I don’t remember how this got into my browser window, but it got there somehow. Nanotech. Someone wants me to invest, like, cash money into Nanotech. They want this so much they registered a domain name dedicated to … some obscure company called “Nano labs” or CTLE on the OTC pink sheets. Please click on this link for some high comedy. Here’s a snapshot for posterity, since I’m pretty sure this website and the half dozen others I found will be nuked after the pump and dump.
They’re not even clever about it. I’m not the only person to notice: someone over at SeekingAlpha has noticed. Someone who specializes in pinks at Boston.com was also suspicious. What boggles me is, this outfit is apparently worth $230.6 million dollars. The post-November publicity pump has added more than $200m notional to their market value. They have no assets. They recently issued 100 million shares to their new CEO, Dr. Victor M. Castrano in exchange for “new nanotechnology.” Since lying to the SEC is a serious crime, they, to their credit, do say that it “involves a coating that can be applied to almost any surface, has low thermal conductivity and protects surfaces from water leaks, corrosion and rust. Nanotechnology involves mixing microscopic particles into paints, coatings and films that can be applied to most surfaces to provide temperature resistance and increased structural integrity.” Yes, in fact, later press releases reveal they’re talking about the nano-invention known as “house paint.”
Dr. Castrano is a graduate and professor of physics at a Mexican university whose physics department webpage is broken. A literature search turns up some actual references written by this guy, published in perfectly respectable journals. Though it is the usual dreary “nanotech” stuff which cheeses me off so much; one of those links involves goop made of chicken feathers. What Doc Castrano does is considered respectable “nanoscience.” The journal titles are legitimate and even impressive. Yet this company is an obvious fraud based on the sheerest nonsense. “Nano Labs” was originally founded in 1995 … to “sell and install stone, tile and marble products used in residential and commercial buildings.” Yet, somehow, in spring of 2012, they reorganized, , sold themselves for … $500, issued a zillion shares, and renamed themselves “Nano Labs Corp.” Why did they do this? I haven’t the slightest idea. I am guessing the CTLE ticker was already listed on the pink sheets; OTCQB is almost respectable; only one step away (via OTCQX) from NASDAQ, as they do some limited SEC compliance.
These clowns aren’t even bothering to change the wording of the marketing bullshit in their 10-Q. In the most recent 10-Q, they use the same line as in the above screenshot, “The Company is pursuing opportunities for global market leadership in the field of nanotechnology, a sector with the prospect of $2.6 trillion in global revenues – representing 15 per cent of all projected global manufacturing – by 2014.” It is my considered opinion that the field of nanotechnology will not be worth $2.6 trillion globally in 2014; not even if the dollar were to experience Zimbabwe-style inflation between now and then. I think it very close to an established fact that the only way nanotech will represent 15 per cent of all projected global manufacturing by 2014 is if we are nuked into the stone ages by nanotech-weilding space invaders.
They mention in their 10-Q that they only have one part time and one full time employee … yet their notional is $230.6 million dollars on the pink sheets market. And get a load of their 10-K statement, listing cash flows, debts and assets in the tens of thousands of dollars. Their company financial records look somewhat like my credit card statements on a bad year.
The way I see it, there are two and a half possibilities here. One is that the principals are frauds. Considering the nature of nanotechnology and “nanoscience” and the type of clown involved in hyping their “nano” research, and considering the preposterous websites and press releases pumping this stock, this seems a very strong possibility. The other possibility is that the principals have been kidnapped by the Mexican Mafia for some other purpose; perhaps this company is being used for money laundering, or perhaps it is outright fraud perpetrated by mobsters rather than “respectable” nanotechnologists. I don’t know much about Mexico, but these guys are based there, and some very scary news reports come from that part of the world. If that is the case, I call on Doc Castrano’s “respectable” nanotech colleagues to send General Pershing to his rescue. Finally, I count it as a half possibility that Doc Castrano and company are in earnest, and are not familiar with the SEC regulations on fraud, or are not connected in any way with the publicity campaign going on in their name. This only seems like half a possibility, as their website, complete with links to 10-K and 10-Q financials, seems completely bonkers. I mean, what on earth is a “Nano mellon?”
I proclaim myself an agnostic as to which of the two and a half possibilities is the actuality, though I will vehemently maintain that these are the only two and a half possibilities which exist in reality. Their wave function has only two and a half states. Unless you’re long their stock or are involved in law enforcement, it doesn’t matter which possibility is true. What really matters is, this is a completely shady situation involving a seemingly legitimate nanotech researcher. A legitimate nanotech news aggregation website, run by members of the Foresight institute, touts a “Nano labs” press release as something worthy of attention. This is a “respectable” website on the subject of nanotechnology, with actual venture capital experts advising it. Yet, somehow these nanotech experts and big dollar VC types cannot see what I find completely obvious: this “Nano labs” CTLE company is an egregious and embarrassing fraud.
