Book Review: “Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

This is a rather sad and upsetting book, but I liked it a lot.

Washington Black was born into slavery in Barbados around 1820, and through an amazing sequence of events escaped captivity, and discovered considerable talents as an illustrator, marine biologist, and builder.  But he struggled to escape racism, violence, disfigurement, and the perils of being an orphan.

The events of Washington’s fantastic life are amazing. Picked as an assistant to the master’s strange brother Christopher (aka ‘Titch’), he discovers a talent for drawing and learning.  From human ballast, Wash evolves to be a real assistant in Titch’s crazy aeronautical project, and then is disfigured by a Hydrogen explosion.

Events conspire, and Titch and Washington flee Barbados in the balloon. Rescued by a ship, they continue north as fugitives from slave takers. Never fully safe, they travel as far as Hudson’s Bay, to find Titch’s father alive despite rumors. When the father dies, titch walks away into a storm, leaving Washington on his own.

And so on.

He meets an admired marine biologist and his mixed-race daughter in Nova Scotia. Fleeing a vicious former slave hunter, he joins them when they return to London, where they build his vision: an aquarium for the display of living ocean life.

But even as love blooms and his creative work thrives, Washington continues to search for his past.

He never knew his family or a home life, his most important friend Titch abandoned him, he lives on the run from his origins, and with a constant sense of loss.

Tragically, even though love is in hand, happiness eludes him. He trips over his own rootlessness and racism.

He continues to search, but closure is not found in either life or death.

It’s a beautiful but heartbreaking story.

I read all the way to the end, hoping Washington Black could be happy, even for a little while.

  1. Esi Edugyan, Washington Black, New York, Vintage Books, 2018.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Proof!”  By Amir Alexander

Proof!  By Amir Alexander

This book is supposed to be about “How the World Became Geometrical”. That sounded cool!  Unfortunately, the bulk of the book is actually about how the royal gardens of Renaissance France became geometrical.  It is interesting enough, but that’s not even close to the whole world.

His main point is that Renaissance scholars rediscovered Euclidean geometry, and found that, contrary to Aristotle and humanist traditions, there is logical, geometric order in the world. Alexander shows how Italian vanishing point perspective painters showed the geometry of optics that enabled extremely representational painting. At the same time, astronomers were finding geometric order in the skys.

These developments were significant because they seem to show that there are geometric laws governing the layout of the universe.  These Euclidean laws can be proved, step-by-unarguable-step.  They are not only natural, they are logically necessary.

Alexander shows how these geometric ideas were applied to create formal gardens, culminating in Versailles.  He argues that this wasn’t just a clever or convenient template.  He believes that visiting and viewing such a garden communicates the underlying geometric order, and, in particular, convinces the spectator of the unalterable, necessity, of the design.  He makes a decent case that the designers and their sponsors believed this, but I don’t really buy it.

This approach to gardens was enthusiastically picked up by the Kings of France, who built a series of geometric gardens and palaces, culminating in the paradigmatic Versailles.  Alexander’s claim is that the Kings perceived these gardens to be a visual argument, indeed, proof, of their absolutist ideology.  The layout of Versailles is hierarchical, with the King at the center/top.  Every element has a place and only one place.  It isn’t possible, Alexander says, to change even a single element.

At least, that’s what the Kings of France thought, and wanted everybody to think (or else!)

Alexander carries this (dubious) argument forward, noting similar geometric plans for cities throughout Europe, and in colonial empires.  In all these cases, the garden or streets supposedly “prove” the absolutist, hierarchical political ideology of the builders.

“In the early 1400s geometry came down to Earth, bringing the promise of a rational and irrevocable universal order that reaches to all corners of creation.  It made note only modern physical science possible, but also the modern state in all its variations—from kingdoms to republics to empires. Geometry made the modern world possible.” (p. 22)

Alexander discusses one additional case; L’Enfant’s design for Washington city.  The US was definitely not seeking to express a god-given, divine monarchical ideology in its capital.

But, Alexander says, L’Enfant sought (at the cost of his career) to express the divinely inspired, immutable order of the Constitutional federal republic.  This was the ideology of the Washingtonian Federalist party, but there were plenty of dissenters who viewed the constitutional order as contingent and changeable.  This was the ideology of the Jefferesonian anti-Federalists.

