Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Another of my readers claims that overpopulation is a major world problem. The world currently has 6.6 billion humans.

Certainly, fewer resources would be used with a smaller population, but we are not currently at capacity. China alone has 1.3 billion people, and India alone has 1.1 billion. This together is 1/3rd of the world's population, all crammed into a small area. Neither one has a problem with famine at the moment. Neither food nor space is rare on the earth, at least for the moment.

However, India is rapidly growing, and China is growing despite government policies designed to reduce the population. When food and/or space runs out, it won't be pretty. In the United States, where I live, the population was 281 million when the government last counted, 8 years ago. It has increased to 300 million. Not purely by immigration.

This is why we must master space elevator technology. With a working space elevator, the wealthier humans can depart the planet to use the resources of other planets. (Which would, once they terraformed them, be cheaper than earthly ones due to lower demand.) Likely, they will wire some of this back to their earthbound families until they, too, can leave if they wish. The total human population would grow while the population that actually lives on earth would shrink. Soon, the only humans to live on earth would be those with specific attachments to specific regions. I estimate this to be about 200 million people.

Perhaps living on earth would have a special prestige in this new society and would be more expensive. Or perhaps living on earth itself would be a backwater thing to do, and spacebound humans would mock the terrestrial.

The universe as it stands now seems to be mostly empty at the moment, but it need not remain that way.

Alaska's Volcano Power

In Alaska, a volcano has lead to an extraordinary opportunity: cheap geothermal power.

Geothermal power is a very promising means of obtaining the water-boiling heat from the inside of the earth itself, which is extremely hot due to some radioactive rocks near the core. In most areas, this would be prohibitively expensive, as to get enough power, you would have to drill all the way into the mantle to get enough heat, and pump the water both there and back before any power was generated.

But in some areas, like near volcanoes, and between continental plates, such as in Iceland, a stream of burning-hot lava is readily available near the surface, which can be tapped. Pipe water in a short distance, use the push of the steam to get your electricity, and release the de-powered steam into the atmosphere. The power is incredibly cheap if the lava is nearby, so Iceland gets a huge fraction of its electricity this way.

If this works, there will be less need to ship coal to Alaska for power, and a greater reason to move there (low power bills).

For those of you unfamiliar with American Geography, Alaska is a region near the north pole that the United States purchased from Russia in 1867. Russia at the time saw it as too far away and difficult to manage. (Governing Alaska involved crossing the entire length of their country, then getting on a boat, sailing a short way, finding the people in a large, mostly rural area, then reversing the entire trip back. Very few Russians bothered to move there, so they decided that they'd rather have the money. To my knowledge, Russia has no interest in buying it back. Russian nationalists would like to buy it back, if they could dig up enough money.)

Alaska is now the largest state in the United States since its statehood in 1959. It is also of interest to single women, as it has the most skewed sex-ratio in the entire united states, having 4 men living there for every woman.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Better news on sequestering

A university in Georgia just developed a better way to absorb Carbon. Instead of the method used by the previous method I described, this one simply absorbs the carbon onto the plates of stuff, and releases that same carbon later, under controlled conditions. (Where, say, you could trap it, or pump it underground.) This one requires much lower temperatures, 75C to absorb, 100C to release.

These temperatures are routinely achieved with your common kitchen stove, unlike the thousands of degrees required for the carbon-processing material.

What would the use of just storing the carbon be, if you're just going to get the carbon back later? Well, you don't have to release it in the same place that you captured it. You could release it in a sealed environment, and pump the carbon into, say, a carbonated soda, or into a baking soda creating machine, or some other form of storage. This can be done in conditions unavailable directly at the smokestack.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Pork Waste Managerment

Eastern North Carolina is drowning in pig waste. Around many pig farms are big, smelly lagoons filled with all kinds of biological horrors produced by the pigs. The waste is rich in both nitrogen and bacteria, smells awful, and if anyone falls into the waste, they slowly sink until beneath the surface and suffocate. Pulling them out is literally futile, and anyone who tries will likely suffer the same fate.

The lagoons are sealed with plastic wrap at the bottom, but some of the wrap has ruptured from contact with a rock. As a result, the trees in the area are neon green from the nitrogen. Plants are over fertilized, and the bad smell prevents the locals from enjoying food.

