Tesla could have saved us from coronaplague

From Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World:

As a regular solo customer of Delmonico’s, the polite and gracious inventor had let the highly trained staff know that he liked to have eighteen pristine napkins in a stack at his table. Very discreetly, Tesla used them to wipe the germs off each piece of heavy silverware, sparkling china, and crystal stemware before he partook of the chef’s many delights. Tesla’s germ phobia had developed after a fellow scientist allowed him to observe through a microscope the many normally invisible creatures inhabiting unboiled water. Tesla would later explain, “If you would watch only for a few minutes the horrible creatures, hairy and ugly beyond anything you can conceive, tearing each other up with the juices diffusing throughout the water—you would never again drink a drop of unboiled or unsterilized water.” So Tesla was ever vigilant in limiting his exposure to these vile microscopic bugs.

(Thank you to Steve for the Amazon gift card and suggestion to use it on this book!)

Nikola Tesla was also a pioneer in social distancing:

More and more [in the 1930s], Tesla lived in his own world, as big a romantic as ever, and as eccentric. He had his vegetarian meals specially cooked by the hotel chef and insisted that the help not get closer to him than a few feet, part of his phobia of germs.

How about #FollowScience and #BelieveTheExperts?

And in fact, on May 6, 1893, the officers of the Niagara Falls Power Company declared unequivocally that polyphase alternating current would be their choice. This was, at the time, still a very bold and highly controversial stance. The eminent Sir William Thomson, chairman of the International Niagara Committee and just elevated to become Lord Kelvin by Queen Victoria, cabled Adams on May 1 to head off the announcement. He proposed an ambitious DC plan, urging, “Trust you avoid gigantic mistake of adoption of alternate current.”

In other words, one of the greatest scientists of the age was sure that low-voltage DC was the way to electrify a country.

BLM at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition (named after someone who refused to #BelieveScience and lit up by Westinghouse AC):

On the hot Friday of August 25—Colored People’s Day at Festival Hall—the great abolitionist and leader Frederick Douglass wearily entreated in this era of Jim Crow, “All we beg is to receive as honest treatment as those who love only part of the country.”

How rich was the pre-electrified country?

… [in 1890] America’s population up to a mighty sixty-three million, according to the recent census. Politicians had taken to boasting that the United States was now a “billion dollar” country. It was, in fact, far richer than that, thanks to its relentless can-do commercial spirit and the reckless ambition of men like Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. In the postbellum United States, the national wealth had soared to $65 billion, more than the accumulated holdings of all the aristocrats and commercial classes of Great Britain, Germany, and Russia combined. By 1890, in America, nearly $40 billion was invested in land and buildings, $9 billion in the sprawling network of railroads, and $4 billion in manufacturing and mining.

In other words, roughly $1,000 in wealth for every resident, roughly $28,000 in today’s mini-dollars. The U.S. had a net worth of $124 trillion as of 2014 (Wikipedia, assets minus debts). Population back in 2014 was 318 million (compare to 330.1 million today). So the per-person wealth in 2014 was $390,000, about $430,000 in 2020 dollars.

How did folks in New York City entertain themselves back then?

As an appalled Parkhurst and his two companions toured every kind of beer-soaked dance hall, cheap saloon, and sleazy brothel, they became astonished, genteel witnesses to a large and rowdy underworld thriving on illicit gambling, cheap liquor and beer, and organized, commercial sex catering to every kind of appetite. Gardner also had his own detectives out gathering affidavits. So when Reverend Parkhurst mounted his pulpit a mere month later on Sunday, March 13, 1892, he possessed documented evidence that Tammany was “rotten with a rottenness that is unspeakable and indescribable.” He had proof that 254 saloons and 30 brothels had been roaring with business just the previous Sunday. In the ensuing months, a grand jury handed down a few placating indictments, but little would change immediately. The urban poor (and a certain number of their better-off confreres) wanted jollity and dazed forgetfulness, be it craps, bawdy dance halls, or cheap, quick sex, for theirs were hardscrabble lives.

Reverend Parkhurst would be a big fan of coronashutdown!

