Microwire Photovoltaics at Caltech

I went to this year’s second Everhart Lecture yesterday by Josh Spurgeon, who is working with Harry Atwater and Nate Lewis, trying to develop cheap, scalable solar cells.  As with most of the Everhart Lectures, it was a very well presented talk.  Unlike many of them, it was directly relevant to a real-world problem: how can humanity continue to utilize on the order of 10TW of power, without changing the composition of the atmosphere (see Nate Lewis’ excellent presentation for more information). The ultimate solution to that problem will almost certainly involve directly capturing incident solar energy, because the potential resource available is both vast and relatively concentrated, when compared to other sources of renewable energy.  But solar has two very serious problems today: it is expensive (both in absolute terms on a per watt installed basis, and in an up-front capital expenditure sense), and it is not available when the sun isn’t shining.  Whatever the solution looks like, in order to scale up to 10TW, it needs to use only earth-abundant, non-toxic materials.  In semiconductor photovoltaics then, silicon probably has an unassailable lead.  It’s the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, and it’s about as toxic as sand (though silicon semiconductor fabrication has serious toxicity associated with it and certainly needs to be made closed-loop).  Exotic materials like cadmium-telluride, and copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) are unlikely to scale to tens of terawatts, simply because of the limited availability of elements like indium and tellurium.  Additionally, owing to the vast silicon microprocessor industry, we are much better at micro and nano-scale manipulation of silicon than any other material on Earth (ignoring for the moment biological systems).

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When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce

When the Rivers Run Dry is a kind of modern, global Cadillac Desert, looking at present and future water issues around the world.  I think in the end it was too ambitious, looking at too many individual situations superficially, without going into the details on how they came to be the way they are (which Cadillac Desert was able to do, since it focused only on the American West), and also without drawing enough insightful generalizations from the many different cases the author studied.  It ended up feeling mostly like a dreary litany of mistakes painstakingly repeated in nation after nation, decade after decade, apparently without any learning going on.  Often these projects were funded by the World Bank and other international “aid” organizations, or by powerful central governments.  In both cases, the motivations often turned out to be short sighted and political or financial and had little to do with good engineering, productive agriculture, fisheries, or long term stability.

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Dijkstra, the Buxton Index, and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

EW Dijkstra, the computer scientist, was fond of using a metric called the “Buxton Index“, which conveys the timescale on which an individual or institution makes its plans.  He thought that a lot of failures to cooperate, and other kinds of conflicts, were ultimately due to different actors having different time horizons.  Here are three of his short essays mentioning it:

It’s interesting in the context of, e.g. the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which only an indefinite (or infinite) timescale can reliably result in cooperation (as detailed in Robert Axelrod’s book, The Evolution of Cooperation).  It certainly seems like we should have some metric of this kind in mind when considering the behaviors of various institutions.

Dijkstra notes that interestingly (at least in the west) virtually all of the institutions which are more than 500 years old are universities (two churches and two governments also qualify, out of 66 total).

I think its funny that Dijkstra was essentially blogging, by fountain pen, for decades.  He wrote out hundreds of these short numbered essays longhand, and sent copies of them to friends, who then copied them, and sent them on, etc.  He kept doing it this way even after everyone had e-mail!  I had no idea he was such an interesting guy.

The Time Value of Information and Material Wealth

Conventional economics says money today is worth more than money in the future.  This is why people are willing to agree to pay interest on a loan (and why a creditor requires it).  How much more money is worth today than in the future is determined by the discount or interest rate (depending on what kind of calculation you’re doing).  This would hold true, say the economists, even if we lived in a hard money world (e.g. silver and gold), and even after accounting for the risk of default by the debtor, because of opportunity costs.  Creditors and investors presumably have a choice as to what they do with their money.  Sitting on your pile of treasure in a vault ensures that it doesn’t get smaller, but it also doesn’t get bigger.  When they choose to make a loan or invest in an enterprise, they are, it is assumed, seeking the best possible (risk adjusted) return, and so the value of a given present pile of money at some time in the future is the principal invested plus the return earned between now and then.  If you can make 10% per year on some investment, and you have $100, and someone offers to give you $105 a year from now in exchange for your $100 now, all else being equal, you refuse, invest at 10%, and end up with $110 next year instead.

