Next Gen Chemical Fuels (OzAc, Part One)

Launching stuff into space is hard.

Fuel, fuel, more fuel, and a little bit of engines, structure, and payload.

Leaps and bounds are being made that are making it more reliable and less costly to launch stuff into space, but at a fundamental level it’s still hard.

In order to get into a minimal orbit, you need to get your payload moving at almost 8 km/s and raise its altitude by about 200 km. Assuming you launch from an equatorial location, that means increasing the kinetic + potential energy of the payload by 32 MJ/kg.

Anyway, it’s been discussed in lots of places that the high mass ratios needed to get to orbit require either 2 or even 3 stages or extremely lightweight rockets, and in either case your payload fractions are tiny.

The spacelaunch industry is moving in a direction where it relies on three primary liquid rocket fuels: H2/LOX, Kerolox, and Methlox.

Basic properties of common fuels

There’s still a lot of cost and efficiency gains that could be made with these fuels beyond where we are now. But I think everyone would agree, at least in principle, that denser fuels with higher exhaust velocities would be a boon to our spacelaunch capabilities. That’s what I want to look into here.

I have expanded on the above table to show some figures of merit for each fuel that are related to density and specific impulse.

Various metrics useful for comparing different fuels

Volume ratio here is defined as the volume of fuel required to lift one kilogram of dry mass into orbit, with an assumed ΔV of 9300 m/s. Put another way, for a mass ratio Rm, fuel density ρ, and Volume Ratio Rv, Rv=(Rm-1)/ρ. Volume ratio is particularly useful because it combines exhaust velocity and density, with a particular weight on exhaust velocity because Mass Ratio is exponential. Having said that it does in my opinion underweight somewhat on Vex. For that reason I have also included a composite metric equal to Vex/Rv, which has little physical meaning but I think better incorporates the importance of each. For Rm and Rv a lower number is better, but for the composite metric a higher number is better. Note that specific energy is calculated based on the actual mixture ratio and not the stoichiometric value.

Though there are 9 different metrics in the table, each is not independent of the other. There are three independent pieces of data here: Vex, Density, and Specific Energy (one could also choose a different set of three to derive the rest, if inclined). As far as actual rocket performance, only Vex and Density are important. Performance isn’t available for new fuels, though, and specific energy is easier to calculate. Given that it’s pretty convenient that the efficiency for all three is in a fairly narrow range, averaging 65%. That Methlox (the least technologically mature of the three by far) is also the lowest suggests that further gains will be possible there.

Based on all this, the most important number for finding a better fuel combination is the specific energy. In all three cases above, the high specific energy of the fuel is driven by the high energies of formation of Carbon Dioxide and Water: 8.9 and 15.9 MJ/kg respectively. So in order to find a fuel with a higher exhaust velocity, and ideally also a higher density, you will want to find possible combustion products with a greater specific energy of formation. In many cases this points you towards fluoride chemicals. However, I will be ignoring these out of hand as impractical due to the extreme reactivity and toxicity of fluorine gas.

Some possibilities are below.

Note that even the products that are not classified as toxic to humans or pollutants can be hazardous to humans or bad for the environment under some circumstances.

Unfortunately, all of them are refractory oxides: Incompatible with normal liquid rocket technology and also producing solid products. The most energetic are toxic to boot and environmentally harmful to boot. Beryllium and Lithium are also rare enough that it’s likely untenable to use them at mass scale for spacelaunch.

Anyway, it turns out that while there are compounds that meet the energy criterion (If you could somehow run an engine on Beryllium/Oxygen, you might get an exhaust velocity of almost 6 km/s).

Anyway, I’ll cut to the chase here: This is the wrong end to push on. The best answer I can come up with is to use fuel and oxidizer combinations that start off with high energy and release energy by their decomposition.

The best combination I can come up with is Acetylene-Ozone. Assuming an efficiency comparable to H2/LOX or Kerolox, it can likely achieve an exhaust velocity of nearly 4.5 km/s, at a density of 1140 kg/m3. It’s a fuel that’s got both high Isp and high density, and it’s not a deep cryogen.

These metrics speak for themselves. All of these numbers are calculated, obviously.

Clearly this is an idea with issues: Acetylene and ozone are both unstable chemicals that are hard to synthesize in their pure form. This is a real issue that requires substantial development. I will address this more in a later post.

But have a look at that number on the bottom right: The composite metric, which I believe is the one that best combines exhaust velocity and density into a single metric, is over 3 times higher than either Hydrogen or Kerosene.

In the next post, I will discuss at greater lengths the challenges of implementing these fuels, try to better estimate the exhaust velocity, and discuss partial implementations that can also provide partial benefits.

Decarbonize Air Travel Now, With Biofuels

I don’t think biofuels make sense in general, but I think they’re probably the best way to decarbonize air travel and we should get going on that.

Hydrocarbons like gasoline (and jet fuel, which is refined kerosene) carry a lot of energy in a small volume and small mass, and the energy is free (in a physical sense, meaning it’s been there since before time) to boot. Batteries don’t—and for various reasons probably can’t—match that. And in a lot of cases that’s mostly fine. Note that electric cars can now have comparable range as gas cars, but are much heavier for it.

One way to keep using hydrocarbon fuels while negating the emissions is to use biofuels. Plants grow by taking carbon dioxide out of the air, so if you get energy from hydrocarbons made from plants there will be no net emissions from burning them. It’s a tidy solution in some ways because nothing has to change except where the fuel is coming from, which is what many people want, especially the ones who are in charge of everything.

