We returned to New York. The summer was upon us, and with so many loose ends to tie up, taking a summer vacation was just about the furthest thing from our minds. With some excellent real-world data from our motors, thanks to our paranoia and all the sensors I added to the race cars in Indy, Henry had the real makings of a Ph.D. dissertation. He already had the simulations he’d generated from when he conceived of using layers of iron sandwiched between layers of cyanosilicate to create standing waves, perpetuating current and trapping a magnetic field. However, that was for a prototype that was used as a proof of concept. He now needed to go back and repeat the simulations using the actual motor design that was used in the race.
Once that was done, he’d need to use metrics to compare the simulations with the real data and launch into a lengthy discussion of the differences. It didn’t take him long to set up the simulations to run on the new fourth-generation, mini data center we’d recently installed on the eighth floor. Even with the massive capacity and speed, it took days to run. In the meantime, Henry wrote up the formal thesis proposal, named his committee, presented the proposal to the committee and defended it in front of the entire department. By the time it was formally approved, he had the data from the simulations and proceeded to analyze it and compare it to the real-world data from Indy. Once he was ready to start writing, he set a date to present and defend his dissertation in the early fall. We planned to submit several papers for publication simultaneously based on his work.
With all that was involved with the completion of Henry’s Ph.D., planning a late-fall wedding was out of the question. We therefore decided to push it back a month and hold it between Christmas and New Year’s, when New York was suffused with the magic of the holiday season. We avoided planning it to include either holiday because people might already have plans to spend the holidays with family. Yet people who wished to stay the full holiday season in New York could see it at one of its absolutely most beautiful times of the year. They could even ring in the new year if they wished – with a million of their closest friends.
In many ways, we’d have preferred to have a small, private ceremony, but I’d made promises to hundreds of people with whom I’d developed a bond of friendship during the years of globetrotting. I’d never hear the end of it if I failed to invite even one of them, but that created a cascading effect in which the guest list grew exponentially. With people coming in from all over the world and a guest list that would number in the thousands, we’d need a hotel with enough rooms available and the facilities to hold a very large wedding. We never stopped to think that there are only nine hotels in Manhattan that have more than a thousand rooms, and most of them were already booked for the holidays. We hired an event manager and gave him a budget of five million dollars to work with. Boy, were we naïve!
All we wanted was a simple wedding for our families and some two- or three-thousand guests. We didn’t want anything ostentatious, but with a wedding that large, was that even possible? Right away, the event manager, Daryl, pointed out that if we covered the airfare for all our guests, as was customary, domestic ticket prices in economy would be around a thousand each because of the holidays. International flights would be double that or more. The only hotels still available would be very high end, with rates likely to be around five hundred per person per night, double occupancy, again thanks to the holiday season. Okay, so unless we wanted to hold the wedding at a Red Roof Inn in Omaha, we’d obviously need to budget a bit more than the two grand per guest that a five-million-dollar budget would cover. Apparently, a more realistic budget for such a large wedding in New York started at more like twenty million and could easily end up costing more than double that amount. Good grief!
The biggest issue was that most of the venues in Manhattan were booked at least a year in advance. We’d need to cobble together several hotels to get enough rooms, and we’d have to pay top dollar for the facilities. Unfortunately, that left us with a hodgepodge of rooms and made us think seriously about either postponing the wedding until next year or holding it somewhere else. Daryl suggested something I would have never thought of: booking a cruise ship, complete with crew and food. We strongly considered it until we learned we couldn’t berth the ship in Manhattan. We’d have to dock it in Red Hook, in a part of Brooklyn that wasn’t the best place for guests to wander around at night. For most of our guests, it would be a destination wedding, and we wanted them to enjoy all that the city had to offer.
The prospects for pulling it off in 2023 were looking pretty grim when Daryl called us with surprising news: that he’d managed to secure a cruise ship and to berth it at Pier 90 in Manhattan.
“Are you serious?” I asked as I conferenced Henry in on the call.
“Very. Just don’t ask how much it’s going to cost,” Daryl replied.
“How much is it going to cost?” Henry asked, of course.
“Five thousand per person, with a two-thousand-person minimum,” Daryl replied. Ouch! “And renting the pier will set you back another hundred ‘k’ per day, bribes included.” Fuck!
“So that’s $10.5 million to start, and that’s just for the first two thousand guests,” I confirmed. “If everyone comes, we could have five thousand guests. That’s not likely, but we could be on the hook for $25 million. That’s just for the ship? How big is the ship, and is it large enough? Is there enough space to hold the wedding itself? The reception, too?”
Laughing, Daryl replied, “First of all, you aren’t going to get anything close to five-thousand affirmative RSVPs. I’d be shocked if you get even sixty percent, but fifty percent is a good rule of thumb. You’re inviting three-thousand guests. Because of the season, you can figure about eighty percent will bring their spouse or a guest, and maybe a quarter will bring children, but the children won’t attend the wedding and wouldn’t be invited to do so in any case. So, figure on a maximum of 1,800 invited guests and 1,440 spouses and partners, for a total of 3,240 guests at most. However, with celebrity weddings, you can count on celebrities asking for an invite.”
