Sedate Sunday: NIF Fusion Breakthrough, UC Strike Settled, Nuclear Investments Thrive

As a sum up to an eventful week, LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) announced that they had achieved fusion ignition. “LLNL’s experiment surpassed the fusion threshold by delivering 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy to the target, resulting in 3.15 MJ of fusion energy output, demonstrating for the first time a most fundamental science basis for inertial fusion energy (IFE).” The facility is impressive, using 192 lasers coordinated to burst on a tiny deuterium-tritium capsule.

The media was less impressed: “We are still a very long way from having nuclear fusion power the electric grid, experts caution. The US project, while groundbreaking, only produced enough energy to boil about 2.5 gallons of water, Tony Roulstone, a fusion expert from the engineering department at the University of Cambridge, told CNN.” 

Given all the years and planning and building and incredible cost, the NIF wasn’t just a cool way to try to bootstrap fusion ignition as a clean energy source. As physicist Bob Rosner, University of Chicago and former director of the Argonne National Laboratory, stated in an interview with John Mecklin at the Bulletin of the the Atomic Scientists, “The folks who succeeded so splendidly in attaining ignition and self-sustained fusion on December 5 were not part of DoE’s fusion energy program (which sits in the DoE Office of Science Office of Fusion Energy Sciences); they’re working instead for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which manages our nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.”

What’s all this got to do with nuclear weapons? Well, in the late 1980s there was a lot of pressure to ban underground nuclear testing, and it succeeded. So now, how do you certify that your nuke work as advertised? “NNSA decided to build new experimental facilities (one of which was the National Ignition Facility), efforts were made to construct new simulation codes to help certify the weapons, and investments were made in new generations of advanced computers that these codes required and could run on. And NIF was meant to, in part, validate the design code approaches used for the weapons.  Before NIF was even completed, they chose a target experiment that—in combination with simulation codes advances—could demonstrate that we knew what we were doing.”

When William and I ran Symmetric Computer Systems in the 1980s, we sold Symmetric 375 computers to LLNL precisely for this reason. As William had a unique security clearance due to his earlier work at NASA, he was asked to examine the simulations and correct any issues with the Fortran compiler supplied with the computers – which was done. Later, when they switched to Sun Microsystem computers, they continued to call us about “Fortran compiler issues” in our systems which didn’t exist. When we told them we found no errors, they admitted it wasn’t our 375 computers that were the problem. Instead, they tried to get us to fix Sun’s Fortran compiler because the Sun people “wouldn’t return our calls”. We told them, nicely, to either buy more 375 computers or take a flying leap. They chose the leap. I suspect the compiler errors delayed their simulation work for about 5 years. Such is the cost of cheapness.

In other news, the long strike of UC workers is over. Graduate students, postdocs and academic researchers are the backbone of the university, but as the cost of living has skyrocketed, pay has stagnated. I’m pleased to see UC is finally dealing with this issue fairly.

Given the NIF breakthrough, perhaps it’s only fair to review the $3.4B in nuclear investments this year. According to Crunchbase, one major player, Bill-Gates backed TerraPower, raised $750M in it’s most recent round. TerraPower uses molten salt reactor technology. Dr. Shu, Professor Emeritus at Berkeley, did a talk back in 2016 at Microsoft on his patented two-fluid molten salt breeder reactor (2F-MSBR) using thorium which I found quite interesting (yes, William and I were there). Dr. Shu felt that this was the only way to combat climate change and save the planet in his lifetime.

As to fusion, even though the NIF has had billions of investment over decades and has only now achieved scientific energy breakeven, there is still a lot of money involved in seeing it through: “The biggest single fusion investment came in December, when Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Commonwealth Fusion Systems raised a huge round of more than $1.8 billion led by Tiger Global and also included investments from Bill Gates, Marc Benioff’s Time Ventures and about two dozen others. Just before that, in early November, Everett, Washington-based Helion Energy closed a $500 million Series E led by Sam Altman—with an opportunity for an additional $1.7 billion tied to reaching performance milestones.”

