How Did We Get Here? (edited)

Mylec Z2820 Hockey Stick

The appalling spectacle unfolding in Washington seems to demand explanation, and pundits are more than eager to fill the void. I think we all are trying to figure out the route from what seemed to be an orderly society into what seems to be chaos. What went wrong? What could have been different? What should we do to stop the bleeding?

As my son has taught me, when dealing with complex systems involving human behavior identifying in any detail which threads of past events have led to the current state of things is impossible; discerning in any detail how various threads of events are interacting to produce the current situation is impossible; and prediction in any detail is futile.

But if you back off from the detail, structure emerges even in very complex systems, and it is by placing current events in a matrix of emergent global processes that we can make some sense out of the chaos.

If you graph the most important phenomena supporting global civilization, you often come up with something resembling Al Gore’s famous “hockey stick” graph that predicted global warming (which turns out to be quite accurate). Pollution, water usage, urban development, resource extraction, species extinction, travel, trade, communication, technology, invasive species, likelihood of global pandemics, urban life, cost of extending life, the number of consumer good wrapped in plastic – all seem to be accelerating toward a peak. Even processes like population growth, with slowing growth rates, still are growing at a high rate.

Three simple facts define our future. First, global civilization is a finite system because the earth’s near-surface resources upon which civilization depends are finite. Second, a finite system cannot continue to grow unless you redefine growth to mean change within sustainable limits (whatever you think they are). Third, nearly all processes within global civilization depend upon continued growth.

So I think we need to look at political and social chaos as the unpredictable details of a predictable unraveling of global civilization. I go on and on about this subject in other essays, and since all I accomplish is making the reader feel bad, plus I may be wrong, I guess the best approach is for all of us to drop back and come up with theories about how we got here. A theory a day keeps reality at bay!

Home Sweet Home

Living room in our new home at move-in. The rest of the house is similar.

We have finally moved and are in a state of shock at seeing how much stuff we own. The new house is considerably smaller than our previous one, and despite having given away or sold what seemed like vast amounts of stuff, we are not going to fit. More down-sizing is in order!

On the plus side, Charlottesville has many cultural resources that are easily accessible. Weather is problematic: we are having mid-summer weather in October. Living a normal life down here is only possible with air conditioning – we are in that respect bionic.

I am reading “Behave” by Robert Sapolsky, which is a fantastic book about which I plan to write a review as soon as we achieve some semblance of domestic order.


Who Needs Function?


Despite being retired, I maintain my Massachusetts architect’s license. $125 a year allows me to add RA to my name and seems a small price for the privilege of officially calling myself an architect. There is a catch, familiar to most professionals: I must acquire 12 “Continuing Education Units” or CEU’s to maintain my license.

For many years I was privileged to teach a summer seminar at Harvard with my friend and colleague Bill Rose, in which architects in need of CEU’s paid dearly to spend 3 days listening to us lecture and enjoying the pleasures of Cambridge. Those days are long gone: today all one needs to do is read an article on the Architectural Record website, pass a 10-question quiz and bingo, you get a PDF certificate for 1 CEU. You can refer to the article during the test, and if you don’t pass they show you which questions you missed so you can try again. This year I forgot to renew until the last possible day, so had to speed-read 12 boring articles to log my CEU’s in time. This took about 6 hours.

Architectural Record and Architect (the journal of the American Institute of Architects) are the only American architectural magazines left standing (discounting Architectural Digest, a vanity magazine focused on interiors). When I was in school and apprenticing there were four. The best of them, Architectural Forum, dropped away in 1974, then Progressive Architecture disappeared in 1995 (the AIA magazine picked up its awards program).

I subscribe to Architectural Record mainly to marvel at the preposterous, expensive, impractical, solipsistic, irrelevant and/or environmentally disastrous monstrosities that pass for avant-garde architecture, along with occasional handsome and well-thought-out works. But one article in the August 2017 issue struck me so forcibly I must share it.

