Trust and Mistrust

In a capitalist economy everything is for sale. Love, for example. Possibly your very soul. So it is no surprise that trust is also for sale. We have to buy trust in order to perform beneficial economic transactions. Buyers and sellers, in any commerce beyond the lemonade stand, depend on “trusted” third parties to protect their interests. Banks, credit card companies, PayPal—you get the idea. Buying a house, for example, requires multiple layers of trust-protection: agents, escrow and title companies, lending institutions, inspectors, etc. Imagine what multi-billion dollar corporate-level transactions must require in terms of security and protection from fraud.

The problem with these third parties should be obvious to anyone who lived through 2008. Our most esteemed financial, banking, and accounting firms LIED to millions of investors about the value of their products and services. The result? A crash in wealth that hammered the bottom-dwellers in our social pyramid disproportionately. The “trust” so important in “trusted” third parties was eroded, perhaps for good. The problem of course is that there is no alternative. We have to have these institutions so that we can have commerce and we can pass our money around in transactions so that we can earn our livelihoods and pay our bills and buy our goods and services.

The other problem is one of centralization. A smaller and smaller number of entities increasingly have oversight over larger and larger concentrations of wealth. Any breach, via outside parties or (most likely) via internal corruption will impact everyone within that organization’s reach. That’s a lot of businesses, big and small, and a lot of people, rich and not-so-rich.  We saw that happen in 2008.

So it pays to be mistrustful. But since we need trust to continue our commerce, what’s to be done? Technology, perhaps, is providing a solution path. Computer science has long been fascinated by problems such as “double-spending.” How do you make sure that a digital transaction (like a credit card payment) is done only once, or, that once done, can’t be un-done or re-done? The dishonest buyer would like to buy something but then defraud the seller by reversing or withholding payment. The dishonest seller would like to defraud the buyer by a double-charge for the good or service or withhold such things entirely yet still receive payment.

Enter the blockchain. In this model, trust emerges via cryptography and a peer-to-peer network. Mistrust is taken as the modus operandi. Since we all mistrust each other, the only way to generate trust is to have an entirely open transaction ledger. Everyone can see that transactions are occurring and everyone can verify that such transactions are legitimate.

The first leg of such an apparatus is the cryptography part. We can encrypt our transactions so that we have privacy. After all, we don’t want everyone to know what our transactions are, just that they occurred and were accepted in the ledger as valid. Think about stock tickers: they tell us that shares were bought and sold and for what prices but not who did the buying and selling. Also, the transactions get lumped together into blocks, which are then encrypted, as well as stamped with date and time tags. As blocks get created, they are linked into chains, which are validated by their length and chronology. The longest chain is the newest version of the ledger, and the honest users of the network default to that version.

The second leg is the peer-to-peer or distributed computer network. Instead of a central authority, there is a majority consensus of users. If more nodes on the network containing the blockchain are honest, and follow the protocols to add transactions to the blocks and blocks to the chain, the result will be an honest, up-to-date, distributed shared ledger. In order for the dishonest nodes to compromise the network there would have to be a majority of dishonest nodes. As the blockchain is built, and tagged with time and date stamps as well as the digital “signatures” validating the encrypted information, it gets harder and harder to defraud. Each encrypted block requires significant computing resources to “crack” the code, and once cracked puts a break in the chain. The entire blockchain would then have to be rebuilt from the beginning. Thus the nodes (i.e., users) on the network can “see” the invalid blocks and reject that copy of the blockchain. The crooks would constantly be playing catch-up as the distributed nature of the blockchain means that the newest, longest version will always be the accepted one.

I know my half-assed description will make the computer scientists howl, and perhaps make my readers skip ahead, but it’s the best I can do so far. I’m still trying to wrap my head around these concepts.

What I find intriguing is this “wisdom of the crowds” approach. Instead of relying on gatekeepers, which is what our financial institutions have become, we rely on our individual self-interest. We are motivated by self-protection as we want to be able to do commerce with strangers over the internet. So we participate in the distributed ledger by hosting it on our computers and interacting with it according to the established schemes for performing the transactions. Note that one does not have to have the entire blockchain (think of it like a database) in memory, just the “headers” of the blocks, or the identifying labels. It’s like knowing you have a legitimate copy of today’s paper by checking the date and skimming a few headlines (I’d be checking the baseball scores!). You don’t have to have the whole paper or scan the articles.

