Locklin on science

Texas energy markets: several bad ideas

Posted in energy by Scott Locklin on February 20, 2021

Since everything in the US is politicized right now, you’d be hard pressed to understand why Texas is in the dark. Right wingnats blame renewables. Left wingnats blame deregulation. Establishment monkeys blame the fact that Texas isn’t regulated by the federal government. As usual, both the left and the right ideologues have stumbled on part of the truth, and the establishment are retards who should go fuck themselves.

Basic facts: Texas is not connected to the rest of the US energy grid. Because the US government only has power over states in so far as it regulates interstate commerce, this means they can govern their own affairs. This happened partly organically: Texas is huge, has a large coastline and not well connected to the rest of the US geographically due to natural geography and the fact that no other state has any large cities near the Texas border. Mostly, though, it was a political decision: FDR’s massive dictatorial power grab in the 1930s was not universally appreciated as current-year regime loyalists would have you believe, and Texans preferred that East Coast mandarins not have any authority over the energy grid they built. Theoretically Texas should do fine on its own as the potential power grid connections would be pretty sparse anyway, just as they are in similarly huge California, due to the mountain range in the way, and lack of dense populations at the California border. In fact, Texas actually does have power connections outside the state: with Mexico, which is more connected to it geographically with Neuvo Laredo and Matamoros sharing close borders. It also has a little connection with the east coast for such emergencies, but obviously, it was pretty cold there too, so not much help to be had. There are not good maps of this out there, but here’s one that more or less gives you the basic idea. Or you can look at a very good map of the Europe power grid for ideas of how it actually works in the US; geography and the location of industry and cities is tremendously important.

When demand exceeds supply on a power grid, things catch on fire, and you might have no power for months. That needs to be avoided at all costs, even if someone’s pipes freeze. You can imagine what might happen in current year America, a country which couldn’t produce enough masks for the Wuhan coof, if there were a bunch of simultaneous orders for new transformers and generators. Months might turn into years.

The Polar Jet Stream is misbehaving itself this year. It’s not just hammering North America with cold; it’s unseasonably cold everywhere in the north. Usually it keeps the cold air bottled up in the Arctic; this year it’s unstable and making it colder than usual everywhere. Of course dipshits are saying this is happening due to CO2 induced global warming (“climate change” is a meaningless doublethink tautology), but that’s far from clear. Really, the same sort of thing that happens before a new Ice Age. Doesn’t matter: the weather is unpredictable, and while grousing about the fact that there is weather is apparently a political winner due to the profusion of stupid people, we don’t do that around here.

So, it’s cold in Texas; shouldn’t be a problem. Except usually it’s hot in Texas; the grid is designed with that in mind. When it’s hot out, there’s lots of wind and the 20% of the power grid that depends on windmills is well suited to running the numerous air conditioners that are the general cause of peak load conditions. Beyond that, Texas is a natural gas state; it produces megatons of the stuff, and so about 50% of its power comes from gas, just like most of the rest of the country. Gas wells shut down when it’s really cold out, so, no gas for the gas plants. Coal (20%) and nuclear (10%). Texas electrical grid isn’t that different in energy sources than the rest of the country: it’s light on nuclear and hydro, heavy on wind, which they generally have in abundance. The main problem it has is the energy sources don’t work as well when it’s cold out. The main blunder here is that it assumes peak load happens when it’s hot out, and depends on it actually being hot out. Other states use multifuel turbines and have stored fuel on site for such peak load emergencies. Texas could have stored more natgas on site; and it probably will in the future, as this is the cheapest most sane thing to do. Tanks are cheap. Building an extension cord to Louisiana (which probably had similar problems) isn’t.

Windmills: they don’t work when there is no wind. Ice meme is solid though.

This actually happened before: in 2011 there were other blackouts in February. Which brings me to the final point: Texas energy grid is a libertardian wet dream of insane free-marketism on an essential piece of state infrastructure. Power grids are really the type of thing that should have some regulation; preferably local regulation via a Public Utility Commission.  Texas has one which looks a lot like others on paper, but it gave up its power to effectively regulate anything in the late 20th century.