That tidiness hides a lot of issues. Biofuels typically take the form of ethanol made from corn. Corn is, of course, an agricultural product. Agriculture consumes a lot of fuel. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear that the production of bioethanol even produces more fuel than it consumes. (Most analyses put the number around 3:1 Produced:Consumed which is really pretty bad). It also requires all that machinery, labor, water, processing, land, etc to produce. What this adds up to is that biofuels are expensive and can be harmful to the environment in other ways.

Let’s just touch on land for a second. Most people are surprised to hear that photosynthesis is not an efficient process. Commercial solar panels can be 25% efficient at turning sunlight into electricity. Photosynthesis is about 1% efficient at turning sunlight into plant matter, at best, and only the useful bits of the plant can be turned into fuel. What this means is that biofuels at large scale would use up an incredibly (possibly unsustainably) large amount of land.

Despite their small share of our energy supply, biofuels use a lot of land.

It has also been alleged that biofuel standards drive up the price of food. This makes sense in some ways but I’m not sure it’s actually true. If so that would obviously be a bad thing.

As far as airplanes go I’ve been surprised and impressed to see that there are some battery-electric aircraft capable of flying short routes, but the demands of longer-distance air travel are too severe. Batteries likely won’t ever cut it. Some are suggesting we should give up on air travel altogether. And I love high speed rail as much as (realistically much more so than) the next person, but it won’t replace the speed or point-to-point capability of air travel.

So we need a carbon-free fuel to keep planes in the sky. Some suggest hydrogen. But given the extremely danger and difficulty associated with handing and storing hydrogen I don’t think it makes sense to use on an aircraft.

Photo unrelated.

I personally don’t have any other ideas for this besides biofuels, and I think air travel is a good example of an application where they make sense.

First of all, the price of a plane ticket is mostly not fuel. Fuel costs are roughly 16.4% of the ticket price, less than 1/6. The rest is other stuff. So even if fuel prices were to double, the price of a ticket would only increase modestly.

Beyond that, it doesn’t actually matter if you’re getting net fuel. We can and should electrify agricultural equipment. Biofuels are there primarily to store energy and release it in flight, they don’t need to be a primary source of it. Air travel is responsible for 3% of total US emissions and 9% of transportation emissions. This is a lot, and it’s critically important to fix it, but it’s still way less than cars. What this means is that, while biofuels to replace gasoline would rapidly get out of hand, it’s not crazy to use them for planes. In fact, you could probably get most of the way there with the ethanol we’re currently blending into gasoline.

The two best candidates for biofuels are ethanol and methane. They have slightly different costs and benefits but are mostly equivalently useful to the status quo fuel, without the emissions. Biokerosene is a somewhat more difficult possibility but has the highest volumetric energy density and requires the smallest amount of change as compared to current fuels.

The way I would structure this policy is for the federal government to have development grants for mass-scale biofuels, and also to guarantee the purchase of those fuels at a certain above-market price, to be resold at a lower price and used in biofuel airplanes. Going forward you would lower the subsidy while adding regulations that mandate increasingly carbon-free air travel. I think that in a pretty short timeframe you could decarbonize the industry.

And it’s worth mentioning that this works for space travel too. SpaceX uses methane as a fuel in its rockets, and biomethane would be identical to fossil methane, and thus trivially easy to substitute. Kerosene is another common fuel. Given the rapid growth in the spacelaunch industry, decarbonization is a good idea both because climate change is bad in general and because it will help demonstrate the industry’s commitment to sustainability.

Yes, Congressional Term Limits are a Good Idea

Most politically-involved people these days oppose legislative term limits, but they’re overwhelmingly supported by the American people: Voters support congressional term limits by 80% to 10%, including 50% strong support and just 2% strongly opposed. A supermajority of every partisan, gender, and racial subgroup supports term limits. I think the voters are right and the insiders are wrong, and I want to explain why.

There are two main reasons why I support federal term limits, and I want to contextualize this by saying that I believe the rule should be 6 terms (12 years) in the House and either 2 terms (12 years) or 3 terms (18 years) in the Senate.

Term Limits Result in a Net Increase In Democracy

Most of the seats in the House and Senate are safe. Part of this is gerrymandering and part of it is pure political geography, but most members don’t face a contested Election most years. I think about 90-95% of House members who run win reelection and 80%+ of Senators. But it’s the same minority of races that are always contested, the rest skate. And the reason they skate is negative partisanship. You might not like your representative, but are you going to vote for the new face from the other party? No, obviously.

Now this incentive doesn’t exist in primaries, but incumbents have such strong institutional advantages within the primary that they almost never lose. So people in these safe seats usually only have a vote that matters—a real election that is actually being contested by multiple viable candidates—when the seat is vacated.

Term limits force more frequent vacant elections, and so increase the amount of real democracy for the vast majority of people living in places that are “safe” for one party or the other.

Term Limits Force Turnover, and That’s Good

This is the populist case you’ll hear from regular voters: It’s bad when politicians spend too much time in Washington because they lose touch with what the system looks like from the outside. This works in a lot of ways at once so I will highlight just a few that I hope will serve as examples.

THE FILIBUSTER. Seriously, the idea that Senate Procedure is worth anything beyond structuring debate to allow good legislative outcomes is the kind of thing you only believe if you’ve been in office so long that you’re a Senator first and an American second.

Politics is an inherently corrupt business in a really general sense, just by its nature. You have to compromise to stick around, and then you become compromised, an agent of your own survival rather than any idea or group of people. This is true of things like campaign finance, which has fallen off the radar in favor of more pressing concerns but remains very corrupting, along with the way politicians have to balance various interest groups.

I believe that it would be better for more legislators to be more optimistic (you might even say naive) about how politics works, because if you don’t believe it can be better it never will be. I believe reducing the average tenure would help with this.