Bitcoin is the most famous application of the blockchain. Users are rewarded with a digital currency, the bitcoin, for performing what are chain maintenance tasks. They check the blocks using “proof-of-work” algorithms that verify that they are tagged properly and in the chain in the proper sequence. Perhaps to have nodes join the network there would have to be some kind of transaction fee to provide additional motivation so that users would stay involved and continue to host the information.

Like any technology, hype precedes the reality, and we don’t know what’s to become of blockchains. But it seems likely to me that such things will be used for everything from storing your medical records to facilitating the oil futures market. Groups of mutually mistrustful people will want to do commerce together without the need to purchase oversight from a third party. It’s a very libertarian notion. Maybe we don’t need to be more trustworthy, we just need to recognize our basic lack of trustworthiness, and use high-tech “peer pressure” to keep us more honest than usual. Not a very idealized view of social interaction, but maybe one closer to our nature.

Where’s the beef?

One of the nice things about being an American is the abundance of food and food choices. We can be any kind of “-arian” or “-vore” we desire. We can customize our food to our particular needs. This depends, of course, on a resource-rich and energy-intensive industrial agriculture, a system that can produce massive surpluses so that costs are low and access to goods is easy. In fact, we are so wealthy in food that we can, in our disdain for modernity, refuse to buy such products and insist they be locally-sourced and that we buy them directly from farmers. Boutique foodstuffs are all the rage as we grow increasingly suspicious of our technological future. Somehow they connect us with the (mostly imaginary) wholesomeness of olden days. The rap on the new is that it isn’t as healthy, or as safe, as the way grandma used to do it.

Until the industrial revolutions of the Western world in the 18th and 19th centuries most people were farmers. These days very few people are farmers, unless you are in an under-developed country. In those places subsistence agriculture is still the way of things. Twenty-first century Americans have a romantic notion about family farming, imagining frolicking cows and happy harvest times. The reality is quite different as market fluctuations and the random nature of weather mean an unceasing uncertainty for the farmer. It’s hard work, too, even for people who have tractors and electricity and whatnot. The rise of corporate agriculture is concomitant with the rise in population. The neighborhood farm these days might have some really nice fresh greens but the “real meat” (i.e., a protein-rich food) is almost entirely created on a large scale.

Even vegans, who get protein from legumes and grains and such, eat more than they can grow in a backyard garden. And you don’t get your wheat, quinoa, or soybeans at the roadside stand. Those require a modern food production and distribution scheme just like beef, pork, and eggs. I’ve no doubt that some hardy folks who have the space and are willing to do the labor can live on what they grow on-site, but that’s not a model for seven-plus billion, especially when half live in cities. No, the future will be about providing high-quality food across the entire globe in more sustainable ways. Sustainable does not mean low energy or low resource use, however. All the modern means of ramping up food production will require lots of energy and other resources like water.

Sustainable might mean finding ways to recycle water, reduce the overall water footprint, or even using lower-grade water sources to grow crops, especially ones that people don’t eat like cotton. It might mean re-designing farms to allow more wildlife habitat, or fallow areas for recharging aquifers and replenishing soil nutrients. It might mean more precisely-timed fertilizer applications and sequestering of the runoff so it can be used again. Genetically-modified organisms will certainly play a role, especially drought-tolerant varieties and ones that can thrive in poor soils. Perhaps farmers will power their machinery with sunlight or biofuels grown in algae tanks. Technical advances in machinery and such will replace farmworkers in many applications freeing crop production from geo-politics. We hear a lot about sustainability but we don’t hear much about what it really means in terms of money, time, energy, and technology.

Transportation requires an enormous infrastructure of roads, railways, seaports, airports, as well as a fuel network (even if they are “carbon-neutral” fuels like hydrogen) to supply the vehicles. We grow enough food to feed everyone, we just can’t get it to them. Some places—like the US—have food gluts and waste countless kilograms of edible stuff. So any notion of a sustainable, eco-friendly agriculture will have to account for the distribution and transport sector as well, not to mention packaging, refrigeration, and storage to ensure quality and freshness.

