The SPARC Fusion Reactor

21 October, 2020

There’s a lot of excitement about a new approach to fusion power:

• Henry Fountain, Compact nuclear fusion reactor is ‘very likely to work,’ studies suggest, The New York Times, 29 September 2020.

Scientists developing a compact version of a nuclear fusion reactor have shown in a series of research papers that it should work, renewing hopes that the long-elusive goal of mimicking the way the sun produces energy might be achieved and eventually contribute to the fight against climate change.

Construction of a reactor, called SPARC, which is being developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a spinoff company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, is expected to begin next spring and take three or four years, the researchers and company officials said.

Although many significant challenges remain, the company said construction would be followed by testing and, if successful, building of a power plant that could use fusion energy to generate electricity, beginning in the next decade.

This ambitious timetable is far faster than that of the world’s largest fusion-power project, a multinational effort in Southern France called ITER, for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. That reactor has been under construction since 2013 and, although it is not designed to generate electricity, is expected to produce a fusion reaction by 2035.

But fusion has been twenty years off since the 1950s. What’s the evidence that Sparc will work? I guess most of the evidence is here—a series of seven papers, which luckily are available open-access:

Status of the SPARC physics basics, Journal of Plasma Physics 86 (2020).

I have not read these! And even if I did, since I’m not an expert on fusion reactors—obviously a tricky subject—I’m not sure how much my impression would help.

Do you know any commentary on SPARC from other experts on fusion reactors? The more detailed, the better. All I’ve seen so far are very sketchy remarks from people who don’t seem to know what they’re talking about.


Markov Decision Processes

6 October, 2020

The National Institute of Mathematical and Biological Sciences is having an online seminar on ‘adaptive management’. It should be fun for people who want to understand Markov decision processes—like me!

NIMBioS Adaptive Management Webinar Series, 2020 October 26-29 (Monday-Thursday).

Adaptive management seeks to determine sound management strategies in the face of uncertainty concerning the behavior of the system being managed. Specifically, it attempts to find strategies for managing dynamic systems while learning the behavior of the system. These webinars review the key concept of a Markov Decision Process (MDP) and demonstrate how quantitative adaptive management strategies can be developed using MDPs. Additional conceptual, computational and application aspects will be discussed, including dynamic programming and Bayesian formalization of learning.

Here are the topics:

Session 1: Introduction to decision problems
Session 2: Introduction to Markov decision processes (MDPs)
Session 3: Solving Markov decision processes (MDPs)
Session 4: Modeling beliefs
Session 5: Conjugacy and discrete model adaptive management (AM)
Session 6: More on AM problems (Dirichlet/multinomial and Gaussian prior/likelihood)
Session 7: Partially observable Markov decision processes (POMDPs)
Session 8: Frontier topics (projection methods, approximate DP, communicating solutions)

 


Compositional Game Theory and Climate Microeconomics

5 October, 2020

guest post by Jules Hedges

Hi all

This is a post I’ve been putting off for a long time until I was sure I was ready. I am the “lead developer” of a thing called compositional game theory (CGT). It’s an approach to game theory based on category theory, but we are now at the point where you don’t need to know that anymore: it’s an approach to game theory that has certain specific benefits over the traditional approach.

I would like to start a conversation about “using my powers for good”. I am hoping particularly that it is possible to model microeconomic aspects of climate science. This seems to be a very small field and I’m not really hopeful that anyone on Azimuth will have the right background, but it’s worth a shot. The kind of thing I’m imagining (possibly completely wrongly) is to create models that will suggest when a technically-feasible solution is not socially feasible. Social dilemmas and tragedies of the commons are at the heart of the climate crisis, and modelling instances of them is in scope.

I have a software tool (https://github.com/jules-hedges/open-games-hs) that is designed to be an assistant for game-theoretic modelling. This I can’t emphasise enough: A human with expertise in game-theoretic modelling is the most important thing, CGT is merely an assistant. (Right now the tool also probably can’t be used without me being in the loop, but that’s not an inherent thing.)

To give an idea what sort of things CGT can do, my 2 current ongoing research collaborations are: (1) a social science project modelling examples of institution governance, and (2) a cryptoeconomics project modelling an attack against a protocol using bribes. On a technical level the best fit is for Bayesian games, which are finite-horizon, have common knowledge priors, and private knowledge with agents who do Bayesian updating.

