Dec 28, 2011
My occasional game of speculation about how best to fund the future
I've played this game before--and I will again. I find it clears the mind wonderfully to wonder what you'd do for the world if you had a billion dollars to spend. Build a secret volcanic island lair? Check. Cure necrotizing phlombosis? Check. Oh, there's all kinds of stuff you could do.
--There's one rule, though: whatever you spend your billion on, it has to be something nobody else is doing--and something that's worthwhile in a completely game-changing way.
After all, in today's market a billion dollars will get you a few miles of subway, or a new sports stadium. Yay. But it can get you so much more, as Elon Musk has demonstrated with his reinvention of the space launch business (and he hasn't spent more than a fifth of a billion on that). In fact, a billion is enough to solve more than one problem, if it's properly distributed.
I play this game regularly because the world keeps changing, and what's important keeps changing. Some items remain from previous lists; some are new. Here's today's list:
- $200 million to studying and developing new systems of governance. --No, I don't mean e-voting, or even e-democracy. I'm talking about a systematic study of how humans govern themselves, and how our cognitive biases and interactions at different scales scuttle effective problem-solving among groups. Think this is fringe science? I happen to think it's the most important problem in the world, the only one that counts. Because if we reinvented governance (on the level of individual self-control and choice, on the level of small-group interactions, and all the way up to how millions of people make collective decisions) then every other problem facing us now would become tractable. So I'd be exploring cognitive science, promise theory, structured dialogic design and a lot else besides. $200 is really far too little to spend on this, but it's a start.
- $200 million to develop efficient and economical carbon air capture and sequestration. Carbon air capture is the only potentially feasible method of returning Earth's atmospheric CO2 balance to pre-industrial levels in less than a hundred years. Emissions controls won't do it, neither will renewable energy, or even the complete disappearance of human civilization. The CO2's there. It has to actually be removed from the atmosphere. Currently, far less than $1 million is spent per year on how to do this. And that's just crazy.
- $200 million to develop a microwave space launch system. --Again, this sounds wacky. But the physical resources of the solar system are effectively infinite; and the world looks like a very different place if you play the game of imagining that access to space was really cheap. All sorts of currently impossible problems fall like dominoes if it costs as little to get to space as it does to fly across the Atlantic. And, in space development, there is only one problem, and that's the cost of going the first 100 miles. Literally every other issue becomes tractable if you solve that one. So let's stop dicking around with incredibly expensive launch systems and solve it. (Why microwave launch and not laser launch? Because microwaves are more energy efficient, and can be done now; and because I think laser launch is a political non-starter, because accidental or deliberate straying of a laser launch beam could blind or fry anything in the sky, including airliners or other nations' satellites.)
- $200 million to finally realize the dream of nuclear fusion energy. We are that close. Most of the money would be divided up between the chronically-underfunded research projects that are getting close: IEC fusion, magnetized-target fusion, and several others. I'd fund General Fusion's steampunk pneumatic-fusion system, for instance. But I'd also fund one method that nobody's trying right now, but may be the best of all: levitating dipole fusion.
- $200 million to prototype the business models, supply chains and build a first-generation Vertical Farm. Because sane governance, free energy, a solution to global warming and unlimited material resources aren't enough if half the planet's starving, which will be the case in forty years if we don't act now. This one seems like a no-brainer, if it can be properly optimized.
An odd set of priorities? But, what if they all worked? Simultaneous breakthroughs in energy, resource access including food, removal of the threat of global warming, remediation of the natural environment destroyed by intensive agrivulture and, most importantly, a Renaissance in collective problem-solving would literally mean the world to us.
The point of all this should be clear. Even in a global recession, money's not the scarce commodity. Audacity is.
What can you do with a billion dollars?
You can build a new sports stadium.
Or, maybe, you can save the world.
Jan 30, 2010
You might have noticed something about my site has changed
On January 29, 2010, Amazon.com removed all my books from sale on their online store. I wasn't singled out for persecution; all of my peers who publish at Tor Books, and indeed all authors associated with MacMillan Publishing, had their Amazon.com pages killed. (You can still see the pages, but you can't buy anything.)
Up until yesterday, I linked from this website to Amazon, as a matter of convenience for fans who might want to buy my books after browsing these pages. Granted the sheer arbitrariness, pettiness, and anticompetitive nature of the sudden price war between Amazon and MacMillan, I have removed all purchasing links to Amazon from my site, and will not be re-linking even if they restore the frozen pages.