“But we aren’t really celebrities,” I countered. “Who would want to attend our wedding?”
“Perhaps the mayor, maybe the governor, a host of politicians with an interest in Applazon, and I wouldn’t doubt you have some celebrity fans. You wouldn’t turn away Barbra Streisand if she asked to attend, now, would you?”
“Yeah, like that’s going to happen,” I responded.
“We should invite Cindy Lauper,” Henry suddenly blurted out. “She’s done wonderful things in support of homeless gay youth. She founded True Colors. We should meet with her and maybe give her a large donation.”
“Okay, that’s not a bad idea, but we probably shouldn’t expand the guest list any more than we have to,” I replied. “Daryl, any guess as to how many celebrities we might expect to ask for an invitation?”
“Not many,” he replied, “Maybe ten or twenty, with their spouses, but if word gets out that yours is ‘the’ party for the holidays, it could be more like fifty to a hundred. So, I’ve planned on no more than 3,500 guests attending, plus some children for which we’ll need supervised activities, particularly during the wedding. The children are half price. The price I quoted includes the ship, the crew, the docking fee at Pier 90 for the duration, and of course it includes all the food, drinks and incidentals. It doesn’t include the formalwear, entertainment or someone to officiate the wedding; you’ll still be on the hook for those.”
“You still haven’t told us about the ship,” Henry pointed out.
“Oh, right,” Daryl replied. “The thing is that it’s usually impossible to get a large cruise ship around the holidays because they’re all in use. Sometimes there are ships taken out of service for a complete overhaul, and we can sometimes get one of those before it goes into dry dock, but that usually doesn’t happen until after the holidays, and they’re often not in the best condition. It’s harder to get one when it comes out of dry dock because it’s usually committed to service. The other possibility, although it’s quite rare, is to grab a brand-new ship before it makes its maiden voyage. It’s a bit like taking a new car out for a spin before it’s parked on the showroom floor. Building a ship, however, is like building a new skyscraper. It can take years, and the delivery date is always a bit uncertain, which is why you can sometimes snag one if you’re incredibly lucky.”
“So, my guardian angel strikes again,” I observed.
“Your guardian angel?” Daryl asked.
Laughing, Henry explained, “My fiancé has always claimed he has a guardian angel, because of all the good luck he’s had, if you discount the two kidnappings, the years of sexual abuse by the pedophile who kidnapped him, getting apprehended by police in Missouri and having a data server explode, killing a lot of his colleagues including his boyfriend’s father. So yeah, definitely a guardian angel at work.”
“Hey, I’m an agnostic, so cut me a little slack,” I replied. “Sure, there have been a lot of bad things in my life, but shit happens to everyone. I was stolen by a pedophile when I was two, but he could’ve killed me. Instead, he raised me as if I were his son, so that was the work of my guardian angel. And as far as getting picked up by the police, had it not been for that, we’d have never met at all, so that was for the best. And that server explosion was my then boyfriend’s father’s fault. It could have been so much worse, but it happened after hours when most of us had already gone home. So see, that was my guardian angel at work, too.”
“If you say so,” Henry responded with another laugh.
“The ship is the newest one from Norwegian Cruise Lines,” Daryl explained. “It’s called the Pearl, and it will be their largest ship, with 2,240 staterooms and a capacity of 5,240 passengers. It’s a first-class ship. Every room has a balcony, and there’s plenty of space that can be configured for the wedding and the reception. The only issue is that it’s making its maiden voyage on December 31, with a New Year’s trip to the Caribbean. We have to be off the ship by 6 PM on December 29, so they’ll have time to clean it, but our guests will be able to start boarding on Christmas Day at 6 PM, so we’ll still have it available for four full days.”
“As long as it’s available for the night of the 26th for the rehearsal dinner and the 28th for the wedding itself, we’re fine,” I replied. “That’s great Daryl, and thanks.”
“Hey, you just need to bribe the right people,” he replied. At first, I thought he was joking, but when he didn’t laugh, I realized, in all likelihood, that he was serious. “I can stop by your place at your convenience, and we can go over the details together. In the meantime, I’ll send you everything I have on the ship.”
“Okay, that sounds good,” I agreed. “Will we be able to select the menu, or is it a buffet?”
“If I can make a suggestion, make the reception and the rehearsal dinner sit-down affairs,” Daryl related. “Otherwise, you’ll be waiting forever for everyone to grab their food. Since all meals are included, you can offer buffet service the rest of the time, 24/7 if you want, but I expect a lot of your guests will want to go out on the town instead. Norwegian has some of the best chefs in the industry, and I’ll make sure we have a name chef, so your food will be comparable to anything your guests could find in the city. The chef will go over the menu with you and make suggestions. It’s customary to allow guests a choice of beef, chicken, seafood and vegetarian or vegan entrées.