Both new members and term limited members will be more willing to try new ideas that shake up the system. The United States suffers terribly from status quo bias, and this problem is absolutely exacerbated by long-tenured representatives serving in bodies governed by seniority: Don’t rock the boat, just wait your turn.

The Arguments Against are Overrated

My understanding is that the reason political scientists dislike term limits is that they think it robs legislatures of their best (typically defined as most experienced) members. Sometimes they’ll also say it’s undemocratic because it restricts the voters’ choices of who they can vote for.

Starting with the second objection I think this is reasonable in the abstract but in the real world results in a net decrease in democracy because you have fewer contested elections, per above.

I think it’s also not crazy to say that term limits deprive legislatures of their most experienced members (by design this is exactly what they do). People often go further and say this means you’re handing the body over to lobbyists. I think this is more the case in state legislatures than the federal legislature, frankly. I believe the mean, median, etc., term of office in the House/Senate is much longer than the average state legislature, where the term limits I support would affect almost nobody.

I think something that’s really needed is to invest more in the institutional capacity of Congress. It’s wild that the institution that oversees the $4 trillion federal government has a budget of just $2 billion. That’s wildly inadequate. (Worth mentioning? This is the kind of good-government reform that outgoing term-limited members would be more likely to support).

In any case, I think it’s not crazy to posit a trade-off between term limits and experience, but I think the place we’re at now federally pushes that balance too far towards experience at the expense of people with new ideas. And this is in part why I started off with the idea that you could get 12 years in the House and 12 or 18 in the Senate. That’s a long time! Between the two you could spend up to 30 years in Congress—but only if voters like you enough to elevate you.

There are other, similar proposals (Ranked choice voting and proportional representation come to mind) that have overlapping benefits with term limits. But when you have a policy that will on net do good, that is familiar to and supported by an overwhelming majority of the public, it is both good on the merits and politically smart to support that policy.

Two Paths on Vaccinations

This post was created to preserve a now-deleted thread originally posted on Twitter on March 23, 2021. While I feel that the analysis has held up well, the much greater transmissivity of Delta in combination with the unwillingness of large swaths of the US population to get vaccinated means that full, robust herd immunity as a vaccination strategy is basically closed off.

There are two related but distinct ways in which vaccines help us manage the pandemic: Reducing the deadliness of the disease and reducing its spread.

The trials that were used to approve the vaccines primarily studied the former, but public communication has focused on the latter. CDC guidance on whether vaccines reduce transmission is unclear.

Every vaccine that has been approved in the West has reduced hospitalization and death by 100% against all variants.

Data—even rough data—on reductions in transmission are hard to come by because it’s much harder to study.  There is every reason to believe that it does, but it’s not clear by how much.

My uninformed opinion is that it should be more than the reduction in infection (including asymptomatic), less than the reduction in hospitalization/death (~100%) and similar to the reduction in symptomatic cases (in between the two).

(An uninfected person cannot infect another person, and people who are infected are likely to have significantly lower viral loads, for a shorter time, and thus significantly lower infectiousness—exactly how much lower nobody knows)

Anyway, there are two ways to look at vaccine deployment. The first is that you’re blunting the effect of the virus. Under this approach, which I call harm reduction, you should vaccinate the people who are most likely to die if they get Covid.

You should therefore prioritize the old and the sick, but not young people who are at high risk of contracting the disease.

The benefits of the harm reduction strategy are that available evidence gives us extremely high confidence that it will be effective, and it will have the quickest results of any vaccination strategy on its terms (reducing the death rate).

The harm reduction strategy can also work with partial deployment. By protecting the most vulnerable people first, the first dose does the most work, and if you don’t have enough doses to protect everyone you can still do a lot of good.

The risks are that the virus is likely to continue spreading for longer, which increases the risk of variants emerging. It feels unfair, because frontline workers get no special prioritization.

The likely end result, including public messaging, is that once the most vulnerable people are protected younger and healthier people will go out and get Covid. And it’ll be fine, probably? But we can’t say for sure.

The daily deaths from the virus can be calculated as:


Where D is daily deaths, CR is the true daily infection rate, and IFR is the infection-fatality rate.

The harm reduction approach focuses on getting the IFR as low as possible, with impacts on the case rate being somewhat incidental.

The second approach—herd immunity—attacks the former more than the latter. In a herd immunity approach you vaccinate as many people as you can, almost indiscriminately, focusing on people most likely to spread the virus.

The goal of the herd immunity approach is to vaccinate on a population level—70, 80, 90+%?—so that it becomes nearly impossible for the virus to spread, and it is basically eliminated from circulation.

The most important thing here is to vaccinate as many people as you can, as quickly as you can. To the extent that you prioritize, you want to prioritize people most likely to spread the virus.

This means people in prison, frontline workers, people in large households, college students, nursing home residents (everyone agrees nursing home residents should go first), etc.

The benefits of herd immunity are clear. You can basically eliminate the virus from circulation (or restrict it to endemic circulation among small low-vax groups), and the population will resist new introductions.

This strategy has more unknowns. By how much do vaccines reduce transmission? There’s reasons to believe it’s a good bit but we don’t know how much. 

This strategy also suffers from a threshold issue. Recall that our fall surge was driven by R~1.1. Disease spreads exponentially, and even if the reproduction rate is just slightly higher than 1 for a sustained period you’re in big trouble.only slightly above 1 case rates will skyrocket.  

This means the last ten percent is critical, and the first few shots accomplish very little.  It also means that vaccine hesitancy, even at low levels around 20%, can prevent you from ever succeeding with this strategy.