This type of action holds authors and readers hostage to a commercial war between publishing giants. It puts a lie to the idea that we can choose where to buy books in a free marketplace, because this kind of strong-arm tactic is likely just the beginning. Things are turning nasty in the book world, and it's authors and readers who stand to lose the most.
Dec 04, 2009
Here's just one example of how a sophisticated propaganda campaign aims to derail Copenhagen
Passed on for your consideration, an excellent analysis of the latest propaganda piece to hit the climate debate: the so-called "Story of Cap-and-Trade" video on YouTube. Now, triangulate that with this recent study by the Center for Public Integrity.
It's hysterically funny that some people think climate scientists are involved in a conspiracy to trump up global warming; if they are, they're doing so for free and at risk of their careers and reputations. One can only admire evil conspirators who work so selflessly for... what kind of gain, exactly? On the other hand, the motives of the people with the fossil fuel money are very clear, as is the paper trail that leads from them to many of the same lobbying agencies that the tobacco companies used to try to keep us smoking. But... nah... it couldn't be them that're lying... could it?
(Oh, and if you're confused about who to believe, how about Scientific American? They have an excellent article on which climate-change denial arguments are bogus, and why.) An excerpt:
Claim 5: Climatologists conspire to hide the truth about global warming by locking away their data. Their so-called "consensus" on global warming is scientifically irrelevant because science isn't settled by popularity. It is virtually impossible to disprove accusations of giant global conspiracies to those already convinced of them (can anyone prove that the Freemasons and the Roswell aliens aren't involved, too?). Let it therefore be noted that the magnitude of this hypothetical conspiracy would need to encompass many thousands of uncontroversial publications and respected scientists from around the world, stretching back through Arrhenius and Tyndall for almost 150 years. (See this feature on “Carbon Dioxide and Climate,” by Gilbert N. Plass, from Scientific American in July 1959.) It is also one so powerful that it has co-opted the official positions of dozens of scientific organizations including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics and the American Meteorological Society.
Claim 5: Climatologists conspire to hide the truth about global warming by locking away their data. Their so-called "consensus" on global warming is scientifically irrelevant because science isn't settled by popularity.
It is virtually impossible to disprove accusations of giant global conspiracies to those already convinced of them (can anyone prove that the Freemasons and the Roswell aliens aren't involved, too?). Let it therefore be noted that the magnitude of this hypothetical conspiracy would need to encompass many thousands of uncontroversial publications and respected scientists from around the world, stretching back through Arrhenius and Tyndall for almost 150 years. (See this feature on “Carbon Dioxide and Climate,” by Gilbert N. Plass, from Scientific American in July 1959.) It is also one so powerful that it has co-opted the official positions of dozens of scientific organizations including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics and the American Meteorological Society.
Oct 31, 2009
The way these people don't think about the solutions is breathtaking
As reported in Science Daily, some biologists writing in the Journal of ' Biology are warning that travel to Mars and other planets may not be a good idea because "spaceflight weakens the immune system" and "harmful bacteria proliferate under spaceflight conditions."
One has to wonder what these people mean by "spaceflight conditions." Almost certainly, what they mean is zero gravity. Certainly, the Russians discovered all sorts of nasty bugs growing in their air conditioning during the Mir missions, and it's been known for decades that sealed living environments do breed bacteria. Also, cosmic rays and other forms of radiation encountered in space are mutagenic.
But really, people, think! This doesn't mean that space flight is intrinsically dangerous. It means that badly shielded tin-can environments that aren't spun for gravity are a bad idea. And that is quite a different conclusion.
Prolonged exposure to zero gravity weakens the immune system, so don't expose astronauts to prolonged zero gravity. Invest in some research into how to spin the spacecraft. Then spin the spacecraft.
Secondly, shield the damn things. The only reason why radiation is considered an issue is because it's expensive to transport heavy shielding into orbit. One solution would be to use lunar water; simply put bags of the stuff around the ship. That makes it heavier and hence requires more fuel... but now the problem can be seen for what it is, a simple problem of launch costs.
Spaceflight is not bad for our health. Cut-rate spaceflight that avoids the obvious solutions is.
