets you do your microscopy without holding one eye shut for extended periods, and it takes photos and video. I consider it a wildly successful purpose, though we’ve only had it for a 18 hours.

My blood, yesterday, magnified 300 times.

We also took it outside during a recent snow — light flurries. The microscope went outside, covered, a half hour before we planned to use it. We let snow fall on the slides, and checked the flakes out under the lowest magnification (30x). This was before the Celestron camera arrived, so we kludged photos using an iPhone. Still, remarkable. Chihuly looks amateur by comparison (and I’m a Chihuly fan).

A snowflake at 30x magnification, taken with a cell phone camera though the microscope eyepiece.

Anyway, it’s cliche to say that microscopy opens up entirely new worlds. I think its biggest impact is psychological. You realize how much is going on that you’re oblivious to. You don’t often think about what it means that every cubic millimeter of your blood contains about 7 million red blood cells. Until you prick your pinkie, barely, with a safety pin you’ve heated with a lighter you got on the Greek island Santorini in 1994, bleed a small drop (to your daughter’s consternation — though she’s happy to check out the results), and see that your blood is a Tokyo subway car at rush hour. It’s a window into how much is involved in just one facet of one of the many systems keeping you alive.

These colors are bleeding

Watching as the Trump Administration and Senate leaders pander to those rare Republican holdouts is one part entertaining (The Florida senator Trump once insulted, repeatedly, as “Little Marco” can now hold the Republican tax bill hostage, looks like) and one part terrifying. What we’re seeing is factionalism and a blind philosophical drive to cut taxes and shrink government combining to demonstrate how egocentric, self-serving collective behavior among members of an apparently like-minded tribe can thwart a system developed by a band of 18th-century political geniuses generally known as the Founding Fathers. That is, we’re watching our system of checks and balances fail.

This is a tax plan that Nobel prize-winning economists hate, which is unnecessary (Stimulus? The fed just raised interest rates!), which will hurt the weakest among us to the benefit of the strongest, and whose supposed economy-stimulating effects have been proven false in the real world—with the Reagan tax cuts of the 1980s, where trickle-down economics failed, and more recently in Kansas.

Yet, ostensibly to satisfy their wealthy donor class and keep promises that should never have been made, the Republicans are on the cusp of success. This tax bill’s trillion-plus-dollar price tag will burden our children long after Trump has spent his last delusional days tweeting monosyllabic vitriol from Mar el Largo. This is the stupid policy of a gerrymandering-derived House majority and grossly population-disproportionate Senate one. It could only have been created by men and women who, despite the little flags on their blue suit coats, have no obvious interest in the country’s actual well-being. Plus a president for whom victory is everything, regardless of how pyrrhic.

Perhaps we’ve lost our historical memory entirely. Economic bubbles used to happen less frequently—they once tended to happen once every couple of decades, a spacing determined by the necessity that rational adults around during an asset bubble would recognize the next one and sell sooner. Now we dismantle a social welfare system that may just have been constructed for a reason. What was it again? Oh, the old, the sick, the poor eating from dumpsters and dying of preventable diseases.

Despite the immediate, global availability of such historical  nuggets thanks to the internet that telecommunications giants built and will now certainly be extracting more value from in TBD ways, we managed to have a dot-com bubble and a real estate bubble within less than a decade just a decade ago. Looking at the stock market’s lofty P/E ratios at the moment, it’s hard to argue that valuations are too far from bubble territory now, either. Should we be surprised that supply-side economics goes unchallenged?

The most alarming thing happening in Washington is that, unless even a handful of Republican senators actually put their consciences, much less their patriotism (we’re not talking flag-waving sloganeering, but actual consideration of a proper, fair path that makes us stronger as a nation) ahead of their war chests, and decide to work across the aisle, this could to get worse. That may end up the bitter irony of the the Doug Jones Senate win in Alabama (in which 59 percent of college-educated white voters went instead for a guy who openly embraces theocracy—oh, and the underage girls thing). With zero Democratic votes for policies that deserve precisely that many, every Republican has Rubio’s leverage with every bill, and every bill will become festooned with lunacy such as tossing 13 million people off health insurance and opening up Alaskan wildlife refuges for drilling in a tax proposal paid for by bonds sold to geopolitical frenemies like China.

It’s insane.


As an aside, dismantling net neutrality may have no impact on speeds – any rational data utility (which is what the parts of Comcast others natural data-delivery monoplies/dupoloies affected by the ruling really are) will be careful in causing any obvious disruption to Netflix service as the FCC changes hands faster than the infrastructure-investment cycle. But taking net neutrality off the table is the equivalent of pulling NATO troops (Remember NATO? The one whose need for existence Trump questioned?) out of the Baltics because the Russians probably won’t invade.