This is the true risk: While harm reduction cannot fail, only succeed to varying degrees, a herd immunity strategy can fail outright if herd immunity is not achieved.

Looking at the United States, I would describe our strategy as herd immunity by way of harm reduction.  This is entirely defensible, especially given the slow initial rollout.  The UK is similar.  I don’t know enough about other countries to say.

It is of course possible to hybridize your strategy like we have.  The risk is that if your supply is limited and you fall short of herd immunity you may end up with the worst of both worlds.

Speaking broadly, I think that if you expect to have enough vaccines before September to achieve herd immunity in your country, you should try to do that.  If not, you should take the harm reduction approach.

The House is Not Malapportioned

It drives me crazy when people say that we need to increase the size of the House, and I hope this graph captures why:

On the X-axis, you have state population. The states are in order from highest to lowest population. On the Y-axis, you have the number of people in the state per district, as of 2010 (the last time apportionment was done).

708,285 people per district is highlighted on the Y-axis. Why? Because that is the population of the 50 states c. 2010, divided by 435.

There are three reasons that people want to expand the house: Decreasing the number of people per rep, making it harder to gerrymander, and because they feel the House is unfairly apportioned between the States.

I have mixed opinions on the first two and won’t address them here. What you can see from the chart is that the third is entirely unfounded. The small states are slightly overrepresented but the big ones (and even the medium and medium-small ones) aren’t underrepresented!

The small states, being small, do not have a meaningful impact on the composition of the body as a whole. The ratio between the representation of Wyoming and California *does not matter* if neither state is meaningfully underrepresented.

We Need Medicare for All

This post was created to preserve a now-deleted thread originally posted on Twitter on October 9, 2020.

Biden’s healthcare plan will cover 97% of Americans, and Medicare for all will cover 100%. The difference is 10 million people, and that’s a big fucking deal.

But we should also talk about the ways that Medicare for All will benefit the 97% of people that both plans cover.

Under Medicare for All, There is No Such Thing as an Out-of-Network Doctor or Hospital

This means you’ll have more choice in which doctors you can see and which facilities you can go to. It means you will never be hit by a surprise out-of-network bill because of complicated rules that nobody could be expected to know. It means that you won’t have to find a new doctor because you changed your insurance carrier.

Under Medicare for All, Your Healthcare Isn’t Tied to Your Job

This means that if you change jobs, you can keep your healthcare. It means your employer can’t cheap out on healthcare and cut your benefits. It means that if you lose your job you don’t face the choice of losing your healthcare or paying obscene premiums for COBRA at the time when you can least afford it.

Under Medicare for All, Everyone Will Have Good Healthcare

With Medicare for All, the benefits are:

  1. Standardized, so they’re the same for every American, rich, poor, or middle-class
  2. High, so that everyone can afford to get the healthcare they need

Bernie’s bill has no premiums, no deductibles, and no co-pays. While there is an argument for some out-of-pocket payments, they will be low and predictable, nothing like the huge and wildly varying bills private insurance deploys to try to save itself money.

Under Medicare for All, Everyone Will Save Money

A single-payer system has something that our current system doesn’t: A budget. By passing Medicare for All, we will finally be able to control our country’s out of control healthcare spending.

I already mentioned that Medicare for All will have no premiums, no deductibles, and no (or very low) co-pays, and this is true. We’ll pay for it with taxes, and almost everyone is going to be much better off. Whereas healthcare currently costs about the same for everyone, the new taxes will fall more heavily on the rich and more lightly on the poor. This means the average person will benefit greatly from the downward redistribution of income. But even the rich will be better off: Because healthcare costs will grow more slowly over time than in any other system, the total tax burden will be lower over time than the combination of premiums, deductibles, and co-pays that we would otherwise be collectively responsible for.

Under Medicare for All, Everyone Will Save Time

Our current system is a fractured mess, and what this means is that we all waste a TON of time on paperwork. I don’t know about you, but I hate the fact that I spend weeks after going to the doctor wondering if my visit will be covered, when the bill will come, and how much it will be. For me, as for most Americans, financial considerations play into my decision to seek medical care. But if I ask how much something is going to cost, *nobody knows* until long after it’s happened.

I’m not a doctor, and I have trouble navigating our complex system to find covered providers that do what I need. Selecting from the various bad options on an Obamacare exchange is stressful and frankly is not something I am able to do in a way where I’m confident that I have made the right choice for myself.

We will all benefit from Medicare for All, and the sooner we pass it the better.

Looking Back on 9/11

This post was created to preserve a now-deleted thread originally posted on Twitter on September 14, 2020.

This year I’ve seen people starting to reevaluate what 9/11 meant, especially in the era of Covid. I hope that this thread will help to provide context to that reevaluation. I know a lot of people on here are young enough that they don’t remember 9/11 or—somehow—were actually born in the 19 years since.

I think it’s become pretty clear that the scale of death and property damage associated with 9/11 was not enough in the abstract to explain the reaction to it.

9/11 is important because 9/11 was the day Americans (or more accurately a large subset of Americans) lost their innocence and learned that the world is a bad place.

I think this will sound absurd to a lot of people, because if you’re my age or younger it’s always been obvious that the world is not a nice place. That so many people did not feel that should give you an idea of what that era was like.

In 1989 the Soviet Union fell. Russia, the post-Soviet States, and the Eastern Bloc took steps towards capitalist liberal democracy. The fall of the Berlin wall and the Reunification of Germany was a great moment of joy and progress. After Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 70s and 80s China was developing quickly and becoming a key part of the global capitalist system.

