I, Robot

On 13 February 2012, I will give a talk at Google in the form of a robot. I will look like this:

My talk will be about “Energy, the Environment and What We Can Do.” Since I think we should cut unnecessary travel, I decided to stay here in Singapore and use a telepresence robot instead of flying to California.

I thank Mike Stay for arranging this at Google, and I especially thank Trevor Blackwell and everyone else at Anybots for letting me use one of their robots!

I believe Google will film this event and make a video available. But I hope reporters attend, because it should be fun, and I plan to describe some ways we can slash carbon emissions.

More detail: I will give this talk at 4 pm Monday, February 13, 2012 in the Paramaribo Room on the Google campus (Building 42, Floor 2). Visitors and reporters are invited, but they need to check in at the main visitor’s lounge in Building 43, and they’ll need to be escorted to and from the talk, so someone will pick them up 10 or 15 minutes before the talk starts.

Energy, the Environment and What We Can Do

Abstract: Our heavy reliance on fossil fuels is causing two serious problems: global warming, and the decline of cheaply available oil reserves. Unfortunately the second problem will not cancel out the first. Each one individually seems extremely hard to solve, and taken
together they demand a major worldwide effort starting now. After an overview of these problems, we turn to the question: what can we do about them?

I also need help from all of you reading this! I want to talk about solutions, not just problems—and given my audience, and the political deadlock in the US, I especially want to talk about innovative solutions that come from individuals and companies, not governments.

Can changing whole systems produce massive cuts in carbon emissions, in a way that spreads virally rather than being imposed through top-down directives? It’s possible. Curtis Faith has some inspiring thoughts on this:

I’ve been looking on various transportation and energy and environment issues for more than 5 years, and almost no one gets the idea that we can radically reduce consumption if we look at the complete systems. In economic terms, we currently have a suboptimal Nash Equilibrium with a diminishing pie when an optimal expanding pie equilibrium is possible. Just tossing around ideas a a very high level with back of the envelope estimates we can get orders of magnitude improvements with systemic changes that will make people’s lives better if we can loosen up the grip of the big corporations and government.

To borrow a physics analogy, the Nash Equilibrium is a bit like a multi-dimensional metastable state where the system is locked into a high energy configuration and any local attempts to make the change revert to the higher energy configuration locally, so it would require sufficient energy or energy in exactly the right form to move all the different metastable states off their equilibrium either simultaneously or in a cascade.

Ideally, we find the right set of systemic economic changes that can have a cascade effect, so that they are locally systemically optimal and can compete more effectively within the larger system where the Nash Equilibrium dominates. I hope I haven’t mixed up too many terms from too many fields and confused things. These terms all have overlapping and sometimes very different meaning in the different contexts as I’m sure is true even within math and science.

One great example is transportation. We assume we need electric cars or biofuel or some such thing. But the very assumption that a car is necessary is flawed. Why do people want cars? Give them a better alternative and they’ll stop wanting cars. Now, what that might be? Public transportation? No. All the money spent building a 2,000 kg vehicle to accelerate and decelerate a few hundred kg and then to replace that vehicle on a regular basis can be saved if we eliminate the need for cars.

The best alternative to cars is walking, or walking on inclined pathways up and down so we get exercise. Why don’t people walk? Not because they don’t want to but because our cities and towns have optimized for cars. Create walkable neighborhoods and give people jobs near their home and you eliminate the need for cars. I live in Savannah, GA in a very tiny place. I never use the car. Perhaps 5 miles a week. And even that wouldn’t be necessary with the right supplemental business structures to provide services more efficiently.

Or electricity for A/C. Everyone lives isolated in structures that are very inefficient to heat. Large community structures could be air conditioned naturally using various techniques and that could cut electricity demand by 50% for neighborhoods. Shade trees are better than insulation.

Or how about moving virtually entire cities to cooler climates during the hot months? That is what people used to do. Take a train North for the summer. If the destinations are low-resource destinations, this can be a huge reduction for the city. Again, getting to this state is hard without changing a lot of parts together.

These problems are not technical, or political, they are economic. We need the economic systems that support these alternatives. People want them. We’ll all be happier and use far less resources (and money). The economic system needs to be changed, and that isn’t going to happen with politics, it will happen with economic innovation. We tend to think of our current models as the way things are, but they aren’t. Most of the status quo is comprised of human inventions, money, fractional reserve banking, corporations, etc. They all brought specific improvements that made them more effective at the time they were introduce because of the conditions during those times. Our times too are different. Some new models will work much better for solving our current problems.

Your idea really starts to address the reason why people fly unnecessarily. This change in perspective is important. What if we went back to sailing ships? And instead of flying we took long leisurely educational seminar cruises on modern versions of sail yachts? What if we improved our trains? But we need to start from scratch and design new systems so they work together effectively. Why are we stuck with models of cities based on the 19th-century norms?

We aren’t, but too many people think we are because the scope of their job or academic career is just the piece of a system, not the system itself.

System level design thinking is the key to making the difference we need. Changes to the complete systems can have order of magnitude improvements. Changes to the parts will have us fighting for tens of percentages.

Do you know good references on ideas like this—preferably with actual numbers? I’ve done some research, but I feel I must be missing a lot of things.

This book, for example, is interesting:

• Michael Peters, Shane Fudge and Tim Jackson, editors, Low Carbon Communities: Imaginative Approaches to Combating Climate Change Locally, Edward Elgar Publishing Group, Cheltenham, UK, 2010.

but I wish it had more numbers on how much carbon emissions were cut by some of the projects they describe: Energy Conscious Households in Action, the HadLOW CARBON Community, the Transition Network, and so on.

63 Responses to I, Robot

  1. Hudson Luce says:

    We actually don’t have cities built on 19th century norms – if we did have such cities, we wouldn’t be in such a mess. Consider:
    1. All long distance intercity transport is by rail or boat;
    2. There are very few large cities, instead lots of small towns about 5 or 6 miles apart;
    3. The small towns have everything you need within walking distance; and
    4. There are market gardens in each town.

    Back in 1900, you could order a house kit from the Sears and Roebuck catalog, have it delivered by rail, hire laborers to build it, and have a well-manufactured house up and running in a month … A lot of those Craftsman houses are still in use over 100 years after they were built…

    here are a few links:



    • John Baez says:

      Thanks! I’m afraid I may not master this material well enough in time to say anything snappy and interesting in my forthcoming talks. But it looks good… I should try to learn about schemes that attempt to lure people into more energy-efficient transportation and housing setups.

  2. Hudson Luce says:

    maybe this link, too, but I’m not seeing a lot of numbers:

    Besides, the numbers which are most persuasive for a bottom-up approach might be those numbers which reflect the amount of money saved on gas and so on, rather than anything having to do with carbon emissions, which will remain the concern of planners and not citizens.

  3. There is a quite quantitative study for transforming Zurich into a 2000-watts society:

    Click to access Weissbuch.pdf

    Click to access LeichterLeben2010_e.pdf

    Unfortunately some of the accompanying technical publications are only in German.

  4. Arrow says:

    “Our heavy reliance on fossil fuels is causing two serious problems: global warming, and the decline of cheaply available oil reserves. Unfortunately the second problem will not cancel out the first. Each one individually seems extremely hard to solve, and taken
    together they demand a major worldwide effort starting now. After an overview of these problems, we turn to the question: what can we do about them?”