Expect even more money thrown into conventional and fusion energy investments after NIF’s announcement. 

Fun Friday – If a Sequoia Falls in an Angry Forest of Limiteds, Does it Care? Martian Craters and the Lives of Eels!

Firstly and most importantly, there is a fascinating article about the eels returning to the Sargasso Sea to reproduce in Smithsonian Magazine that I highly recommend reading. Eels have played a part in literature, myth and cuisine for eons, but little is yet known about their life cycle. I wonder how they feel, after living so many years in brackish shoreline and fresh waters, making the long journey back to the salty sea to spawn and die? Do they miss it? Do they want to leave? What do they dream?

From the deep seas to the starry skies, one can learn a bit about crater counting to determine (roughly) geologic events. This technique, first devised for lunar geology, can with caveats be applied to Mars. So what are you waiting for? Count those craters!

Finally, out in Silicon Valley venture land, the crypto fallout continues, with one of the most powerful and ruthless venture firms on Sand Hill Road diving into the foxhole. According to Bloomberg, “Sequoia Capital wrote down the full value of its $214 million investment in FTX only weeks after hailing the founder of the embattled cryptocurrency exchange as a “legend” with a “savior complex.”” Ouch!

This especially must bite all the other investors who in June 2021 let Sequoia lead them down the merry path of a $1B investment round. How times, and valuations, change.

Since then, while man-child Mr. Bankrupt, er, Bankman-Fried, who obstensibly ran FTX and is incidentally the spawn of law professors from Stanford — an investment fund that also runs a university — has been running around begging understanding of his plight, Sequoia decided to handle this disgrace by sacrificing one of their lesser lights to the Gods of Mammon — even though poor Divya Gupta wasn’t even at Sequoia when they led that fateful round in 2021. Heck, he hardly had the chance to get his feet moist, as it were, before things collapsed. Ah well, at least they don’t make them walk the plank anymore (I think). 

Partner Alfred Lin, Mr. FTX is Swell, had the pleasant duty of apologizing to their Limited for this debacle, whining that they really really really did their diligence (snort) and that they were misled (hahahaha). 

Sure, it’s absolutely commonplace for a little venture firm like Sequoia to not have the resources to conduct proper due diligence of an investment opportunity and its founder, ignore the paperwork, and glad-hand other venture firms using the “Trust me, we’re the smart money” mantra to get everyone else to dive in – NOT

But they are saying now that they have learned their lesson: “Moving forward, Sequoia partners said they would be more cautious about making substantial investments in companies whose founders they did not have a longstanding relationship with for investments made out of its global growth and expansion funds.”

I guess Stanford is no longer welcome at the Christmas party.

Happy Holidays!

Fun Friday: Twitter and the Age of Anti-Innovation

“One lesson that has to be remembered in my line of business is that when an operation is over it is OVER.The temptation to stay just one more day or to cash just one more cheque can be almost overwhelming, ah, how well I know. I also know that it is also the best way to get better acquainted with the police. Turn your back and walk away – And live to graft another day.” The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison

Well, I wasn’t going to talk about Musk, but I’m a bit jealous. First he subpoenaed Stanford University about twitter’s 1995 origins  — a university he claims he spent all of two days at in the materials science engineering PhD program at that time. Then he up and forgot he was going for an interesting Silicon Valley history lesson and decided to buy the company anyway. Sigh.

Perhaps he gave up because he skipped out on paying Stanford their exorbitant tuition and fees by not enrolling, and he’s worried they still have the bill. Actually, this is very possible — my own father attended Stanford and left with a $100 owed them. A generation later, when his son got admitted, Stanford still remembered. Academic debt is eternal. But the boring story is Musk got a better deal and frankly, I don’t remember twitter as an “item” at all. Go figure.