It is the Visitor Center for Park Groot Vijversburg in the small town of Tytsjerk, The Netherlands, about 100 miles from Amsterdam. It was designed by Junya Ishigami and Associates with Studio Maks; I know nothing about either architect. Their brief was to design a visitor’s center in association with a locally treasured landmark, a handsome 19th Century villa. The center was to have a tearoom, shop, information desk and toilets.

Instead, it is a Y-shaped glass-enclosed walkway with a flat roof, winding through the park from the villa to, as far as I can discern from the article, nowhere in particular. It was influenced by and somewhat resembles the SANAA structure at Grace Farms in New Canaan Connecticut, which I recently visited. However, unlike the open SANAA structure, it is completely enclosed, the roof supported by glazed walls on both sides, something of a technical feat. Both are curving walkways that purportedly blend into the landscape (a favorite conceit of architects who plant structures in the middle of nice parks). Being fully enclosed, it had to be mechanically heated, ventilated and air conditioned.

The punch line, quoted from the article:

” ‘We asked for a functional building, and the pavilion is not functional,’ admits the park manager Audrey Sielstra in a matter-of-fact way. ‘If you look at it in practical terms, the building is problematic [!]. Yet a practical building requires walls for each separate program, and that would clash with the landscape [Grace Farms has subterranean bathrooms and mechanical spaces and fully glazed above-ground enclosures]. What Kums and Ishigami designed is an artwork. In order to use this artwork as a building, people need to be creative, and that, I think, is very beautiful,'”


Revolutionary Science During My Lifetime

Lockwood-Mathews Mansion, Norwalk CT.

During my 81 years, many scientific discoveries have struck me as remarkable. This is my personal list, and doesn’t purport to identify all that are truly revolutionary, only those that dramatically changed how I think about the world. Typically, I would hear about these discoveries through Scientific American, which I have read faithfully for the last 65 years, and through books aimed at the informed layperson. Sometimes I hear about them directly from scientists; most often, they cross my attention two or more years after they appear in the scientific literature.

Sadly, magazines that try to popularize science are caught in the crossfire between the growing complexity of significant discoveries, the right-wing attack on science in general and evolution in particular, competition from visual media, lack of training among scientists on presenting material to the public, and the reduced attention span of their potential readership. The response of Scientific American is that articles are often written by science writers instead of the scientists themselves, excess coverage is given of “sexy” subjects such as extraterrestrial planets and cosmology, and complex subjects are dumbed down to the point of incomprehensibility. I have almost given up on Scientific American.

New Tools

Throughout my life, the technology for making scientific observations has developed at an accelerating pace. In the typical case, theoretical advances follow breakthroughs in the sensitivity of scientific tools: more powerful telescopes and microscopes, computers and electronics, spacecraft, rapid gene sequencing, finer instruments, more powerful particle accelerators, etc. There is a dialectic between theory and the particular tools that are developed: theory informs their design, while new data uncovered by the tools suggests new theories.

Plate Tectonics

I recall giving a report in an ROTC class on Alfred Wegener’s proposal that continents drifted. Despite the extensive evidence he presented supporting his ideas, the geology establishment dismissed his ideas because they couldn’t think of any physical mechanism that could move continents. However, various theorists were gradually assembling data that would coalesce by 1965 into a coherent theory of plate tectonics. It was a beautiful, comprehensive theory that, like Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, made sense out of an entire scientific discipline. It had special meaning for me because the Alvin submersible that explored the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to help verify the theory was invented by and named for a friend and neighbor, Allyn Vine.

DNA and the Genetic Code

In 1953, during my first semester at UC Berkeley, I lived in a dormitory. One evening we were treated to an informal talk by the famous scientist George Gamow (sitting on one of the dining tables), who was closely following the race between the team of Watson, Crick, Franklin and Wilkins at Cambridge and Linus Pauling at Caltech. At that moment, Pauling had settled on a triple-helix structure for DNA, which Gamow explained to us. It was only a few weeks later that Watson and Crick, thanks to the exquisite X-Ray crystallographic images produced by Rosalind Franklin, came up with their theory, which they quickly published in their famous paper on the double-helix.