    Realistically? We can and we will adopt as required. Some better than others.

    But if you are into “systemic approaches” and remodeling whole societies to your liking you should look up Stalin, he did some pioneering work in this area. Moving people to colder climates was his thing and I bet their descendants are immensely grateful today for being saved from the impending global warming catastrophe.


    • John Baez says:

      You’ll note I said “I especially want to talk about innovative solutions that come from individuals and companies, not governments.”

      Stalinesque forced mass resettlements don’t exactly fit into this category. I bet you could think of a better idea if you tried.

      Even if you don’t think global warming is a problem, pretend you do for a minute, and show you can come up with better solutions than the rest of the crowd here.

      • Arrow says:

        My point, although maybe not apparent at first, is that it takes dictatorial power to implement the kind of systemic re-engineering of human societies Curtis talked above.

        As for innvoative solutions I don’t have any, but I’d focus resources on trying to improve nuclear power, geothermal or tidal energy power plants if it were up to me.

      • John Baez says:

        Arrow wrote:

        …. it takes dictatorial power to implement the kind of systemic re-engineering of human societies Curtis talked above.

        Not really. The United States and other governments are constantly engaged in schemes to modify mass behavior through punitive taxes, tax deductions, subsidies, laws and so on—and while one might not like this, I wouldn’t say it’s ‘dictatorial’ or invoke Stalin’s ghost when describing it.

        For example: in 2010 governments around the world spent $409 billion to subsidize the production of fossil fuels, a dramatic increase from $300 billion in 2009. These subsidies tend to increase the use of fossil fuels. They’re not Stalinesque, but they’re not small either.

        And if these subsidies were removed, or switched to some other purpose, it might have a noticeable effect. According to the Guardian:

        The IEA said that gradual phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies by 2020 would reduce global energy demand by 4.1%, cutting demand for oil by 3.7m barrels a day. Dropping subsidies could slow growth in CO2 emissions by 1.7bn tonnes a year, equivalent to the total emissions of the UK, Germany, Italy and France.

        However, what I was really asking for is nongovernmental, noncoercive ways that people could trigger shifts in human behavior that help tackle global warming. The Sarvodaya organization mentioned by Thomas Fischbacher is not focussed on global warming, but apart from that it’s an example of what I mean.

        • Thomas Fischbacher says:

          Concerning the role of nuclear energy, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of believing back-of-the-envelope calculations without actually pondering what a masively nuclear program would mean.

          Concerning Ahmadinejad, everyone advocating nuclear energy in their own country of course helps him make a case for his vision of a nuclear Iran – and it’s pretty much the same in all other countries who would easily feel disadvantaged by “the nuclear club”. I see no way to contain nuclear proliferation as long as funny political leaders can get political support by spinning things in such a way that they need to go there in order to not be left behind as a nation.

          Isn’t the problem with fossil fuels mostly one of the world aspiring to follow a highly inappropriate model set by western countries? Before we try to replace that with another model, we should perhaps check whether that’s more appropriate.

          Apart from the security/proliferation issue (I actually think that climate change will lead to tensions between nations that make nuclear war much more likely), there are other important aspects. First and foremost, is it really worth it? My perspective is that, whatever you do, unless you insured it, you are taking a risk and are effectively gambling. (Yes, I am gambling in many ways, but I am quite aware of where I am and where I am not.) Do I think it’s smart to gamble with nuclear power? Actually, I don’t, and I think society has an obligation towards itself to not allow any such gambling with something as dangerous as large-scale power generation (any form of it). Hence, I would strongly expect any sort of power plant to be insured against damage caused by major failures. Being pro nuclear energy is one thing, being pro nuclear gambling is an entirely different issue. The problem with nuclear power then is: If we insured it (I am fairly certain that this can be done, but the insurance companies would of course define a number of security measures to be implemented beyond those in place in our present-day reactors), is it still worthwhile, or would we be better off instead going renewable? I wouldn’t want any sort of large scale power generation that goes un-insured.

          Nuclear tends to look good on paper, but things have a tendency to end up looking very different in the real world. I find it very interesting, for example, that the great and safe reactor designs always are the ones that exist on paper only. Gates dreams of “travelling wave reactors”, some people say “molten salt reactor”, then there is the “Thorium high temperature pebble bed reactor”. Actually, we had such a THTR in Germany; the THTR in Hamm-Uebtrop, 300 MW electric, operated from 1983 to 1989. Decommissioned due to a number of awkward technical problems. While meltdown-safe, the design turned out to also release substantial amounts of radioactivity when cooling failed, many more of the graphite spheres broke under operating conditions than anticipated, the concrete gave off water vapour that reacted with the graphite, etc. etc.

          Insight: If it comes to reactor design, don’t just listen to the physicists who come up with things that look great on paper. See what the materials science engineers actually have learned about materials under such conditions.

          There are numerous other aspects concerning nuclear energy. There are just two I want to highlight. (1) As an European, I have some outside perspective on the image and perception of nuclear power in the US, in particular in the 50s and 60s. To many of us Europeans, the ideas and perceptions of nuclear power that came up in the US at that time – and still are quite widespread – appear fairly naive. (Well, of course, US citizens tend to think that we Europeans have a tendency to over-complicate and over-regulate everything, while Europeans tend to think that in the US, many subtle points easily tend to get over-simplified.) (2) The Union of Concerned Scientists recently published a document well worth reading that contains a number of important overdue changes that should happen in the US nuclear industry:

          Click to access ucs-rpt-nuclear-safety-recs.pdf

          Regardless of how we as a society continue to use or not use nuclear energy, there are a number of important commonsense issues in there which most people unfortunately are totally unaware of.

          To conclude, I’d like to say that there is a personal dimension to all this. The key reason why we are using so much energy these days is that the population by and large is totally energy illiterate. On this, I can only try to lead by example. Our three person household uses less than half the electricity than the typical European household – less than 1/7 of that of the average U.S. household. Here in the UK, we are on a wind power tariff. Personally, I could easily get by with under 500 kWh per year, without any noticeable reduction in quality of life – but right now, our perspective is that right now it is more important to get other people around us to realize how simple it is to adopt our energy habits than to halve our energy (not only electricity) throughput once again. We know we can do that too – but right now, that step would be far easier if a larger fraction of the population lived the way we do. Oh, incidentally, concerning electricity, I am also a producer – and we indeed in our home country produce a surplus of more than five times the electricity which we use ourselves. My parents and in-laws by now are just a bit above breaking even with their own production and consumption – they have more average energy usage patterns. It was relatively easy to get there. So, as it seems, if there were a major shift in society’s attitude towards energy, that would easily slash the need for half of all the power plants around today. It is important to realize what that actually means before thinking about any “wedges” needed to stabilize “business as usual”.

        • John Baez says:

          Thomas wrote:

          First and foremost, is it really worth it? My perspective is that, whatever you do, unless you insured it, you are taking a risk and are effectively gambling. (Yes, I am gambling in many ways, but I am quite aware of where I am and where I am not.) Do I think it’s smart to gamble with nuclear power? Actually, I don’t, and I think society has an obligation towards itself to not allow any such gambling with something as dangerous as large-scale power generation (any form of it).

          So, you’re gambling that even without nuclear power, people will either refuse to burn all the carbon they can get their hands on, or that even if they do, things won’t get too bad.