Blowing leaves, blowing $1.5 trillion with a lousy tax plan

A rich guy blowing leaves turns out to be an apt metaphor for a lousy tax-reform plan.

I was driving the carpool home down east Sixth Avenue in Denver yesterday. This is million-dollar territory, grand old houses, big lawns. Huge trees with lots of leaves, both on the properties themselves and in the boulevard’s grassy medium, which is a solid 30 yards wide and a joggers’- and dog-walkers’ favorite. A guy stood at the edge of a lawn, probably in his early sixties, clearly a homeowner and not a landscape company employee. He had a leaf blower. And he was blowing the leaves from his lawn into the street.

I’m like, what the hell are you doing?

I apparently said this out loud. My younger daughter, 12, in the passenger seat, looks up from her phone. “What?”

“Oh,” I said. “That guy’s blowing leaves from his lawn into the street.”

She turned to me. “So?”

“It clogs the sewers,” I said. The light turned green and we rolled forward again. “And think about it. What if everybody did that? Just blew their leaves into the street. What if the guys who deal with the median did that? We’d be neck deep in leaves right now.”

We were witnessing a thoughtless, selfish act, if a trivial one. It struck me that it was exactly the sort of thing that the Republicans in U.S. Congress are doing at the moment, on an extreme scale. For their own good and that of their wealthy donors, they’re blowing $1.5 trillion dollars in borrowed green into the street for masses of less-fortunate travelers to sweep up at some point in the future.

Paul Ryan and colleagues are lying when they say they’re looking out for us with this tax reform plan (“us” in this case being the people they nominally — though not actually — represent). This tax cut benefits the wealthy. Yes, there are some middle-class breaks, maybe, for some short period of time. But cutting the corporate tax rate to 20 percent without closing loopholes (much less introducing new ones that could be even more costly) that many corporations use to bring their real tax rate well below 20 percent anyway – thereby increasing profits and raising stock prices… who do you suppose wins there?

The people who own the companies.

Who owns the companies? Shareholders.

But lots of people own stock, right?

Yes. But only about half of Americans. Guess which half? (Hint: it’s not the poorer half.)

The argument for tax cuts as economic stimulus, which Paul Ryan keeps parroting, is as laughable as the Laffer Curve. It failed under Reagan in the 1980s. It failed worse in Kansas in the 2010s. It won’t work now. Ryan knows this, of course. He just doesn’t care, because the people who gain are the people who pay his bills. Nor do most of his Republican colleagues in the House and Senate, apparently, never mind the White House itself.

Among the reasons trickle-down economics doesn’t work: the rich are piling troves of cash offshore, where it not only avoids taxes, but it also keeps  massive hoards from fueling any sort of useful economic activity, besides paying tax-haven lawyers at the likes of Mossack Fonseca, Appleby and so many others. Economist Gabriel Zucman told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that the global elite have parked an estimated $9.1 trillion in offshore tax havens, the USA Today reports. (That the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers stories appear to have no legs in Washington D.C. is a testament to the role of money in American politics. But when one percent of the human population controls 51 percent of the world’s resources, I suppose these things happen.)

In addition, the plan now is to wipe out the estate tax, which touches only the very richest families in the country (the tax doesn’t apply to estates worth less than about $5.5 million, so only about one tenth of one percent of estates are subject to it). It double taxation? No question. A “Death Tax?” Sure, whatever you want to call it. But can these families afford it? Is the perpetuation of a dynastic elite built on the toil and smarts of the dead a good thing? Does the Death Tax motivate the very-rich to give to causes beyond the gates of their communities before they die, rather than have the federal government do with it what the federal government will?

The great irony here is that the Republican leadership is willing to go $1.5 trillion further into debt to pay for it all, which will disproportionately burden future generations of the non-rich masses. If they could drag us further into debt to enrich their wealth puppet masters without requiring a single Democratic vote to do so, they no doubt would have.

Dems are derided as tax-and-spend. This is at least rational. Republicans, supposedly the fiscal hawks, now seem happy to spend without the tax part – spending money we don’t have, to benefit people who don’t need it, at the expense of the children of those who do. This is an upside-down, twisted world, where facts no longer seem to matter, just so long as you stay on message. The fact that it actually works – that we elect and reelect the sorts of people capable of such behavior and the policy monstrosities that emerge from it – is our own fault.

Meanwhile, the Republicans we as a body politic were foolish enough to put in high office blast their leaves into the streets, hoping nobody notices.

U.S. renewable energy forecasters got it *slightly* wrong, turns out

Solar panel installation

Our (or technically Sunrun’s) solar panels during installation on July 13, 2010. The U.S. Energy Information Administration did not predict this.