“There’s still much to plan, including whom to ask to officiate,” Daryl pointed out.
“With an atheist and a radical agnostic as the two grooms, it sure won’t be a priest,” I quipped.
“It would make my mom happy,” Henry suggested.
“Do you really want a priest to marry us?” I asked. “It would have to be an Episcopalian, as I don’t think we’d ever find a Catholic priest willing to perform a same-sex wedding.”
“Of course not, Babe,” Henry replied. “I was just stating what I knew to be fact, but Mom won’t mind if we’re married by a justice of the peace, or a rabbi, for that matter.”
“Let’s talk to Pop,” I suggested. “I’m sure he could recommend a judge who’d be willing to officiate… or perhaps we should ask the governor or the mayor. I’m sure they already have other commitments but, hey, you never know.”
I’d been joking, but Daryl took me seriously when he responded, “I’d definitely invite either or both of them to officiate. Even if they turn you down, the political good will you’d engender in asking them could bring a huge payoff down the road, when you need them on your side.
“How about entertainment? A celebrity wedding in New York City between Christmas and New Year’s would be sure to draw interest from top talent.” I was shocked by some of the rock and jazz musicians he suggested. They were the sort that people spent good money to see. I had no idea they did weddings, but I guess for what was considered a celebrity wedding, it was more common than not. When did Henry and I become celebrities? We selected several well-known performers from a list, in order of preference. It was only about a week later than Daryl got back to us and told us we’d gotten one of our top choices, and it would only cost another million. Damn, this was getting to be expensive.
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With the invitations sent and the wedding plans on autopilot, we made our first trip to Cuba since I’d been released from captivity there. Neither Henry nor I had spent as much time on the island as the project deserved, but we’d been busy. It was just as well, as the design for the so-called wind turbines had changed dramatically since we left Havana. Work was coming along nicely on the factory, but the design for the discs had changed radically with the introduction of the layered, metal-ceramic architecture. Because there would be no need for Dewar vessels or the use of vacuum isolation, the discs could be made much thinner and lighter and could be stacked quite a bit closer together.
While Henry and I were racing cars in Indy, Nithya was hard at work with a team of engineers, working diligently on turning our design for wind turbines into reality. However, when it came to manufacturing two-meter-diameter curved discs made of cyanosilicate, layered with iron, the complexity led to costs that were astronomical. My estimates, which were based on scaling up our prototypes, were way off base. Nithya would need to design and build an entirely new kind of 3-D printer, capable of depositing precise curved layers. Each disc would take more than a day to manufacture at a cost upwards of a million dollars.
A single tower would take over a year to manufacture and install at a cost of more than a billion dollars, which was more than double that of our initial cost estimates. Even if we built a factory with the capacity to manufacture twenty discs at a time, it would take more than a hundred years to build and install a wind farm with 1000 turbines at a cost of more than a trillion dollars. We didn’t have that kind of time or money, and increasing the capacity of the Cuban factory so as to reduce the time would only add to the cost.
Taking a page from nature, Nithya experimented with the use of hexagonal arrays, which are among the strongest structures in nature. Hexagonal arrays of flat, triangular plates would be much easier to manufacture and inherently strong. Six equilateral triangles could be assembled to form a hexagon, but it would be flat. If instead the triangles were isosceles with an apex of 55 degrees, the assembled hexagon would approximate a curved plate. With each triangle being 2.4 meters wide and 2.3 meters tall, nine of them could fit on the floor of a 40-foot container, and with a thickness of 5 cm, they could be stacked 47 high, for a total of 423 triangular plates per cargo container.
In the meantime, Henry ran further simulations and found that turbulence became an issue when flat triangles were used instead of curved plates. Merely using trapezoids instead of triangles and leaving a small ‘doughnut hole’ gap at the apices cut the turbulence by more than ninety percent. He simulated a large number of configurations in terms of efficiency and cost of manufacture, and we settled on a disc size of 14 meters at a spacing of one meter, with a straight rather than a helical configuration. Hence, each wind-turbine tower would have five hundred discs, each of them assembled from 42 trapezoidal plates configured in seven hexagonal arrays. Each trapezoid could generate about twelve kilowatts of power in a 15-kph wind, at temperatures of up to 47 degrees Celsius, which was 116.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The yield would be even greater at more moderate temperatures. The assembled discs would therefore have an output of about 500 kilowatts and could store up to 750 megawatt-hours, yielding an average power output of 250 megawatts per tower with a storage capacity of 375 gigawatt-hours and serving the needs of 200,000 people.