Ultimately we will have to get over some of our old-fashioned ideas about what is edible. Have you heard of Quorn? It is a meat substitute, that is, a protein source, made from mycoprotein. The prefix myco- means fungus and that’s what it is, a fermented goop made in a tank composed mostly of the mushroom-like (perhaps mold-like is a better description) organism Fusarium venenatum. People eat the stuff, it’s an alternative for those who don’t want to eat meat. In some parts of the world people eat insects, grubs, or even worms. Fungus-cakes are pretty tame by comparison.

Beer is brewed in big vats under sterile conditions and requires fermentation so the idea of lab-created foodstuffs is not so radical. We make a lot of wholesome, desirable foods with industrial processes. Cheese, for example, is micro-biologically pure, as are pickles and sauerkraut. Sure, you can do this stuff at home or on the artisanal level, but most of us get these things in supermarkets and so are buying factory-made versions. You can find lots of stuff in the freezer aisles that are labeled, truthfully, as “natural” but that doesn’t mean hand-made in a kitchen. Only economies of scale make $3.99 Mexican dinners possible and only advances in packaging keep them fresh. A popular brand in our market is Amy’s, they advertise their commitment to eating well and all that but don’t show you pictures of the factory. I drove by it once, it is in southern Idaho near Pocatello. I don’t mean that as a criticism, I like their products and I hope the business thrives. I just don’t need the down-home momma’s-kitchen bullshit. I’m a big boy and I know that food in packages has to be manufactured, that is, industrially-processed.

I want to eat wild salmon, not farm-raised. But I’m not against salmon farming by any means. At some point wild salmon will be a boutique food and with today’s prices it is almost there. So we’ll have to switch. Maybe the GM salmon will win people over (I’ll eat it if ever given the chance) and that might help the wild populations by reducing demand. The most exciting thing in the new food world is lab-raised meat. There’s an outfit in Holland (where GM foods are outlawed) that is growing beef in a vat. Stem cells are taken from live cows and raised on nutrients in a petri dish and then scaled up to grow in larger vessels. It’s far from a commercial product, but it is a sign of things to come. People are squeamish, but they needn’t be. This stuff (called Mosa Meat) is actually REAL MEAT. It just grows outside the animal! Think of how much land can be saved from grazing, how many creatures that won’t have to be slaughtered, how much less water and energy will be needed, and how many tons of greenhouse gases can be reduced with this production method. I might really like my pasture-raised grass-fed local beef, but my many millions of hungry fellow world-citizens might have to settle for something else. The least we could do is make the alternative nutritious, edible, inexpensive, and available. And pretty soon most of us won’t know the difference even if we do pine away for the good old days of mold-encrusted carcasses hanging in warehouses.


Peak Oil

There was this smart guy some time ago who went by M. King Hubbert as his first name was Marion. He worked in the oil business, in both industry and government, and he took a look at reported oil reserves in the United States. He looked at production and consumption rates, did some cool depletion theory math, and came up with a graph* and a prediction. The graph was a bell-shaped curve and showed 1970 at the top. That got tagged “peak oil” and M. King Hubbert became a minor celebrity and semi-guru for the conservation crowd.

Hubbert was trying to tell us that knowing what we know about how much we have and how fast we are using it we should expect the resource to decline at such-and-such a rate. And he was right. US oil production did peak about 1970 and declined roughly as predicted. Then the Alaska fields came on line and that added a bump to the descending slope but that peaked, too. Now we have the so-called “tight oil” that has shoved Hubbert’s peak off the graph entirely and built its own bell-shaped curve** that’s still, at least according to some, climbing.

Hubbert knew that there were other oil fields yet to be discovered. And he knew about hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and shale oil and tar sands and all that stuff. So he didn’t say we’d run out of oil, just that with existing technologies and present proven oil reserves this is when scarcity will hit and when we’ll have to do something about it. He was concerned with oil production as it was, not what it might be down the road. Hubbert thought nuclear energy, breeder reactors specifically, would replace much of the fossil fuel-based power grid. With widespread adoption of solar energy as well he  believed we would not need to fear “peak oil” as there would be much less demand for that resource.

Alas, he was wrong about that. Nuclear power is on the wane and cheap natural gas has kept the fossil-fuel energy business going. Solar is making inroads, along with other alternative sources, but the primary need is still for fossil fuels. Fracking and other technologies have created a new oil boom in the US. And it’s not just the money—it’s the geopolitics. Being an oil exporter now gives the US more clout internationally and counterbalances OPEC. The United States, mostly because of the Permian Basin in Texas, has either tied or passed Saudi Arabia as not only the number one producer of crude, but having the largest proven reserves as well.