          I’d feel happier with your gamble if I saw some detailed studies—preferably with numbers attached!—that outlined plausible ways you might win that gamble. I haven’t seen any. So far it’s looking very, very hard to find a strategy that has a good chance of winning. For example, I don’t know how to reprogram everyone’s memes (Peter’s suggestion) or take single-handed dictatorial action (Arrow’s suggestion). So, I’m very reluctant to discard options just because someone says “I don’t like gambling with that option”. We’re gambling either way.

          As an European, I have some outside perspective on the image and perception of nuclear power in the US, in particular in the 50s and 60s. To many of us Europeans, the ideas and perceptions of nuclear power that came up in the US at that time – and still are quite widespread – appear fairly naive.

          And we love you too. In fact most people in the US are dead-set against nuclear power, just like most people in Europe. There are exceptions, like Stewart Brand and James Hansen, but they’re a small minority. What Americans really like are fossil fuels. Perhaps it’s because most of us drive a lot, are acutely attuned to the price of gasoline, have watched it soar, and wish it would go back down. (Not me, but I’m an oddball.) Americans talk about the price of gasoline all the time. On the other hand, the price of electricity is rarely mentioned. So the fracking boom is a huge deal in the US, but you never read an editorial clamoring for nuclear power. As far as I can tell, nuclear power is a dead duck in the US.

          So, I don’t actually expect that Europe or the US will build enough nuclear reactors—in the next 20 years, say—to make a difference when it comes to global warming. It’s the truly large countries—India and China—who are building reactors now.

          So why am I bothering? For one thing, I want people to realize that global warming is a nontrivial problem: that without throwing everything we’ve got against it, there’s a good chance we’ll lose the game.

        • Thomas Fischbacher says:

          I totally agree with Ted Trainer: if one takes a sober look at the numbers, it’s pretty evident that we won’t be able to maintain the way of doing business we are used to. That is the insight one should make the starting point for further analysis.

          So, if there is a very major shift ahead, and if the rules of the game will change drastically, will we be better off with nuclear technology or without? That’s a tricky question. I stick with my statement: if we won’t be able to insure it, that means we are not able to handle it sufficiently well to consider it as a solution. Holds for permaculture as well – there are many things that look great on paper. But unless someone can properly assess the risk and would be willing to insure your grand engineering, chances are it has not been fully thought through.

  5. petrzly says:

    It interests me how this upcoming crisis is making visible the social/economic deadlock of modern societies. While we feel internally as autonomous agents, we are at the actually locked in to a structure of production and consumption. Furthermore, even to make efforts to live in a more sustainable fashion one is just making the various systems of exploitation more efficient. If I cycle to work at that corporate job I might not notice how my efforts form part of an oppressive structure that is downgrading the world. The current approach is to feel oneself to be a bit Zen – going along with the system but really being detached from the actual actions we ‘ have to take to get by’ …what an illusion!

  6. jim stasheff says:

    what sort of `robot’? android?

  7. Uncle Al says:

    “shipping will be responsible for 12-18% of global emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050.”

    Mandate sails, nuclear reactors, or oars for all vessels. The Greenhouse Effect, Global Warming, Climate change, etc., will be ended with a single planetary law legislated and enforced. Oars will do wonders for stagnated First World employment and increasing obesity incidence. Was that so hard? Construct a Shining Path into the future!

    (No polymer sails – hemp. “A gramme is better than a damn,” Aldous Huxley.)

    • John Baez says:

      You’ll note I said “I especially want to talk about innovative solutions that come from individuals and companies, not governments.”

      A single planetary law mandating sails, nuclear reactors or oars doesn’t exactly fit into this category. And as you note, it would cut global emissions by less than 20%—nowhere near enough. I bet you could think of something better if you tried.

      Even if you don’t think global warming is a problem, pretend you do for a minute, and show you can come up with better solutions than the rest of the crowd here.

  8. Robert Smart says:

    Unfortunately a lot of people are trying to mislead us about the facts from both sides. See for example this very recent Dave Martin comment: http://seekingalpha.com/article/321376/comments?source=feed#comment-2198241 . Unfortunately I no longer believe in the possibility of getting the liars out of the debate.

    On the question of energy there seem to be two important questions: Will it be cheap or expensive? (and if the latter how do we cope with 10 billion people?); Will we try to use more of the energy that other parts of the biosphere also uses, or will we find energy sources that other life doesn’t use?

  9. I hope you’ll mention, along with slashing emissions — which means slashing government payrolls, because fossil fuel users subsidize government — the relative ease of greatly boosting CO2 capture rates by enhanced weathering.

    • John Baez says:

      The Azimuth team looked at enhanced weathering, thanks in part to nudges from you:

      • Azimuth, Enhanced weathering.

      But so far it looks like the kind of program that won’t start unless and until the governments of big countries become intensely committed to battling global warming. That’s not the kind of effort I want to focus on in this particular talk.

      The above page points out:

      A ton of serpentine can dispose about two-thirds of a ton of CO2. According to Wikipedia, in 2008 about 31.8 gigatons of CO2 were emitted from burning fossil fuels (and more from land use change). So, to counter that we’d need to grind up about 48 gigatons of serpentine a year. For comparison, total world cement production in 2009 was about 2.8 gigatons. The total amount of material handled by US mines in 2008 was about 5.6 gigatons.

      By the way, if there are ways to improve this page, please do it! You’re the expert on this.

      • Well, I don’t happen to live on or near orthosilicate terrain, or have land or money, but some of us do. They could try it out on a personal scale. That would be seven tonnes … you spell “gigaton” with only one N. Do you mean a billion times 2000 pounds? … to compensate for an average human’s emissions, or, I suppose, about 21 tonnes, in the likely event that the person reading these words and finding them applicable is a first worlder like us two, and wants to compensate on that basis. One truckload per year.

        Getting a hobby-scale rock pulverizer to get through that in a year might require replacing it one or more times, but spreading the powder manually, 60 kg per day, would not be particularly strenuous for most of us.

        There was the experimentation I proposed here. It would shed light on whether or not a special kind of air oxygen extractor, one that gives the oxygen in the compact form of a nitrate liquid rather than as a gas, can be built for a boron-burning car.

  10. Z says:

    One thing you may be able to talk about, concerning transportation at the system level, are intelligent machines and routing. Machine intelligence is one way Moore’s law for semiconductors could help solve the climate crisis.

    Google is already working on self-driving cars (e.g. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/science/10google.html) , but I mean something far more advanced… but let’s consider the case of self-driving cars to illustrate a point.

    If every car on the road were intelligent and omniscient, there would be no traffic accidents. Now consider the fact that a huge portion (80%?) of the mass of today’s cars are safety features – steel structures, airbags, bumpers, crumble zones and thick tempered glass. You don’t need much more than a powered covered bicycle or rickshaw to get a person from point A to point B, so the efficiency gain with a self-driving “car” would be an order of magnitude better, or more.

    But that’s not all, since the cars would be part of an intelligent network (and providing demands&feedback t this network, to get the Nash Equilibrium heh) an optimal strategy (lowest energy use, or fasted transit time) could be found for a given route.