George Westinghouse might not have been. In response to Edison’s arguments that high-voltage AC was dangerous, he responded that, statistically, electrocution was an uncommon cause of death:

Westinghouse tried to put it into perspective with the following: In the year 1888, sixty-four people in New York City were killed in streetcar accidents, fifty-five by omnibuses and wagons, twenty-three by illuminating gas, and all of five by electric current. This was not exactly an orgy of wanton and careless killing.

Westinghouse might have referred to the CDC’s excess deaths chart:

Speaking of death, there was a huge amount of enthusiasm for capital punishment via high voltage.

Two physicians leaned forward to examine Kemmler [the first electric chair victim]. The other doctors gathered around and dented Kemmler’s flesh to judge his state. Dr. Southwick smiled broadly as he came away from the fresh corpse. “There,” he exclaimed to a knot of witnesses who had quietly withdrawn to the far end of the chamber, “there is the culmination of ten years’ work and study. We live in a higher civilization from this day.

Higher civilization wasn’t completely civilized…

But the blood was continuing to ooze from Kemmler’s small finger wound. His heart still had to be beating. The physicians around the limp figure recoiled as one yelled in horror, “Great God! He is alive!” Another ordered, “Turn on the current.” “See, he breathes,” gasped a third. When Dr. Southwick and the others whirled around at these cries, they saw that Kemmler’s body was still limp, but his chest was heaving up and down. He seemed to be struggling for breath, and foam was seeping horribly from his masked mouth hole. “For God’s sake, kill him and have it over!” screamed one witness. The Associated Press reporter fainted on the wood floor, and several men carried him to a bench, where they fanned him. Durston had turned chalk white. He fumbled and reattached the scalp electrode. As the current flowed anew and Kemmler again went horribly rigid, “an awful odor began to permeate the death chamber.” Kemmler’s hair and skin were being visibly singed. A blue flame played briefly behind his neck. His clothes caught fire, but one of the doctors quickly extinguished them. “The stench,” reported the Times, “was unbearable.” After several minutes, the current was turned off, and as purple spots mottled Kemmler’s hands, arms, and neck, the doctors again declared him dead. The room reeked of burned meat and feces. The nauseated witnesses signed the death warrant for Warden Durston and then trailed out into the stone corridors, silent, shaken, several sick, the Erie County sheriff so distraught that tears trickled down his face. Three hours later, when the doctors had sufficiently recovered to perform an autopsy, they found that rigor mortis had stiffened Kemmler into a permanent sitting position. Examination of the body showed scorch marks wherever the electrodes and buckles touched the body. Kemmler had been “roasted” as well as a piece of overdone meat. Once the autopsy was complete and numerous organs removed, Kemmler’s baked corpse was taken and buried at night in the prison courtyard with great quantities of quicklime to dissolve all ultimate traces.

The author chronicles the cruelties inflicted on innocent animals, such as dogs and calves, in the years leading up to the execution of convicted criminals via electricity. This was the work of Edison affiliates, anxious to paint the Westinghouse AC system as dangerous.

Investment advice from Tesla turned out to be almost as bad as investment advice from Paul Krugman (November 2016: “It really does now look like President Donald J. Trump, and markets are plunging. When might we expect them to recover? … If the question is when markets will recover, a first-pass answer is never.”):

And what of Niagara Falls? the local reporters urgently asked. Tesla replied without hesitation: “The result of this great development of electric power will be that the falls and Buffalo will reach out their arms and will join each other and become one great city. United, they will form the greatest city in the world.”

(See “Can Buffalo Ever Come Back?” (2007), in which we learn that “The 1920s were the last real growth period for Buffalo” and that rail and road transportation reduced the importance of the Erie Canal. “Then the Saint Lawrence Seaway opened in 1957, connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic and allowing grain shipments to bypass Buffalo altogether.” Meanwhile “New York’s high taxes, burdensome regulations, and pro-union laws made Buffalo less attractive to employers than its more successful southern competitors. … Despite 50 years of population loss, Buffalo has one of the steepest metropolitan tax burdens in the country—including one of the nation’s highest local property tax rates, according to a 2003 study.”)

Vaguely related, the Glen Canyon Dam, circa 1990, captured with Kodak Tech Pan film:

It was legal to go to the Canadian side of the Falls just a year ago!