While the tension between precedent and popular will continues to our day, the notion that the geometric design of L’Enfant’s streets somehow expresses such ideas is far fetched. The notion that, for example, the US Capital building and White House could not be relocated is pure and utter nonsense.  Nobody even notices the street plan, let alone is influenced by it. (We Americans are too busy loathing each other for such thoughtful observation!)

Overall, what Alexander calls ‘how the world became geometrical’ might better be called “geometric conceits of autocrats”.  And, by the way, with the exception of the US government, all the political regimes he describes are gone now.  And the US itself has transformed far beyond anything L’Enfant could have envisioned.

“Unalterable geometric truth”?  Hardly.

OK, Alexander makes a decent case that the rising monarchies and colonial empires embraced fantasies of divine design, and imagined that their power hierarchies somehow expressed mathematically truths.  These same elites created fantasies of religious, racial, and cultural hierarchies that justified their privilege and violent domination.

By the nineteenth century, the descendants of these ideologs deployed other alleged scientific “proof” to support the political order, including bogus biological and historical “laws”.  And others deployed alternative “historical science” to prove the inevitable logic of Communist revolution.  And so on.

None of this means that geometry (or any science) actually had much influence, except as symbols of “undeniable truth” in ideological argument.  The alleged geometric symbolism of Versailles is, frankly, opaque–to the degree it even exists.  (For one thing, the geometry only exists at certain scales and certain viewpoints–in the eyes of the King and his toadies, but not to others, and certainly not to an all seeing god.)

For those of use who neither know nor care about the Bourbon monarchy, the gardens are just obsessive compulsive extravagances.  They aren’t even interesting.

Finally, Alexander does briefly touch on the catastrophe that befell geometry in the nineteenth century.  Euclidean geometry was proved to not be divine, or even necessarily “correct”.  In its place arose an infinite number of alternative geometries.  And, as he correctly notes, different geometries describe parts of the universe, and there conceivably are alternative universes with different geometries.

So much for the one-true-way absolutism of kings and empires.  Even if you bought the supposed geometric proof of autocracy, you now have to face the notion that there are an infinite number of different possible geometries, all equally valid. No one, not even the beepin’ King of France, is special.

Q.E.D. ?

  1. Amir Alexander, Proof! How the World Became Geometrical, New York, Scientific American, 2019.


Sunday Book Reviews

“Inside Out” Electric Motors

I’ll confess that, having groked the basic idea of an electric motor / generator in grade school, I never thought too much about them, let alone really learn the science.  It’s such a cool and elegant design, and obviously successful, so I just skated along at my grade school level (basically pictures with “magnetic force lines” : – ) )

So I was intrigued by a report in IEEE Spectrum about a new design that could be much better than conventional designs [2].  Wow!

Magnax, based in Belgium is designing a “yokeless axial-flux permanent-magnet machine”, an “inside-out” motor.  (There are other versions of this concept under development.) Importantly, this design can deliver five times as much power per weight, which is extremely important for electric vehicles, and everything else.  Every motor is a generator too, so this concept will be important for, say wind turbines, and other generating systems.

OK, we already established that I know little about electric motors, so obviously I’m no expert on axial-flux designs.

From what I grasp, the ideal is that the rotor is flat against the stator, rather than a rotor and a stator with a (very heavy) yoke. (If I understand correctly, there can be two rotors, flat against each other.) The twinking patterns of flux flow “axially”, i.e., between the two disks, rather than radially between a rotor and an encasing or encased.

Design challenges include mechanical strength (eliminating the hulking yoke), and thermal (the yoke is a thermal soak).  It’s all very complicated.

A key to the whole project has been the development of software to model the physics of these motors.  Three cheers for applied computational science!

“There was no commercially available software that could accurately and simultaneously model the electromagnetic and thermodynamic properties of an axial-flux motor. However, Peter Sergeant and Hendrik Vansompel of Ghent University, in Belgium, have been working on this problem since 2008. Their efforts, combined with several years of R&D and prototyping by Magnax, led to our design and our manufacturing methods.” ([1], p. 42

They report that the design is being developed as “in wheel” motors for an electric vehicle.  This design is potentially much more efficient, delivering more power per weight, greater efficiency, and using less materials. Even small improvements can improve the lifetime of batteries and the economics of the vehicle, so yeah, this is cool.

Nice work, all.

(I learn something new every day!)