Texans get their bills from an insane patchwork of energy options “suppliers” which are options companies that basically bet against the consumer. There are literally thousands of “plans” that one can switch on a weekly basis. What is the rationale for this? The idea is the different “plans” will cause the free market of consumers to adjust their energy usage to suit the power producers using price signals, so power producers don’t have to build excess capacity for use during peak hours. It’s a capital investment and so there are maintenance problems, debt servicing problems; geez, the lives of power companies would be much easier if you stupid monkeys would just use a predictable amount of power at all times. This is, of course, barking lunacy, courtesy of modern economists; aka bribed ideologues.

When it’s cold out people will turn the heat on. When it’s hot out, people will turn the air conditioners on. The ideology which states this kind of “free market” will do otherwise, is obviously false and produces no such efficiencies, and mostly makes everyone miserable by having an extra-complex thing they have to manage. It also removes the risk from power producers; if power producers are required to provide electricity including peak load electricity, they’ll invest in their infrastructure enough to make sure they can always do so: passing on the costs, of course, to the general public, who actually would like to be able to turn the heat on when it’s cold outside. If they think they can train the 30 million monkeys to fiddle with their power usage through various “smart grid” mechanisms and price signals, they will not invest in their infrastructure to make this possible.  There are even startups to help you manage this ridiculous complexity.To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, right now there is a huge demand and no supply for power in Texas. As a result those who use some power are going to get HUGE bills; it’s really absurd. That’s the power company telling you to let your pipes freeze because they’re having a hard time right now.

Actual free markets work to social benefit when there is competition between producers. Offloading monopolistic risks and expenses to consumers has zero social benefit. People really don’t turn the heat off when it’s cold out, no matter what the price signals are, no matter how much the morons in the utility companies wish they would. This isn’t a uniquely Texas problem; it’s being pushed by …. power companies, with Green veneer on it. I became aware of this in 2010 and thought it was absolutely bonkers, and anyone who defends it is a gibbering moron or a profiteering power company executive. I can even point you to falsified analysis used to pitch this idea on a pilot program. You can see exactly what happened; everyone complied with the smart grid directives to turn off the power when it’s hot out (peak load in the region studied) the first time it happened, because muh technology I guess. They literally never did it again. The ice cream melting in the freezer in Wally world (shops and large facilities used vastly more power than consumers) demonstrated how bad an idea this was. The one thing that did happen was the factories moved people to a night shift. Through creative statistics this was presented to the PUC as a huge success, basically because the people involved in the analysis bet their careers on it. No doubt they continue to advocate for it. They should be sent to China to pitch the idea.

The free market doesn’t work here because you can’t build a new power plant to profit from these $10,000 a month power bills. The price signal only works one way, and it won’t be heeded by the people it’s directed at; it just tortures ordinary people. The free market won’t induce power companies to float bonds to profit from unpredictable peak loads. Regulators could though, and regulation is exactly what is needed in this situation. Blaming the stationary windmills is pretty silly, though over reliance on them is definitely part of the problem; other countries use lots of windmills and do fine, even when it’s cold out, because they have regulators who make sure there’s plenty of all kinds of electricity. If you want the free market to work properly, let the power companies buy natgas when it’s cheap and store it in tanks instead of offloading this risk on consumers.

Mormon nuclear fusion

Posted in Design, energy by Scott Locklin on July 2, 2013

Most of you have never heard of Philo T. Farnsworth. Philo T. Farnsworth is famous for never getting credit for inventing the Television machine.  I never thought Television was particularly interesting (either as a device, or in any other way), though I have to admit, the Television machine is a pretty impressive accomplishment for a 14 year old farm-boy Mormon. Even more impressive was his successful attempt to build a fusion machine.

fusor410c

Farnsworth, like all good inventors, took a workman like approach to nuclear fusion. Thousands of morons (as opposed to Mormons) in the scientific establishment have been trying for literally, decades, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, to achieve what Farnsworth did, using what amounts to a pile of junk.  His solution is still considered pretty  good, and if it were given a fair trial, it might even beat the billion dollar efforts out there in achieving break-even (aka as much fusion energy out as was put in). The Navy recently revived the idea in the form of “Polywell Fusion.” It’s so simple, anyone can build a Farnsworth Fusor in his basement; there are websites devoted to hobbyist efforts. Kids regularly build these things for science fair projects. That’s how dumb and easy they are. The most complicated thing about them is the vacuum pump they use.