Nithya’s latest generation of 3-D printer could generate a palate of 72 trapezoidal plates at a time, at a speed of 22 minutes per palate. Hence, she could generate enough plates to populate a 500-meter tower in just 4.5 days, which I suspected was faster than they could actually be installed. With the new design, we’d be able to deploy our wind turbines more quickly and at lower cost than I’d thought possible. Now, we’d only need 40,000 wind turbines to provide power to the entire population of our planet, assuming consumption at a level commensurate with current American energy use.
We estimated the cost per palate to be about $1.2 million, including the cost of the raw materials and energy cost at the current prevailing rate, which meant the power-generating structure of each wind turbine would cost about a $350 million, not including the cost of shipping and installation. With the construction of a sixty-meter-deep concrete bunker under each tower, plus all of the infrastructure to support the tower and to collect the electricity generated, the overall cost per wind turbine was estimated to be around $500 million, which was less than half the cost per watt of conventional windmills, not even including the additional cost of storing the energy for use when the wind wasn’t blowing. The cost to install a thousand wind turbines in Cuba would thus be about a $500 billion and the worldwide cost would be $20 trillion and change. All things considered, that was dirt cheap. Even without government subsidies, the towers would be built in the places that could afford them. It would still take a worldwide initiative, however, to get the developed world to pay for the rollout to the Third World. Nothing would help more to bring peace to the planet than that, although potable water was a close second.
In the meantime, I hoped to scale up the production capacity in the Cuban factory by a factor of twelve, allowing us to churn out components enough for nearly a thousand complete wind turbines every year. We’d build a major container port near the factory, which would go into operation once the local towers for Cuba were finished so that we could export towers made in Cuba to other parts of the world. Operating at full capacity, we’d fill four-thousand, forty-foot containers per day, enough to fill a container ship every twenty days. Our port would be very busy but even so, it would take eighty years to fully convert the planet to wind energy. With factories in India, China and Africa, we could cut that to twenty years or less.
Even so, we’d still need to develop sequestration technology, and that alone might require another entire factory to meet the energy requirements of freezing and storing 52 cubic miles of dry ice. Little did I know it at the time, but Nithya was already working on an even better solution for carbon sequestration, one that would produce enough building material to supply the planet, potentially for generations to come.
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Hanging over the entire Applazon organization was the pall of the antitrust litigation working its way through the courts. Whenever Jeff or Andy bothered to ask me, I told them I thought we should split the company proactively in a way that made sense rather than waiting for the government to do it for us. Of course, they still had a grand vision of beating the government back, much as Microsoft once did, but I doubted we’d be so lucky. Frankly, much of our business model was anticompetitive by design, and it would be better for everyone if we could be brought down to size, but I dared share that observation with no one else besides Henry. For what it was worth, the same could be said of Google, and it was already evident where the case against Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was going. Facebook, it seemed, was going to get the full AT&T treatment, being split into multiple smaller companies that competed with each other. I feared that would only make a bad situation worse, with hate groups hopping from one company to another.
A hint of what was to come came sooner than we’d expected from Europe, where the EU ruled that Alphabet had engaged in anticompetitive behavior. In particular, they took Google to task for the fundamental ways they made money from their search engine. Although Google clearly identified which listings on a page of search results were paid listings – effectively ads – it was also clear to anyone who spent any time using Google that the search results often didn’t reflect a high level of relevance. I’d switched to an independent search engine called DuckDuckGo because of that. It was obvious that Google’s results were skewed to favor certain kinds of entries, dramatically reducing the utility of the results to the user. Apparently, the EU regulators took notice. The way Google placed the results of any search reflected the ability to generate revenue from them, and the process was far from transparent. Some of the specifics had come out during testimony, however, and what was revealed was shocking.
Before any of the search results generated by Google’s algorithm were presented, Google first presented results that generated revenue. They claimed that it was no more than a full page of them, but that still didn’t seem to prevent them from prioritizing revenue-generating results on subsequent pages. Examples were shown in which one didn’t encounter a search result from a non-revenue-generating source until scrolling through four pages first.
Revenue was generated in three ways from a listing. The most obvious was the paid post, in which companies paid a premium to have their listings presented at the top of the page. Most pages had several of those. The second category was from companies that paid to give their listings a higher priority than others. Those were structured to generate revenue every time a user clicked on a listing, so companies only paid when customers followed the links to their site. The more often a site was visited, the more Google revenue generated and the more often that site would be presented earlier in the search results.
The third way that Google made money was in selling data. They made more money from the data they collected and sold than from all of their advertising revenue. Both the U.S. and the EU had made demands that people be able to view their data and to restrict the sale of it, but very few people could afford to take the time to explore their data and to opt out of data collection. People could install ad blockers and tracker-blockers, but Google always found a way around them. Even when users opted out of data collection, Google tracked their usage patterns and sold that data along with the rest. It was an insidious process, and that was just with their search engine. The data collected from Gmail, Google Maps, Google Translate and Google Docs, not to mention from smartphones running the Android operating system, was far more personal than people realized – and more dangerous.