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Trump has dismantled the Post Office; let’s have the government run all health care

My Facebook feed has been alive lately with Post Office Panic supplementing the usual Coronapanic:

Trump acknowledged he is starving the USPS because he thinks it will hurt the Dems. His selfish nature in full display. He doesn’t care how many businesses and seniors of his own base he will hurt by doing this. His lunatic rationale will backfire. It will reduce his own voter base and motivate the Dem voters to go vote even in the rain and with long lines just like it did in Michigan for their Supreme court position.

Trump is refusing to sign any bill that provides additional financial support to the USPS, where new cost-cutting policies are leading to delays in the delivery of every kind of mail, including checks, bills, and medications.

Maybe if people aren’t alarmed by the USPS being dismantled before the election, what about a month and a half later when it’s time to send Xmas presents?

If you’re concerned about the United States Postal Service, you might want to file a complaint with the Inspector General for the Post Office.

Shared from Hillary Clinton (she is still alive?): Call your Republican senators and let them know: We won’t let them dismantle the USPS–and disenfranchise millions of Americans—without a fight.

I am alarmed by recent actions by the Trump administration to sabotage the 2020 election. It is very clear that their strategy is to suppress voting by slowing down the post office, telling lies about so-called danger of mail-in voting and endorsing voter-ID. All this during a pandemic when many of us are worried about the safety of grocery stores or banks, let alone polling places.

In response to one of these, I wrote

People who think the post office has collapsed and can’t deliver a few ballots also want a similar agency to take over their health care.

This was labeled “trolling” of course! But it is still interesting that people simultaneously believe that any government function can be destroyed by a wrongly-selected Great Father in Washington AND if that it would be smart to give the Great Father/Mother/Other control over health care. I asked

If the Post Office can be destroyed by Donald Trump acting alone, what stops whoever takes over from President Kamala Harris in 2028 from acting alone to destroy whatever government-run health system that President Harris and a Democrat-controlled Congress set up in 2021?

One response to this is that Medicare and Medicaid have been running for decades, much to the satisfaction of providers (who are pocketing 18 percent of GDP now, up from 5 percent prior to Medicare/Medicaid being introduced in 1966). But maybe they are running only because Trump, for whatever idiosyncratic reason known only to him, did not decide to terminate these programs as well. If he can kill off the postal service, running in various forms for at least 2000 years, why couldn’t Trump kill Medicare as well?

From the Azores, 2017… what a Post Office truck should look like (Portugal’s postal service was fully privatized by 2014):


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Maskachusetts: When people aren’t scared enough, change the Covid-19 dashboard

Facebook remains a safe space for Shutdown Karens to pour out their fear regarding school reopening. Children will die. Maybe the death rate among children could become 100X what it had been? Certainly it could! The Tuesday, August 11, 2020 dashboard:

Out of 8,529 deaths so far, exactly 0 have been among those under 20. A naive person might look at these data and say “since I’m not 82 years old, I won’t worry too much and I certainly won’t worry about children, none of whom have ever died here in Massachusetts.”

[How is Maskachusetts doing as Month 6 of Shutdown begins? The never-masked, never-shut Swedes have lost 5,770 residents so far (WHO). In other words, righteous Massachusetts, carefully following Church of Shutdown dogma, has had twice the cumulative death rate of the wicked Swedes, sending their children into the killing zones (schools) daily.]

The August 12, 2020 dashboard has a new format. This one is much scarier to middle-aged parents. 8,547 of us have perished. There is no breakdown by age nor average age reported. 18 people were reported dead yesterday (compare to 4 in Sweden, suggesting that Massachusetts has 6X the daily death rate compared to Sweden).

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Are celebrities jumping the coronavirus testing queues doing us a favor?

From yesterday: “Elite versus Non-Elite access to COVID-19 testing”.

On further reflection, however, maybe celebrities jumping the queue are doing us a favor. We’ve learned that Harvey Weinstein (68), Jackson Browne (71), and Prince Charles (also 71) have tested positive for coronavirus and are recovering at home from their flu-type symptoms.