I think “nanotechnology” is a fraudulent concept, over sold by snake oil salesmen who should be reading comic books in their parents basements instead of bothering sensible people. Despite my horse laughs at the pretensions of “nanotechnologists,” I never expected to see something this preposterously brazen. It is actually much worse than the imbeciles attempting to convince the world they have a working quantum computer, as at least some of the quantum computing community laughs at them in public. This is flim-flammery on a significant scale, and abetted by the Nanotech hype machine. Other than a few watchers of penny stocks and my own bad self, nobody seems to have noticed. Shouldn’t real-life nanotechnologists care that their precious ideas are being perverted by frauds? Shouldn’t they be policing their own?
Naaaah! Why dull the nano fireworks?
I’ve never tried to short a pink sheet. I’m not sure what the downside risks are of that if the SEC shows up and legally notices that this is being run out of someone’s boiler room. If they were traded on a real market, I’d short the shit out of them.
Edit add: this morning I notice the very same professor made the news a few years ago for allegedly turning Tequila into Diamonds. I give up. Humanity is a pack of credulous numskulls without hope. That was linked everywhere from Arxiv to the BBC. I am picturing this guy with his bottle of Tequila, a bucket full of chicken feathers and sporting a preposterous Speedy Gonzales sombrero counting stacks of greenbacks.
When I was a little boy in the 70s and 80s, I was pretty sure by the 21st century I’d drive around in a hovercraft, and take space vacations on the moons of Saturn. My idea of a future user interface for a computer was not the 1970s emacs interface that the cleverest people still use to develop software today, I’d just talk to the thing, Hal-9000 style. I suppose my disappointments with modern technological “advances” are the boyish me complaining I didn’t get my hovercraft and talking artificial brain. What boggles me is the gaping credulity that intelligent people treat alleged developing future technologies now.
A vast industry of professional bullshit artists has risen up to promote and regulate technologies which will never actually exist. These nincompoops and poseurs are funded by your tax dollars; they fly all over the world attempting to look important by promising to deliver the future. All they actually deliver is wind and public waste. Preposterous snake oil salesmen launched an unopposed blitzkrieg strike on true science and technology during my lifetime. I suspect the scientific and technological community’s rich marbling with flâneurs is tolerated because they bring in government dollars from the credulous; better not upset anybody, or the gravy train might stop flowing!
While I have singled out Nano-stuff for scorn in an article I’d describe as “well received,” (aka, the squeals of the ninnies who propagate this nonsense were sweet music to my ears), there are many, many fields like this.
The granddaddy of them all is probably magnetic confinement nuclear fusion. This is a “technology” which has been “just 20 years in the future” for about 60 years now. It employs a small army of plasma physicists and technicians, most of whom are talented people who could be better put to use elsewhere. At some point, it must be admitted that these guys do not know what they are doing: they can’t do what they keep promising, and in fact, they have no idea how to figure out how to do it.
I think there is a general principle you can derive from the story of magnetic confinement fusion. I don’t yet have a snappy name for it, so I’ll call it, “the folly of plan by bureaucracy.” The sellers of such technology point out that it is not known to be impossible, so all you need do is shower them in gold, and they will surely eventually deliver. There are no intermediate steps given, and there is no real plan to even develop a plan to know if the “big idea” is any good. But they certainly have a gigantic bureaucratic organizational chart drawn up. The only time large bureaucracies can actually deliver specific technological breakthroughs (atom bombs, moon shots) is when there is a step by step plan on how to do it. Something that would fit in Microsoft project or some other kind of flow chart. The steps must be well thought out, they must be obviously possible using small improvements on current techniques, and have a strict timeline for their completion. If any important piece is missing, or there are gaping lacunae in the intermediate steps, the would-be technology is a fool’s mission. If there is no plan or intermediate steps given: this would-be technology is an outright fraud which must be scorned by serious investors, including the US government.
To illustrate this sort of thing in another way: imagine if someone shortly after the Bernouilli brothers asked the King for a grant to build a mighty aerostat which travels at 3 times the speed of sound. Sure, there is no physical law that says we can’t build an SR-71 … just the fact that 18th century technologists hadn’t invented heavier than air flight, the jet engine, aerodynamics, refined hydrocarbons, computers or titanium metallurgy yet. Of course, nobody in those days could have thought up the insane awesomeness of the SR-71; I’m guessing a science fiction charlatan from those days might imagine some kind of bird-thing with really big wings, powered by something which is thermodynamically impossible. Giving such a clown money to build such a thing, or steps towards such a thing would have been the sheerest madness. Yet, we do this all the time in the modern day.