Though my first thought was a Below ground methane digester, it seems a waste to lose the nitrogen like that. Crop farmers are paying big bucks to nitrogen-ize the crop soil, while over here the soil is over-nitrogen-ized. Since the waste is liquid enough to flow, slowly, downhill, this could be used to transport the waste, if the receiving farm has a solar-powered lifting device.

That or the local towns could replace themselves with robotically harvested cotton and tobacco farms, both of which demand quite a lot of nitrogen fertilization.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Another gentleman I spoke to proclaims the worst problem in the world to be greed.

Greed was considered one of the seven "deadly sins" in early Christianity, in the form of "Avarice." Avarice covered not only the excessive wish for money, wealth, and material things that we consider greed in the modern world, but also the desire to spend money pointlessly.

I can't tell you how many articles I've read recently by capitalism-fanboys proclaiming that greed is actually a good thing, since it drives the economy by making people work hard to fulfill their desires, but I think the truth is between the two.

Wanting to work hard to fulfill your desires seems to be a good thing, but it can easily go too far. Scamming people, stealing, and fraud are often driven by greed. Changing the balance of power to suit yourself is quite common in the corporate world, and it has gone on to an extent that the world starts to resemble Feudalism, with lords who control nearly everything commanding around serfs that control nearly nothing. The CEO of a company makes obscene millions while the people that make his company actually function earns but a few thousand, and are routinely fired to give the board yet another bonus.

No machine or chemical can help this, but Greed must be tempered by empathy and kindness to be of any good to society.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


So in continuing in the worst-problem-in-the-world series, a police officer tells me that drugs are the worst problem in the world. He further claims that drugs are directly responsible for 90% of all crime in his precinct.

I can believe his claims. US law bans quite a number of drugs that many people want to take anyway. When a person becomes addicted to them, they cost quite a bit of money, due to the expenses of smuggling and so forth, but most conventional and legal ways of earning that money dry up. Addicts feel compelled to turn to illegal activities, such as stealing, to keep up. Further, disputes between people involved with drugs cannot turn to the police for resolution, as the law bans even possessing the drugs, so such disputes are resolved with violence.

The obvious solution would be to cease to ban the least dangerous drugs, but there is little political capital for this. It's difficult to sympathize with people who commit lots of crime, and quite a few systems depend on government financing for fighting the drugs. Many police departments rather enjoy the new habit of asset forfeiture, in which they can take things from people who commit drug crimes and sell them to finance other operations of the department.

So the next best solution is drug treatment. There are centers where an addict can go, where they will be given a substitute drug, with decreasing dosages per day until it becomes zero, to wean them off the drug, and therapy, to treat the condition that lead to the use of drugs in the first place. These places are quite successful. Unfortunately, all known ones in the US are currently full. Expansion would require significant additional funding.

If we want to do this, we have to consider treatment to be less costly than the status quo, which is currently costing billions in court fees, prison expenses, and additional crime and lost productivity.

Non-American commenters: What is the state of narcotics in your own country, and would legalization or treatment work there?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Sci-Fi fails science forever

Since I've been too busy this month to come up with any whacky machines or deranged schemes, I've instead decided to tell you about how fiction depicts science badly in ways that inevitably lead to my friends asking me stupid questions. Note that things required to the plot are acceptable breaks from reality, because a space opera that has 450 year breaks in the action would be unwatchably boring.

My list:

* Beings "Made of energy."

Energy is not a thing. Energy is a trait that things have. A "collection of energy" would not be able to have the required structure to maintain life. While this error is popular because energy is "intangible," leaving your heroes with the frightening prospect of an opponent able to walk through walls and such, it is unspeakably stupid. Also the usual solution of stuffing them into a battery or otherwise utilizing their component energy to destroy them demonstrates a certain lack of respect for...fact.

Or on the flip side of this, matter is interchangeable for energy, so I am "Made of pure energy" too, as are you. Therefore making this idea equally stupid.

* Being from "the beginning of time" and "the end of time."

While this came up to make the monster-of-the-week sound more fearsome, the truth is the opposite. A being from the beginning of time would lack complexity, due to a lack of available materials. There's not much you can do with just hydrogen. A being from "The end of time," which I take to mean the heat death of the universe, would have little energy available to it, and therefore would have to be geared more towards conserving this energy than intelligence, combat initiative, or whatever else the writer seemed to think it would develop. Superhuman intelligence and combat reflexes aren't going to do you much good if you starve to death, ya know?