These guys are not examples of youth, vibrant health, or genetic diversity, right? They probably wouldn’t have been tested if they’d been ordinary peasants. Can we relax a bit knowing that (a) their positive diagnoses suggest that a reasonably high percentage of the population has already been exposed (consistent with the Oxford epidemiologists who may never be interviewed by America’s hysteria-dependent media), and (b) their mild symptoms suggest a lower-than-expected percentage of the infected need medical intervention?

[Ironic: Jackson Browne was infected in Wuhan on the Hudson at a concert to benefit victims of a different virus: HIV (New York Post). He came out of an “anti-Trump” concert in 2017 unscathed, fortunately, and also a crowded event in Los Angeles: “Trump loathing unifies the diverse crowd at the massive L.A. women’s march”. If Jackson Browne’s case had become serious, his life might have been saved by the president he loathes, since Trump sent one of the Navy’s two hospital ships to Browne’s home city of Los Angeles (the other one is going to New York City). Trump could certainly have sent the ships to Florida and Texas, right? Or addressed the inequality that New Yorkers and Californians decry by sending the ships to lower-income states such as Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and South Carolina. Will Democrats in LA and NYC at least send a thank-you note to Trump even if they will never vote for him?]

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts we have limited information on the non-celebrities. The March 25 update says that there are 1838 “confirmed cases”. Are they watching Netflix at home? Or near death on a ventilator in an ICU? For 1385 the answer is “Under investigation”. 103 are known to be hospitalized and 350 are known to be “not hospitalized”. Is it truly impossible for our state public health officials to call up the hospitals and ask “How many COVID-19 inpatients do you have right now?” (Contrast to Texas, where the governor has ordered daily reports on bed availability. (with hundreds of billions of dollars invested in health care IT, why aren’t these data already streamed up to each state’s department of health?).)


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Taxpayer-funded aviation in the 1950s

From the Udvar-Hazy Center, taxpayer-funded aviation in the 1950s: $2,500 Piper Super Cubs.

I texted these to a friend. His reply: “Today that would be 50 Blackhawks with $20 million sensor packages.”

Also from the museum, the “San Francisco” is a biplane so that twice as many people can pitch tents under the wings.

1940s and 50s seem to have been the high point for aircraft design cuteness. Note the cartoon-like Bell helicopters:

The Discovery Space Shuttle and its firsts in the gender and racial identity departments:

Don’t let your seaplane near the salt water:

A 1960s German toy for the nostalgic:

(A friend commented “You had to see old guy down the road for the decals.”)

Elizabeth Warren’s test pilot closet:

Some fun overviews…

At AirVenture (“Oshkosh”) 2019, Burt Rutan said that the National Air and Space Museum was “a great place to park a used airplane.” He’s certainly right about that, but it would be nice if the museum could step up its educational effort, which is weak compared to the Museum of Flight in Seattle (previous post).

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Some hope for electric airplanes from Nova Scotia’s latest battery tweaks?

Electric airplanes currently cost more to operate per hour than gas-powered ones. A major factor is the limited life of the battery. Throwing out a $20,000 battery after 700 to 1,000 flights is more expensive than overhauling a piston engine after 2,200 hours.

Nova Scotians funded by Tesla to the rescue? This WIRED article talks about a battery that can handle 4,000 cycles.


  • May 2018 post with some discussion in the comments about battery cycle life (also a discussion about Californians using taxpayer funds to run Slovenian electric airplanes: “The students flying these world’s-most-advanced training aircraft are currently “unemployed.” In other words, they are young Americans who can’t get organized, in one of the tightest labor markets in U.S. history, to walk down to McDonald’s at 3 pm and start an evening shift. The California officials, however, have decided to train them for a job that requires getting up at 4:30 am.” The flight school’s blog suggests that the project is on hold pending FAA regulatory approval.)
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Tale of two children

Photos from a recent visit to a friend’s house in suburban Massachusetts…

The daughter, an elementary school student, baked cookies from “women owned” dough:

(But how can anyone be sure that the owners of this dough company continued to identify as “women” after the package was printed and distributed into grocery stores?)

The son, a middle school student, showed off a home-decorated coffee mug:

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How to steal $billions

Billion Dollar Whale is an instructive tutorial from two Wall Street Journal reporters. The “whale” is a pudgy Malaysian-Chinese guy named Jho Low who managed to steal billions of dollars from Malaysians and Arabs via diverting money from a sovereign wealth fund that he created and controlled.