A sort of hand wavey corollary based again on fusion’s promises (or, say, the “war on cancer”), I like to call, “the folly of 20 year promises.” Bullshitters love to give estimates that allow them to retire before they’re discovered as frauds; 20 years is about long enough to collect a pension. Of course, a 20 year estimate may be an honest one, but I can’t really think of any planned, specific technological breakthrough developed by a bureaucracy over that kind of time scale, and I can think of dozens upon dozens which have failed miserably to the tune of billions of research dollars. What “20 years” means to me is, ”I don’t actually know how to do this, but I wish you’d give me money for it anyway.”
A burgeoning quasi-technological field which is very likely to be vaporware is that of quantum computing. This pains me to say, as I think the science behind this vaporware technology is interesting. The problem is, building quantum gates (the technology needed to make this theoretical concept real) is perpetually always somehow 20 years off in the future. We even have a very dubious company founded, and in operation for 11 years. I don’t know where they get their money, and they manage to publish stuff at least as respectable as the rest of the QC field, but … they have no quantum computer. Granted, many in the academic community are attempting to keep them honest, but their continued existence demonstrates how easy it is to make radical claims without ever being held to account for them.
David Deutsch more or less invented the idea of the quantum computer in 1985. It is now 25 years later, and there is still no quantum computer to be seen. I think Deutsch is an honest man, and a good scientist; his idea was more quantum epistemology than an attempt to build a practical machine that humans might use for something. The beast only took on a bureaucratic life of its own after Peter Shor came up with an interesting algorithm for Deutsch’s theoretical quantum computers.
Now, let us compare to the invention of modern computers by John von Neumann and company in 1945. Von Neumann’s paper can be considered a manual for building a modern computer. His paper described a certain computer architecture: one which had already been built, in ways that made its mathematical understanding and reproduction relatively simple. Most computers in use today are the direct result of this paper. I’d argue that it was engineering types like Hermann Goldstine and John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert who actually built digital electronic computers before von Neumann’s paper, who made the computer possible. In turn, their ideas were based on those of analog computers, which have a long and venerable history dating back to the ancient Greeks. The important thing to notice here is the theory of binary digital computers came after the invention; not the other way around.
Now, it is possible for theory to have a stimulating effect on technology: von Neumann’s paper certainly did, but it is rare to nonexistent to derive all the properties of a non-existent technology using nothing but abstract thought. The way real technology is developed: the technology or some sort of precursor gizmo or physical phenomenon comes first. Later on, some theory is added to the technology as a supplement to understanding, and the technology may be improved. Sort of like, in real science, the unexplained phenomenon generally comes first; the theory comes later. In developing a new technology, I posit that this sort of “theory first” ideology is intellectual suicide. I call this, “the folly of premature theory.” Theory don’t build technologies: technologies build theories.
Technology is what allows us our prosperity, and it must be funded and nurtured, but we must also avoid funding and nurturing parasites. Cargo-cult science and technologists are not only wasteful of money, they waste human capital. It makes me sad to see so many young people dedicating their lives to snake oil like “nanotechnology.” They’d be better off starting a business or learning a trade. “Vaporware technologist” would be a horrible epitaph to a misspent life. I have already said I think technological progress is slowing down. While I think this is an over all symptom of a decline in civilization, I think the three follies above are some of the proximate causes of this failing. Bruce Charlton has documented many other such follies, and if you’re interested in this sort of thing, I recommend reading his thoughts on the matter.
I used to work next to the center for nanotechnology. The first indication I had that there was something wrong with the discipline of “nanotechnology” is I noticed that the people who worked there were the same people who used to do chemistry and material science. It appeared to be a more fashionable label for these subjects. Really “material science” was a sort of fancy label for the chemistry of things we use to build other things. OK, new name for “chemist.” Hopefully it ups the funding. Good for you guys.
Later on, I actually read Drexler’s Ph.D. thesis which invented the subject. I can sum it up thusly:
- Behold, the Schroedinger equation!
- With this mighty equation we may go forth and invent an entirely new form of chemistry, with which we may create new and superior forms of life which are mechanical in their form, rather than squishy inefficient biological looking things. We shall use the mighty powers of the computer to do these things! It shall bring forth many great marvels!
“And there was heavenly music”
That’s it. That’s what the whole book is. Oh yes, there are a few collections of intimidating tables and graphs purporting to indicate that such a thing might be possible, and Drexler does sketch out some impressive looking mechanical designs of what he supposes a nanobot might look like, but, without more than a passing justification. He seems to lack the imagination, and of course, the physics to figure out what a real nanosized doodad might look like. Much of his thesis seems to be hand wavey arguments that his “looking rather a lot like a meter scale object” designs would work on a nano or small microscale. I know for a fact that they will not. You can wave your hands around all you want; when you stick an atomic force microscope down on nanosized thingees, you know what forces they produce. They don’t act like macro-objects, at all. Drexler would also occasionally notice that his perfect little robots would probably, you know, oxidize, like most reactive things do, and consign them to Ultra High Vacuum chambers in a fit of embarrassment. Then sometimes he would forget about the chemical properties of oxygen, and enthusiastically stick them everywhere. None of the chemistry you’d need to figure out to even begin to do this was done in his book. Little real thought was given to thermodynamics or where the energy was coming from for all these cool Maxwell-Demon like “perpetual motion” reactions. It was never noticed that computational chemistry (aka figuring out molecular properties from the Schroedinger equation) is basically useless. Experimental results were rarely mentioned, or explained away with the glorious equation of Schroedinger, with which, all things seemed possible. Self assembly was deemed routine, despite the fact that nobody knows how to engineer such thing using macroscopic objects.