This is not to say Hubbert’s peak is dead. All resources get depleted. And the rest of the world is playing catch-up to us and to Western Europe and to other energy-intensive places like Japan and South Korea. If you want all the things we take for granted like hot-and-cold running water, indoor toilets, electric appliances, sturdy climate-controlled dwellings, mobile phones, cars, planes, and Amazon Prime, just to list a few, you have to have lots of energy. Americans use about 100 quadrillion BTUs of energy every year; by comparison Mexico (one-fourth the size of the lower 48, one-third the population) uses less than one-tenth of that.

What Hubbert’s peak has come to mean is the end of cheap and easy oil. The low-hanging fruit has been picked, now we have to get out the ladders and the bucket-trucks. As long as the technology advances the costs of extraction can be manageable. This assumes demand will continue to grow, of course, and with hundreds of millions of people eager to improve their standard of living it’s a good bet. I suppose we could go to third-world countries and tell them “no, don’t do it!” and make them go to a sustainable solar-and-wind economy without the conspicuous consumption and high living that industrial-technological capitalism can create. We can rescue the poor devils from our own excesses, and get them to walk to work and eat organic and be content with less stuff.

I don’t think that’s going to fly. Poor folks look at rich folks and go “I want that” and who can blame them?

Down there in Texas they are cranking out so much new oil that they’ve got a pipeline bottleneck. They can’t get the stuff to the refineries or the tankers fast enough. Naturally a lot of money is flowing into the shale business as companies are borrowing enormous amounts to expand production. There’s a genuine fear that many of the players will never generate enough income, especially once that peak-to-depletion thing kicks in, to ever pay off their debts. The cash is coming in but can’t be sustained. As the resource declines the cost goes up so people buy less or switch to another source. If new reserves come into production, the glut lowers the price and thus the income needed to maintain the business drops as well. Anything can happen in the future, as we know, and economics is not physics. Disruptions to the system from unknown or unpredictable places could turn the whole oil market topsy-turvy. Natural disasters, famines, and epidemics are always lurking, and we humans have a knack for getting into scrapes with each other over the smallest of things. War, even on the limited scale of most of our current conflicts, can change the international landscape dramatically and impact global commerce.

So I stay away from predictions. It’s pretty obvious that we will continue to demand energy so that we can live our accustomed way. We might recycle, but we still drive and take hot showers and all that. Hydrocarbon resources are virtually unlimited if you consider all the known reserves offshore and whatnot. The gigantic quantities of natural gas contained in the continental shelves in the form of methane clathrates may be the biggest hydrocarbon resource of all, we have yet to tap that one. We have only scratched the surface, literally speaking. The limit for fossil fuels ultimately might not be economic, but rather physical. Global warming might not be enough, the other pollution effects are certainly significant too, what with air and water contamination through production, transport, refining, consuming, and disposing of petrochemicals. So we may have to switch just because it gets too bad to do otherwise.

Ideally we’d start on some of those transitions sooner rather than later. In a capitalist system you have to have an economic incentive to do something so I suppose we’d better figure out a way to grow our portfolios by banning fracking. Maybe all those smart kids out there will come up with some cool solutions, or maybe we’ll just muddle along like always and stumble upon an occasional breakthrough. In the meantime, enjoy the view from the peak!


peak oil



current oil



There’s a company out there called ODIN that sells mail-order do-it-yourself genetic engineering kits. I used to joke about this stuff, but like a lot of stuff I used to joke about—home cannabis delivery, for example—it’s now true. The basic kit allows the home science enthusiast to modify bacteria, specifically to cause a mutation at one gene and change one particular amino acid for another. May not seem like much, but that change will allow the bacteria to survive in a media that would normally kill it. All for only $159!

People are debating whether or not this is a good thing. I live in a country that has 300 million guns in circulation, and I’m not counting the police and military. What’s a few home GMO experiments compared to that? Or compared to the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the world? Let’s keep our dangers in perspective. The coolest kit (only 80 bucks) allows you to make fluorescent yeast. As a brewer, I can appreciate this one. I think it would be useful to learn how much yeast remains in my final product. Certainly a significant amount remains in suspension even if the beer looks clear, I wonder if a fluorescing species (visible under blacklight) would be detectable. The neat thing about this kit is that the user supplies the yeast, it can come from anywhere, commercial sources or wild ones.