This conception of money is somewhat problematic, as it tends to render everything in the time and world of your grandchildren essentially worthless in the present.  Even at a modest 5% discount rate, $100 a century from now is only worth $0.59 today.  I think the problem comes largely from the convolution of informational and material wealth, and our habit of representing both of them with the same currency.

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Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

I just finished reading Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins.  It’s his personal account of working as an economic forecaster for an international infrastructure engineering and consulting company called Chas. T. Main during the 1970s (it’s since been purchased by Pasadena’s very own Parsons).  If I remember correctly, I got this book from Arjun.

It was widely criticized when it came out as being the rantings of a conspiracy theorist, and I think that by the end of the book, it definitely takes on that tone.  This is unfortunate, because a lot of the problems that Perkins points out really do exist, and it actually doesn’t matter much whether they’re the result of a shadowy global conspiracy, or a structural problem with our international economic and development system.  But most good conspiracy theories contain a grain of truth, and at the very least they can provide a useful lens into how the same situation and facts can be interpreted differently by people in different positions, with different experiences, and different incentives.  In that light, the book is asking the reader to consider what debt-based foreign development aid looks like from the point of view of the poor people living in the countries receiving the aid.  This is actually a really interesting thing to think about right now, because our current financial and economic crisis has been described by some as similar in many ways to the kinds of crises which the IMF and World Bank have historically been called on to deal with in “developing” economies.

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Have you seen the light?

As animals, and especially visual animals at that, we have a particular experience of the light.  For us it is illumination, information about our surroundings.  For that purpose moonlight or even starlight will do.  And for tens of millions of years, that’s all we ever saw.  Somehow a few of us made it through the Permian extinction, and into the Triassic, but the ascendancy of the dinosaurs eventually forced us into the darkness of the night.  Our world became dim, and our eyes went colorblind.  Most mammals today see only two colors, but a few of us have re-evolved a third photoreceptor.  Three colors is still inferior to the four or five or six seen by many near-surface fish, birds, reptiles, insects, and other arthropods.  The stomatopods are almost biological spectroscopic imaging systems, with 12 color channels in each of their independently movable trinocular eyes.  We are lesser than the eyes that never left the light.  They stole the colors from us and made us hide within the night.  They kept the sun for themselves, not knowing that our small and furtive ways, our burning endothermy and our fur would see us through the aftermath of the KT impact.

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The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod

The Evolution of Cooperation was, somewhat surprisingly, a story about math. Math that actually describes a lot of things in life. It’s the story of The Prisoner’s Dilemma.  What makes The Prisoner’s Dilemma interesting, is that the players in the game have conflicting incentives.  You can be rewarded either for cooperating, or for defecting.  Unlike most things we think of as “games”, it is not zero-sum: both players can win, and both players can lose.  Too often it seems like this possibility is forgotten.  The dilemma goes like this.

Two suspected accomplices are taken into custody for a crime and separately interrogated.  Each is pressured to rat out the other.  If neither of them squeals (they cooperate) then both of them get short jail terms.  If both of them rat, they both get fairly long terms.  If only one of them gives in, and the other remains silent, then the fink gets off, and the honorable thief goes away for a long long time.

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The holes in my woolens

I discovered a couple of small holes in one of my my merino sweaters this morning.  Moth larvae.  My fault for not using camphor or some other kind of deterrant.  At first, I was bummed because I thought this represented a flaw – I love wool, and especially merino, because it’s warm even when it’s wet, it wicks, it doesn’t smell, it doesn’t burn and melt like plastic, it’s durable and comfortable and not based on petrochemicals.  But moths can eat it, and it can mold.  It requires more care than fleece.  Thinking just a little more, it occurred to me that actually, these holes are in some sense a feature, not a bug.