    But why do people need to move around anyway? You using a telepresence robot helps proves this obvious point, but tying this into intelligent transportation is also easy — groceries, for example, could be delivered by an intelligent car without you having to make trip to the store (and back!). This sort of thing is not only convenient, but eliminates a lot of wasteful carbon emissions so there is no personal “sacrifice” people often complain about today with a low carbon lifestyle.

    • John Baez says:

      Good ideas! Even before self-driving cars catch on, we can gain efficiencies through more and more intelligently run car-sharing and ride-sharing schemes, like Zipcar, ERideshare.com, and the Rideshare Directory. Millions of people having to drive long distances to work is bad, but it’s even worse when they’re each in their own car—that’s how it feels in Los Angeles.

  11. arch1 says:

    Driverless public-utility vehicles could also link up to reduce air drag, use harder wheels if no passengers, and deliver to multiple destinations to increase utilization efficiency. Think 10x lighter, 5x better utilized, nx reduced air drag, mx reduced road friction and pretty soon you’re talking serious savings. Human cargo comes with more constraints (dynamic rerouting, comfort, privacy) so the multipliers are less but savings still significant.

  12. nad says:

    John Baez said:

    You’ll note I said “I especially want to talk about innovative solutions that come from individuals and companies, not governments.”

    If you find a solution as an individual or company you would eventually like to make this public as a common good, while being credited for it and while assuring that noone tries to snatch it for patenting. There is an organisation called http://www.ohanda.org/, which promotes the idea of a kind of “openpatent” which means that products registered here are intended for the public good and can’t be patented anymore. However the last time I heard someone talking about OHANDA and what to do before registering innovative solutions it was recommended to patent something before registering it at OHANDA. The reason is that this small organisation fears the legal subtleties and the power of aggressive patent lawers, who might still eventually overrun some of the products. It would be useful to strengthen efforts like OHANDA.

    • John Baez says:

      Hi, Nad. I like the idea of OHANDA, at least as you describe it. Are there some good examples of people who used it?

      However, if you have to patent something before you register it at OHANDA, that will reduce its effectiveness a lot.

      Of course, individuals and small companies who want to make money also have trouble registering patents and defending them from big corporations… this is a big problem, I think.

      • nad says:

        John wrote:

        Are there some good examples of people who used it?

        There hasn’t been sofar much registered – you can have a look at the gallery at http://www.ohanda.org/products/gallery

        John wrote:

        However, if you have to patent something before you register it at OHANDA, that will reduce its effectiveness a lot.

        of course! but Ohanda is an organisation of volunteers and sofar it doesn’t seam that powerful patent lawers would work for them.
        i am not sure but it may be that in some cases and countries it is eventually enough if you apply for a patent, but this is still quite an effort. And probably its better to register at OHANDA (or somewhere similar) before doing nothing.

        There is also something similar for medicine, but I forgot its name and I have the bookmark on some other laptop, which is broken. maybe someone here recalls the name.

        I think the medicine openpatents may be important with regard to the mitigation of the damages which are due to climate change.

        • nad says:

          I wrote

          i am not sure but it may be that in some cases and countries it is eventually enough if you apply for a patent, but this is still quite an effort.

          the problem here is that apparently (at least for german patent laws) what I have learned recently you can’t patent something which had already been published somewhere. So if you want to patent something you have first to patent it before registering with OHANDA (because then its published). but I don’t know what happens if you applied for a patent and publish it then (after filing the patent application).
          Does some expert over here know? It would be quite a useful information.

          Applying for a patent costs about 60 Euros but if you want a patent then you need to go further and then you have to pay more.

        • dave tweed says:

          I’m not remotely an expert, but my vague memory of an understanding is that the US system is a standout in that you have up to one year after publication to file for a patent; elsewhere any prior publication stops that. But there’s a wrinkle:discussed here which is that you can (should?) only be able to file a patent for a working invention, but (providing it’s suitably documented and attested) in the US you can claim priority from the date of the “concrete idea”. (The intent is that you can’t patent an idea which isn’t reasonably worked out, so I couldn’t patent “using subatomic particles to build the worlds smallest cell-phone” without having a reasonably good idea of which particles would be used, how, etc.) One thing that’s important due to this and other reasons is that, if you’re thinking about patenting in an area you ought to keep notebooks of your ideas and get them regularly witnessed.

          Actually Wikipedia says the US will be moving to the rest of the world first-to-file system in a couple of years.

      • Hudson Luce says:

        If you want to block others from patenting something, what you could do would be to apply for a provisional patent, and then let the application run its course for the year, and then let it be deemed abandoned. The USPTO publishes the invention, so it has been disclosed, and future patent applications will have to take not of the invention and the disclosure. Patents can be denied on the basis not only of extant US patents, but of extant foreign patents, withdrawn, abandoned, or denied US and foreign patent applications, and disclosure through other means (print or electronic journalism). If you market your invention to the public and then file a patent application one year and one day after you begin to market it, your application will be denied, because it has been disclosed.

        See this for complete details: http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/pac/mpep/documents/appxl_35_U_S_C_102.htm#usc35s102

  13. John Beattie says:

    The most intractable part is reducing the population. No, I don’t mean any form of genocide or other unpleasantness.

    But someone above mentioned 10 billion population and that will only make the overall problem bigger. The Chinese have attempted to reduce the allowed number of children per family, possibly with success. But that is not the category of solution you want, since it is at the government level.

    On your actual question, you need something which people will adopt, as a way to avoid their own immediate problems -such as not being able to heat or cool their houses.

    You want ideas which individuals will adopt because then they will have better lives and where the actions, when aggregated, will reduce the CO2 problem.

    I don’t believe that individuals have enough possibilities in their current environments to make enough changes. The way we organise work and the way we organise our built environment determines a lot of what we do and how. Very many people live in places where it is inconceivable not to have a car and to do, say, 50 miles every day in it. Changing that at a personal level requires compromises. People do make those compromises but you want lots of people to do that, not a minority. It will require a biggish jolt to make a mass of people change.

    Hmm. Something like an environmental catastrophe. What about New Orleans: are there figures to show if people have moved away or otherwise changed their lives since Katrina?

    This line of discussion doesn’t address your question either but I think it is relevant all the same. What constitutes ‘an acceptable compromise’ is determined by one’s personal circumstances. At least one of the points about global warming is that we expect environmental catastrophes to occur more frequently.

    The ideas which have been given already include some very attractive improvements to our lives, for example the Copenhagen model for transport, and possibly a semi-annual migration for people who live in Continental climates. But they do all require some major communal input, i.e. local or national government direction.

    • John Baez says:

      It’s nice to know that over the last 50 years, the fertility rate in Brazil has plunged from 6 children per woman to 1.9—less than in the United States! People are arguing about the exact causes, with one of the more surprising ones being soap operas. But regardless of the cause, this is something people want to do, not something that’s imposed on them.

      Education of girls has often been suggested as a way to hasten this process, though our last attempt here to check that led us into a thicket of tricky questions.