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The “big science” buffoons use magnetic confinement; a copy of a Soviet idea that never went anywhere. You end up with a giant toroidal machine, with megawatts of energy going to keep the fusion plasma contained in place. Farnsworth’s idea just used some rings of metal to more or less passively keep the ionized fluid in place. It’s such a simple device, you could construct one out of TV and refrigerator parts, with the electrostatic rings made of old coat hangers. Such machines are used commercially as neutron sources, as they produce lots of fusion reactions (though nowhere near breakeven thus far).

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Farnsworth was probably the last great American inventor. I’d like to think there will be great inventing men to come after him, but I’m pretty sure it won’t happen here any more, as the continuity is gone. Independent inventing men like Edison, Tesla and the Maxim brothers are part of America’s tradition; Farnsworth was the last of the great ones. Now we think of men as inventors when they write some crap piece of software. Farnsworth was uneducated by modern lights; only a few years of college. He was an actual farm boy, and he thought of television while ploughing the fields. TV is a rastering process, like ploughing fields. Yet, he invented all manner of machines, as well as being an accomplished mathematician.

Why won’t there be any more like him? The tinkering mentality is gone. Guys from the midwest  in the early 20th century were tinkerers who fixed things because they had to in those days. You can’t really understand physical reality by screwing around with CAD and computer models. You can only understand physical reality by, well, tinkering with it. My pal Rodrigo recently sent me a Tom Wolfe essay (about Intel’s Bob Noyce, primarily) which illustrates the point, and also demonstrates why modern bureaucratic space flight is such a galloping failure:

The engineers who fulfilled one of man’s most ancient dreams, that of traveling to the moon, came from the same background, the small towns of the Midwest and the West. After the triumph of Apollo 11, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first mortals to walk on the moon, NASA’s administrator, Tom Paine, happened to remark in conversation: “This was the triumph of the squares. ” A reporter overheard him; and did the press ever have a time with that! But Paine had come up with a penetrating insight. As it says in the Book of Matthew, the last shall be first. It was engineers from the supposedly backward and narrow-minded boondocks who had provided not only the genius but also the passion and the daring that won the space race and carried out John F. Kennedy’s exhortation, back in 1961. to put a man on the moon “before this decade is out.” The passion and the daring of these engineers was as remarkable as their talent. Time after time they had to shake off the meddling hands of timid souls from back east. The contribution of MIT to Project Mercury was minus one. The minus one was Jerome Wiesner of the MIT electronic research lab who was brought in by Kennedy as a special adviser to straighten out the space program when it seemed to be faltering early in 1961. Wiesner kept flinching when he saw what NASA’s boondockers were preparing to do. He tried to persuade to forfeit the manned space race to the Soviets and concentrate instead on unmanned scientific missions. The boondockers of Project Mercury, starting with the project’s director, Bob Gilruth, an aeronautical engineer from Nashwauk, Minnesota, dodged Wiesner for months, like moonshiners evading a roadblock, until they got astronaut Alan Shepard launched on the first Mercury mission. Who had time to waste on players as behind the times as Jerome Wiesner and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology…out here on technology’s leading edge?

Just why was it that small-town boys from the Middle West dominated the engineering frontiers? Noyce concluded it was because in a small town you became a technician, a tinker, an engineer, and an and inventor, by necessity.

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Of course, Farnsworth was hounded by scumbags for most of his life. David Sarnoff, the evil weasel who founded NBC, and early patent troll, attempted to sue Farnsworth to penury. He ultimately failed in this endeavor, though the mind reels at the injustice of a towering genius like Farnsworth having to pay any attention to such nonsense. Who knows what wonders Farnsworth may have come up with had he been free to pursue his interests, rather than being tied up in pointless patent disputes with sleazeballs?

Consider Philo Farnsworth the next time someone tells you we live in an era of scientific progress. Where are our Philo Farnsworths today? They certainly aren’t laboring in a make work program in some government lab, nor do they seem to be inventing anything particularly interesting.