All of this is the result of CRISPR. You may have seen the acronym (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) out there and you say (“crisper”) just like it looks. Genetics folks seem to like such names, we’ve got DNA and RNA of course, not to mention GMOs, and there’s cool stuff like SNP (“snip” or Single Nucleotide Polymorphism) and PAGE (Polyacrylamide Gel Electrophoresis) as well. In science, things need labels. And there’s more stuff out there every day and the labels pile up!

CRISPR is something that bacteria do. It’s part of nature. Humans “discovered” it, that is, they saw something happen and gave it a name. Turns out bacteria aren’t so dumb. They get attacked by viruses all the time and they’ve evolved some defense mechanisms, kind of like our own immune system. They stash little sequences of genetic info (the CRISPR thing) in their DNA that “remind” them of when they were attacked before and what they had to do to defend themselves. Usually they made some protein that cleaved up the attacking viral DNA, so the little sequences encode for that.

Turns out the human lab geniuses figured out how to copy the bacterial technique. Nature has been around longer than mere humans, it pays to study what other organisms do to survive. They’ve been doing some things right for some time now, and we are very recent interlopers on the planet by comparison, so studying bacteria can teach us a lot.

Of course the primary motivation for this research is medical. Humans would like to be able to treat genetic diseases at the source. CRISPR makes lab work quicker and cheaper, thus you may see a lot of hollering about how we’ll use the new technology to cure us all of what ails us. Naturally you can use the techniques on plants, and we’ll get some more hollering about how we’ll feed the world with the amazing new plants we can create. Like all technology, hype comes along for the ride.

There will be all the other hollering about playing god, too. Messing with stuff that shouldn’t be messed with. Dr. Frankenstein in a corporate lab re-designing life. I figure DNA is about as natural and organic a substance as anyone could want and I’m a natural, organic kind of guy so I don’t worry about such things. Much. People are certainly capable of doing great harm to each other and to all the other living things, of that I’ve no doubt. But playing with live ammo is what we do. The cave-people harnessed fire, and that’s scary stuff. We still burn our buildings down on a regular basis, and we’ve been doing this fire thing for a long time! We buzz around in combustion-engine metal behemoths with tanks of explosive liquid under our asses, on sea, land, and air, all the goddamn time, and hardly take notice any more.

I don’t know if we’ll get anything useful from the bio-hackers and others who use the kits. There’s another one where you get to genetically modify frogs. Seriously. I’m not sure what you get, and they do say it’s a “beta” version, so I doubt you can do much damage. But it seems a wee bit hinky. The kit comes with “cages” and “Benzocaine anesthetic.” I’m starting to feel sorry for the frogs. I guess I’m OK with bacteria and yeast on my lab table and I’m not yet ready for creatures with eyes and legs.

But it’s coming. Cloning was all the rage a while back and I’ve always figured it would make a big comeback with pets. Little Fido died? No problem, we saved some of his DNA and we can grow a new one. As soon as some rich celebrity gets his or her beloved barker back from the dead everyone will want to do it.

Same with medical advances. If some blowhard anti-technology Senator gets his grandkid cured of a terrible disease you know he’ll change his tune about bio-engineering and so will the rest of us. Who’s going to argue with saving little Jimmy?

We put all sorts of scary genetic material into our bodies. How about kombucha? Do you know where that fungus came from? Or what organisms it is made of? Certainly not all of them. No one does. Same goes for sourdough bread! Brewers in Belgium open the roofs of the brewhouses and let wild yeast and bacteria infect their beers. They do this on purpose, for flavor. If some day there’s a CRISPR in my crisper I figure it can’t be any worse than that.


My first exposure to superfoods was the spirulina craze in the 1970s. The New Age was coming to the fore and entrepreneurs were selling the stuff at health food stores. After that a lot of other blue-green algae products were on the shelves. Americans love “super” things: Superman, Super Bowl, Super 8, .38 Super, super slo-mo, super-sized, ad nauseum. We also love instant fixes: just gobble up some spirulina and your nutritional and health needs will be met!

More supposedly-super foodstuffs came to our attention over the years like acai berries, arugula, and quinoa, and ones we already knew about like Greek yogurt, pomegranates, and wild-caught salmon attained super-status. We live in a food-and-health obsessed time, you can’t just drink water (or beer) anymore you have to have kombucha, green tea, or coconut-water kefir.