The future didn’t look much like we thought it would.

I’m not talking about flying cars or colonies on Mars – although those two are looking promising at the moment.

In 2006, the U.S. Energy Information Administration laid out its predictions for renewable energy installations a decade hence. Its prognosticators extrapolated out the curves of past performance and divined 0.8 gigawatts of U.S. solar capacity by 2016. With wind, they were a bit more bullish, predicting 17 gigawatts of turbines spinning away. (A gigawatt is roughly what a big coal-fired power plant can produce, capacity factors aside.)

They were off by just a touch.

As InsideClimateNews reported yesterday, the United States had an installed solar capacity of about 37 gigawatts last year, about 46 times higher than the EIA had guessed. This country installed 14 gigawatts of solar in 2016 alone.

Solar grew from a tiny base. Wind had a better foothold in 2006, so the projection wasn’t quite as far off: the 82 gigawatts of turbines in the United States was merely five times higher than the EIA had estimated.

The 45 percent plunge in coal-fired generation wasn’t on their radar, either.

This isn’t about assailing the EIA. Who could have predicted the fracking boom, which turned utilities off to coal and on to natural gas? Or the rise of Solar City, Sunrun and other solar-panel leasing programs. The EIA had no more clue than I did that I’d have Sunrun panels on my roof as of 2010, or that Chinese manufacturers would come to produce panels so cheaply.

Perhaps proposed tariffs on those panels with grind the progress to a halt. Or, perhaps, Tesla’s Nevada battery gigafactory and the proliferation of electrified, self-driving cars will put panels on many more rooftops (and high-voltage plugs in many more garages), and stoking the trend further beyond the imaginations of actuarial bureaucrats. With regime change in 2020, national politics could become a tailwind again. Elon Musk, in addition to vastly increasing the odds of a future with humans on Mars, is betting big on batteries, electric cars and, yes, solar panels – Solar City’s 2016 merger with Tesla wasn’t on the EIA radar, either. Of course, Tesla itself didn’t mass-produce a car until 2008.

The lesson isn’t that Elon Musk’s business hunches should necessarily supplant the products of EIA forecasters. It’s that long-term forecasting, especially when it comes to something as complex as energy markets, is fraught. So there’s reason for skepticism – and, as the last decade’s numbers show, for optimism, too.

Hurricane Irma forecasts for Florida in pictures


Denver’s a long way from Hurricane Irma, but like everybody else I’ve been following it. With events like this one, it’s fascinating to check out the detailed Weather Underground forecasts. With Hurricane Harvey, I’d look at daily rain forecasts of 24 inches, stated without hint of how out-of-whack such a number is. With Irma approaching, the rains can be nuts, too, but the barometric pressure and, in particular, the wind speed curves are the most otherworldly. Key West, above, tops out at 101 mph. Compare this with what I’ve got in Denver today. The wind curve looks more insane, really, until you note the scale at left.

Most striking about Hurricane Irma is its sheer scope. The New York Times-published spaghetti model shows where it’s probably headed…

But these hurricane-track graphs don’t capture the immense scale of this storm.

NOAA’s GOES satellite image from a few minutes ago shows Irma dwarfing Cuba (as Hurricane Jose approaches from the East). The Weather Underground forecasts show how that scale will play out on the ground.

In Miami, technically the opposite side of the peninsula from Irma’s projected path, we get 87 mph winds and close to nine inches of rain.

Not much better in Fort Lauderdale.

In Fort Myers, on the Gulf side at just a bit higher latitude than Fort Lauderdale, it’s nastier.

Sanibel Island, where my wife and daughters are booked for a seashell-hunting adventure in late October, may be largely wiped away. The forecast has the center of the storm passing right over this patch of sand.

Up the Gulf Coast in Tampa, not a whole lot better, though better than Saint Petersburg.

Perhaps most awe-inspiring about this storm is its projected impact on the Atlantic side, 140 miles of peninsula separated from the above targets. Here’s Fort Lauderdale:

And Daytona Beach:

And Jacksonville:

Seventy-eight mph is a lot less than what Sanibel will suffer, but hit 78 on a highway, stick your hand out the window and think about how your roof would fare.

Central Florida isn’t all that much better off, though storm surges at least aren’t a worry. Here’s Lakeland:

And Orlando, if you’re wondering why Disney and Universal have shut down their theme parks:

Even Tallahassee will see 50 mph winds.

Really the only semi-quiet spot in the state looks to be Pensacola, which is basically in Alabama.

Which is all to say: this is a monster event of unique scale. It’s going to take a very long time to rebuild and recover from it.