One critical part of the scheme was setting up companies, and therefore bank accounts, that had the same names as legitimate cash destination firms, but that were incorporated in a different country and that were controlled by Jho Low:

For the next step of his scheme, Low set up two shell companies in the Seychelles. The firms—ADIA Investment Corporation and KIA Investment Corporation—appeared, given their names, to be related to the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, or ADIA, and Kuwait Investment Authority, or KIA, two of the most famous, multi-billion-dollar sovereign wealth funds in the world. But the look-alike companies were purely Low’s creation, with no links to Abu Dhabi or Kuwait. In setting up ADIA Investment Corporation, Low experimented with another financial trick that he would add to his repertoire. The company issued just one unregistered share, valued at $1, and it was controlled by whoever physically held the stock certificate. These “bearer shares” were banned in many jurisdictions, including Great Britain and the United States—Nevada and Wyoming in 2007 became the last states to abolish their use—because they allowed owners of companies to hide behind layers of secrecy and made it nearly impossible for regulators to determine the owner of an asset at a given point in time. Seeking to find tax cheats in the early 2000s, the United States started to pressure offshore centers to hand over details of the beneficial owners of companies and accounts. Even the British Virgin Islands had recently outlawed the practice of bearer shares. But in the Seychelles, Low learned, they were still permitted.

The second element was an association with Mohammad Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, and his diamond-seeking wife.

The third element for getting money was Goldman Sachs, which was more flexible than other banks:

The 1MDB fund had agreed to pay $2.7 billion for power plants owned by Malaysian billionaire Ananda Krishnan’s Tanjong Energy Holdings, the first of a series of acquisitions it planned to make in the sector. To give the deal a veneer of authenticity, 1MDB needed an independent valuation of the plants. Leissner stepped in, asking Lazard if it could oblige. The U.S. bank agreed to take a look, but its bankers crunched the numbers and couldn’t figure out why 1MDB was willing to pay $2.7 billion for the suite of plants, which were located in Malaysia, as well as Egypt, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the UAE. The deal seemed favorable to Tanjong, especially given that its power-sale agreement with the Malaysian state would soon run out, handing the government leverage to achieve a bargain price. Lazard believed the whole deal smelled of political corruption. It was common in Malaysia for the government to award sweetheart deals to companies in return for kickbacks and political financing; that was what Lazard thought was going on, and so it pulled out. With no other choice, Goldman instead became an adviser to 1MDB on the purchase, as well as helping the fund raise the capital. The bank provided a valuation range that justified 1MDB paying $2.7 billion for the plants.

In return for this flexibility, Goldman earned 100-200X standard investment banking fees:

Goldman was preparing to launch what it internally dubbed Project Magnolia, a plan to sell $1.75 billion in ten-year bonds for the 1MDB fund. But some board members were alarmed by what Leissner had informed them: Goldman would likely make $190 million from its part in the deal, or 11 percent of the bond’s value. This was an outrageous sum, even more than Goldman had made on the Sarawak transaction the year before, and way above the normal fee of $1 million for such work.

[Of course, some of the deals were made on the global douchebag circuit, i.e., at Davos:

The World Economic Forum, held each year in the Swiss ski village of Davos, is a microcosm of elite networks that span the globe, attracting world leaders, Wall Street titans, and chief executives of Fortune 500 companies. The events, in which panels of experts debate high-minded topics like radical Islam or the “democratic deficit” in front of audiences, is only the public face of Davos. In rooms open only to the chosen few with special white VIP passes—the highest in a color-graded hierarchy—the real deal making occurs. In late January, Michael Evans, a Goldman vice chairman in New York overseeing “growth markets,” had an important person to see on the sidelines of Davos: the prime minister of Malaysia. Evans’s audience was with Prime Minister Najib, brokered by Tim Leissner—just the kind of meeting between a Wall Street banker and a world leader that was typical at the event in the Swiss Alps. In public appearances at Davos, Najib was in his element, deepening the impression of Malaysia as a beacon of democracy in the Islamic world, and himself as an urbane technocrat. “We have to take care of the young people, we have to give them jobs,” he told Fareed Zakaria of CNN during an interview on the sidelines of Davos. But here, with Evans and Leissner, Najib had a strikingly different agenda. After pleasantries with the two bankers, Najib brought up the role Goldman had played selling bonds for 1MDB in 2012, and asked if the bank was willing to do so again, getting the money to the fund quickly and quietly, just like before. Goldman’s top management, advised by Leissner, had been expecting more 1MDB business. But Najib’s demand, less than three months since the fund last tapped the market for almost $1.75 billion, was almost too good to be true. The prime minister said the fund wanted to raise a further $3 billion. Such a staggering sum would mean another major payday for Goldman.