Later, in 1964, Crick correctly determined that triplets of nucleotide bases in DNA coded for specific amino acids, which were then transcribed by RNA. Like the double-helix, this discovery was accessible to the general reader, and the results were widely published.

Human Evolution

Year after year new fossils are discovered, and gene sequencing has resolved many issues, while raising new ones. Recently it was determined that the ancestors of modern humans left Africa about 70,000 years ago, and had made it to Australia by 50,000 years ago. They had a sophisticated culture, including art and very likely fully developed language.

Another surprise was the fossil hominin Ardipithecus ramidus (nicknamed “Ardi”). Hominins are those species of ape that branched off from chimpanzees about six or seven million years ago and include humans. Ardi lived about 4.4 million years ago and was a tree-dweller that also walked upright. Upright stance frees the arms to attack prey with projectiles, a key advantage that led to the dominance of hominins – in my view the key advantage.

The discovery of Homo floresiensis, nicknamed the Hobbit, was another surprise. Only  three and a half feet high and descended from some other line of hominin, lived until the arrival of modern humans about 50,000 years ago (megafauna also disappeared from the island after humans arrived, as usual).

The timing and interdependence of various key human traits (bipedalism, large brains, opposable thumbs, control of fire, hairlessness, language, etc.) is still far from settled. For example, was the control of fire (increasing the amount of protein in the diet) a necessary condition for a larger brain? When and how did language evolve?

Cognitive Science

The discovery that our prized rationality has little control over our behavior, and that the “self” is an artifact of our brains has had the effect of knocking humans almost completely off our pedestal. Granted that after the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions there wasn’t much of a pedestal left, we still could pretend we were the masters of reason. In parallel we have discovered that animal cognition is far more subtle and complex than we thought.

The Death of Progress

Science has extended lifespan and for the top tier of humans, making life fabulously safe and comfortable. But as we move into the Anthropocene (yet to become an officially sanctioned era) we are awakening to the fact that the dominance of humanity and our population explosion is a death-knell for vast numbers of organisms on the planet, and potentially for ourselves. Global warming, the Sixth Extinction, pollution, resource depletion and the threat of nuclear annihilation have forced us to re-evaluate what we mean by “progress,” since its normal implication of “improvement” increasingly is a source of irony. We had better make some major changes in how we live very soon. The alternative is unimaginable.

I am sure I have omitted a few discoveries that changed how I view reality, but this will do for the nonce.

“The Vital Question” by Nick Lane

Artist’s model, 2016

Occasionally a book comes along that completely transforms how you look at a subject, and this is one of them. Nick Lane is an English biochemist with a gift for writing about complex science for a lay readership. Readers vary in their background knowledge of a subject, and the science writer faces a tradeoff between reaching a broad audience on a superficial level and a smaller audience with some technical background. I think Lane has achieved the right balance, but to present his subject in enough detail to depict the tight logic supporting his findings and speculations, the balance was necessarily skewed toward the technical.

And what an amazing, intricately woven theory he presents! His argument is based on solid findings from a variety of scientific disciplines, extended by careful logic into testable hypotheses to form what is almost a biological theory of everything.

In an environment where genetics dominates both research and its popularization, Lane injects basic issues of physics and chemistry that in my experience as an avid science reader are seldom raised in writings about biology. Physics and chemistry seriously constrain the options available to support life, and from these constraints Lane derives a convincing story about the origin of life in general and complex life in particular.

In discussing how cells use nutrients to create the energy needed to sustain life processes, he brings to life the staggering complexity of the microscopic machines that do the job. In this essay, I will explain some terms and quote Lane’s vivid description.