Smallpox had been eradicated in 1977, and a global accord formed in 1988 was making rapid progress on Polio. Infant mortality and extreme poverty were falling and life expectancy was rising. The US-led Gulf War under George HW Bush had been quick and (if you were American) pretty painless. US intervention in the Balkans under President Clinton with support from the international community seemed to have ended a genocide without negative consequences.

Global Trade was increasing everywhere, with the WTO, GATT, and more bringing the world’s economies closer and closer together, towards a brighter future in a world united under liberal democratic capitalism.

The fall of Communism had been a great boon to the European Project, with NATO and the EU expanding rapidly into Eastern and Southern Europe. The EU was also making rapid progress in deepening connections between its members, most prominently with the introduction of the Euro in 1999 and preparations for the phaseout of national currencies in 2002. In North America, CAFTA and then NAFTA united three of the world’s biggest economies under one huge free trade area.

At an environmental level, things seemed good: the international community had responded quickly and effectively to science showing that CFCs were causing ozone depletion. In the US, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act had been highly successful in cleaning up our air and water and bringing wildlife back from the brink of extinction—most patriotically the Bald Eagle. Climate Change was an issue on the distant horizon which hadn’t yet started to bite. If you thought about it (most didn’t!) you might find reason for optimism in recent developments in solar panels, batteries, hydrogen storage, and fusion.

Domestically, the economy was booming. Unemployment was low, wage growth was strong and steady. Gas was $1 a gallon. Economists spoke of the Great Moderation, which was the idea that the problem of economic management had been “solved”, and that through monetary policy central banks could level out the business cycle. The Neoliberal Revolution of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s had gone to completion, and the two US political parties were as close to each other on policy as they’d been in a generation or more. The big political issue of 1998 was whether or not Bill Clinton had lied about getting a blowjob in the Oval Office.

AOL brought the Internet into regular American households in 1995, and the new technologies of the Personal Computer and the Internet were seen as engines of progress and prosperity in the coming decades.

If you’ve made it this far, surely you have objections to the picture I have painted. I want to be clear that it’s not one I believe myself.

For starters I have not brought up race at all. All of America’s racial issues were there, of course, at least as bad then as now, mostly ignored by the mainstream (white) establishment.

Democracy in the post-Soviet world was never as strong as was thought. In most cases it was illusory or fleeting. Many Warsaw Pact countries—and NATO members, US included—have since fallen into nationalist authoritarian kleptocracy.

Foreign military intervention fails catastrophically more often than not, as we’ve seen repeatedly in the 21st century.

Free Trade is—of course—not the unalloyed win it was presented as, because the economic changes trade brings about create great harms for communities whose local industries are replaced with imports.

Economic management had, of course, not been solved through monetary policy. Inequality was growing rapidly and the seeds of the Great Recession were already being sewn.

Climate change was as real then as it is now, and we will live with the consequences of unchecked emissions for centuries to come.

To anyone alive in 2020 all this is obvious. That it would not have been on September 10th, 2001 is a great testament to the innocence and idealism of that era. This is what was lost on 9/11, in addition to a few important buildings and a few thousand lives.

This loss of innocence is what we remember each year.

What we learned on and after 9/11 is something that’s always been true: The world is a bad and dangerous place. Good intentions don’t always result in good outcomes. What you don’t know can absolutely hurt you.

In response we launched the disastrous and incredibly harmful War on Terror. A war on terror! As if by invading countries in the middle east we could conquer fear itself, a fundamental human emotion that has always been with us.

Bush and Cheney selected enemies—a disparate group including the governments of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and North Korea—to assemble into an “Axis of Evil”. By vanquishing this group of evildoers we could return to the bliss of ignorance. It feels plausible in a way because that bliss was so close in time.

If a couple of airplanes and a few thousand civilian deaths could end our ignorance, surely unleashing Shock and Awe upon the people of Iraq could bring it back?

Of course it couldn’t. It never could, never has, and never will, and this is a lesson that many people have still yet to learn after 20 years of wasteful, destructive wars.

A Weekend in West Virginia

This post was created to preserve a now-deleted thread originally posted on Twitter on June 29, 2020.

Thursday, August 10, 2017 I hopped on a bus near my apartment in Manhattan, headed to Baltimore.

View of Manhattan from the bus as it exited the Lincoln Tunnel in NJ.

I got to Baltimore later that night and headed for a friend’s place in Mount Vernon. She and I and some of my other friends from college were headed to West Virginia for a long weekend. That Friday morning we swung by an outlying DC Metro stop on our way to Harper’s Ferry. We had a nice lunch and then did the overlook hike, which was amazing of course.

I highly recommend the Maryland Heights Trail if you ever find yourself in Harpers Ferry.

Coincidentally, that Saturday was the Unite the Right Rally. No, I was not in Charlottesville on either of those days, but to understand why that’s important we need to rewind a few months.

I was very annoying on Facebook back when I used it, because I basically used it like a twitter. Lots of posts, lots of politics, appreciated by few (Even though my takes are always correct). In February of 2017 I created a Facebook page called Political Revolution where I posted my takes instead. I encouraged my friends to follow me, but most didn’t. I had maybe 20 followers.

That cover photo is a picture I took at the original Women’s March at the National Mall.

Why is THIS relevant, you ask? Well, here’s why: I had heard in late July that Donald Trump would be returning to Trump tower for the first time in his Presidency. I created a protest event on the page, not even sure I would go myself. I had hoped, at best, I could drag a couple friends with me to yell in front of Trump tower for ten minutes.

The picture here is from the Pots and Pans Revolution in Iceland.

But then Charlottesville happened.

