We watched a Long Now talk last night by Nils Gilman, entitled Deviant Globalization. I first ran across Gilman in a shorter talk from a couple of years ago about the global illicit economy — black markets. He describes deviant globalization somewhat differently. Trade can be perfectly legal, and still deviant. He used the example of US men arranging trysts with 14 year old girls in Canada… which amazingly could still be considered legal until 2008, since 14 was the nationwide age of consent. Sure, it was legal, but who really thought it was okay? So deviant globalization represents a kind of moral arbitrage. Demand exists for goods and services which are proscribed in different ways, to different degrees, in different places. Sometimes they’re socially taboo, and sometimes they’re outlawed, but in all cases there exists a kind of moral disequilibrium gradient that can be exploited.
What united all these extralegal commodity flows […] was the unsanctioned circulation of goods and services that either because of the way they are produced or because of the way they are consumed violate someone’s ethical sensibilities.
One of his main points is that the steepness of that moral or regulatory gradient translates pretty directly into profit margins. Cocaine increases in value by 1400% when you bring it across the US border. This creates incredible incentives to get around the rules, even at great risk. This is why Prohibition rarely works as a policy. Any attempt at eradication financially empowers those who are willing to continue taking the risks you’re able to impose.
Continue reading Nils Gilman and Deviant Globalization: The Graying of the Markets
We watched a Long Now talk last night, by Orville Schell (currently a fellow of the Asia Society in New York) entitled “China thinks long term, but can it re-learn how to act long term?” His main point was that China is, even to the Chinese, filled with internal contradictions. That both as a nation and a culture, it is to a greater degree than any other nation of consequence in the world, essentially unresolved. To this end, he painted two pictures of China today: first optimistic, and then dark, but both to his mind true.
Continue reading China and Continuum Privatization
I can’t believe how much I enjoy the Long Now talks. Thoughtful and intelligent people, usually talking about things I happen to think are important, and interesting. I almost feel like it’s a re-invention of the oratory form. I’m glad they’ve gone to the extra effort of doing a high quality production, with decent microphones, and well illuminated speakers in front of a dark background, multiple camera angles and only occasional (but necessary) cuts to the slides on screen. Not all thoughtful and intelligent people are good orators, but I guess I’m willing to put up with some unnecessary “um” and “uh” syllables thrown in if the ideas on offer are good enough.
Michael Pollan gave a recent talk, unsurprisingly to a full house (it’s SF after all), entitled “Deep Agriculture“, which was largely, but I think not entirely, a synthesis of his previous books. The first point he made was that America’s healthcare costs, our industrialized agricultural system, climate change and the ultimately limited supply of fossil fuels are really all part of the same system of issues.
We spend roughly twice as much per capita on healthcare as do the twenty nations which have longer life expectancies than we do. A significant portion of that excess spending is on chronic “diseases of the rich” which are intimately linked to diet: obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc. At the same time, we spend a smaller proportion of our incomes on food than any other nation in the world, and probably any other nation in history. If our cheap diet is generating high healthcare costs, then it isn’t really all that cheap.
Continue reading Michael Pollan on Deep Agriculture
I love watching talks and seminars online. It is in so many ways superior to watching them in person. You can pause the talk to discuss it with your friends out loud, or to look something up online. You can skip the boring introduction. You can stop watching the talk if it’s lame, and try another one, and keep trying until you find a good one. Maybe best of all, there are vastly more talks available online than even at a large and diverse institution. The one plausible weakness is the lack of interactivity – you can’t ask questions. But it turns out that the Q&A part of most public talks (and even departmental colloquia) kind of suck. You can mitigate this weakness by watching the talk with other people who are thoughtful and intelligent, and talking to them about it during and after.
Rene, Michelle and I sat down last night and watched this excellent debate between Drew Endy from Stanford/MIT and Jim Thomas, put on by The Long Now Foundation. The formal presentation/debate portion is an hour long, and is followed by another hour of discussion. Endy is in favor of an open source type model for synthetic biology, with the technology being available to basically anyone. Thomas thinks it should be controlled, and kept out of the hands of potentially dangerous actors: the military, the corporate oligarchy, etc. Their positions are of course more subtle and well thought out than that, but you can only fit so much into a nutshell.
Continue reading How inevitable is synthetic biology?
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).
Continue reading Microwire Photovoltaics at Caltech