Organic (carbon-containing) molecules in organisms can be classified as proteins, fatty acids, carbohydrates and nucleotides (such as DNA and RNA). One nucleotide, ATP (short for adenosine triphosphate) is a small molecule often referred to as the “molecular unit of currency” that provides the energy to drive cellular processes such as the synthesis of proteins and membranes, movement, cellular division, and transport of materials within a cell.

ATP stores its energy as mechanical stress in a chemical bond, and releases this energy when one of its three phosphate groups breaks free, relaxing the bond. Each cell “spends” on average a staggering ten million ATP molecules a second, and our 40 trillion cells spend our body weight of ATP every day. We only have about 6 grams of ATP molecules, so they must be recharged with energy every minute of so.

The cellular machinery that recharges ATP molecules is as universal as the genetic code, implying that it arose at the origin of life. The system is surprisingly complicated and counter-intuitive, which highly constrains the environmental conditions necessary for such a system to evolve. Discarding one proposal after another, Lane makes a convincing case that life began within the minute pores of alkaline hydrothermal vents, larger and cooler cousins of the more famous “black smokers” found by the submersible Alvin on the seafloor at spreading centers. Detail by detail, he traces the likely sequence of events that resulted in this universal power plant of life.

The centerpiece of the book is Lane’s proposal for resolving what he calls the “black hole” at the center of life’s evolution. The single-celled bacteria and their archaea cousins – prokaryotes – are the original life forms that evolved early in the history of the planet. While by any standard bacteria and archaea are soberingly complex, eukaryotes – protists, animals, plants, algae, fungi and yeasts – exceed them in size and complexity by many orders of magnitude.

The great puzzle is that in the fossil record, eukaryotes appear fully formed, around 1.5 billion years ago. Instead of the expected radiation of different kinds of eukaryotes, and of intermediate forms between prokaryotes and eukaryotes, there is one branch, one LECA (last eukaryotic common ancestor), seemingly fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, with all the complex machinery found in its descendants. Why did this happen?

Lynn Margulis established that mitochondria, the organelles in eukaryotes that contain the machinery for producing ATP, are descended from a bacteria that was somehow incorporated into an archaea as an “endosymbiont,” “endo” meaning inside (much later, a photosynthesizing cyanobacteria was incorporated into plants and algae as an endosymbiont, the chloroplast). Mitochondria have their own tiny genome that is passed down through mothers; perhaps you have heard of “mitochondrial Eve”, the mother of us all.

Lane proposes that the newly incorporated mitochondria rapidly transferred their DNA to their new host, causing havoc that was only averted successfully on one occasion. Endosymbiosis is extremely rare, and because of the conflict between the genomes of the host and the endosymbiont, most such natural experiments quickly lead to extinction. But plainly it worked for LECA or we wouldn’t be here. At the end of the book he describes a recently discovered bacterium with an endosymbiont, that appears to be developing complexity. Its extreme rarity demonstrates the difficulty for such collaborations to survive and evolve.

Mitochondria are the heroines of the book, and I will close with Lane’s description of an imaginary trip through a mitochondrion by an ATP-sized person:

Take a dizzying ride down into one of your cells, let’s say a heart muscle cell. Its rhythmic contractions are powered by ATP, which is flooding out from the many large mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cell. Shrink yourself down to the size of an ATP molecule, and zoom in through a large protein pore in the external membrane of a mitochondrion. We find ourselves in a confined space, like the engine room of a boat, packed with overheating protein machinery, stretching as far as the eye can see. The ground is bubbling with what look like little balls, which shoot out from the machines, appearing and disappearing in milliseconds. Protons! The whole space is dancing with the fleeting apparitions of protons, the positively charged nuclei of hydrogen atoms. No wonder you can barely see them! Sneak through one of those monstrous protein machines into the inner bastion, the matrix, and an extraordinary sight greets you. You are in a cavernous space, a dizzying vortex where fluid walls sweep past you in all directions, all jammed with gigantic clanking and spinning machines. Watch your head! These vast protein complexes are sunk deeply into the walls, and move around sluggishly as if submerged in the sea. But their parts move at amazing speed. Some sweep back and forth, too fast for the eye to see, like the pistons of a stream engine. Others spin on their axis, threatening to detach and fly off at any moment, driven by pirouetting crankshafts. Tens of thousands of these crazy perpetual motion machines stretch off in all directions, whirring away, all sound and fury, signifying…what?