      In many countries the fertility rate has dropped to the point where the politicians are talking about underpopulation as a serious problem. That’s true here in Singapore, for example. From Wikipedia:

      Former Russian President Vladimir Putin directed Parliament to adopt a 10-year program to stop the sharp decline in Russia’s population, principally by offering financial incentives and subsidies to encourage women to have children. Australia currently offers a $5,000 bonus for every baby plus additional fortnightly payments, a free immunization scheme and recently proposed to pay all child care costs for women who want to work. Many European countries, including France, Italy, Germany and Poland, have offered some combination of bonuses and monthly payments to families. Some Japanese localities, facing significant population loss, are offering economic incentives. Yamatsuri, a town of 7,000 just north of Tokyo, offers parents $4,600 for the birth of a child and $460 a year for 10 years. The Republic of Singapore has similar plans: $3,000 for the first child, $9,000 in cash and savings for the second; and up to $18,000 each for the third and fourth. The effectiveness of these policies is currently the subject of debate.

      I would like to prevent the spread of these policies. One way is to teach governments that an ever-increasing GDP is not always good, especially if accomplished by simply having more people. But there’s also the problem of a system where we need an ever-increasing number of young people to support health care for the elderly! I’m not sure how to deal with that.

      • Giampiero Campa says:

        I was unaware of these policies, (thanks for mentioning them) and would like to understand more about the exact reasoning behind them, also because i would also question that having more people will automatically increase the GDP these days, since it’s not granted that those people will find a job (it’s unclear whether we actually need more people to produce more stuff). As far as the demand for goods and services is concerned, if they don’t find a job they can’t participate in the demand either (and neither can they support the elderly, btw).

        In any case I think that in this comment you have really put your fingers on the heart of the problem of “how can we scale back the population and the economy towards more sustainable levels without having a major collapse of the whole economic system”.

        I am studying economics in my spare time partly to be able to answer this question, but no luck yet, perhaps one day i will have a clearer understanding.

    • Georgiaberry says:

      “I don’t believe that individuals have enough possibilities in their current environments to make enough changes. The way we organise work and the way we organise our built environment determines a lot of what we do and how. Very many people live in places where it is inconceivable not to have a car and to do, say, 50 miles every day in it. Changing that at a personal level requires compromises. People do make those compromises but you want lots of people to do that, not a minority. It will require a biggish jolt to make a mass of people change.”

      Yes, thank you, this is just the right observation – people do not yet have enough possibilities in their current environments. I live in just such a community – rural but with a large population working “in town,” they drive each day 30-65 miles round trip to work – or to shop or for entertainment. I know families who think nothing of going to town twice in one day…

      But our possibilities are finally arriving. Our local rural telephone coop is laying new fiber-optic cable that will bring us faster, more affordable and more reliable internet services. (Some communities in our area, if you can believe it, are still only served through dial-up.) Young people in our community – and adults also who want to improve their situation – are increasingly taking part in online courses from several regional technical schools and small colleges. They can complete a significant amount of their coursework without the burden of commute.

      Over the last couple of years, our local grocery store has expanded due to the creation of a company in our state that supplies this kind of store (showing that this system is succeeding and growing organically over a regional area that is affecting our local area, this should be happening in other communities as well, since the supplier serves a wide area, yes?) – this has changed our community for the better. More families do their day to day grocery shopping close to home, saving trips to town and keeping their money in the local economy.

      However we have a long way to go in rural America. So much potential, yet we live a suburban lifestyle when we are in a pastoral paradise. People drive home from work and into their garages, shut the door and go inside without ever stepping foot onto the dirt and grass that they own. You can drive down country roads and see one suburban house and yard after another, they are just a lot farther apart. No one is out of doors getting exercise and improving their property. Few are growing a garden to improve their health and aid their grocery budgets or raising small livestock for profit and enjoyment.

      There are possibilities for us rural folks that are developing, and possibilities that are waiting patiently for us to remember them.

      As always, thanks for the thoughtful conversation and fascinating topic. Can’t wait to see the video of the robot talk!

  14. Turn vegetarian to save the world, say Pachauri and McCartney

    Turning agriculture from GHG source to GHG sink can make quite a dent and has many other benefical side effects. Cf. e.g.

    * Rattan Lal et al., Soil Carbon Sequestration To Mitigate Climate Change and Advance Food Security, Soil Science 172 (2007), 943-956

    Abstract: Most agricultural soils have lost 30% to 75% of their antecedent soil organic carbon (SOC) pool or 30 to 40 t C ha-1. (…)
    On a global scale, CO2-C emissions since 1850 are estimated at 270 ± 30 giga ton (billion ton or Gt) from fossil fuel combustion compared with 78 ± 12 Gt from soils. Consequently, the SOC pool in agricultural soils is much lower than their potential capacity. Furthermore, depletion of the SOC pool also leads to degradation in soil quality and declining agronomic/biomass productivity. (…)
    The global potential of SOC sequestration is estimated at 0.6 to 1.2 Gt C year-1 (…)

    This could be much boosted by using char coal.

    (Here in Germany there’s lots of experimentation in biochar going on meanwhile. E.g. some farmers feed it to cows (instead of antibiotics) and get better milk. Simple mass production equipment and ready made biochar in larger quantities available here – also exported to U.S.A.)

  15. Peter says:

    Abstract: Our heavy reliance on fossil fuels is causing two serious problems: global warming, and the decline of cheaply available oil reserves. Unfortunately the second problem will not cancel out the first. Each one individually seems extremely hard to solve, and taken
    together they demand a major worldwide effort starting now. After an overview of these problems, we turn to the question: what can we do about them?

    First, nice to meet you I-robot. I am also an autonomous control unit as the result of many years and many copies before me.

    Let me ask, what is your main concern? Is it nature? is it human society? or is it something else?

  16. Thomas Fischbacher says:

    Thanks for that article, John. Incidentally, I’ve enjoyed learning what Trevor Blackwell is doing these days (Lisp hacker and co-founder of Viaweb, with Paul Graham and Robert T. “Internet Worm” Morris – I’ve read many of Paul Graham’s essays).

    Some ideas:

    1. As you are giving this talk at Google, it might be interesting to mention the problem explained here:


    One of the inputs Google evidently uses to rank your search results is what results you clicked on earlier. So, if you are, say into “the moon landing was a hoax” and start to search for articles supporting that claim, this will make other articles with a similar tone get ranked higher, creating a “reality bubble”. The implications for the perception of climate change by the public should be clear.

    Thanks to Google, society is much better informed these days, but also at the same time much more mis-informed.

    2. “Ideally”, what one would want to have is better alignment between what we as a society would like to happen and the rules of our economy. I wonder, for example (to just give one wild idea), what would happen if money worked in such a way that in order to expand the money supply, you would have to take a certain amount of carbon out of the atmosphere (think about biochar here if you want). At various times, people used gold as money – and some still think this to be “the only proper money”, but actually, mining gold is not exactly an activity whose associated by-products (mercury, cyanide, etc.) make your community healthier. In some places of the world, a form of money developed whose main property was that the “coins” required quite some effort to produce. In a very direct sense, this also holds e.g. for BitCoin. Can we maybe stick with this rough idea but change the rules a bit by adding “and in doing so has positive rather than negative side effects” to “requires effort to produce”? How about using as a means of exchange certificates for having increased the organic carbon content of an acre of land by so-and-so many kilograms? Note that something like this could be introduced in parallel to government money – there are, after all, many alternative currencies already out there; some even were created “by accident”. (Yes, you can trade World of Warcraft In-Game Gold for Dollars.) Things would become even more interesting if someone managed to in some way create a need to specifically use such “carbon money” in some situations.