I’m glad that people are focused on their health. The one thing most of us can do is exert some control over what we eat. We are fortunate that we live in a world of super-abundance. The biggest problems we have in the States come from eating TOO MUCH food! Or at least too much food that isn’t adequately nutritious. We have way too much information, too, and much of it is ill-informed, ideological, or both. Nutrition isn’t that hard. We know about essential amino acids. We know about vitamins, minerals, and other necessary trace chemicals. We know about carbohydrates, proteins, lipids (fats and oils), and fiber. We know about meat and dairy and vegetables and grains and fruits. We can be omnivores or vegans or what-have-you and still get adequate nutrition. Like I said, it’s not that hard. Dieting can be hard. That I get. Sticking to your plan takes discipline, especially with food-porn ads on TV and temptation everywhere. I don’t mean to minimize the efforts people make, just that the basic nutritional facts are pretty straightforward.

The problem is that what you eat is only one part of the health puzzle. There are plenty of hereditary factors and our levels of physical activity vary widely. We are exposed to different environmental influences as well. How we eat and what we eat is largely cultural, there is no such thing as “real” food, anything a human can and will eat is potentially food. I suppose mother’s milk, eggs, and seeds might be the only “real” foods, that is, foods designed by nature to be food for the young organism. All the rest of what we eat was determined largely by trial-and-error and what was locally available.

Thus we look for science to guide us when it comes to nutrition and unfortunately science isn’t much help. Science works incrementally, and it works by isolating variables. Studying human diets is damn near impossible without imprisoning people in a sealed environment, controlling their food supply, analyzing their poop, and monitoring their vitals. Even if you could do that for several months you might need years to learn anything. Thus science can tell us if blueberries are better antioxidants in vitro compared to red wine, but it can’t tell us if eating blueberries will prevent cancer.

So we get a million goddamn websites claiming to give us nutritional expertise when really they mostly express the biases of the self-styled nutritional experts. If you are opposed to aquaculture or genetic engineering or somesuch then you will tell people that the foods produced in those ways are bad. It has nothing to do with the food, but rather with the ideology of the food writer. In a capitalist system we exert a sort of voting pressure by our dollars and so motivated consumers buy things like “locally-grown” or “organic” or “fair trade” in order to promote those values. Thus we tie politics and personal ethics into our food decisions. Not that I have any objection to such things, just that our dietary choices are not simply about feeding our muscles and organs but also about our, for lack of a better phrase, spiritual needs. We all know Matthew 4:4 . . . Man shall not live by bread alone . . .

It is only because we are so wealthy, compared to many other places, that we spend so much time and energy on our food choices. We get to wander up and down the aisles and say “yes” or “no” to a great variety of products. We aren’t going to go hungry. We don’t have to stand in line for a loaf of bread, or even worse, for a bucket of fresh water. We can decide whether our tap water is adequate enough for our needs and replace it with another source if we don’t like it. That’s an amazing luxury. If the oat bran cereal you eat in the morning doesn’t taste good or has too much sugar in it or not enough fiber you can substitute something else. Many millions of people have no such choices, they are often concerned about whether or not they will even get a next meal.

Over the millenia of our existence human beings have eaten an extraordinary variety of things. Our bodies are robust and adaptable, we are not hothouse flowers. With 7.6 billion of us and counting, it’s going to take a hell of a lot of food to keep us going. It’s likely we’ll have to be open to some new choices and to some new attitudes about what is and isn’t food and what is and isn’t “good for you.”

I understand that rutabagas are making a play for superfood status. Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention were all over this one back in the day!

Nukes on a Boat

Sounds a bit like “Snakes on a Plane” but it’s not a movie, it’s for real*:

The Akademik Lomonosov will be the first vessel of a proposed fleet of floating plants with small pressurized water reactor units that can provide, energy, heat, and desalinated water to remote and arid areas of the country.

I’ve always thought that instead of decommissioning nuclear subs or aircraft carriers they should be docked or beached and used to power coastal communities. You’d need one hell of a set of jumper cables, but I suspect the electrical geniuses could figure it out. Turns out my nutty idea isn’t so far-fetched:

It will be the first floating nuclear station to be built and deployed since the MH-1A, also known as the Sturgis, in the US in 1967. The Sturgis was towed to the Panama Canal Zone that it supplied 10 MW of electricity from October 1968 to 1975.