In giving Android away for free, Alphabet effectively eliminated any real competition other than ours. Calling Android an open source operating system was meaningless when one company used thousands of their own engineers and coders to write the software. It represented an enormous subsidy that no one could hope to match, other than Applazon. Worse still, they built hooks into Android that allowed them to collect data that they sold in ways that were far from transparent. Users didn’t even have the option to opt out of sharing their data. That was the true price of using an Android phone.
Although Google deserved much of the criticism thrown its way, the EU had ruled that all of its practices represented restraint of trade and had to be eliminated. Worse still, the remedies to be applied were ridiculous. Google couldn’t display search results based on revenue generation, but they needed to be displayed in random order, so even the least-relevant listings would have a chance to be seen. WTF? That alone made the entire concept of a search engine completely useless. What were they thinking? Further, Google needed to display exactly what data were being collected and require the user to opt in to share them with each and every occurrence. That meant the user would constantly be clicking on requests to share data.
Finally, the Android operating system could no longer be bundled with smartphones. Buyers would have to download and install the operating system separately, or buy it and have it installed at the time of purchase. However, people couldn’t even use their phones without an operating system and all smartphones, including ours, were designed around a specific one. The EU specified that they wanted to see phone makers open up their phones to work with multiple operating systems, not that any alternatives existed. That ruling in particular would be devastating to Applazon, not just in terms of our smartphones, but to our entire consumer business. Every one of our computers, smartphones, streaming devices and smart appliances came bundled with our own proprietary operating system. It was the integration of hardware and software that made our consumer devices so powerful. If the EU prevented us from doing that, we might as well exit the consumer electronics business entirely.
Apparently, Google concluded much the same thing and rather than going through a lengthy appeal process, which they might well have won, they decided to take their case directly to the consumers by placing an embargo on the EU. People trying to access Google’s search engine from anywhere inside the EU were met with an error message. People could no longer access their Gmail, their Google Docs or their calendars. Android phones still worked, but no longer received updates, not even critical ones, and new Android phones couldn’t be activated. Chromebooks stopped working altogether, leaving a lot of students who relied on them high and dry and, in many cases, unable to access the term papers they’d worked on for months.
The result was an unmitigated public-relations disaster. Not only did Google fail to gain the sympathy of the public that they were counting on, but their actions only served to demonstrate how dependent the world had become on Google’s services. That was the very definition of a trust. The result was that the EU imposed the first 100-billion euro fine in history, on top of which they added a daily fine of a billion euros until Google restored everyone’s access to their software and data. Too late, the executives at Alphabet realized the corner they’d painted themselves into and the advantage the regulators had obtained as a result. The U.S. Justice Department took notice as well and coordinated their case with that of the EU, presenting a united front.
Spooked by the impact on NATO, the U.S. military put out a request for proposals to develop a user-friendly, secure operating system that could be installed on any computer or phone and meet military specifications. I expected that a variation of UNIX would be developed by a third party and would win the bid, but it was Microsoft that won the contract, and so Google’s actions resulted in Microsoft getting a huge boost in the marketplace that it didn’t need. Even worse for Alphabet was that the need to split it into multiple companies had become even more evident, and both the EU and the U.S. antitrust division of the Justice Department coordinated efforts to develop a workable solution.
The final agreement, hammered out by the U.S. and the EU courts without any input from Google, split up the various divisions of Alphabet into independent companies and split Google’s search engine into four competing, regionally based search companies, much as had been done with the breakup of AT&T. The logistics of performing a search would be significantly more difficult for consumers, who were used to typing in a search term and getting instant results for free. Businesses that were used to paying to have their listings shown in Google search results would need to shell out money to at least four separate companies, and consumers might have to perform their searches on four or more separate sites. On the other hand, already there were search repackagers that made their money selling apps by subscription that aggregated search results from multiple sources, including from Google’s competitors. Consumers would come out ahead in the long run, but only if they were willing to pay for what had previously been free.
Chromebooks could no longer be sold preconfigured to connect with Google Apps. Instead, they would have to be sold either unconfigured or preconfigured to work with at least two different cloud-based services. Although not stated specifically, there was nothing to prevent a retailer from selling a Chromebook that was preconfigured to work with the apps on Applazon Cloud Services, which were currently limited to use only on our computers with a valid Applazon account. However, I had no doubt that we’d be obligated to open our platform to use by any computer once the Justice Department got done with us. That would be a financial disaster, as it would remove one of the key reasons consumers shelled out $1500 to buy one of our laptops rather than just $300 to buy a Chromebook. We were gonna be fucked.