    3. Expanding a bit on the idea of alternative means of exchange – quite likely, we will have to address the carbon emissions problem in a time of major economic turmoil. In the future, there will be many more companies offering important services such as e.g. properly insulating homes, but the problem might well arise that such activities are hindered by a lack of money. There is an interesting concept that is somewhat loosely related to the “alternative currency” idea but precisely addresses this issue. Let’s call it “organized business-to-business surplus capacity swap”. My business has surplus capacity to clean offices, Google has surplus advertisement capacity. We might manage to strike a direct deal that I clean their offices and they pay me by putting up ads for my business on their web page. (To make this very clear: the ad space earned that way of course counts as taxable income, with taxes to be paid in dollars, cf. IRS form 1099-B!) When such direct deals won’t work, businesses may nevertheless benefit from joining an organization facilitating more indirect swaps – i.e. a so-called “trade exchange”, cf. http://www.irta.com/, the International Reciprocal Trade Association. Basically, a trade exchange is a separate mini-economy, and as one can imagine, some are run well while others aren’t.

    Many trade exchanges were started by heads of media companies (often radio) – the reason being that the cost for one extra dollar of product (ads) is fairly low there. In that respect, Google would be in a very interesting strategic position to enter the trade exchange arena – but I have my doubts whether this would suit the company, given that they are, despite Google+, still much more focused on tech aspects than on people. Nevertheless, they do have a concept of utilizing “unused surplus capacity” – this played a very important role to them when the Google founders got the company started.

    4. Finally, I wanted to mention something funny (in a somewhat weird way): Dmitry Orlov, a Russian Engineer, some time ago developed an interesting hobby and started to study collapsing societies, especially – for quite obvious reasons – the USSR. I wouldn’t say I agree with everything he says, but he sometimes has interesting ideas. Some time ago, he gave a talk titled “Closing the ‘Collapse Gap'”, in which he uses Google in a nice way to talk about a possible private sector solution. See slide 25 of this talk: http://www.energybulletin.net/node/23259

  17. John Baez says:

    You folks can see the slides for a preliminary version of my Google talk here:

    Energy and the Environment: What We Can Do.

    Actually this is the version I’ll be giving at Macquarie University on February 7th. This will be an audience of academics, so it’s a bit different than the one I’ll give at Google. Also, I want to keep improving the talk… so any suggestions would be appreciated.

    I especially would like suggestions that do not suggest adding more material: the talk is already too long!

    • Martin Rubey says:

      On page 40 I read: “no quantity can grow exponentially forever in a finite system”. “exponentially” seems a bit odd here.

      I think it’s dangerous to propose nuclear so strongly because there is such a hot debate around nuclear. I think you risk that the discussion turns from “what can we do” (where I expect people to be open minded and creative) to a fruitless “pro/contra nuclear” (where I expect people to have strong opinions already)

      Also, it seems to me that investing in nuclear is mostly governmental business. (As far as I have heard (please excuse me!), nuclear would cost much much more if it weren’t subsidised so much.) I prefer the ideas you propose towards the end of your talk.

      • John Baez says:

        Thanks for the comments!

        On page 40 I read: “no quantity can grow exponentially forever in a finite system”. “exponentially” seems a bit odd here.

        Maybe I’m being too much of a mathematician, or not enough of one.

        It’s certainly possible for quantities to grow forever in a finite system. For example, a population can in theory grow forever like this:

        It increases forever while asymptotically approaching an equilibrium value.

        I said ‘exponentially’ because I believe current-day politicians would like to see GNP’s increasing at, say, 3% per year for the rest of time.

        I also said ‘exponentially’ because some people think the answer is for humanity to leave Earth and spread through space. This would in principle allow cubic growth, but no faster—until we spread so much that the curvature of spacetime becomes important, by which time I’ll say we’re doing pretty darn well!

        But I’m getting a bit too futuristic here: I’ll clarify my remark with a few words when I actually give my talk.

        I think it’s dangerous to propose nuclear so strongly because there is such a hot debate around nuclear.

        In my talk I invite people to read and correct the calculations people have done, which argue that less controversial power sources (e.g. hydropower, wind, and solar) will not be enough to satisfy the world’s demand while cutting carbon emissions in time to avoid a dangerous amount of global warming. You can see these calculations by clicking the links in the talk. Maybe they’re wrong:

        1) Maybe these less controversial power sources can produce a lot more power than these calculations suggest.

        2) Maybe carbon dioxide will cause less warming than these calculations assume.

        3) Maybe we can switch to using a lot less power in time to avoid a serious problem.

        4) Or maybe we can tolerate more global warming. More precisely, maybe it’s better to accept the global warming that nuclear power could prevent than risk using nuclear power.

        I would be delighted if any of these were true. But if someone believes one of these things (or thinks there’s other loophole I’ve ignored), it’s crucial that they present data and make a quantitative case for their belief. Otherwise it’s too easy to rule out solutions you don’t like, while forgetting to make sure the solutions you do like have a chance of working.

        I should say a word about this too.

        • Thomas Fischbacher says:

          As far as I can tell, Amory Lovins has quite good data on energy – and he’s been working on that long before you or I started to get interested in it.

          But the crucial observation is that as soon as you start from a “we need so-and-so-much-energy” assumption, you are pretty much bound to get a number of things wrong. Take Dave McKay for example – his book (which you implicitly mention above) is pretty much just about applying the rule of three over and over again. In many places, he fails to see the hidden assumptions underlying his analysis. Don’t repeat that mistake.

        • Martin Rubey says:

          Sorry for being imprecise. I wrote that “exponential growth” sounds “odd” because there is so much room between logistic and exponential. I guess if you write “exponential growth cannot continue”, the reaction might be: “damn, we have to grow slower”, not realising how much slower that really means.

          Concerning the nuclear question, my point was not that I think the calculations are wrong (I don’t know, although I am sceptical that one can get them right), but rather that it distracts from more important ideas. (Thomas Fischbacher’s argument goes into a similar direction, I think.)

    • Thomas Fischbacher says:

      Slide 5: Are you talking about tons of C or tons of CO2 here?

      And nuclear: You mentioned India and China – but I take it you also strongly support nations like Iran to build nuclear infrastructure? See the problem?

      • John Baez says:

        Thomas wrote:

        Are you talking about tons of C or tons of CO2 here?

        Ugh, I can’t believe I made that typo! I’m trying to always talk about tonnes ( = metric tons) of carbon, though the graph by McKinsey & Co. talks about carbon dioxide.

        Thanks, I fixed that. Whew! That would have been terrible.

        And nuclear: You mentioned India and China – but I take it you also strongly support nations like Iran to build nuclear infrastructure?

        I don’t strongly support it—but Mahmoud Ahmadinejad didn’t wait for my opinion before proceeding, either. Nor did Kim Il-Sung. I don’t think the problem of nuclear weapon proliferation by terrorists and ‘rogue states’ (= states ‘we’ don’t like) will be contained by attempting to prevent countries from going ahead with nuclear power. It might help to encourage the use of nuclear reactors based on thorium. But the real solution to nuclear weapon proliferation involves a lot of complicated political hard work.

        • John Baez writes,

          … I don’t think the problem of nuclear weapon proliferation by terrorists and ‘rogue states’ (= states ‘we’ don’t like) will be contained by attempting to prevent countries from going ahead with nuclear power …

          I agree. There is a nice analogy, such that JB’s remark is analogous to “I don’t think the problem of gun proliferation … will be contained by attempting to prevent the building of piston engines”.