This was a heady five years for me and William: after writing the two year 386BSD series “Porting Unix to the 386″ in Dr. Dobbs Journal and the source code of 386BSD 0.0, 0.1, and 1.0/2.0 , and the DDJ 386BSD Release 1.0 CDROM with all the writings and annotations in 1994, by 1995 we were putting the finishing touches on the first volume of Source Code Secrets while inventing role-based security, polymorphic protocols and new approaches in high speed networking (these articles actually led to a rethink in high speed networking that birthed InterProphet in 1997), and tinkering with CDROM filesystems on a lark. So forgive me for missing the import of this crucial event.

Musk has an axe to grind. Actually, he has several axes to grind. Anyone who knows the history of SpaceX has seen his axe. I assume he was going to bury it right in Stanford’s backside by grabbing any info they have about Twitter and its hapless former CEO Parag Agrawal, but I suppose he’s now quite happy being Chief Twit (not my first choice for a moniker — I think Big Tweeter would be better) and chopping up anything that moves. My guess is he’s now looking for some confirmation of those darn bots popping up everywhere, like heffalumps and woozles. Are they real? Or just a fever dream? Who knows?

But 1995 does stand out in retrospect. It can be considered officially the year anti-innovation became the watchword in investment even as amazing technologies like open source came to the fore. The opportunities for grift on the Internet (don’t forget that “no one knows you’re a whatever” meme) was so compelling and sexy that *any* attempt to disrupt this was taken as a threat. 

Limit the words. Limit the thought. The nastier, the better. No discourse. No remorse. Virality uber alles. (Haven’t we learned by now that virality leads to pandemics?) 

Like crack, the unfiltered quips of just about anybody and their bot was addictive — especially to journalists. Gotta admit, it’s a lot harder to track down and interview people in depth, or attend press conferences, or sort through press releases, or travel to obscure places, or actually cross-check your sources first — especially if you’re not getting paid well for it. Twitter made all that stuff superfluous. What mattered was being the first. “Covfefe”, yeah baby! Deep stuff. Quit twitter? Forget it. They’re permanently addicted, and Musk knows it.

While twitter has an outsized influence on journalists who write about twitter, who else uses twitter, really? Politicians? Extremists? The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City? The most lucrative demographic from a marketing ad sales standpoint is young people, not these people. But most of the kids have migrated to other more trendy sites, like tiktok or instagram. Twitter usage declined 10% among teens over the last seven years according to Pew Research. Heck, even Facebook is doing better than them, and from my perspective it’s been getting grayer along with my cohort.

The problem with a cynical viral play is that things like “making money” or “building a product” are unimportant. We’ve seen that time and again, but twitter was the worst of the worst for lacking even a modicum of humor and humility. Even when they had a chance to build something sustainable for a younger target audience, their tendency to kill anything that smacked of building a real business was stomped on. Virality and viciousness don’t require innovative talent and product. 

One example of their anti-innovation attitude was their acquisition of Vine, a trivial and frankly unthreatening six second video loop site. It was clear by the early 2000s that video was an interesting opportunity. Heck, I was pitching ExecProducer’s Massive Video Production strategy and online automated video production mid-2000s on Sand Hill Road. ExecProducer and CoolClip had much more sophisticated video server production than Vine, with a very different focus. So Vine should have been a no brainer to move twitter into a younger demographic, right? Uh, nope. After four miserable years, it was shut down. In the end, twitter acquired a potential rival — and killed it.

I wish the anti-innovation euphoria popular in the Silicon Valley investment scene would become tiresome. But it’s just too easy to make and lose money. Currently, venture capital investment is sitting on $500B of dry powder according to Pitchbook. Think of those numbers, folks. $500 BILLION DOLLARS, just sitting in accounts, waiting for the next six months flip unicorn. It boggles the mind.

Real innovation is risky. It takes time. We can’t flip a startup in six months doing real code, real hardware, real systems. It takes time to convince customers to try our stuff. It takes time to shake out the bugs. But it’s also a heck of a lot of fun and necessary.

Because sometimes the grift really does end. And you don’t want to be there when it does.