The situation with the Android operating system was even more complicated, as phone manufacturers would need to design their phones to be compatible with multiple operating systems. Although the requirement to sell the operating system separately from the phone was removed, the phone retailers would have to offer a minimum of two operating systems on every phone sold. The burden would fall on the consumer to install the O.S. of their choice. Gone were the days of simply buying a phone, choosing a carrier and setting up an account. Instead of being up and running in mere minutes, consumers would likely spend hours getting their phones set up, or they’d have to pay to have the retailer or carrier install and configure the phones for them. Left unresolved was the way Google gave Android away for free, making money off the selling of data, whereas Microsoft charged a licensing fee for each copy of Windows, and Applazon made money from selling their own phones. Our phones were based on a tight integration of hardware and software, but what if the courts ruled that arrangement to be anticompetitive?
The ramifications of the Google antitrust case for Applazon were dire, so Jeff organized a retreat for the senior staff later in the summer. It would be my first corporate retreat, and I wondered what it would be like or how the outcome might affect our lives. As one who’d been known to express his thoughts on our business practices before, I had a feeling that a great deal of the retreat would fall squarely on my shoulders. I could only hope the other executives would listen to my plea for sanity and an orderly division of Applazon into logical competitive units. Otherwise, we might well face a fate even worse than what befell Google.
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With the summer came a series of new hires as we built out our staff in all of the major divisions of the Superconducting Ceramics Group at Applazon. Nithya Ramamurthy and her husband, who used the Anglicized version of his name, Jack, arrived in town and bought a penthouse on Billionaire’s Row. They paid three times what we paid for three times the space and had to hire full-time help just to maintain it. When I visited them at their invitation, it was a sunny day, yet clouds completely obscured their view. That, evidently, was a common occurrence that the condo sales agent hadn’t disclosed to them.
I also picked up two of the recent graduates of Columbia’s A.I. and machine-learning program, one of them being Robin. I enticed her by putting her in charge of graduate studies in A.I. at Applazon. Indeed, we’d had numerous requests from graduate students who wanted to do their dissertations in our A.I. division, myself among them. Larry already had an adjunct professorship at Columbia, and Robin applied for a full appointment, as did the other new hires. Hence, there were several people who could serve as mentors to a cadre of graduate students.
As busy as I’d become, however, the prospects for getting back to work on my Ph.D. in A.I. were growing dim, so I met with the chairman at Columbia, and we agreed on a plan of study that substituted a series of research papers for the weekly seminars. That was something I was particularly adept at, and I managed to complete them by the end of the summer. That left the dissertation itself to complete, and I’d yet to pick a topic, let alone write a proposal, collect data or mount a defense. Deciding to remain true to the original reason for getting a Ph.D. in A.I., I decided to focus on the design of an A.I. kernel for massively networked supercomputers. It wasn’t a full operating system by any means, but it was an essential first step in developing the foundation upon which one could be built. The development of an intelligent, multi-processor operating system would be a true breakthrough that would allow for software to be written without regard to server architecture. However, it would be someone else’s breakthrough, as there was still much work to be done in superconducting ceramics. We’d upended the entire field of solid-state physics, after all.
I was very excited at the prospect of having graduate students in solid-state physics working with our new superconducting-ceramics research group headed by Nithya. Stanford, M.I.T. and the University of Pennsylvania had the top Ph.D. programs in solid-state physics, but Columbia University, in particular, was a leader in research on high-temperature superconductors, so naturally, I expected an affiliation would be of great interest to them. When I had my assistant try to set up a meeting with the department chair, however, she had a devil of a time getting through, let alone setting up a meeting with Nithya and me on his home turf. On a hunch, I had Henry inquire about matriculation as a student there, and he got through to the chair right away. Clearly, the chair was stonewalling us, but why? Perhaps it was because my background was in computer science from a mathematics department, rather than physics, but why was Nithya being ignored as well? She had an engineering Ph.D. from Stanford with a postdoc at Lawrence Livermore.
A review of faculty publications and the departmental website revealed the answer; they were still focused on conventional ceramics that were superconducting only at temperatures below the boiling point of nitrogen. Using cyanosilicates, we’d leapfrogged their work and had designed and built actual devices that were superconductive at room temperature. Very likely, they were unwilling to take a chance on losing their grants, even though we’d made their work obsolete. Such a strategy would doom them to obscurity. I wasn’t one to pull rank, particularly when I was a third the age of the department chair, but something had to be done. No other New York school had a graduate physics program on a par with Columbia’s, and the only decent competition in solid-state physics in the state was Cornell, located a few hours away in Ithaca. Penn would be closer, but it wasn’t exactly within commuting distance either and ditto for M.I.T. However, that didn’t mean we couldn’t use them to put pressure on Columbia.
My first attempt to remedy the situation was met with failure. I met with the dean, but he stood behind his department chairs, all of whom were tenured full professors. Making matters worse, the physics department had an endowed chair. His position was bought and paid for by a major donor who’d likely take exception to his beneficiary being deposed.