If you are worried about the Russians, with their nuclear record, building a fleet of nukes-on-a-boat, remember they got the idea from us! One megawatt can supply the instantaneous electrical demand of roughly 500-1000 homes. The power plant at Shasta Dam, for comparison, is rated at 676 MW. So a floating power station is a small-scale operation, designed to deploy in remote areas.

A nuclear reactor solves the problem of intermittency that you get with renewables (like solar and wind) and works in any environment. You can supply it with enough fuel to last many months, perhaps years. That solves the problem presented by a fossil fuel generator. And people are not as squeamish about nuclear power when it is out of sight or far away. The United States Navy has dozens of nuclear-powered vessels (mostly carriers and submarines) that prowl the sea lanes of the world 24/7. Imagine if they were nuclear-powered trucks instead and zipped around our interstates: the nation would collectively shit a brick.

After Chernobyl and Fukushima I doubt we’ll see much enthusiasm for large-scale nuclear power plants. The future will likely bring more small-scale applications, and companies like this one in Oregon are anticipating that potential market. The burst of solar and wind power installations will pick up some of the slack as coal is phased out in favor of natural gas (cheaper, cleaner-burning), and new technologies like fuel cells will also come on-line to meet our growing energy demands. Improvements in efficiency will mean we’ll meet some conservation goals, but our needs will still grow and we will still need low-cost (in both economic and environmental terms), reliable power.

The Industrial Revolution sowed the seeds of its own destruction by improving living conditions and thus spurring population growth. When you can grow more food, house and clothe more people as well as keep them warmer, safer, and cleaner, then their babies will live and prosper. Subsistence farmers have lots of children as they are an economic necessity. Urban professionals have fewer children and invest more resources in them. If you want to get a handle on human overpopulation then you have to spread the wealth. Poverty creates overpopulation, reducing poverty slows population growth.

Capitalism generates wealth by exploiting natural resources. You can’t do that without capital and technology. If you borrow to build, you expect your future earnings to pay off your debts. If you loan or invest, you expect future repayment. Thus you have to keep growing in order to spread wealth. And you have to have energy to grow. One thing I expect we’ll see are more micro-grids, local solar-and-storage installations that will power a village for example, or a hospital. That will provide resiliency if the macro-grid has reliability issues, and will also provide for areas outside of the macro-grid’s reach.

It will be relatively easy to de-carbonize electricity, what will be hard to de-carbonize are transport fuels. Cars and trucks and ships work on internal combustion engines that need hydrocarbon fuels. Hybrid technologies will certainly make an impact, but a fully electrified transportation network is likely unrealistic. Certainly short-range hauling and public transit systems can be converted, but long-range, air, and ocean hauling will require either improved existing technologies or breakthroughs in what are now fringe technologies.

Like our search for a super-food that will nourish us as well as protect us from cancer, we are driven to find the perfect form of energy. Fusion power is still the Holy Grail, we’d truly be harnessing the sun’s power by recreating it on earth. That dream is probably still decades away, but you never know. I’m sure even fusion will have some unique, interesting, and unforeseen ecological impact but I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to find out.

In the mean time we’ll have Nukes on a Boat. The fear of traditional nuclear power plants in the wake of events like Three Mile Island will result, it seems, in a greater dispersion of nuclear material. What originally was conceived as a centralized power source supplying a regional or national grid may evolve into something very different. We already use nukes in space, radioisotope thermoelectric generators have been powering deep space satellites and other spacecraft for decades.

Like GMOs, nukes are one of those evil-scientist creations we’ll have to learn to live with. Neither will deliver on its promises—what technology does?—but both will certainly provide bridges to future innovations that will do a better job. And I think we can also assume that both technologies will find themselves in places no one envisioned when they were first imagined.



Ganymedean slime molds and the future of the human race

In Clans of the Alphane Moon Philip K. Dick presents us a self-aware, intelligent, telepathic alien that happens to be a slime mold from the Jovian moon Ganymede. It’s one of the many things to love about PKD books. But it’s not so far-fetched that what we think of as simple organisms could display intelligence. Bacterial colonies cooperate and adapt to environmental changes. This study looks at—you guessed it, slime molds among other things—and concludes that microbial populations exhibit many of the facets of intelligence like anticipation, learning, and problem-solving. This is the part I like:

Vis à vis memory, intelligence is an emergent property of a complex system; a feature that is not reducible to the parts of the system in isolation.