* Aliens that are preoccupied with humans

This just smacks of collective egotism. If an alien did encounter the Earth, there's no reason why it would find us special automatically. In fact, an alien finding the earth might easily get distracted by the oceans, which cover 70% of the planet, conclude that the earth was a dull ocean world, and leave.

If nuclear, "atomic", or radioactive substances appear in the show, they will almost always be dealt with in a hysterical manner, assuming that all of these substances are made of pure evil and will cause anyone that so much as looks at them to die.
Likewise, assuming something is dangerous because it is "atomic." Everything that can be handled has atoms. They are not dangerous.
Radiation is a danger, because it burns biological life, the same way a hot stove does. But if you're afraid of your hot stove, there is something wrong with you. Radiation can be dealt with, there are engineering things that can be done to lessen or eliminate the dangers.
This was more common in productions made in the 1950s, and is mostly giving way to:

* Genetic Engineering = Evil
A genetically engineered or cloned organism is almost always depicted as being an uncontrollable monster that hungers for human flesh. Likewise, humans who are genetically engineered or cloned are unemotional, perfectly willing to follow orders, and evil.
Genes do not do this. Genes determine how an organism will produce proteins, which in turn determine the organism's shape and physical traits. There are genes for blue eyes, there is no gene for "evil."
The biggest real threat in genetic engineering is allergies. For instance, some tomatoes are genetically engineered with fish genes to make them ripen sooner. People that are allergic to fish are also allergic to these tomatoes, because the proteins resemble the fish proteins that their bodies are oversensitive to.
Another worry is that genetically engineered plants will cross pollinate natural plants. This would not be a big deal, except that A) the genetic engineering companies regard this as copyright violation and sue, and B) the genetic engineering companies often insert genes into the organisms they make to make them sterile. Large swaths of plants going sterile, and the farmers who grow them abruptly getting nonsensical lawsuits is a big problem.

* Outright unit errors

Watts is energy over time, or "power" as physicists understand the term. Volts measure electrical force. Ohms measure resistance. Light years are distance. Amps are number of electrons.

Even George Lucas messed this up and had to severely retcon himself. ("I did the Kessel Run in 6 parsecs." He then had to make up a story about the Kessel Run involving many black holes to cover up the fact that he thought Parsec was a unit of time, when it is actually distance.)

* Silly rules

The reactor only works when operated by a Hindu born in Mumbai. This is not explained away with a security based explanation, (which might actually make sense if the station was built by Mumbaians who wanted to thumb their nose at everyone else, and had some way of actually detecting the religion of the person operating it,) but with techno babble. Again, a blatant "this group is special" effect appears, stinking up the whole script.

* Likewise, biology non-sequiturs

Vitalism is false, but I can't tell you how often I've seen a script where getting a resource cruelly from a biological source oddly counts more than from mechanical ones. For instance, a sugar reactor magically (and illogically) getting more energy out of blood than from bags of sucrose, despite blood containing less than 1% sugar by volume.

* Destroy the Earth

"You can't spray that can, it'll destroy the earth!" Usually, they mean destroy all life on earth, which is much easier to do. Actually destroying the earth is very very very difficult.

A meteor that would destroy all life on earth would be about 3 miles wide. A meteor that would destroy the earth would be larger than the moon.

* Robots

Holy cheese, there's more wrong with fictional robots than I have space in one entry for, so I'm breaking it up

* Robots hate Biological Beings

For some reason, all Robots, Computers, AIs, and other technology-based entities are depicted with a deranged hatred of any human, animal, or other biological based being. Who the hell programmed them that way? Since computers are programmed and follow their programming literally, this leads to the ridiculous conclusion that all the available programmers were severe nihilists who both wanted to commit suicide and take all biological life with them.

* Illogical instructions equals explosion

Because clearly surge protectors don't exist. A computer confronted with invalid instructions tends to lock up, crash, or reboot, not explode.

* That is illogical

Robots in fiction seem to have this supernatural ability to grasp the truth of the matter and scorn any attempts to deceive.

The truth of the matter is, as computer science majors say, "Garbage in, Garbage Out." If you tell a computer that Pi is 5, it will blithely run with it, producing all kinds of odd, illogical results. If you tell it that you are 600 feet tall, and ask it your weight, it will probably give an answer around 1900 - 2200 pounds.

For all my hatred of these, I see them constantly. They grate me the way that spelling, pronunciation, or grammar errors would grate an English major. Argh.
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