  1. D. Moreels and P. Leijnen, Turning the electric motor inside out: A Belgian startup’s axial-flux motor for EVs is small, light, and powerful. IEEE Spectrum, 56 (10):40-45, 2019.
  2. Daan Moreels and Peter Leijnen, This Inside-Out Motor for EVs Is Power Dense and (Finally) Practical, in IEEE Spectrum – Transportation. 2019.

Emissions from 3D Printers

A few years ago, I investigated whether there were health and safety issues with the devices in our local maker spaces.  At the time, I found only a few reports, and they indicated minimal risks. Since the devices were used in a fairly well ventilated space, I concluded that there was little to worry about.

A new report suggests that there may be more hazards than I realized [1]. In particular, the study found traces of hundreds of volatile organic compounds (VOC) and particles emitted by 3D printers that might be used in a home or maker space.  These chemicals are byproducts of the deposition process, which melts the plastic feedstock and fuses it to the work product.

This is a potentially serious problem, because 3D printers have been deployed widely by non-experts (i.e., people like me who do not typically evaluate manufacturing equipment for environmental safety), and in many environments including homes [2].

So how bad is it?

First of all, it is critical to note that there are many different printers available and several common feedstock materials, as well as different settings.  The composition and amount of emissions varies across different printers, materials, and settings.

Second, it appears to me that there has not been systematic testing of emissions from 3D printers.  Many new printer models have been introduced, and the variety of feedstocks has increased.  The results from earlier tests (which I looked at) probably did not reflect a broad sample of either devices or conditions, and may not have adequately tested for VOCs.  If so, then implicitly extrapolating from those results to current machines is inaccurate.

This study does a much more through job, testing six models with different feedstock and different nozzle settings, and different job times.  The researchers also modeled personal exposure to the emissions following standard guidelines.

The results are complicated, but overall they found a lot of VOC and particles (216 different compounds!), though only a handful were found in all cases.  This means that many specific combinations of printer, feedstock, and settings emit different chemicals.  In some cases, this may be due to additives in the feedstocks.  Many of these chemicals are considered dangerous in high enough exposures.

The good news is that the typical overall emissions are considerably lower than a laser printer or copier, and mostly below suggested threshholds.  The bad news is that 3D printers run very long times, and may be located in small, poorly ventilated spaces.  Thus, there is potential for considerable concentration of these chemicals in the air depending on how they are used.

The other bad news is that there is so much variation between printers and materials.  Even if a system is generally safe, using a new material may produce much more emissions.  And the exposure depends on the ventilation of the area.

Overall, I conclude that my original assumptions about emissions were a bit too complacent. However, these printers are generally not too dangerous, especially in well ventilated areas (which is where I encountered them).

The most important conclusion is that these printers should be tested and rated for exposure.  And they should only be used in well ventilated spaces.  And finally, the proliferation of filaments needs careful documentation of their additives and tests of their emissions.

Above all, it is important not to be complacent.  Just because your current 3D printer is not particularly dangerous doesn’t mean that a new model, or a room full of multiple printers, or a new type of filament, or some other change will not increase the risk.

Don’t assume it is safe, check the emissions as best you can.

  1. Aika Y. Davis, Qian Zhang, Jenny P. S. Wong, Rodney J. Weber, and Marilyn S. Black, Characterization of volatile organic compound emissions from consumer level material extrusion 3D printers. Building and Environment, 160:106209, 2019/08/01/ 2019.
  2. Greg Nichols, Volatile compounds? 3D printing has a serious safety problem, in ZDNet. 2019.

OpenLibra – “Not run by Facebook”

Libra seems to be sucking all of the air out of the crypto world.  Right now, Libra and all of its spinoffs have to be leading the competition for the not-at-all-coveted Crypto Tulip of the Year Award for 2019.

This month yet another the Libra circus opened a new ring, OpenLibra (which isn’t even launched, but has already seen controversy) [1, 2] .

I don’t really understand Libra in much detail.  Since I don’t do Facebook, it’s pretty irrelevant to me, and I plan to keep it that way.

But, if Libra is opaque to me, OpenLibra is opaque-squared.

Basically, it’s a fork of the Libra code that is “Not run by Facebook.”  As far as I can tell, OpenLibra will use Libra as its asset (which is supposed to be tethered to some kind of “stable” basket of assets), but will have its own codebase.  The plan seems to be to replicate the work to create and maintain the software, aiming to have exactly the same results. And the value will depend on whoever manages Libra’s “reserve” of assets, not to mention whoever manages the assets in the reserve.