You are at the epicentre of the cell, the site of cellular respiration, deep within the mitochondria….

I hope you are inspired to explore this remarkable book.

Almost ready

View of Grand Canyon, May 2017, from Mather Point – pencil, actual size

The process of preparing the house (and ourselves) for sale is traumatic in the extreme for most people, and especially for my wife and myself. But we are almost there, and the house will be on the market next week if all goes as planned.

This has been a huge distraction and I have not had the energy to post anything. I have lots to say about current events, and would like to do a review of a great (but rather technical) book “The Vital Question” by biochemist Nick Lane and the more accessible “I Contain Multitudes” by Ed Yong. Both are well-written and up-to-date, and both describe startling discoveries that drastically revise one’s view of life. The books are complementary, the first dealing with the origins of all life and of complex life, the latter the meaning and extent of the symbiotic relationships among animals, plants and microbes.

So I look forward to more posting, once the last-minute crunch is over with and our house is finally in the unlivable state necessary to attract buyers.


The Foundation of Civilization: Trust

Rowayton harbor on a misty morning

A structural engineer friend once told me that you can’t safely use welded steel framing in India because so many of the weld inspectors take bribes. Welding is subject to failure, and trustworthy inspection is the only way to find the failed welds and repair them. Likewise, I am told that LEED certification in India is a farce, as consultants who must verify performance simply invent results for a small fee. Most LEED-certified project in India receive the highest rating, Platinum: if you are cheating, cheat big.

Civilization has always been based to some extent on technology, but we have become like parasites in a technological host, utterly helpless without it. Even ISIS, determined as it is to send us all back into the 14th Century, is completely dependent upon electronic media, along with modern weapons, explosives and vehicles. Shut off the electricity and everything else shuts down.

As the examples from India suggest, corruption that undermines trust also undermines the technology on which modern civilization is based. Quality control standards are at the heart of establishing trust. It is unfortunately one of the least sexy aspects of technology. The procedures prescribed by ISO (International Organization for Standards) are mind-numbingly thorough, requiring repeated testing, recording and re-checking. But ISO is the gold standard of quality control, and manufacturers who meet ISO standards can profitably use this fact in their marketing.

The Wikipedia entry on ISO notes that Microsoft pushed through a fast-track procedure now approved by ISO. A criticism of ISO’s decision to approve this procedure elicited this comment from Computer security entrepreneur (and investor in a Linux based operating system that completes with Windows), Mark Shuttleworth:

When you have a process built on trust and when that trust is abused, ISO should halt the process… ISO is an engineering old boys club and these things are boring so you have to have a lot of passion … then suddenly you have an investment of a lot of money and lobbying [by Microsoft] and you get artificial results. The process is not set up to deal with intensive corporate lobbying and so you end up with something being a standard that is not clear.

Volunteer standards like ISO are necessary but not sufficient in a marketplace based on economic competition. A current example is the Millennium Tower in San Francisco, which as of 2016 had sunk 16 inches and tilted 6 inches at the top. The causes likely were the use of 60- to 90-foot long friction pilings sunk in the unstable mud and sand, rather than 200-foot pilings down to bedrock; combined with the crazy decision (in an earthquake-prone area) to use a heavy concrete frame rather than lighter steel framing to construct the tallest building in the city. I speculate that these decisions reduced first cost, greed trumping quality and common sense, as it so often does. No one knows what will happen to the building in a major earthquake, when the mud and sand supporting the building may turn into jelly.