You have to remember that back in 2017 we were shocked to see white supremacists in the streets, that the president taking their side was a new low, and that it really felt like Trump’s Presidency might be ended depending on what happened. We’re much more jaded now, of course. We know better. In fact, after worsening severely in the last few months Trump’s approve and disapprove are *literally identical* today to what they were on August 10, 2017.

From the standpoint of August 2017, the Trump Presidency was a sinking ship.

Anyway, while I was vaguely aware that Charlottesville was happening, I had not read much about it. Cell service was poor, and wifi was weak. I was off the grid having a great weekend with great friends I didn’t (and still don’t) see nearly enough of.

I woke up Sunday morning to see that my event had started to circulate. It started small: A few likes by strangers, a share, a couple “interested”s.

Surely this was not the only facebook event protesting Donald Trump? Surely real organizations, people with names and thousands of followers, had real events they were promoting more seriously?

I cannot tell you why the event ultimately got so big. It does not make sense to me. But these things happen, I guess.

Sunday night I faced a choice: Was I prepared to lead a rally against a man who so richly deserved it? Could I control potentially thousands of people by myself? Should I cancel the event? Could I stop the gathering even if I wanted to?

Sometime on the bus ride home, I made the choice: The protest would go on. What would I do? There’s not much that I could do. I bought a megaphone. People listen to you when you have a megaphone.

According to Facebook’s analytics, literally millions of people had seen the event. I asked a stranger in an elevator if she’d heard of protests. She had.

I got there at 5 PM, before too many people had arrived. Police officers were fencing is into the sidewalk across the street from Trump tower. The crowd went for several blocks.

I estimate 10,000 people came.

The protests were loud, but peaceful. There were three arrests and no violence. I was interviewed by several national and news outlets, including the Guardian and the AP. I’m quoted in this article.

I led chants and we screamed at the building for about five hours. Trump surely saw us as he drove by.

The Young Turks were also there at the front of the crowd doing interviews, along with Russia Today.

Later on in the night a young, white man was screaming at the cops for no clear (direct) reason. I’m no fan of cops of course but we were not there to protest them and I was not looking for retaliation. I told him to stop, and he did. Was he a plant? A provocateur? I don’t know.

Donald Trump didn’t return to Trump Tower for YEARS after this.

History of Same Sex Marriage

I came out in December of 2010, not quite 10 years ago, when I was 17. But the world I came out to was a very different one than we have today.

On the day I came out, same-sex marriage was legal in five states: Massachusetts (2004), Connecticut (2008), Iowa (2009), Vermont (2009), and New Hampshire (2010).

Here’s where the polling stood: A narrow majority of 55% to 40%, thought that homosexual relationships between consenting adults should be legal. Americans as a whole opposed same sex marriage by a wide margin: 44% support and 53% opposed.

Barack Obama, the President of the United States, won in 2008 while being very clear that he opposed gay marriage (which is what everyone called it at the time). He supported Civil Unions instead.

Despite a couple recent victories, the last 40 years had been loss after loss after loss for gay people who wanted to get married, in a country that was deeply hostile to the idea that we should have equal rights. Yes, Democrats too.

I know there’s a lot of young people out there who don’t remember any of this, and I want to do my best to give you all a sense of what it felt like.

Before I jump into the deeper history of this movement I think it’s important to air some dirty laundry. A major, and in my opinion correct, criticism of the gay rights movement is its lack of intersectionality.

For virtually the entire history of the institutional gay rights movement (using the most common contemporary term) the people who had power within the movement were cisgender white gay men, most often working in professional jobs.

This is probably why the movement’s highest-priority goal, legal marriage rights, reflects a desire for acceptance into a very normative kind of Modern Family life, whereas aggressive employment/housing nondiscrimination regulations might do more good for more people.

Entire books could be, and have been, written on the intersection of queer issues, race issues, class issues, gender issues, and the gay marriage movement. This being twitter I cannot discuss everything I’d like to (and I’m not really qualified to anyway).

This thread will mostly cover equal marriage rights because (despite all the people they leave out) they were the main focus of the movement for decades and because they have become symbolic for the acceptance of LGB people into society.

There’s a lot of places I could start this story, but gay marriage as an issue rose to national concern as a result of a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling in 1993.

While gay and lesbian activists had pushed for marriage rights before this, the reaction was, in general, “lolno”. Gallup didn’t even start polling the issue until 1995, when they found that the public was opposed by an overwhelming 65% to 27% margin.

Same-sex marriage was such a nonissue that it was understood to be illegal *even though* state marriage laws generally did not specify that the two people getting married had to be a man and a woman.

This was true in Hawaii, where three same-sex couples (two gay and one lesbian) tried to get married, and sued in state court when they were denied. The Hawaii Supreme Court issued a preliminary ruling that this rejection constituted sex discrimination.

In this year 2021, that seems like a very obviously correct ruling, but in 1993 it was deeply controversial and spurred a national freakout at the prospect that equal protection provisions in State and National Constitutions could mean that gay people would have rights.

After this ruling, the “Defense of Marriage Acts/Amendments” were born. A “Defense of Marriage Act” is a reactionary law that creates an exception to equal protection rules (whether they be statutory or constitutional) to ensure that gay people do not get rights ever.

For legal reasons, this had to start at the Federal level. The Federal Defense of Marriage act was introduced in May of 1996. The Act, which has never actually been repealed, only overturned, has two main sections, both of which are fairly blatantly unconstitutional.

The first section permits states to not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. This means that if New Mexico legalizes, Texans cannot get married in New Mexico and have their marriage recognized by the State of Texas.

The second section bars the Federal government from recognizing Same Sex Marriages performed anywhere for any reason.

Basically, what happened is that people realized that unless they did something gay people would get rights and they passed laws to make sure that would not happen.