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http://www.rexresearch.com/farnsworth/fusor.htm#advanced

http://www.philotfarnsworth.com/

http://www.farnovision.com/chronicles/tfc-intro.html

https://www.neco.navy.mil/synopsis_file/N6893609C0125%20_Redacted_JA.pdf (the navy can’t update their security certs, apparently).

Energy storage and green technologies

Posted in energy by Scott Locklin on July 9, 2012

A lot of people are trying to save the world with “green technologies.” Personally, I think the obsession the upper middle classes have with saving the world is misplaced, grandiose and often destructive. Such folks would be better off trying to make their little corner of the planet a nicer place for their fellow citizens. But it isn’t a bad idea trying to get some energy supplies from someplace besides dead dinosaur sauce.

The problem with getting rid of fossil fuels is these are tremendously dense and useful energy supplies. You need to store energy. Energy storage is a hard problem. Anyone who owns a portable computer knows this. Batteries run flat pretty quickly. Basically, batteries suck.

This is a universal technological problem. If you have a powerplant, it probably runs at close to its most efficient output rate at all times. Otherwise, you’re wasting a lot of fuel. If you have excess powerplant capacity, that is a waste of capacity. Power companies deal with this by building artificial hydroelectric installations: they build a big jar of water in a mountain, and use excess power to fill it up using pumps. Then when they need more electricity (when everyone turns on their air conditioners), they let the water fall and spin some extra turbines (which are cheaper than turbines + motors). You get something like 70% efficiency in this storage technique, even though it sounds really silly, but anything which allows a little more output during peak hours without building otherwise idle power plants is useful. This is also the idea behind “smartmeter” technologies, in that power companies think they can make consumers use less power during peak hours. I rather doubt that they can, but don’t blame them for trying, as peak generating plants are expensive infrastructure to have lying around idle most of the time.

The problem is compounded by “green” energy technologies presently under popular consideration. Anything solar, obviously, only works in the day time. Fortunately, peak power consumption also happens in the daytime, so cheap solar could help power companies deliver power more efficiently. Of course, it isn’t cheap; it’s outrageously expensive -so expensive, that nobody has installed large solar installations yet, despite all manner of tax credits and legal incentives to do so. Should solar ever become cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels, energy storage will become a problem. The other popular “renewable” is wind power, which is reasonably cheap and which isn’t strongly correlated with time of day. It is, however, highly intermittent, which makes power storage an important issue in building an electrical infrastructure which relies on “green” energy supplies.

In terms of small scale energy use, such as heating a house or powering a vehicle, chemicals is usually how things are stored on a small scale. Chemicals are a sort of real world crystalization of the electromagnetic force. All the little electron bonds in a chemical are potential energy which can be released by burning the stuff, or, if it is an explosive, letting it explode. Burning is most efficient, as you only have to carry around half of the chemicals. In principle, you could carry around electromagnetic energy in other forms. In practise, hydrocarbons (or some form of hydrogen) are a really dense and helpful way of doing this.

Capacitors store electric charge directly (batteries store electricity as chemical energy) by separating two conductors by a dielectric substance. If you make a big enough capacitor, it can store a lot of charge. Nobody knows how to build such a capacitor such that it beats batteries in energy storage per kilogram, though big capacitors are used to power systems in which the power output must be high and very temporary (like in a surface to air or air to air missile, or engine starter circuit). Something like the state of the art is represented here; as you can see it stores about 2kJ per pound. Lead acid bateries are more like 66kj/lb, and the energizer bunny about 180kj/lb. Nickel Metal Hydride batteries are about 150kj/lb. The most insane kind of battery, which is also explosive (and low in current capacity), is lithium chloride; it stores about 900kj/lb. You can’t generally buy those unless you are NASA or a large industrial firm. By contrast, gasoline stores about 20,000kj/lb. This is why we do not use electric cars on a wide scale; you can store a lot more energy per pound of fuel in a gasoline car. Each gallon is about 6lbs. So a 12 gallon capacity is equal to to 10,000lbs of advanced batteries in terms of energy storage. The next time a hippy tells you “clean electric cars” were destroyed via a conspiracy of oil barons and auto executives, remind him it is really the laws of physics.