A lot of the (believed) practical benefits of CGT come from the fact that the model is code (in a high level language designed specifically for expressing games) and thus the model can be structured according to existing wisdom for structuring code. Really stress-testing this claim is an ongoing research project. My tool does equilibrium-checking for all games (the technical term is “model checker”), and we’ve had some success doing other things by looping an equilibrium check over a parameter space. It makes no attempt to be an equilibrium solver, that is left for the human.

This is not me trying to push my pet project (I do that elsewhere) but me trying to find a niche where I can do some genuine good, even if small. If you are a microeconomist (or a social scientist who uses applied game theory) and share the goals of Azimuth, I would like to hear from you, even if it’s just for some discussion.


Electric Cars

24 September, 2020

Some good news! According to this article, we’re rapidly approaching the tipping point when, even without subsidies, it will be as cheaper to own an electric car than one that burns fossil fuels.

• Jack Ewing, The age of electric cars is dawning ahead of schedule, New York Times, September 20, 2020.

FRANKFURT — An electric Volkswagen ID.3 for the same price as a Golf. A Tesla Model 3 that costs as much as a BMW 3 Series. A Renault Zoe electric subcompact whose monthly lease payment might equal a nice dinner for two in Paris.

As car sales collapsed in Europe because of the pandemic, one category grew rapidly: electric vehicles. One reason is that purchase prices in Europe are coming tantalizingly close to the prices for cars with gasoline or diesel engines.

At the moment this near parity is possible only with government subsidies that, depending on the country, can cut more than $10,000 from the final price. Carmakers are offering deals on electric cars to meet stricter European Union regulations on carbon dioxide emissions. In Germany, an electric Renault Zoe can be leased for 139 euros a month, or $164.

Electric vehicles are not yet as popular in the United States, largely because government incentives are less generous. Battery-powered cars account for about 2 percent of new car sales in America, while in Europe the market share is approaching 5 percent. Including hybrids, the share rises to nearly 9 percent in Europe, according to Matthias Schmidt, an independent analyst in Berlin.

As electric cars become more mainstream, the automobile industry is rapidly approaching the tipping point when, even without subsidies, it will be as cheap, and maybe cheaper, to own a plug-in vehicle than one that burns fossil fuels. The carmaker that reaches price parity first may be positioned to dominate the segment.

A few years ago, industry experts expected 2025 would be the turning point. But technology is advancing faster than expected, and could be poised for a quantum leap. Elon Musk is expected to announce a breakthrough at Tesla’s “Battery Day” event on Tuesday that would allow electric cars to travel significantly farther without adding weight.

The balance of power in the auto industry may depend on which carmaker, electronics company or start-up succeeds in squeezing the most power per pound into a battery, what’s known as energy density. A battery with high energy density is inherently cheaper because it requires fewer raw materials and less weight to deliver the same range.

“We’re seeing energy density increase faster than ever before,” said Milan Thakore, a senior research analyst at Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultant which recently pushed its prediction of the tipping point ahead by a year, to 2024.

However, the article also points out that this tipping point is of the overall lifetime cost of the vehicle! The sticker price of electric cars will still be higher for a while. And there aren’t nearly enough charging stations!

My next car will be electric. But first I’m installing solar power for my house. I’m working on it now.


The Best Work on Sustainability?

7 April, 2020

Some people want to give a $1,000,000 prize for a “discovery of high scientific value that has significant repercussions in the field of environmental sustainability in order to improve the quality of life, in harmony with the production system and the transition to new development models.”

So, they’re looking for people and organizations who have done the very best recent work in these area:

• energy transition towards renewable sources

• sustainable mobility

• clean energy and renewable resources

• energy efficiency

• clean technologies for the exploitation of fossil fuels

• sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources

• eco-friendly management of materials during their entire life cycle

• reduction of CO2 emissions

• innovative systems for the exploitation of solar energy

• discovery and development of new materials for the production

• storage and distribution of clean energy

What are your suggestions?


How to Solve Climate Change

28 December, 2019

Happy New Year!

This podcast of an interview with Saul Griffith is a great way to start your year:

• Ezra Klein, How to solve climate change and make life more awesome.

Skip straight down to the bottom and listen to the interview! Or right click on the link below and

download the .mp3.

