Shared Links for Jun 7th

Cradle to Cradle + Renewable Energy = Material Autarky

Somehow, in the course of watching this talk by Orville Schell on China and long term thinking, I was finally struck by the potential consequences of really doing Cradle to Cradle design, and scaling up renewable energy.  It would mean the possibility of material autarky.  Today a swarm of idle container ships hovers around Singapore, because of a little recession.  If we completely weaned ourselves off of non-renewable resources, if we closed the world’s landfills, any nation could check out of the world’s material economy.  What would still flow?  Renewable resources, like food, and non-food agricultural products, and to some degree water.  Labor might also flow, if its price were significantly different in different places — or maybe the stuff would flow to the cheap hands — but more likely I think, those labor price imbalances would “relax to equilibrium” in time.  You’d still get material flows happening if there were, on balance, growth happening: new buildings, bridges, dams, etc., or if the material were being re-distributed around the world (dismantling eastern Europe to build a booming Turkey?).  Most important, information would flow.  Processes and technology would be developed, and then implemented in new places, without any container ships at all.  How much would culture flow?  Would this help or hinder the preservation of our polyglot planet?

Continue reading Cradle to Cradle + Renewable Energy = Material Autarky

Shared Links for May 26th

Shared Links for May 11th

  • Where can you get Cheap Natural Fertilizers and Soil Amendments? – A nice concise list of natural sources for garden nutrients, when your compost pile just isn't quite enough. (tagged: gardening food organic fertlizer compost biology )
  • Pinko bastion spawns capitalist solution to solar financing – Boulder city/county passed the same kind of property-tax based financing of energy efficiency (and solar) improvements on the Nov. ballot too – modeled on Berkeley, but with enabling legislation at the state level (to avoid the kind of lawsuit Berkeley had to fight over whether or not they had the power to issue such bonds). The biggest worry I had in reading the Boulder initiative though, was that they had not yet come up with a good mechanism for ensuring that the improvements which were being proposed (more insulation, solar hot water, whatever) would necessarily save enough energy in order to justify the value of the bond being created. Hopefully they’ve fleshed that metric of value out much better by now (in both Boulder and Berkeley) and it’s not possible to abuse it… otherwise I suspect you’ll get deployment of faddish fixes (e.g. sexy-sexy PV instead of solar hot water, or better insulation, or super-windows, etc) instead of the best energy improvement per dollar invested. (tagged: finance capitalism investing energy efficiency sustainability green solar berkeley boulder bonds )
  • Campaign for a Car-Free Lincoln Park, Pt. 2 – A lack of car-free options for arriving at Lincoln Park, coupled with poorly lit, unsafe parking far away from the park's main attraction means everyone just drives their cars all over the park, on the grass. Across the street, the DMV has a huge parking lot which is totally unused after business hours, which is when the park gets the overwhelming majority of its use. Why not (gasp!) timeshare the DMV lot? Hopefully no small children have to get crushed by the marauding death machines for someone in the state and city government to take this idea seriously. (tagged: cars parking transportation urban planning design )
  • FlyingConcrete – Beautiful biomimetic architecture. Curving vaulted ceilings and stairways. Rounded sleeping nooks and pillars like trees. Traditional rectilinear construction is so boring. This is lightweight concrete (cement with perlite, pumice, and other lightweight filler added instead of sand and gravel) laid up on a mesh that's been shaped such that when the cement hardens, it's a load bearing compressive structure. (tagged: architecture art concrete design construction buildings sculpture )
  • Drew Endy and Jim Thomas Debate Synthetic Biology – An unusually good discussion about the future of biotechnology, and maybe the only time I've ever really seen the "debate" format work, and elicit relatively thoughtful interaction. I think they're both dancing around the fundamental question though, of to what extent (if any) society even *gets* to make a choice on this topic. (tagged: biology biotech genetics technology science future debate longnow engineering )