For what it is worth, hydrocarbons are about as good as it gets; a factor of 10 better than TNT; and they don’t explode in inconvenient ways. The only simple thing I can think of which does substantially better in terms of energy storage is liquid hydrogen (about twice as good), and that poses difficult storage problems. Probably if we ever develop practical fuel cells, they will operate on gasoline or alcohol. Intelligent people have contemplated building small internal combustion engines with generators for powering laptops; that’s how bad batteries are at this sort of thing.

The other little-mentioned problem with alternative energy supplies taken from the ambient environment: they are sparse. So what, you say? Well, imagine we had a cheap way of harvesting, say, tidal energy. I’ve seen such projects proposed, and they even look fairly cost effective on paper, even if you overlook the potential maintenance costs and environmental damage caused by such gizmos. One of the obvious problems with this is getting the power to someplace useful. How do you do this? You can’t just stick a giant extension cord in the ocean; this is a vast engineering problem. The same problem manifests itself in collecting other kinds of diffuse energy, such as wind power. You need a lot of wires to hook up a wind farm to the grid. Solar is worse (excepting, perhaps, solar-thermal plants, whose major problem is getting enough windex to keep the heliostats clean). All such schemes require, at the very least, large amounts of expensive aluminum and copper. At the worst (the tidal energy idea), we don’t actually know how to move the energy from one place to the other efficiently.

When someone is talking about a new scheme for “green” energy generation, contemplate energy density considerations. Does the energy come from a small place like an electric generator, or is it dispersed over a wide region, like a solar panel the size of Delaware? If the latter, there are hidden infrastructure costs the inventor isn’t telling you about. Is the energy stored as efficiently  as hydrocarbons? If yes, well, that is an important breakthrough which makes all kinds of things possible. Energy density is a simple idea which sorts out lots of bullshit.

U.S. energy independence: hard numbers

Posted in energy by Scott Locklin on January 9, 2010

People have been gnashing their teeth about this for decades, since the 1973 Yom Kippur war and Arab oil embargo. There are giant government think tanks and agencies devoted to fixing this problem, and the present government seems to be obsessed with appearing to do something about it, but I’m going to solve the problem without putting any pants on. In fact, I will complete my solution before the morning’s second cup of joe is done (finding pictures took longer than figuring out what to do).

The most basic question to address is, how much energy do we use in america? About 100 quadrillion BTU’s. We import about 25 quadrillion BTU’s net (we import some, we export some). I’m basing this on 2000 figures, figuring consumption is approximately flat due to increased costs; scale up or down as needed if you feel like digging up the current figures.

Of this, about 780 billion kilowatt hours are generated using nuclear power, aka 2.6 quadrillion BTU’s. So, build 10 times the nuclear power capacity of america, and all our energy importation problems are solved. Coal liquefaction or domestic oil will take care of the fact that our cars burn gasoline rather than the hydrogen used in electrical batteries. This means, we’d have to add 7800 billion KWH to the infrastructure. This costs $1500 per KW in capital outlay. This works out to $1.3 trillion in capital outlay for all our new nuke plants. Amortized over 10 years, that’s a reasonable $130 billion a year in capital outlay. It will also quickly pay for itself, though such a huge change to the economy might have positive side effects. For one thing, it will up the construction and heavy manufacturing industries which helps out the vast pool of working class americans with nothing to do, and give them money to spend on goods and services. It will also help the nuclear service industries. It would also give us lots of cheap power with which to do interesting things, like make liquid coal to burn in vehicles. Also, uranium is mostly mined in Canada and Australia, which are much more politically stable than the places where we get oil from. Not that we’d have to care about those other places any more; while it is political of me to say so, and I loathe politics, the cost savings from not having to periodically invade the Middle East could easily pay for our new nuke plants. We can let the Germans run the Middle East if they want to, since they were foolish enough to get rid of their nuclear power infrastructure.

We could do the same thing with coal (our proven reserves of coal are enough for 200 years at current energy consumption rates) for just about the same price. The disadvantage is far worse pollution load; coal ash is nasty and fairly radioactive stuff. Teller once worked out that there is more radioactive waste generated by burning coal per BTU than burning Uranium. The waste products from coal are either pumped into the atmosphere, or into the ground if you use scrubbers. There are huge volumes of stuff involved; huge volumes of coal, and nearly equal volumes of solid waste products. Coal is also politically unacceptable to people who subscribe to the presently fashionable climatological fantasies. Personally I think minimizing the CO2 pumped into the atmosphere isn’t a bad idea either, even though I don’t believe the climatologists. So, nukes are better; they don’t make any appreciable waste volumes.