My next attempt was to meet with the chair of the mathematics department, with whom I had more clout. We did meet, but when I proposed establishing a new program in applied mathematics – one which I was willing to endow – she balked at the prospect of competing directly with another department, much less with going head to head with an endowed chair. I again met with the dean, but he was aghast at the very idea of getting embroiled in interdepartmental politics. Wasn’t that supposed to be the function of the dean? I therefore invited the president of Columbia University to dinner with Henry and me at our home.
In the meantime, I met with the chair of the physics department at NYU, and although NYU wasn’t known for their work in solid-state physics, they’d become heavily invested in the theory of superconductivity and quantum computing. Thanks to Henry, they’d formed a partnership with the mathematics department and intended to make ceramic superconductors a major focus of both departments. The only problem was that they were building something from scratch, and it could be years before they’d be well enough along to attract graduate students to work with us at Applazon. The chair was well aware of my discoveries, and she was very interested in forming a partnership with us. She was a bit less optimistic about forming a partnership with Columbia, though.
However, I’d been exploring the possibility of submitting a proposal for the redevelopment of Governor’s Island by funding a long-proposed Center for the Study of Climate Change. I wanted to shift the focus of the Center to the Study of Environmental and Energy Technologies, which was certainly consistent with the goal of combatting climate change. When I suggested a joint venture between Applazon, Columbia and NYU on Governor’s Island, she was intrigued.
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I feared I’d have to offer Franklin the moon to get him to prepare a gourmet meal for the occasion, but there was no need. He was thrilled with the opportunity, and so on a hot June night, I had the President of Columbia University and her wife over for dinner. She was new to the position, and that made her unpredictable. I’d researched her background, which was impressive, as would be expected. Latisha Smythe was a full professor of law and had served in the U.S. Congress from a district upstate for 22 years, yet she was only in her mid-fifties. Her wife, Verona Jennings, was a prominent journalist and regular contributor on MSNBC. Neither one of them, however, had experience in the sciences, which made things much more difficult.
As Henry reminded me, our next-door neighbors included Gideon Reynolds, one of the pioneers in the solid-state physics of nonvolatile, solid-state drives. His Ph.D. in physics and his history of invention made him a feather in anyone’s cap as an adjunct faculty member in his own right. Nithya was not as well-known, but that would change as she published and presented our work at national and international meetings.
The first to arrive were Nithya and Jack, who were dutifully announced by the door person. We met them at the elevator and invited them into our apartment. “Your place is lovely,” Nithya said as she and her husband moved into the living room and naturally gravitated out onto the terrace. There was a steady breeze off the Hudson, and the humidity was low, so we’d opened all the doors to the terrace, which made the whole lower floor feel like being outdoors. Outdoor space was a true rarity in Manhattan. “We really miss the outdoors, and of course we had a real house in the Bay Area,” she began, “but the smog was so much worse there than here. We like the way the extensive walls of glass gives the feel of being outdoors in our apartment, but you can’t even open a window to let the fresh air inside.”
“And we spend a good deal of the time looking at fog,” Jack added. “We’re so high up that we spend much of the time in the clouds,” he clarified. “We thought it would be great to be as high up as possible, and the view, when it’s clear, is phenomenal, but what you have – being able to be outdoors in the middle of the city – is priceless.” Then noticing that Franklin was inside, working in the kitchen, he asked, “You have a houseboy?”
“Hardly,” I answered. “Henry and I like our privacy, and making mad, passionate love whenever and wherever we feel like it isn’t possible with live-in help. That’s why our bodyguards have their own apartment a few doors down from us. Let’s go inside and I’ll introduce you to my brother.”
“Your brother?” Nithya asked.
“Neither of us knew each other, as he wasn’t born yet when I was taken,” I explained. “At least Franklin knew I existed, but I didn’t even know the creep who raised me as his son, wasn’t even my father. He was a pedophile who kidnapped me from daycare when I was two years old. What’s strange is that we met before I even knew I had a brother, yet Franklin felt familiar to me. I thought of him as my brother and even felt love for him in spite of his being little more than an acquaintance.
“Henry thinks it’s because we share many traits and even some mannerisms, but that seems pretty far-fetched to me. It’s coincidences like that that are the reason I consider myself a radical agnostic and not an atheist. Some coincidences seem too remote to be the result of chance. The possibility of there being a god must forever be unknown. To be an atheist as Henry is, however, you must have faith that we arose by chance. Science can’t answer what it can’t test, so our origin will always be unknown, but I have a hard time accepting that it was purely the result of chance.”
“That’s a very interesting perspective, J.J.,” Nithya remarked.
“Max O’Brien and Gideon Reynolds are at the front door,” Alesia announced, and Henry went to let them in.
“Is this enough?” Max asked as the two of them entered the apartment. Each of them was carrying two bottles of wine. When they asked if they could bring anything, I said they could bring a couple bottles of fine wine since we couldn’t buy any ourselves, and the other guests might want some.