Goldman earned $600 million within 12 months, which the authors say is 200X the standard fee.]

The fourth element for avoiding scrutiny was to get auditors such as KPMG to sign off on the sovereign wealth fund’s books, using a fictitious investment in the Cayman Islands to show that the fund hadn’t been looted out.

For spending money, a big part of the key turned out to be working through a big American law firm:

But it was one thing to take money from a Malaysian fund and funnel it to Swiss bank accounts under the guise of a sovereign investment, using friends in official positions to address any concerns of compliance executives at banks. Now, Low wanted to get the money into the United States so he could spend it on luxuries and begin building his empire. That was risky, because the United States had started clamping down on corrupt foreign officials buying assets in Western nations. To do so, Low turned to Shearman & Sterling. Founded in 1873, with its headquarters at 599 Lexington Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, Shearman was as white-shoe a law firm as they came, an organization more suited to handling major mergers and acquisitions than dealing with the likes of Low.

Low informed his new legal team that he would be making a sequence of major investments, but he was very concerned about privacy. He opted to use the firm’s Interest On Lawyer Trust Accounts, or IOLTAs, to help distribute the money. These trust accounts are typically formed by U.S. law firms to pool clients’ money, say, when they are holding short-term funds for business deals or property purchases. This arcane corner of the financial world came into existence three decades ago as a way for law firms to earn short-term interest on client money to finance legal aid for the poor, but over time the accounts developed a reputation for shielding the identity of clients in transactions and helping to hide the origin of funds. Some states mandate that law firms set them up. IOLTAs are at once good for society and a powerful tool for crime. Lawyers, unlike bankers, don’t have to conduct due diligence on a client. Details of transfers through IOLTAs, meanwhile, are protected by lawyer-client privilege. While it is illegal for lawyers to abet money laundering, they are not required to report suspicious activity to regulators. The Financial Action Task Force, a Paris-based intergovernmental group that sets standards for stopping fraudulent use of the global finance system, has highlighted the United States’s poor oversight of lawyers as a weak spot in its defenses against money launderers.

Low pushed $369 million through the law firm. How much did the guy spend?

Between October 2009 and June 2010—a period of only eight months—Low and his entourage spent $85 million on alcohol, gambling in Vegas, private jets, renting superyachts, and to pay Playmates and Hollywood celebrities to hang out with them.

Despite connections to the Obama White House, things do begin to unravel for Mr. Low. I don’t want to spoil the suspense, though. The worldwide civil and criminal litigation is ongoing, but it seems safe to say that Goldman gets to keep all of its fees!

More: Read Billion Dollar Whale.

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Northwest Passage fairly open this year

Two of the passengers on Roald Amundsen were on a voyage last year on Fram that had to turn back due to ice in the Northwest Passage. This year we found enough ice to prevent driving through the Bellot Strait as planned, but Amundsen’s 1903 route down through Peel Sound was passable, especially with the assistance of Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Terry Fox (thank you, Canadian taxpayers!).

We stopped at Beechey Island, the lonely site of some Franklin Expedition graves:

Then it was time to head south, following a Canadian cruise ship that was following the icebreaker.

Wildlife sightings so far: a few fin whales, five polar bear, perhaps 30 seals, many seabirds.

Weather today in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut: right around freezing with a 40-knot wind. Thanks to Bell Canada for the LTE service:

Regarding the proper term for the locals, one said “Eskimo is a Cree or Algonquin word meaning ‘eater of raw meat.’ That’s not who I am. Though of course I do love to eat raw meat.”

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