The Federal DOMA thus created a framework in which states could ensure that residents could not have access to marriage rights at all as long as they lived in the state.

Hawaii and Alaska the first to follow up with a State Defense of Marriage Amendment. In 1998 these state Amendments passed resoundingly, with 71% and 68% of the vote respectively at the ballot box.

This was also the era when liberals started talking about Civil Unions and Domestic Partnerships. The idea was to create a separate kind of marriage that was not called marriage and was only for gay people, but which would have access to some of the legal benefits of marriage.

I will not split hairs: Civil Unions and Domestic Partnerships are codified discrimination. They are, at the very best, a separate-but-equal doctrine pushed by cowards who are unwilling to fight for what is right.

There is something particularly insidious about a Civil Union, because the people who push them are clearly aware of the discrimination in the system, but refuse to actually stand against it.

In this era, conservatives would say truly disgusting things about gay people, displaying an absolutely horrific bigotry that should be neither forgotten nor forgiven. But liberals would pretend to be our allies while pushing policies that codified the discrimination we faced.

You are either equal before the law, or you are not. Conservatives believed that gay people should not be, and liberal politicians saw a problem with that but decided to pursue half measures that did not fix it.

Civil Unions typically out-polled same-sex marriage by around 10% net approval, but never enjoyed the supermajority support that same-sex marriage eventually achieved. Politicians who backed them sold us out for almost nothing, and gave us nothing in return.

In 2000, the GOP platform had this to say about gay marriage. This is a good distillation of what conservative rhetoric sounded like in this period, and it’s a disgusting and dishonest attempt to hide discrimination behind nicer-sounding words.

Here’s what the 2000 Democratic Platform looked like: Support for ENDA (which I believe did not include gender identity at the time) and weasel words on marriage with no firm commitments.

Polling in 1999 had support for same-sex marriage at 35% in favor and 62% opposed. There can be no doubt that firm advocacy on the part of Democrats would move those numbers, but that advocacy did not exist.

Ten years after the initial Hawaii ruling, there was another: The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in the case Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that the State’s ban on Same-Sex Marriages violated the equal protection clause of the Massachusetts Constitution.

In response, the Massachusetts Legislature (overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats) tried to pass a law allowing Civil Unions with equal benefits as marriage. The State Supreme court blocked it.

Next, the Legislature convened a Constitutional Convention and passed an amendment to the State Constitution banning Same-Sex Marriage, in effect overturning Goodridge for all time.

The amendment passed, but the movement failed, because amending the MA state constitution requires two Constitutional Conventions in two sessions of the legislature. Before the State Constitution could be amended, Same-Sex Marriages were performed for the first time in the US.

The amendment ultimately was never revisited, because we have always been correct in this issue: Same-Sex Marriage helps some and harms none.

The other 49 states, however, did not react as positively. In 2003, Republicans started pushing a Federal Marriage Amendment. Polling showed the amendment would be supported 50% to 45% by the American public. Same Sex Marriage was opposed by 65% and supported by just 31%.

Meanwhile, Republicans also put Same-Sex Marriage on the ballot in 13 states as a means of juicing turnout and convincing swing voters. All passed by wide margins.

2004 Gay Marriage Ban referenda

The 2004 GOP Platform includes this disgusting, deeply bigoted diatribe on same-sex marriage, along with other references to marriage and the family that are both deeply racist and deeply homophobic:

“We want what’s worst for everyone! We’re just plain evil!”

Here’s the brief democratic response: Milquetoast platitudes and no commitment to any change or improvement of any kind.

“We can’t govern! We hate life, and ourselves!”

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.

2008 was a big year. Same-sex Marriage was legalized by court ruling in two states: California and Connecticut. In Connecticut it stuck; In California it did not. The California case was higher-profile, more interesting, and affected more people, so I will discuss it more.

Then-Mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom forced a crisis by instructing the SF County Clerk to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. A court ruled ,this was illegal (in fact it violated California’s DOMA, which was passed 61-39 by voters in 2000).

People sued, and eventually the Supreme Court of California ruled that strict scrutiny should be applied to discrimination cases against LGB people and legalized marriages across the state beginning on June 19th, 2008.

The campaign against gay marriage started immediately. Opponents of the ruling got Prop 8, an amendment to the State Constitution of California that would end same-sex marriage in the state.

The campaign was vicious and dirty. At the end of the day, $106 million was spent by both sides. Barack Obama said that while he opposed same-sex marriage, he also opposed Prop 8 (?). McCain supported Prop 8, of course.

At the end of the day, Prop 8 won, in deep-blue California, just 13 years ago, by a margin of 52-48, on the same day that Barack Obama won the state by an overwhelming 61-37 margin. Marriages ended the next day. National support gay marriage was 40%, with to 56% opposed.

I have every reason to believe that if Barack Obama had publicly supported same-sex marriage that Prop 8 would have failed. He sold us out with a nonsensical position when he could have made a real difference with a clear one. This was a constant theme of his first term.

Speaking of Barack Obama, here’s the 2008 Democratic platform: Big promises, some policy commitments, but virtually identical language to 2004 on marriage.

Barack Obama walked so Pete Buttigieg could run (a campaign based entirely on empty platitudes)

McCain was really no better than Bush in this regard, here’s the disgusting, racist, and homophobic nonsense the 2008 Republican Party came up with.

Fuck John McCain

Despite the tragic loss in California, things were finally beginning to change. For the entirety of his first term, Team Obama described his position on Same-Sex Marriage as “evolving”.

Most people believe that he supported same-sex marriage the whole time, but chose not to support it publicly for political reasons. This is gross cowardice, political malpractice, and really just plain wrong. There is no other way to describe it but to say that he sold us out.

