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Letter sent on May 19, 2016

Future Imperfect #24: Defending the Rare Earths Pipeline

Welcome to Future Imperfect! This week I’ve been looking at the U.S. defense supply chain, the (obsolete?) 5-day work week, a proposed exoplanet probe mission, and Utah’s burgeoning startup scene.

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Defending the rare earths pipeline

A damning report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, found that the Department of Defense has taken no meaningful concerted steps to either identify critical rare earth minerals for weapon system components or create a secure rare earth mineral supply chain. The challenge for the Pentagon (and Congress) is how to do so in a market where China controls a majority of current production. In an article in Defense One, James Kennedy lays out the path forward.

U.S. defense contractors have become completely reliant on Chinese sources for rare-earth metals, alloys, and magnets — directly or indirectly. The short list of reliable non-Chinese metallurgy companies get all of their rare earth oxides from China and their production is fully committed to Japan and other industrial users. Outside this small circle, there is an even shorter list of financially troubled metallurgical companies that have ongoing quality control issues, limited capabilities, and uncertain economic futures. None of these currently supply U.S. defense contractors. The reality is that all rare earth metallurgy used in U.S. defense systems originates in or must pass through China.
This means that Boeing, Raytheon, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, and all of the other primary defense contractors are beholden to China for these critical materials. The contractors themselves have remained quiet on this issue, though they have privately expressed their fear of supply disruption and loss of Chinese contracts if they get on Beijing’s bad side. Control over the supply of critical materials and enormous contracts thereby gives China tangible control over the financial fortunes of the defense industry. Perhaps this also helps explain the Pentagon’s unwillingness to force a solution.

As China continues to expand its influence into the South China Sea, as well as in other areas of interest to American economic and security interests, we see repeated calls from within various U.S. government agencies for leaders to push back where possible. Ultimately, rare earths aren’t “rare”—there are deposits within the United States; however, Congress may need to act to make it more economically feasible for mining companies to ramp up production.


Thursday is the new Friday

Is it time for us to revisit the value of the 5-day workweek? Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, examines the prospect in a recent blog post.

The standard work week is 40 hours — 8 hours a day for five days a week. It’s been that way for a long time. Back in 1900, the typical factory worker spent 53 hours on the job, more than a third more hours than we spend today. The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938, and set maximum hours at 40 per week. Amazingly, more than three quarters of a century after passage of the FLSA, there has been no further decline in the standard work week. Not only has the legal standard remained unchanged, but 40 hours has become the social and cultural norm.
What’s going on here? Economists predicted that as we became more prosperous we would choose to work fewer hours. That hasn’t happened. Instead we have kept on working at about the same pace as we did earlier in our history, but have poured all of the gains from productivity growth into ever-higher levels of consumption — bigger houses, more electronic gadgets, fancier cars. With increased prosperity, people are buying more and more stuff, but they don’t have any more time to enjoy it. A reduction in the standard work week would improve the quality of life, especially for those in hourly jobs who have benefitted hardly at all from economic growth in recent decades.

As Sawhill notes, we shouldn’t pretend that the 5-day week is anything other than a recently defined norm. There is nothing inherently superior to it, and there seems to be more evidence to say that we are being inefficient with our time as a society. I mean come on, most of us are still working in offices in an era of always-on digital communication. Maybe this means 4 10-hour days, or maybe it means totally stripping out the concept of a 40-hour work week entirely. All in all, we should be open to at least a little bit of experimentation.


Next Stop: Exoplanets?

Philip Lubin, physics professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara, argues that the next big space program isn’t Mars, it’s far beyond:

Drawing on recent advances in photonics and electronics, we could use arrays of lasers to accelerate miniature probes (the size and mass of a semiconductor wafer, weighing less than one ounce) to unprecedented velocities. Particles of light, or photons, have no rest mass but they carry energy and momentum. Just as a sailboat can be propelled by the wind, light sails can ride the momentum of photons by reflecting a wind of intense laser light. We call such focused beams of light ‘directed energy’.
Inconceivable as it might seem, people alive today could some day see direct pictures of planets around nearby stars, perhaps glimpsing lands that will be colonised by later generations. There is a lot of work ahead. We need to build larger and more powerful laser arrays; understand the associated problems; and fold this knowledge into next-generation systems until we reach our goal. At the same time, we need to develop wafer-scale spacecraft, low-mass sails and laser communication systems. Doing all this will cost billions of dollars, but we already spend billions of dollars on space exploration every year (not to mention the hundreds of billions on defence and technology development).
Our published ‘roadmap’ to interstellar flight shows the way. The Breakthrough Starshot programme allows us to start developing the key technology. We can achieve this future, and we can begin now.