It is this perverse incentive to ignore reality for short-term gain that requires regulation by disinterested third parties, typically established by governments. The Millennium Tower was built before the city had set up the current structural review procedure, relying instead on the word of the structural engineer (hired by the developer).

It is highly disturbing that our political right-wing is bent on dismantling such regulations. Yes, they slow down development, burden companies with paperwork, and add cost. That’s the whole point, to insist on quality in order to establish trust. The alternative is, in the long run, to undermine the foundations not only of tall buildings but of the technology that holds up modern civilization.

It is ironic that the companies that fund the radical right are themselves completely dependent upon the trust they are undermining – yet another example of the very phenomenon (setting reality aside in favor of short-term gain) that the regulations are designed to counteract!



Hurricane Katrina: How a “Free Enterprise” Economy Budgets

In sorting my papers, I ran across an article I had saved from the April 30, 2002 NY Times entitled “Nothing’s Easy for New Orleans Flood Control.” It described in detail what would happen if a major hurricane hit New Orleans. One quote:

“Perhaps the surest protection is building up the coastal marshes that lie between New Orleans and the sea and that have been eroding at high rates. But restoration will require time, a huge effort, and prohibitive sums of money, perhaps $14 billion according to a study…”

Here are a couple of quotes from Wikipedia entry on Hurricane Katrina, which occurred three and half years later:

“All of the major studies concluded that the USACE [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers], the designers and builders of the levee system as mandated by the Flood Control Act of 1965, is responsible. This is mainly due to a decision to use shorter steel sheet pilings in an effort to save money.”

“Overall, at least 1,245 people died in the hurricane and subsequent floods, making it the deadliest United States hurricane since the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane. Total property damage was estimated at $108 billion.

Free enterprise is anything but!

Bucky Fuller’s Dymaxion Car: What Was He Thinking?

Bucky Fuller was what we would now call a “futurist,” someone wedded to the myth of progress, with unlimited faith in the power of technology. He was also a highly gifted amateur, never afraid to apply his intuition to a problem, but always taking a short-cut to avoid the difficult road to truly useful innovation, one paved with hard won evidence.

He leapt into any endeavor from the top, determined that his genius could solve problems that plagued ordinary smart people who were working in the trenches building from a solid foundation. Now it does happen, very rarely, that a gifted amateur stumbles on a solution to an important problem. Amateurs indeed contribute much, yet seldom without devoting the time to become thoroughly knowledgeable about the science and technology behind the problem they are trying to solve.

Two examples come to mind. The great physicist Richard Feynman, always determined to derive insight from first principles, delved into evolutionary theory and correctly deduced a number of insights, which he proudly put before the famous evolutionist Steven Jay Gould for comment. Gould noted that he could have learned everything he deduced from a textbook on evolution. So in regard to this subject, Feynman was an amateur, and had over-valued his insight in his attempt to make an end-run around the hard work of learning the trade.

In contrast I would point to the highly respected amateur ethologist, Ellen Dissanayake. She never achieved a bachelor’s degree, but by dint of hard work over many years, she self-educated to become a leading investigator on the subject of the evolution of art, and was admitted to the company of scholars in the field despite her lack of credentials.

As far as I know, Bucky Fuller never invented anything that was particularly useful. His famous geodesic domes were a solution looking for a problem (and he didn’t invent them). They were lightweight and could cover large spans, as long as the foundation was circular. They did find limited use covering a few sports stadiums and exhibit spaces, and for radar installations, temporary shelter, and even a few homes. I was involved in the construction of a geodesic dome birdcage in Oakland, California, an ideal use because it did not involve the difficulties in attaching a weatherproof skin to the framework, and took maximum advantage of the volume enclosed within a spherical shape.

Bucky did however popularize a number of ideas that have implanted themselves in the cultural milieu (what Richard Dawkins would call “memes”). He got deeply involved in the geometry of geodesic solids, which he applied to his domes; his name became closely enough associated with geodesic geometry that when scientists fabricated strong carbon materials exhibiting geodesic geometry, they named the materials “fullerenes”. I think his primary claim to fame is popularizing this branch of mathematics.