Shared Links for May 5th

  • How David Beats Goliath – When the rules are stacked against you, the intelligent thing to do is break them. (tagged: strategy law war insurgency guerilla gametheory basketball lawrenceofarabia )
  • Continuous bankruptcy – Bankruptcy as it stands now is a discontinuous process. Your legal solvency is binary: either you are bankrupt, or you are not. It doesn't have to be that way, and I think you can make a good argument that it's better if it isn't. Continuous processes work themselves out in small steps, with lots of information flow along the way. Discontinuous ones are like explosions. It's easier to muster resistance to an explosion once you see it coming, and delay it. But how much better to start getting signals early on, and avert it altogether? (tagged: finance policy economics bailout banks bankruptcy discrete continuous )
  • Digital Recovery of Moon Images – Ahh, NASA. Your data management has improved over the years, but that's not saying much. 20 tons of magnetic tape in an abandoned McDonalds houses the only extant copy of the pre-Apollo analog imaging of the Moon (still the highest resolution available in most places). It can only be read by one machine on Earth, which was recently rescued from a chicken coop, and refurbished by a man who is about to die. You can't make this stuff up. (tagged: information technology space nasa archive data moon )
  • Will the Future Be Geo-Engineered? – The future is already geo-engineered, and has been ever since we started burning coal on a large scale more than 200 years ago. The question now is whether we back off, and try to let the system return to the quasi-equilibrium that allowed our civilization to arise, or introduce new and exciting perturbations, with completely unpredictable non-linear effects. I know which one I'm hoping for. (tagged: geoengineering technology non-linear climate policy environment )
  • Hacking Scalia – Law professor gives class an assignment to dig up as much "private" info as possible on Justice Scalia, a notable anti-privacy force on the SCOTUS. This irritates Scalia. Exactly! (tagged: law privacy scalia scotus )
  • No new coal: what real direct action looks like – The $10 million spent on violently policing the "climate camp" protest outside Kingsnorth is absurd, given that a single motivated saboteur, capable of advance planning and actually willing to risk arrest and injury, can walk into the power plant and shut down 500MW of coal fired power generation. If governments fail to deal with greenhouse gas emissions effectively, and remain in thrall to the carbon lobbies, it seems likely that soon this kind of action will become more common, and truly disruptive. All it takes is a few thousand people who actually care, and our infrastructure can be brought to its knees. (tagged: energy environment green coal climate protest kingsnorth directaction )

Shared Links for Apr 30th

  • Transparency means nothing without justice – Government transparency is necessary, but not sufficient. If police violence is recorded and publicized, and nobody cares, it doesn't matter. This is in come sense emblematic of the coup in western propaganda. You don't need to control the media as the Soviets did or the Chinese do, if your population is comfortable enough not to care what's happening out there to someone else, and if their voting patterns are firmly tied to other issues (especially social issues like abortion), the idea of a democratic revolt becomes fairly abstract. I think this where a lot of the government's fear of economic recessions comes from. When people are out of work, or even hungry, suddenly they become a lot more excitable. (tagged: transparency law police politics technology internet )
  • Condensing steam without water – Concentrating solar thermal power stations are ultimately designed to run a steam turbine, just like a gas-fired power plant. That means they need water (to turn into steam). Problematically, most such plants use water as a condensing coolant (70% of Caltech's water usage is as coolant for our 14MW worth of gas-fired power)… which is going to be hard to come by in the desert, where CSP will be built. Thankfully, there's a way to recondense steam without using a water coolant – but it does require a huge cooling tower. Not so great in Pasadena, but probably fine in the Mojave, next to acres and acres of mirrors. (tagged: solar energy technology sustainability green electricity water )
  • Rousing a Latent Defense Mechanism to Fight HIV – It turns out there is a gene in humans that produces a protein which inhibits infection by HIV, but it has a mutation – a premature stop codon – which prevents it from being effectively synthesized. This mutation doesn't exist in most Old World monkeys (and that's apparently why they can't get HIV). Undoing the mutation allows the protein to be synthesized, and grants HIV immunity to human cells. I imagine that undoing bad mutations like this, and our inability to synthesize vitamin C, might be the first place we see human germ-line engineering outside of disease avoidance (preventing e.g. cystic fibrosis). Really, these mutations are hard to distinguish from genetic diseases – they're just diseases that we, as a species, have learned to live with. (tagged: genetic engineering hiv aids biology science research plos medicine )
  • Anna in the Middle East – Anna Baltzer is a Jewish American who got a Fulbright fellowship to live in the West Bank in 2005, and document the experiences of Palestinians. She's been giving presentations about it ever since. Some parts of her presentation are available via YouTube too. From the 15 minutes I watched she seemed like a level headed critic. She's speaking in Boulder and Denver in May. (tagged: israel palestine politics fulbright peace war )
  • Twitter + Stimulus = Humans are Gullible – A wonderful demonstration of the power of the confirmatory bias. Twitter is the perfect platform for the injection of random falsehoods. Too short for citations. Instantaneous distribution. Make sure your followers are predisposed to agree with what you say, and you can get them to believe just about anything – within that constraint. Too bad the author seems to think this only applies to conservatives. (tagged: politics twitter statistics propaganda )

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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Shared Links for Apr 28th

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.

Continue reading Have you seen the light?

Shared Links for Mar 14th