There is modern and even ancient nano sized tech; lithographic electronic chip features are down to this size now, and of course, materials like asbestos were always nano sized. As far as nano objects for manipulating things on nanoscales; such things don’t exist. Imagining self replicating nanobots or nano machines is ridiculous. We don’t even have micromachines. Mechanical objects on microscales do not exist. On milliscales, everything that I have seen is lithographically etched, or made on a watchmakers lathe. Is it cool? Yep; it’s kind of cool. I have already worked for a “millitech” company which was going to use tiny accelerometers to do sensing stuff in your cell phone. Will it change the universe? Nope. Millitech miniaturization has been available for probably 300 years now (assuming the Greeks didn’t have it); lithography just allows us to mass produce such things out of different materials.
This is an honest summary of Drexler’s Ph.D. thesis/book, and with that, a modest act of imagination, accompanied by a tremendous act of chutzpah, and a considerable talent for self promotion, he created what must be the most successful example of “vaporware” of the late 20th and early 21st century. The “molecular foundry” or “center for nanotechnology” or whatever nonsense name they’re calling the new chemistry building at LBL is but the tip of the iceberg. There are government organizations designed to keep up America’s leadership in this imaginary field. There are zillionaire worryworts who are afraid this mighty product of Drexler’s imagination will some day turn us all into grey goo. There are news aggregators for this nonexistent technology. There are even charlatans with foundations promoting, get this, “responsible nanotech.” All this, for a technology which can’t even remotely be thought of as existing in even pre-pre-prototype form. It is as if someone read Isaac Asimov’s books on Robots of the future (written in the 1950s) and thought to found government labs and foundations and centers to responsibly deal with the implications of artificial intelligence from “positronic brains.”
You’d think such an endeavor would have gone on for, I don’t know, a few years, before everyone realized Drexler was a science fiction author who doesn’t do plot or characterization. Nope; this insanity has gone on for 25 years now. Generations of academics have spent their entire careers on this subject, yet not a single goal or fundamental technology which would make this fantasy a remote possibility has yet been developed. Must we work on it for another 25 years before we realize that we can’t even do the “take the Schroedinger equation, figure out how simple molecules stick together” prerequisites which are a fundamental requirement for so called molecular engineering? How many more decades or centuries of research before we can even create a macroscopic object which is capable of the feat of “self replication,” let alone a self replicator which works at length scales which we have only a rudimentary understanding of? How many more cases of nincompoops selling “nanotech sunscreen” or “nanotech water filters” using the “nanotechnology” of activated carbon; must I endure? How many more CIA reports on the dangers of immanent nanoterrorism must my tax dollar pay for, when such technologies are, at best, centuries away? How many more vast coffers of government largesse shall we shower on these clowns before we realize they’re selling snake oil?
Drexler’s answer to all this is, since nobody can disprove the necessary things to develop nanotech, they will be developed. Well, that depends what you mean by the words “can” and “disprove.” It also depends on what your time scale is. I’m willing to bet, at some nebulous point in the future, long after Drexler and I are dead, someone may eventually develop a technology sort of vaguely like what he imagines. At least the parts that don’t totally violate the laws of thermodynamics and materials physics (probably, most of the details do). As an argument, “you can’t disprove my crazy idea” doesn’t hold much water with me. Doubtless there are many denizens of the booby hatch who claim to be Jesus, and I can’t really disprove any of them, but I don’t really see why I should be required to.
I have nothing against there being a few people who want to achieve some of the scientific milestones needed to accomplish “nanotech.” I have a great deal against charlatans who claim that we should actually invest significant resources into this crazy idea. If you’re an investor, and somebody’s prospectus talks about “nano” anything, assuming they’re not selling you a semiconductor fab, you can bet that they are selling you snake oil. There is no nanotech. Stop talking about it. Start laughing at it.
As Nobel prize winning chemist Richard Smalley put it to Drexler:
“No, you don’t get it. You are still in a pretend world where atoms go where you want because your computer program directs them to go there.”
Edit add: definition of vaporware technology: any “technology” which claims miraculous benefits on a timescale longer than it takes to achieve tenure and retire is vaporware, and should not be taken seriously.