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The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

The World Without Us is an exploration of what the Earth would be like, and has been like, in the absence of H. sapiens.

This book was as much a look at how we have changed the world as it was an exploration of what would happen were we all to vanish one day.  I especially liked the chapter Polymers are Forever, about the ultimate fate of our plastics, and The Lost Menagerie, a chapter about the missing megafauna of the Americas.  Missing, largely because we ate it.  I thought he could have spent more time on nuclear waste and our laughable attempts to plan 10,000 years into the future in dealing with it.  It would have been interesting to have a chapter on climate change too, in the event that we’ve already tipped it over the edge and into an Eocene like warm period.  Maybe better than anything else, I liked his descriptions of the wild Earth, both before and after us.  I still think we can have such a world without driving ourselves extinct.  But it would take something on the order of his suggestion that we limit our fertility rate to 1.0 for the next few generations.  Down to 500 million people by the year 2150.  Are we up to the task?  This is a real chance to demonstrate that our intelligence makes us special after all.

He occasionally rambles off into technobabble about holographically projecting our minds to other worlds… or other far out stuff, which is doesn’t really serve the purpose of the book, and is distracting to anyone with a science background.  Those lapses aside, the basic message of the book is about the beauty and perhaps the inherent value, of the Earth, even without us here to observe it.  It is an inspirational call to Zero, Now.  It’s heartening that it spent so long on the bestsellers lists, if others got the same kind of message out of it that I did.  If it’s just feeding some apocalyptic peakist zombie trance, well, then that’s less heartening.  Certainly makes me want to visit all the remaining pristine parts of Earth.  Dive the coral reefs while I still can.  Walk in every different kind of remaining old-growth forest.  And keep on composting my urine.

Lesser Political Evils

I’m registered to vote as “decline to state” (a.k.a. Independent… not to be confused with the purposefully confusing American Independent Party).  Under duress (or… on Facebook) I’d describe myself as a “Bright Green Libertarian“.  Alas, in our divisive and quantized system of government, that means I have to choose between the lesser of two evils, for all practical purposes.  The two evils being, so far as I can tell:

  • The Republicans who stand for big government in the name of large, politically well connected corporations and the military-industrial complex, with a healthy dose of social conservatism and uncritical patriotism, in order to garner the necessary votes, while still managing to screw over a lot of the poor and uneducated people who vote for them (as with the intellectuals, if only the rich will vote for you, you’re not going to get very far).
  • The Democrats who stand for big government in the name of large, politically well connected corporations and the military-industrial complex, with a healthy dose of social handouts and nominally “progressive” policies, in order to garner the necessary votes from the economically underperforming masses, but fairly libertarian social views (do whatever you want in the bedroom, and take a puff off the hookah, so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else).

Given these two options, I tend to find the latter more palatable.  The “socialism” that is most troublesome in our society, I think, is corporate socialism.  Corporations have the concentrated lobbying and funding organizations to make sure they get what they want, and plenty of it, so long as the people are willing to go along.  They are the primary economic entities shuffling the chips around.

Which is more fair?  To go with only helping out the corporations and the rich, which I guess you could see as closer to the ideal of limited government (since hey, at least we’re not helping those poor people!), or to say, so long as we’re going to be intervening on a massive, multi-trillion dollar scale, it might as well be spread around evenly.  Both options are bad, but I think the former is really much worse, because it further concentrates power.  The Republican promise of small government is a total sham.  They have no intention (Ron Paul aside) of shrinking the government, of reigning in spending, or of avoiding “entangling alliances”.  That they are still able to get away with peddling that line is a travesty of journalism and public attention span.

So given the unpleasant choice, I’ll take equal opportunity budget deficits, with the consolation prize of getting the government out of the personal relationship and substance sanctioning business, over war debt and corporate cronyism with an unwanted side of illegal wiretapping and extraordinary rendition.

The part of Obama’s administration that (by far) gives me the most hope, is their apparently aggressive moves toward more, and digital, government transparency.  We’ll see what comes of it.