Oct 08, 2009
Local communities manage forests better than governments, reports New Scientist
Few ideas have been so thoroughly misused as Garrett Hardin's notion of the tragedy of the commons. Hardin's idea was that "multiple individuals acting independently and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest will ultimately destroy a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long term interest for this to happen" (to quote Wikipedia). There are some historical cases of this happening (i.e. the Boston commons). There are, however, many more cases where it did not; and the idea is often used to try to justify the privatization of public goods.
I've found when I travel to the United States that the tragedy of the commons is a popular idea there, despite the fact that the historical evidence for it is equivocal, at best. Commons were a widespread feature of European life for centuries, and mismanagement of them was extremely rare. Now, New Scientist reports on a new study that shows that forests that are managed locally (i.e. as a commons) sequester more carbon than institutionally, governmentally or privately managed forests.
One significant comment in the article was the following:
They argue that their findings contradict a long-standing environmental idea, called the "tragedy of the commons", which says that natural resources left to communal control get trashed. In fact, says Agrawal, "communities are perfectly capable of managing their resources sustainably".
This really comes as no surprise. But it needs to be reinforced, particularly for people who've drunk the koolaid of the notion that public goods either can't exist or can't be managed efficiently.
Oct 04, 2009
Access is an issue, but it's a geographic one. I was lucky I live in Toronto
In July 2008 I learned I would have to have heart surgery to replace my defective ascending aorta. Since I also had a bicuspid heart valve, my surgeon and I discussed whether to replace that at the same time. This conversation did not involve money, because money wasn't a consideration for either of us. Neither my insurance company nor any level of government were even consulted, because it was a matter between my doctor and me.
We decided to leave the valve where it was, for now. I got to set the date of the surgery, and with some irony decided on the day after my birthday: September 5. The surgery would happen at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. (Sunnybrook is a teaching hospital and research center, but because there's only a single tier of health care in Canada, everybody in the community has equal access to it, regardless of their demographic. My GP is at Sunnybrook, but I needed no particular privilege to get her.)
At this point, all sorts of things were set in motion, but all I had to worry about was keeping in good physical shape, not getting sick--and banking blood. This last activity is an option for major surgery, where you may go through many units while on the table. What you do is donate to yourself ahead of time. So, on two occasions prior to the surgery, I went downtown to the blood bank to get drained. The procedure was, of course, to flash my OHIP card and then fill out a form; and then to get hooked up.
Having already been entered into the system, the process on the day of the surgery was even simpler: I just showed up, lay down on a gurney, and was taken to the OR.
--Actually, that's not quite true. I had to sign a waiver: $3.00 for the use of the phone next to my bed, once I got up to the recovery ward.
Having a so-so time
The surgery went really well--five hours in a cradle of crushed ice, with no pulse and my chest splayed open. It was afterwards that things got a little dicey.
My heart wouldn't settle down. Rhythm problems afflict about a third of heart surgery patients, so it wasn't at all surprising--to them. To me, though, the next ten days were hellish, because with my heart popping into atrial fibrillation at the least provocation, I couldn't even get out of bed. The first few times it happened, they cardioverted me (which is to say, they put the paddles on me and stopped/started my heart). After the third time, they decided something a little gentler was called for, and put me on a drug called amiodarone.
Amiodarone is sometimes called "the devil's anti-arrhythmic" because it's incredibly effective--and has incredible side effects. --Side effects like crystallization of the corneas, and stiffening of the lungs. For the first three days I was on it I threw up constantly. To cope with that, they fed me a cocktail of other drugs with exotic names.
All told I spent eleven days in hospital--six more than usual. Normally they kick you out less than a week after the surgery. Normally, they don't ply you with all the drugs I ended up taking. But, because I had my surgery in a public system, the extra time and the cost of those drugs weren't factors in anybody's decision-making. I got the care I needed, and when I did go home I was ready for it.
I was also, by the way, in a semi-private ward, meaning I shared a room with two other guys. We had physios, TV, 24-hour nursing care (of course), and utterly abysmal food that was the only element of the system prepared by a private company. (They should be shot for giving nauseated heart patients meals consisting of two slabs of white bread with a dry piece of turkey breast between them; my wife snuck in rich pate-and-crackers, and fresh raspberrries--high-iron foods, both.) I'd brought in my iPod and a portable DVD player, and watched many episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender while waiting for my heart to settle down.
All this did end up costing us; aside from the $3 waiver, there was about $100 in parking that my wife paid for. For everything else, however, economic considerations were simply not a factor; nor was access.
Then I got home, and had to face six months of recovery. Luckily, a system was in place to help me with that, too.