I took one of the bottles from Max and remarked, “I should think this is more than enough since Henry and I aren’t going to drink much. We need to remain sober, in any case.” Then looking at the label, I added, “Wow, when I asked you to bring a fine wine, I had in mind a single bottle of a thirty-dollar-a-bottle wine, not four bottles of a sixty-dollar-a-bottle variety.”
“We like it, so we buy it by the case,” Gideon explained as he handed off his bottles to Henry. “For entertaining,” he clarified. “It only costs about half as much by the case, so it’s easier to impress without spending any more money than we would otherwise, and a half-bottle per person is the minimum.”
“Guys, I was just about to introduce Franklin, my brother and our chef for the evening,” I announced.
“Hey, guys,” Franklin responded from the kitchen.
“You look so young,” Nithya responded.
“Well, he is my younger brother, and I’m seventeen,” I replied. “Franklin’s fifteen and a recent graduate of the High School for Math, Science and Engineering in Harlem. He’ll be starting at M.I.T. in the fall as a junior, thanks to his advanced placement.”
“Oh? What are you studying?” Nithya asked.
“Civil engineering,” he replied. “Someone has to design the rails for the high-speed trains you’re gonna build.”
“Except with magnetic levitation, there won’t be any rails,” I pointed out.
“But there’ll be a rail bed with superconducting magnets and trestles and the like,” he countered, “and you’ll probably need to dig even more tunnels than with conventional rails.” Touché. “Actually, the most efficient design would involve a monorail, passing through the center of toroidal rail cars —”
“A bit like in Star Wars: Solo.”
“Exactly, but then you’d need all new tunnels and a civil engineer to design and build them.”
“Nithya and Jack, I’d like to introduce you to my next-door neighbors,” I went on, “Max and Gideon.”
“Gideon Reynolds. I know you,” Nithya interrupted. “I’m very familiar with your work, and I’ve attended a number of your presentations at A.P.S. meetings.” A.P.S. was the American Physics Society.
“Likewise, Nithya Ramamurthy,” Gideon responded as he shook her hand. “Your work with superconducting ceramics is going to upend everything I’ve ever done.”
“We all know who we can thank for that, now, don’t we?” She responded as all heads turned in my direction. I couldn’t help but turn beet red.
“You haven’t seen our latest work yet, Gideon,” I responded to save face. “It has to go through the patent attorneys before we can publish it, and it’ll be the subject of Henry’s dissertation, but thanks to the genius of my fiancé, we’ve come up with a structure that combines layers of iron sandwiched between layers of cyanosilicate ceramics. The result is a ceramic that traps a perpetual current in a magnetic standing wave, not unlike how a laser amplifies light. We refer to it as SCEMPER: superconductive electromagnetic persistence via electron resonance. It can be charged either by applying an electrical field or a magnetic one, acting like an embedded high-capacity rechargeable battery right within whatever device we put it in.”
“That sounds incredibly useful,” Gideon said.
“There’s more,” I continued. “The resonance affects phonon transmission, too. It’s a thermal superconductor. What little heat is generated internally is dissipated at the surface. We used to use the Peltier effect with tunneling through a surrounding vacuum chamber to remove excessive heat, but now that’s unnecessary. The Peltier effect’s still useful for cooling, but eliminating the need for vacuum reduces the cost by nearly an order of magnitude.
“That’s epic, man,” Franklin exclaimed. “You didn’t tell me about the thermal superconductivity.”
“What’s the charge density?” Gideon asked.
“Again, it stores energy as a perpetual electromagnetic standing wave rather than as a charge, but to the layperson it’s all the same. I’m sure people will still refer to it as charging their batteries. Regardless of the semantics, SCEMPER is capable of storing twelve kilowatts per kilogram. Used internally, we have motors with the ability to store all of the power needed to drive them. That was how we managed to win the Indy 500.”
“You know you guys will probably get a Nobel Prize for that,” Gideon related. “For the physics behind the motors, that is. Not for winning the race.”
“I don’t usually like to toot my own horn, but I’ve suspected as much,” I expressed aloud for the first time. “However, we’ll probably be old before the committee gets around to us, like in our fifties, and of course you have to get yours first, Gideon.”
“Are you kidding,” Gideon responded. “I had one useful invention that made us very rich, but the underlying design was probably inevitable. You, on the other hand, have had a string of innovations, each one more revolutionary than the last.”
Fortunately, the door person announced that our guests had arrived before I had to respond to that. Henry and I went to greet them as they got off the elevator.
Disclaimer: This story is purely fictional and any resemblance of characters to real individuals is unintentional. Although it takes place in actual locations, in no way are any official policies, opinions or events inferred. Some characters may be underage and at times engage in homosexual acts. Anyone uncomfortable with this should not be reading the story, and the reader assumes responsibility for the legality of reading this type of material where they live. The author retains full copyright and permission must be obtained prior to duplication in any form.