People wring their hands about the horrors of SUV driving, incandescent light bulbs, and living in areas with bad climate which require heating and cooling, but all transportation in america totals up to about 22 quadBTUs, and all residencies in america consume 15 quadBTUs. While these are substantial and could be squeezed a bit more (radical changes would give maybe a factor of 2 improvement, for a savings of 18 quad BTUs), the more important consumption rates are industrial and commercial. These groups already have a huge incentive to be efficient as possible, as energy costs influence their bottom line. The most important consumers of energy are the economic engines which make the United States a wealthy country. This is true across the board. If you look at what China and India consume in terms of energy, per capita GDP and per capital energy consumption are pretty much linear. Russia is an outlier due to all those wasteful communist power plants, and the fact that they have plenty of power to burn. Plus it is cold there, so many industrial processes take more heat. Here is a little chart showing how much wealth is generated per amount of energy used; for the number in the last column “the bigger the better,” meaning such countries generate more wealth for every bit of energy used. It could mean they use lots of slave labor and don’t heat anything, like in China. It could mean the countries that are big and/or cold (Canada, Australia, America and Russia) require more energy. The differences between these nations in wealth generated per unit energy is not so great that you’d figure you could do much better than America does now, even if you were as obsessed with efficiency as, say, the Germans are. It is an interesting calculation; check it out:

Country per capita energy use GDP/capita economic output/energy use
USA: 340 megaBTU 42000 $124/megaBTU
China: 35 megaBTU 6300 $180/megaBTU
Germany 173 megaBTU 29000 $167/megaBTU
Japan 175 megaBTU 30000 $171/megaBTU
Russia 200 megaBTU 11000 $55/megaBTU
Canada 343 megaBTU 33000 $96/megaBTU

This makes complete hash of the modern urban piety of “saving energy.” Even in China, where there are no environmental constraints (environmental constraints usually cost more in energy), and where people live like the serfs in Metropolis (approximate personal or comfort energy usage in China is zero), they still generate about the same amount of economic output per BTU as we do in the U.S.. I figure we could do a little better, but not too much better without becoming very poor.

For you hippies who fantasize about “renewable” (an absurd neologism meaning, “not nuclear”) solar power and windmills, the capital outlays are a minimum of a factor of 10 higher, and they often create more pollution and kill birds and desert life. The maintenance costs required are also absurd compared to nuclear power. Imagine a giant wind plant over the course of 50 years; the nuke plant is guaranteed to continue operation for the whole 50 years without serious construction costs. At best, I could imagine 1/5 of this figure from “renewable.” Wind might become slightly more important, as building really big mills can be cost efficient in windy areas, but even if you harvested all the wind energy in the country, you wouldn’t put an appreciable dent in U.S. energy needs. Consider; the total average amount of energy you get from the sun (solar, hydro, biomass and wind power all comes from the sun) is about 160W per square meter. The most you can get from that is about 5%., so, 32watts per square meter. America is 9 trillion square meters. You do the math. I think it comes out to 2E18 BTU. So, we use about 1/20 of the recoverable energy output of the sun to power the United States. I don’t fancy covering 1/22 of the nation in arsenic laden solar cells and replacing it every 10 years when they wear out. Though if we could bioengineer trees with electrical outlets, that would be OK by me.

Anyway: the hair shirt crowd needs to grow up; you can’t power the United States on pinwheels and solar powered calculators. You can’t save an important amount of energy unless you’re willing to eat gruel and live like a serf; and not a make-believe serf that takes international plane flights to save-the-world parties either. Americans as a people are a nation of artificers, mechanics and ingenious inventors; it wouldn’t be America without jet funny cars and monster trucks; let’s make them nuclear powered, and monster truck our way into …. the human future!

“Look at us! We are not out of breath, our hearts are not in the least tired. For they are nourished by fire, hatred and speed! Does this surprise you? it is because you do not even remember being alive! Standing on the world’s summit, we launch once more our challenge to the stars!”-F.T. Marinetti