In the 1930’s, the technology of both cars and airplanes was advancing rapidly and garnering in inordinate amount of attention. Bucky, in his thirties, got a bee in his bonnet that the world needed a land-sea-air vehicle, which would in his view provide people with unlimited freedom of movement.

Putting aside its utter impracticality if realized and the anti-social Libertarian philosophy underlying it, the idea had no basis in physics. Flight then and now requires rigid wings, but Bucky envisioned inflatable wings, along with “slots” for future jet-power of some sort. It was a Flash Gordon fantasy, an adolescent dream.

Acknowledging the difficulty of resolving the flying and floating aspects of the vehicle, he concentrated on its terrestrial mode. With the help of a kindred spirit, the inventor, aviation pioneer and yacht designer William Starling Burgess, he put his ideas for a car together and over time built three prototypes.

As the photos show, it was innovative in shape, adopting the “streamlining” that was being popularized in the U.S. by the industrial designers Henry Dreyfuss, Otto Kuehler and Raymond Loewy. Its superstructure (including the thin members supporting the extensive glass) was lovingly crafted from wood, no doubt courtesy of yacht-designer Burgess. It had an engine in the rear that drove the front wheels, and was a whopping 19 feet long. It had no rear windows and no rear-view mirrors.

For reasons only known to Bucky’s unconscious, he decided that rear-wheel steering was a good idea. Anyone who has handled a cart or vehicle with rear steering, or tried to back a car, knows its fatal defect: any steering error is magnified in a runaway feedback cycle. Rear steering cannot be made self-correcting, as can front steering (with appropriate camber and toe-in). The only vehicles made with rear steering are fork-lifts and street-sweepers, which are operated at low speeds and need to make sharp turns.

Somehow or other, a few highly skilled people learned how to drive the Dymaxion car at moderate speeds. On an infamous occasion in 1933, Francis Turner, a famous race driver who had learned to operate the Dymaxion car, was driving aviation pioneer William Sempill and the French Air Minister Charles Dollfuss to a rendezvous with the Graf Zeppelin when a Chicago official crowded the car trying to get a close look. Turner sped up to 70 mph to evade the rubbernecker.

The official’s car accidentally bumped into the rear of the Dymaxion, causing Turner to lose control of the steering. The car entered its fatal feedback cycle, turning sideways and rolling over, killing Turner and seriously injuring Sempill. Astonishingly, the court did not find the design of the car to be a factor in the crash. If something like this happened today, Fuller would be in prison.

Not only did Fuller promote a fundamentally deadly design, he hyped its capabilities, claiming that its weight was low, that it got very high gas mileage, and that it could go over 100 mph, all of which were untrue.

To get a more in-depth account of what it is like to drive a Dymaxion car, go to or

Here are a few quotes from the latter source:

“With the steering’s self-centering action non-existent and the epic amounts of tiller-spinning still required, crowned roads, bumps and potholes can present life-threatening challenges.”

“…no one in his or her right mind would ever venture above 45 miles per hour because of the lousy handling…”

“So this is the stuff that some automotive legends are made of – a wacky idea, a shameless promoter’s dream and a credulous press, excited to herald the coming of a wonderful new future.”

“Shameless promoter” and “living in an alternative reality” are good ways to describe Fuller (and Donald Trump), yet he remains a fascinating character, and his lectures were utterly riveting to this impressionable college student. Building the geodesic birdcage in Oakland, California was a highlight of my life.

Bucky acted out the same dreams I dreamed, and perhaps I am chastising myself for being unrealistic. I admit that I am being unfair to Bucky: he was a man of his time –  and of mine. And compared to the devastation left in Mr. Trump’s wake, contributing to one death is a small crime indeed. The time was out of joint, dislocated by the myth of progress that still enthralls us.