A few more small northeastern states plus Iowa legalized by court ruling. This is the era I came out in, when I first became really conscious of this issue.

June 24th, 2011 was a red letter date in the history of Same-Sex Marriage in the United States. Then-Governor Andrew Cuomo and then-Mayor of NYC Michael Bloomberg made a big push to pass gay marriage through a legislature for the first time in American history.

Not only did it pass the Democratic-controlled lower house, it also passed the Republican-controlled upper house with mostly Democratic, but a few Republican, votes.

Anyone who knows me knows that I strongly dislike both of these people, but they deserve a lot of credit for this. They passed it through the legislature in a big state, created a big win for lots of people, and showed the nation that it would all turn out fine.

National support for same-sex marriage in 2011 was tied, with 48% support and 48% opposition.

This is when things start really moving. In 2012, then-VP Joe Biden said in an interview that he supported same-sex marriage. Barack Obama came out in support shortly after. National support was consistently positive for the first time, at 50-48.

In November 2012, after decades of nothing but losses at the ballot box, same-sex marriage finally won. Minnesota, Maryland, Washington State, and Maine all voted for legalization, overcoming stiff opposition.

I want to add that religious institutions fought us every step of the way on this. Virtually every denomination of Christianity, protestant and catholic, used their massive influence to fight same-sex marriage at every turn.

Frankly, I find the behavior of virtually every sect of Christianity in this long era disgusting. Most are unrepentant; indeed, most branches of Christianity will refuse to perform a same-sex marriage to this very day.

I don’t care to make theological arguments, but the ones they (basically the entire establishment of Christianity, and many of its followers!) made were garbage. Bigotry finds a way.

In 2013, part of the federal DOMA was struck down on equal protection grounds by the Supreme Court in US v. Windsor. This created a precedent where district courts, in state after state, struck down marriage bans on the same grounds.

Finally, in 2015, in Obergefell v Hodges, SCOTUS itself ruled 5-4 that same-sex marriage would be the law of the land.

Today, same-sex marriage is overwhelmingly supported by the American public: 63% support vs 36% opposed.

The basic lesson, for me, is that you should fight for what’s right, because when you fight for what’s right you will change minds and you will win. And when you win you will create a durable win that won’t be repealed after the next election.


I’ve got a fun idea for a science-fictional Faster-than-Light ship! I will be going into detail on it in this post.

The system is based on more-or-less instantaneous jumps and it conserves energy and momentum. What this means is that if you want to jump up a gravity well that requires an input of energy, and if you want to jump down a gravity well energy will be deposited into your ship.

As an example, the energy required to jump from Earth’s orbit around the Sun to a point at Mars’s orbit around the Sun is 324 MJ/kg (90 kWh/kg). That’s a lot of energy! As a point of comparison, a high-end Lithium Battery contains less than 1 MJ/kg (0.3 kWh/kg).

What this means is that you’re going to end up doing multiple jumps, possibly quite a large number of jumps, to get to your destination, depending on the energy difference between A and B and what your onboard storage capacity is. More on this later.

The second key aspect of the system is conservation of momentum. What this means is that in an inertial reference frame (check wikipedia if you don’t know what this is) the craft will be moving the same velocity before and after the jump.

This has some very important consequences for operation. Let’s look at Earth and Mars again. Earth orbits the Sun at 30 km/s and Mars orbits at 24 km/s.

The best case, when Earth and Mars are at their closest, is that you will jump into Martian space moving 6 km/s faster than Mars. The worst case is that you’ll be moving towards or away from Mars (depending where your jump lands spatially relative to the planet) at 54 km/s.

Depending on the relative positions of your origin and destination you can end up with pretty much any angle of relative motion and any relative speed between 6 and 54 km/s as a function of that angle.

I would also impose the following restrictions:

1. You can only jump up a monotonically increasing or down monotonically decreasing gravity well. As an example, between the Earth to the Moon you are going up in gravitational potential. Until you enter the Moon’s sphere of influence, after which you are going down in gravitational potential. Jumping from Earth to the Moon would thus require at least two jumps.

2. You cannot jump to or from a place where you are surrounded by substantial amounts of matter, such as an atmosphere or the inside of a planet.

3. You cannot jump to or from a place where there is a strong electric or magnetic field. Strong here is arbitrary, but this means that it’s fairly simple to prevent a ship from jumping into a place you don’t want it to jump to.

4. Jump distance is accurate to within roughly 1%.

5. Jump direction is accurate to within the pointing accuracy of the ship.

The Jump Engine is made from jump coils, which must be cylindrical and must surround the ship but can be open on the ends. These coils work by [technobabble about gravitational interaction or something]. The cylinder has a fore and aft end.

Fore and Aft are determined by the winding direction of the Jump Coils. Uphill jumps go in the “fore” direction. Downhill jumps go in the “aft” direction.

Prior to the jump, a subspace leader beam serves to establish the landing point for the jump. This beam will emit low-frequency radio waves (f=L/c, where L is the length of the ship) that can be detected. In combo with restriction 3, this means that jumps can be prevented.

Generating the leader beam requires roughly 10% of the energy change of the jump, whether uphill or downhill. Downhill jumps do not require energy input like uphill jumps. Instead, they dump the gravitational energy into the jump coils as heat.

This means that downhill travel will probably require more jumps and cool-off time than uphill travel but less recharging time. Calculate per the specs of your ship.

The rules and parameters laid out in this post allow you to use a jump drive that is capable enough to make for a fun science fictional universe, but also for ships that are limited and constrained in ways that make it very much *not* a magical drive.