    • You mention ocean acidification as just another entry in the Azimuth wiki. But it’s as serious as climate disruption. Plus, it conflicts with some geoengineering ideas: What is not lowering atmospheric CO2 has no effect on ocean acidification. Spraying SO2 makes acidification even worse.

      • John Baez says:

        Martin Gisser wrote:

        You mention ocean acidification as just another entry in the Azimuth wiki. But it’s as serious as climate disruption.

        True. I should fix that.

        Plus, it conflicts with some geoengineering ideas: What is not lowering atmospheric CO2 has no effect on ocean acidification. Spraying SO2 makes acidification even worse.

        I doubt the relatively small amounts of SO2 that Benford claims could prevent the melting of the Arctic for $300 million/year would contribute significantly to ocean acidification. This stuff would only be sprayed in the stratosphere near the north pole—and it would not be enough to cool the whole Earth, just the Arctic.

        A vastly more serious problem is, as you say, that unless geoengineering removes CO2 from the atmosphere, it won’t stop ocean acidification. And I should mention that, at least in my spoken words!

  18. Peter says:

    I have seen this some times before. Some intelligent guys think they can change the world, because they can use their Intelligence. But somehow it doesn’t work. There are lots of intelligent economists. And they had many years to think about economics. But did they save western economy from the recent economical crisis? No.

    Politicians and economists are looking for ways to save money. Raise or lower taxes. Cut back on social institutions. Invest in profitable business. They all share the same idea: Keep on going with the current economical-societal system. And in spite of their intelligence, this approach is the problem. So we can put a lot of mathematicians together and hope they will find a solution. But if they use the wrong approach, this enterprise will fail. They only doing symptom control. They believe in the managerial approach including the belief in technical solutions. The technofix is no more than fighting symptoms to absorb the damaging effects of of society through technology. It solves nothing structurally. They don’t question the underlying structure. The underlying structure is intertwined with ideology. And changing ideology is difficult.

    So you can make your impressive talk, wait a few years and then make the conclusion that your talk did not make any difference. But you can accelerate this phase in your mind, and in a few seconds you can throw this scenario away and win a few years of time.

    The managerial approach and the technological fix are not real solutions. The economical-societal-system is also a process. This
    economical-societal-system is an emergent system with its own behaviour. Just like a multicellular organism has different behaviour than the cells it is build of. Study this behaviour.

    Maybe some kind of genetic-engineering by means of viruses. But in the case of the economical-societal system it is called
    memetic-engineering. The minds of the bearers of culture must be engineered. Just like Darwin’s dangerous idea, or like all the world religions did. The very influential but virulent underlying main idea is the western dominant ideology. This consensus must be broken.

    For me, society-centric thinking is the virus that has infected most humans. Formerly we where all free living indigenous people. But since the city-states of the east, the Greeks, the Romans, and the British colonial empire and now global economy we lost our freedom. And now we can’t think of living free anymore. Every political discussion is society-centric. The solutions put forward are all within the framework of society. We must break this consensus. James Cameron’s movie ‘Avatar’ is a symbol of Earth. Deep Green Resistance and Indigenous Resistance to Civilization. Not because civilization is bad, but because civilization is the only cause of the destruction of nature and destruction of human freedom. I live in the Netherlands and we have no nature anymore. All land is cultivated. And the places there is some green left are nominated to build more houses, roads and industry. And this is because of the way the people think.

    And they learn it from television, the news papers and internet. They do not come into contact with ideas outside the consensus. Those ideas aren’t understood, they are weird.

    When you break the consensus there is hope!

    • John Baez says:

      Peter wrote:

      When you break the consensus there is hope!

      Can you give an example of what you’re talking about? An example from the modern era where the consensus you’re talking about has been successfully ‘broken’, and good things have resulted?

      • Thomas Fischbacher says:

        Here is one:


      • Peter says:

        1. Technological innovations like The Green Revolution (although in spite of the name it is not good for nature) or better Jane Goodall Roots & Shoots, but they are not good examples.
        2. Scientific. Atom theory of Democritus, Darwins theory of Evolution. The ideas of Hendrik Lorentz, Einsteins special and general Relativity. [Or the octonion model of gravity: m^2 = E^2 – p^2 as an (hyperbolic-)quaternion, it is strange that m^2 would be the norm. Therefore m^2 – q^2 = E^2 – p^2 is more likely (given velocity v, q = Ev). The same for t^2 – x^2 = f^2 – b^2 (f = xv and b = fv), The metrics merged together by G for octonions… Just kidding.] But also quantummechanics as a paradigm shift. Wegener continental drift, The Out of Africa theory. But paradigm shifts do not really count as breaking concensus.
        3. Concensus concerns political ideology. Abolition movement, women’s suffrage, animal liberation, fall of communism, Politicians talking about bankruptcy of Greece, Arab revolt. They al start when the conditions are ripe.

        Conclusion: No I can’t think of a real example of breaking the concensus. Only small scale, like the culture within a corporation. All those broken concensus are within the framework of society-centric thinking.

        I don’t know if breaking the concensus works. I believe in it. It is my own Sun Dance. Whether or not as the result of Peak Oil, the more the economies show cracks, the more western people are vulnerable for different kinds of revolt. The politicians have no answer. They are in deadlock. Fighting between ideologies is a Machiavellian fight. There are no rules. Even in contemporary politics. Maybe I don’t succeed. Many freedom fighters lost their cause. So be it. The winner write the history books. Christian ideology won from al kind of religions and wrote their books. America won from the indians and from the South and they wrote their history books. And too often the winner dictates what is right and wrong.

        The coming decade economies do poorly to never get up. BRIC countries keep on growing. Oil will be harder to achieve. Peak oil is coming. Worst case scenario: even after Peak Oil economies go on until the last oil is burnt. The scenario that we can convince people to leave the rest of the oil in the earth is unlikely, given the behaviour of the economical-societal system. So maybe we must accelerate the speed of economy by means of oil consumption to facilitate the moment of Peak Oil. Then the system has less time to adapt to the situation of scarcity. Every usage of energy stimulates society and as a result the destruction of nature.

        “Some early papers raised the question of the discrepancy of the standard IPCC scenarions and the peak oil projections. The first one was probably Jean Laherrere with a paper published in 2001. Later on Anders Sivertsson , Kjell Aleklett and Colin Campbell wrote in 2003 in ‘The New Scientist’ a paper titled ‘Not enough oil for climate change’. They criticized the IPCC scenarios for being overoptimistic in terms of oil and gas reserves. These early papers didn’t attempt to calculate the future concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.”


  19. I see in slide 44 you repeat the recent assertion “In 2010, we spent $409 billion subsidizing fossil fuels!”

    If that were not seriously misleading — partly* through a bizarre and unstated definition of “we” — governments would be eager to ramp down fossil fuel use. They’d have the gigabucks to spend on other things. But where subsidies do exist, they typically amount to the transfer to fossil fuel suppliers of about one-tenth of the special tax revenues gained from users of those same fuels, partly counted here.

    This is something that I’m particularly attuned to as an advocate of an alternative motor fuel. It is as if public libraries were funded by heavy taxes on reading glasses, and just about everyone was presbyopic, and I was trying to peddle a presbyopia treatment that worked without them.