Why is this worth the trouble?

There isn’t a huge amount of information explaining the OpenLibra project.

The web page has a brief manifesto that outlines the perceived “dangers” posed by Libra’s governance, i.e., perceived ownership by Facebook and its collaborators.


  • “will be distributed but not decentralized.
  • Will require permissions to interact with.
  • Will not have privacy guarantees.
  • Will be run by a plutocracy.”

Obviously, being controlled by a monopolistic corporation is anti-democratic, to say the least.  These folks will take the profits and run the system to produce profits for themselves. Not a good deal for the customers.

Finally, the OpenLibra manifesto complains about the real possibility of “Surveillance finance. One’s ability to engage financially (e.g. borrow in Libra) will potentially be determined by their social graph and online activity.”

So, long story short, there are certainly potential problems with Libra.

How is OpenLibra a solution for these problems?

As far as I can tell, the main point of OpenLibra is to open up both the “permission to use” and the control of the software.  The latter is necessary to guarantee the former.

The OpenLibra is intended to be a fork of the proprietary Libra code, compatible in every way, including, it seems, running “smart contracts” that transact in Libra.  In fact, the main point seems to let you use Libra without the permission of the Libra Foundation (i.e., the corporate masters).

In short, OpenLibra “trusts” everything about Libra except Facebook’s management of it.  OpenLibra aims to have a more Nakamotoan ‘decentralized’ governance, while gaining all of the value created by the permissioned Libra system.

In Libra we trust, in Facebook we don’t.” (Lucas Geiger quoted in [2])

Phrased that way, this sounds parasitic, and seems to be trying to get a free ride.

OpenLibra seems to mainly address concerns about governance.  We may wonder how well it will address those problems, given the history of governance of cryptocurenccy.  (How long will it be until there is a fork of the fork?)

But aren’t there many other problems with Libra?

The most peculiar thing about OpenLibra is that they seem to be rather complacent about using the Libra currency itself, apparently trusting in the tethering to the “reserve”. OpenLibra is entirely dependent on Libra for its value. They worry about Facebook controlling access to the system, yet apparently do not worry about the mysterious and opaque management of the reserve.

I don’t really understand how this can work, or why anyone thinks it is a good idea.

There are other risks.  For one thing, maintaining a fork is risky.  Even if there aren’t bugs (which there will be), OpenLibra may be vulnerable to hacking simply because there aren’t enough participants, or simply because the network is open.

There are other unknowns.  Regardless of any technical compatibility, there is no guarantee that OpenLibra contracts and transactions will be accepted equally with Libra.  I can imagine contracts that are written to say “this is only valid if executed on certified Libra systems”.  Running that on OpenLibra might or might not “work”, but might not be honored by all the parties.

Why would such contracts be written? All it will take is one buggy contract on OpenLibra that results in theft or losses.  The Libra network would want to protect itself by simply invalidating anything on the OpenLibra network.

Or, if Libra succeeds in gaining regulatory approval, it could well include a requirement to only honor transactions on the permissioned network.  OpenLibra transactions could be banned as illegal, violating the rules of the Libra network.

I’m not totally sure these scenarios make sense, because I really don’t understand how OpenLibra would interact with Libra, or how Libra itself will work.  But I think you can see the point that technical interoperability is necessary but not sufficient to ride on top of Libra. (Have they talked to a lawyer?)

This is all getting to be quite a tower of speculation.  Libra is pretty unknown, and looking pretty iffy.  OpenLibra is a poorly defined,  very iffy layer on top of Libra.

It’s iffy all the way down.

It’s Crypto Tulips all the way down!

  1. Christine Kim (2019) ‘Members’ of OpenLibra Disavow Project Days After Its Devcon Unveiling. Coindesk,
  2. Christine Kim (2019) New Libra Fork Will Create Permissionless Stablecoin Free of Corporate Control. Coindesk,
  3. OpenLibra. OpenLibra: An open platform for financial inclusion. Not run by Facebook. 2019,


Cryptocurrency Thursday

Inchworm robot out of cool ‘Bucky Paper’

The video caught my eye because this is such an obvious biomimetic ‘gait’ [1].  Why aren’t there many inchworm robots out there?


Looking closer, the new work reported by University of Toronto researchers is in the material that the inchworm is made of [2].  Deformable materials are definitely a hot topic these days, as labs work to discover how to make artificial muscles and other stuff that moves’.