One caveat to this: Although this is an exciting concept, Ethan Siegel reminds us that we shouldn’t pack our bags quite yet:

The difficulties with implementing and scaling this type of system — and in particular, of the power, collimation, and usefulness of the lasers as they reflect off of a still-theoretical laser sail — may prove to be many decades or even centuries off, if they’re even feasible at all.
It’s worth investing in and trying out, for certain. Laser propulsion may yet be the future of spaceflight, and the technology that finally takes us to the stars. But it isn’t the present of spaceflight, and the obstacles to overcome are highly formidable. We should absolutely try this path and go for it, but it’s by no means a slam-dunk. The Universe beckons to us, and it’s an absolutely tantalizing possibility that we may be able to see a revolution in how we get there. But it’s also incredibly important to be realistic about the technology we have today, and the challenges we face to get to where we want to be. Laser propulsion may be humanity’s best bet given the technology we know exists today, but it’s a long way from sending us to the stars.

If you know me, you know that I’m a fervent supporter of space funding. A fraction of a percentage of the annual federal budget (roughly 0.5 percent today) is a small price to pay to work toward the ultimate goal of establishing a permanent human presence on another planet. The first step? Actually scouting what’s out there!


When worlds collide

What happens when startup culture moves out of Silicon Valley? You get what you see happening right now in Utah—here we have Caroline O'Donovan via Buzzfeed:

Weber’s office is not in Silicon Valley. It’s not even in California. Instructure, along with over 5,000 other tech companies, is located in Utah. Specifically, it’s in a corporate park in Cottonwood Heights, southeast of Salt Lake City — when Coates nearly lit his staff on fire with a flamethrower, he didn’t do it amid the low-lying scrubland of Santa Clara or Palo Alto, but against the backdrop of the regal Wasatch Mountains. But sitting in a massive conference room talking about open floor plans, a war for developer talent, and the benefits of offering unlimited vacation days, it’s easy to believe Weber when he looks you in the eye and says, “Utah and San Francisco are more similar than people realize.”

There’s something to be said for the huge opportunities for startups in second-order cities and even rural areas—beyond the New Yorks and San Franciscos of the United States. My mind immediately goes to an article I read in BackChannel last year: Canary in the Code Mine. Then, as now, the transition is not seamless.

Tech may never overtake Mormonism as the culture Utah is known for. But it’s a swiftly growing industry in the state, and both the perks and the drawbacks are beginning to rear their heads in Provo office parks and Salt Lake City startup incubators. Executives say that Utah is about 10 years behind Silicon Valley, and they’re working like mad to catch up. But the scene Utah’s modeling itself after has some decidedly un-Utahn values. In chasing after California’s eye-popping valuations and thriving tech scene, the Beehive State is also at risk of importing the sometimes greedy, homogeneous, exclusive, and work-obsessed culture Silicon Valley has become known for. With rents on the rise, its own brand of tech bro, and growing concerns over the state’s changing way of life, maybe it already has.

“The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism”

Have you heard of The Battle of Fort Hollow? Maybe give it a year or two. Great stuff as always from Motherboard’s Terraform:

It started in detention.
Roy was serving for mouthing an ill-timed will-you-date-me query to Betty Franklin in the middle of Professor Cherington’s history lesson on the dark period before The Long War. “Not here you don’t,” and out came the yellow slip. It was his first detention. No talking, looking, miming, or otherwise communicating during the full 180 minutes. Breaking the rule was grounds for another detention. Rumor had it that a couple punks stretched their first detention into years, and that one of them never came out again. So when a mysterious note seemed to materialize out of the air and land on his desk, Roy instinctively palmed it and waited until he got home to take a look.
That night, in his locked bedroom, under the covers, away from the Eye, he opened it. Inside was a scrawled map of The New Confederacy, with The Wall, as always, creating its border. Roy had once seen The Wall, in person, on a mandatory fifth grade field trip. The very tippity-top of it, at least, in the far distance, since their trip had ended at the outermost guard post due to an unfortunately timed red alert.
“Probably someone trying to climb over,” Cherington had said, which was a regular phenomenon, according to his older classmates, who’d also complained about their trips being ruined as well. “Have more freedom here, and they want in.”
The note showed more than just the country’s outline, though. Inside its borders was a bubble, and within it the word “UserID,” followed by a series of random-looking numbers. A dozen arrows spread methodically outward from the bubble, past The Wall’s various sides to points beyond. Roy memorized the numbers, but wouldn’t dare try them on the connection at home or school. Punishment for tinkering with The Web was far worse than regular detention. So, he waited for Reenactment.

GIF of the Week: The architectural history of New York in 15 seconds

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