    What can individuals and companies do? Well, refraining from repeating the $409B meme would be helpful. The true net subsidy is of opposite sign, and much larger, and — to me — seems to be a complete and simple explanation of why governments do inappropriate things in this field: they gain.

    * The second chart in the Guardian’s report shows that “we” are mainly Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.

  20. We need to look at long term history. How we got to this point. Understand the cause and effect. A good deal has to do with flawed government policy and (un)natural taking of resources and land in the name of (commercial) progress. All “progress” has revolved around networks; physical, social, economic. They are all based on how information is moved around and how ideas are generated. Is that bad or good? Was the interstate system bad or good. Was the notion of universal service for telecom networks bad or good? Well they all contributed to America’s relative The debate has to be shifted towards what is the appropriate rate of information velocity we as a (world) society want to achieve? And what externalities and exogenous elements can we handle/contain/predict? It starts with a better understanding of how we got here so we are not committing the same mistakes in reverse that we (may have) committed going forward.

    • John Baez says:

      As you may or may not know, I’m really interested in networks. My work has been intensely theoretical so far, but once my techniques firm up a bit I’d like to study some concrete problems like you’re mentioning.

  21. […] If you’re near Silicon Valley on Monday the 13th and you want to see me in the form of a robot, come to the Google campus and listen to my talk Energy, the Environment and What We Can Do. […]

  22. I’m working with a young company that’s still building out its culture as its considering expansion into new cities. Normalization of our culture is pretty important, and while we intend to send established employees to the new office in order to “inoculate it with awesome” (to help set the tone for our culture), there’s still the issue of ensuring ongoing communication in the long term. It seems most organizations deal with this by flying people back and forth, keeping communication open.

    We’re trying to think of alternatives to this approach. One idea is to place cameras behind a doorway in each office, and to display the doorway through two stacked flatscreens in the other offices. So when we have two offices, each gets a doorway (built to look like a real doorway, with trimmings and everything), so that the sights and sounds of the other office come a constantly broadcast. So if there’s a nerf fight in one office on a friday, the other can get a kick out of it as well.

    More offices means more doorways. Kinda like the clocks in an oldschool newsroom.

    It would be nice if we could sort out a way to properly mount a camera on the setup so that interaction between people in different offices can feel more natural. We’re envisioning it mainly as a culture-control tool, but it could likely be used to morning stand-up meetings if the communication felt smooth enough.

    Anyhow, I’ve spoken to a few people at tech conferences about the idea, and other have expressed excitement, but it’s still vaporware at this point. When we do get around to it, it will clearly be open-sourced, because that’s just how we roll :)

    Anyhow, hopefully the talk goes well. Really cool premise. We’ve been looking for an opportunity to have a co-op student build a robot like yours as an arduino project for our remote workers, so it hit home!

  23. RK says:

    Have you looked at the blog by UCSD physics professor Tom Murphy at http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/? In there he attempts to define the energy problem as the world tries to sustain a steadily growing economy and grades known alternate solutions on their likelyhood of being successful.

    • John Baez says:

      Yes, thanks, I’ve looked at it! So should everyone here! His blog is one of those I recommend on the right-hand side of this blog, under ALSO VISIT THESE.

      I’ll try to summarize some of his results someday. He’s summarized his own work here:

      The Alternative Energy Matrix.

      Fossil Fuels: I’m Not Dead Yet.

      The Way is Shut.

      Like many people who think hard about this stuff, he seems to be deciding we’re close to being ‘boxed in’, even without taking global warming into consideration:

      One of my most compelling pieces of empirical evidence that we are at risk of collapse is the degree to which most folks I run into can’t entertain collapse as a serious possibility. In fact, I usually feel like such a kook even suggesting it that I rarely put it “out there” in casual interactions—even when relevant to the conversation. Usually, time does not allow conveyance of the extensive background that is necessary to lend credibility to such a statement. Look how many words I have spilled (about 100,000) in Do the Math to justify my concerns.

      In the face of serious resource challenges, I would hope to see more attention given to a high-stakes loss/collapse scenario. The opposite of attention is inattention, and that’s not going to help mitigate the problem.

      Differentiating Opinion from Wisdom

      I only fell into this “limits” camp because practically every time I performed quantitative analyses on this, that, or the other alternative energy proposal, I came up disappointed. I really did want the pleasure of personal discovery that we have an obvious path forward. I am delighted by the abundance of solar energy input to the planet. I am reassured by the vastness of thermal energy in the oceans and crust. I am tentatively excited about the vast energy represented by uranium in the oceans and by thorium using functional molten salt reactors. I truly do see these as positive lights in the darkness.

      Yet over and over, quantitative analysis knocks out many of the “exciting” ideas we hear about in the sensationalized media world. Already, this is a damaging blow to our collective perception that solutions abound. But the quantitative analysis does turn up a few gems that have the numbers behind them. Is this enough to allay my worries? Obviously not, or I would be merrily spending my time in ways other than writing a time-consuming blog on top of a very demanding research/teaching job.

      Why am I stubbornly unconvinced by my own computations that show a few exit doorways lit up through the smoke? All I can offer is that I draw on my hunches as an experimental scientist. In that capacity, I build stuff that works. To do this, I have to be practical. I have to have a “spidey-sense” of what things are likely to succeed or fail—sometimes folding in political factors as well. I clearly don’t find all ideas to be impractical, or I would never have rushed headlong into the many projects that I have pursued.

      I have on occasion found myself challenged about specific choices I made in designing an instrument by folks without instrument-building experience. Wouldn’t it have been better to choose a different size/value for X system? Theoretically, sure—if only narrowly considering one particular aspect. But I had to balance that choice against ten other competing considerations that are often difficult to articulate or even recall on the spot. Then I remember that the person asking the question has not personally experienced the compromises of building a complex instrument that works.

      Likewise in imagining our future path. A complex, interrelating series of considerations will steer us one way or another. My hunch is that human nature, political realities, economics (including economic hardship) combined with technical shortcomings of alternatives will get in the way of our shiny future. I would like to be convinced that this isn’t the case so I can stop worrying and go full-force on my experimental physics career, but the arguments for why things will be alright often strike me as narrow or simplistic. “It’s obvious: we’ll go to space where resources are unlimited.” “You’re forgetting something very important: human ingenuity—an unlimited resource.” “More sun hits the Earth in an hour than we use in a year: it’s obvious we’ll solve this problem.” “We have enough fuel sitting in nuclear waste pools to power us for millennia.” “Peak oil will not be a problem because we have tons more hydrocarbons in the ground beyond conventional petroleum.” You get the picture: a key idea that will make everything work out. It has the same ring as “Home prices in San Diego can never go down because it is such a desirable place to live,” which I ignored in 2005 in favor of data and more complex analyses.

      However, he’s not giving up yet:

      It was always implicit for me that work invested into science will stand for all time. But the notion that my contribution to science—however incremental—may be irrevocably lost has taken some of the appeal away, I must admit. It would seem prudent, then, for scientists to devote time and talent toward our impending energy challenges. The first step is to convince people that we must swing our attention hard-over toward understanding exactly how we wean ourselves off of the fossil fuel lifeblood of our society. Either we figure it out or Mother Nature will do it for us. I for one want to fight to keep humanity’s most impressive achievements intact and understood!

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