The report describes the composite material which is an Electrothermic Actuator, i.e., it bends when voltage and heat are applied. It has a layer of polymer, a layer of—I am not making this up– ‘Buckypaper’ (a sheet of Carbon Nanotubes), and crucially, the layer where these mix together.

The point, of course, is that applying energy causes the layers to expand differentially, bending the piece.  The design of the layers achieves a lot of bending, as the video shows.  They are able to ‘program’ the shape, and to control the direction of flexing, too.

Most of the details are beyond my paltry knowledge of Buckyology, but one finding stands out: they use randomly aligned Bucky sheets, which seem to work as well as super aligned sheets in other research.  This layout of nanotubes is more like paper or felt than like ropes or wires.

Very cool.

  1. Liz Do, Soft robot programmed to move like an inchworm, in University of Toronto Engineering News. 2019.
  2. Yu-Chen Sun, Benjamin D. Leaker, Ji Eun Lee, Ryan Nam, and Hani E. Naguib, Shape programming of polymeric based electrothermal actuator (ETA) via artificially induced stress relaxation. Scientific Reports, 9 (1):11445, 2019/08/07 2019.


Obviously, “Buckypaper” would be a great name for a band!


Robot Wednesday

“Freelancing in America” Report, 2019 [repost]

[This was posted earlier here]

It’s time for the annual “Freelancing in America” survey from the Freelancers Union*! [2] As in previous years, this is a survey of 6,001 (why not 6,000?) workers. Anyone who report any kind of temporary employment, including moonlighting, is counted as a “freelancer” in this survey. Notably, 28% report that they are full time freelancers.

I have criticized earlier iterations of this survey (2018, 2017, 2016, 2015), and most of my earlier points apply to this year’s study.

This study estimates there are 50 million freelancer workers in the US (by their expansive definition of “freelancer”), which is up slightly from 2018, and roughly the same as 2017. Similarly, the percentage of “full time” freelancers remains unchanged. Regardless of the headlines, this study shows freelancing is not growing.

I think it is important to view these numbers in the context of the historically high employment rates in the US in the past several years. There have been plenty of opportunities for employment conventional and freelance. In an economic downturn, we can expect the number of “involuntary” freelancers to increase dramatically.

Many of the other findings document the work life of freelancers. Many freelancers work remotely, especially technical and media workers. This location flexibility is desirable for workers, and one of the reasons people choose to freelance.

The report finds median hourly pay of $20 over all, $28 for skilled workers. This is shockingly low, especially when this has to cover overheads, insurance, etc., and even more because most freelancers are not full time.

The survey notes that, even in this hot job market, Freelancers feel insecure, and many are preparing for a future downturn. Like all workers in the US, Freelancers have trouble getting health insurance and have troubles with debt and lack of savings.

For the first time this year, many of the issues raised reflect the reality that a freelancer is operating a small business. A proportion of their time is not billable, and they desire more education and training for the skills needed to operate such a business.

On that last point, I certainly agree. For several years, I have been trying to figure out how such training—and, indeed, awareness of freelance careers—might be introduced in local high schools. Introducing anything to high schools is difficult. Sigh.

Nit Pick: The survey makes the irritating claim that Freelancing amounts to 5% of the GDP (basically estimating the total wages of “freelancers”), which they then compare to “Construction” or “Transportation”. Look, “Freelancing” is a type of employment contract (actually, multiple types), not an “industry”. For that matter, some freelancers work in construction, etc. This is a pointless and misleading number.

The bottom line is, according to this survey, Freelancing has not grown in the past three years. Freelancers say that they like Freelancing, and choose to do it. However, in many sectors, especially media and entertainment, Freelancing seems to be the only option available for workers. And the Freelancing life may be flexible, but the pay is shockingly low, and the future uncertain. In this good economy, work is plentiful, but that can and will change.

This is a distinctly mixed picture, and remember that we are in a moment of peak employment. The next downturn will see gig workers rapidly losing hours and pay, much faster than conventional workers.

  1. Caitlin Pearce, The Freelancing In America study shows that the U.S. independent workforce is a political force to be reckoned with, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019.
  2. Upwork and The Freelancers Union, Freelancing in America : A comprehensive study of the freelance workforce. 2019.


*Disclosure: I am a proud member of the FU.


(For much more on the Future of Work, see the book “What is Coworking?”)


What is Coworking?


A personal blog.

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