“Emergent properties” always sounded a little woo-woo to me, a vague and ephemeral notion. But if mind or consciousness or intelligence is NOT an emergent feature of a sufficiently inter-connected network, then the alternative is even more woo-woo. It must be a transcendent property, like a soul, that exists separately from the physiology of the life form and inhabits it. That is, an organism gets imbued with mind, and that mind exists in a metaphysical plane. The interaction of the mental plane and the biochemical one produces consciousness. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin envisioned a noosphere, the sphere of thought, just like the biosphere and geosphere, only composed of mental processes rather than physical.

Like I said, that’s way too New Age-y for me. So I’m more accustomed to thinking of intelligence as an emergent property rather than a transcendent one. Here’s some more from the study:

Intelligence emerges when the system components interact. For example, the intelligence (or intelligent-like behavior) we observe inside a single cell emerges from interactions among thousands of non-intelligent macromolecules.

So the component parts don’t have to be intelligent. They create intelligence by connecting together, by making a network. Continuing:

Similarly, the intelligent behavior of a microbial society is not simply the sum of the behavior of intelligent cells; rather it is a property that emerges from the interactions amongst many of them.

Does this have any relevance for humans? Here’s the last bit:

In the human brain, intelligence emerges from interactions of nearly 90 billion neurons.

I’d say it does. We live in the age of global interconnected-ness. Last year we bought over two billion cell phones and there are about five billion cell phones in use throughout the world. When I was born there were only about three billion people on the planet. If you imagine that people are the nodes and that phones are the connectors then we’ve got a big complex network. Include Facebook and all the rest of the internet and it becomes quite a huge one.

Does that mean intelligence will soon emerge? A hive-mind for the human race? TV and Twitter give us plenty of examples of group-mind, or certainly at least group-think, and in fact we don’t need technology for that. People on sports teams or in musical groups often talk about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts and anyone experiencing crowd dynamics at a riot, ballgame, or concert would concur.

We build neural networks out of interconnected electronic parts. They are programmed to learn. We are building a similar neural network out of human individuals, interconnected by electronic parts (phones, computers, wearable tech, smart devices, etc.). The difference in the first case is that neural network builders and programmers have a goal in mind. They have a plan. Their gizmo is going to do some task, like beat a human at poker or pilot a rocket or something. This emerging human cluster-fuck (er, network) is unplanned. We aren’t consciously making all the connections. Many are just happening. Each day the network is more complex as many more interactions occur.

If a slime mold can have an emergent intelligence I think seven billion humans can, too. Now just because I say “intelligence” doesn’t mean it has to be an intelligent intelligence, if you know what I mean. Our emergent mental construction might be a real dumbass. Or vicious and sociopathic. Or utterly pointless and trivial. But I suspect it will be SOMETHING.

That’s what I’m intrigued about. That something. Because it is coming, if it doesn’t already exist. How do we know that the emergent intelligence of thousands of millions of people isn’t already manifest? It could explain a lot. I mean we humans do some wacky-ass shit and we always try to give someone credit for it. Or blame someone for it. Maybe it has nothing to do with us individually, but it has everything to do with us collectively.

In the States, we worship individuality. Autonomy. Personal liberty. These are things we are supposedly ready to die for. We already know that half of the cells in our body are not ours. They have DNA that is different from 23-and-me. That is, they don’t have our Homo sapiens forty-six. How do we know that the free will we believe we exhibit isn’t simply an artifact of biochemical processes initiated and controlled by the other 50%?

I’m not trying to get into some solipsistic mess. We are talking about organisms that are made of all that gooey organic stuff like lipids, carbohydrates, and proteins, the same gooey organic stuff that we are made out of. These days we live in a world where we are reaching out, via our technology, to all the other human individuals in the world and making connections, creating a global neural network of intelligences. If those guys I’ve quoted above are describing something that one could reasonably accept as plausible then we should expect something new to emerge.

Perhaps we are the final group of larval humans. Those who come after us will be adults. Perhaps it was necessary, on a biological level, for the population to become large enough and the collective brainpower great enough to build the inter-connections so that a sufficient majority of all the individuals on the planet could communicate. I wonder what we’ll come up with.