I usually prefer reading stuff, but this is only available in audio form—and it’s worth it.

One important thing he says:

We have not had anyone stand up and espouse a vision of the future that could sound like success.

I think it’s time to start doing that. I think I’m finally figuring out how. But this interview with Saul Griffith does it already!




Climate Technology Primer (Part 2)

13 October, 2019

Here’s the second of a series of blog articles:

• Adam Marblestone, Climate technology primer (2/3): CO2 removal.

The first covered the basics of climate science as related to global warming. This one moves on to consider technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the air.

I hope you keep the following warning in mind as you read on:

I’m focused here on trying to understand the narrowly technical aspects, not on the political aspects, despite those being crucial. This is meant to be a review of the technical literature, not a political statement. I worried that writing a blog purely on the topic of technological intervention in the climate, without attempting or claiming to do justice to the social issues raised, would implicitly suggest that I advocate a narrowly technocratic or unilateral approach, which is not my intention. By focusing on technology, I don’t mean to detract from the importance of the social and policy aspects.

The technological issues are worth studying on their own, since they constrain what’s possible. For example: to draw down as much CO2 as human civilization is emitting now, with trees their peak growth phase and their carbon stored permanently, could be done by covering the whole USA with such trees.


Rethinking Universities

22 September, 2019

Izabella Łaba is a mathematician at the University of British Columbia. She works on harmonic analysis, geometric measure theory and additive combinatorics. But this talk is on a different topic:

• Izabella Łaba, Rethinking universities in an era of climate change.

You should read her slides, but she’s given me permission to quote them extensively here. She starts by saying:

This talk came from my frustration with how universities are
responding to climate emergency.

• Corporate-style “sustainability”: VPs, associate deans, senior
administrative positions, fancy webpages, sustainability
rankings.

• Money (millions of $): raising money, spending money,
massive construction projects.

• Feel-good (cheap) projects: plastic straws, bike to work
competitions, etc.

• Climate strike, Sept. 20 and 27. UBC did not cancel classes.
Nor does it plan (as of now) to divest from fossil fuels.

Here is what she wants to argue:

• We need to rethink sustainability, especially at universities.
Maybe we need less activity, not more. Less construction
noise, less fundraising, more room for quiet study and
reflection.

• Stop measuring sustainability by the amount of money being
spent on it. That makes no sense.

• It’s not enough for us, individually, to try to reduce our own
activities that damage the environment. We have to stop requiring others to engage in such activities. That includes indirect pressure through professional and institutional norms.

• Change will be forced on us. We will have to adapt, one way
or another. It’s up to us whether we make the transition humane and how much of human knowledge we manage to preserve.

• The more humane and (relatively) more optimistic scenarios require social justice. We need to listen to local activists. We need to listen to those who have experience living with scarcity and uncertainty. We need redistribution, badly. We need more equality, less competition, more cooperation.

I will focus on one part of her argument, one that resonates with me very strongly. Administrators tend to think quite narrowly about the future of academia. They usually want their universities to do more of what they’re already doing—and to accomplish this, they try to get ahold of more money, hire more people, and get everyone to work harder.

Łaba’s talk is much bolder, but also more realistic: she points out the need for universities to do some things differently, and also do some things less.

She critiques the administrators’ approach, which she aptly calls the “corporate” approach:

• Decisions are often made by people who don’t actually teach or do research. Private consultations with donors, no transparency, faculty and students informed after the fact.

• No regard for actual academic activity. I’ve often felt like construction, landscaping, etc. were treated as top priorities, and my teaching/research were just getting in the way of that.

• Do we still want to have a university? So many sustainability projects involve reducing space and resources available to us on campus. Should we just close campus altogether, except to developers, and have students watch some YouTube videos instead? Would that be “sustainable”?

She points out how the corporate approach puts faculty on a forever speeding treadmill:

Our workloads keep increasing. Faculty often report 50-60 hour work weeks:

• Course loads and/or class sizes.

• Additional administrative duties. (Digitization was supposed
to reduce the bureaucracy. Instead, it has increased it.) Not
only imposed by senior admins. We do it to each other.

• New: long lists of things we are expected to do to support student well-being. It’s additional work, but surely we care about our students, don’t we?

• Oh, and also, could we please ride our bikes to work? Because environment.

It does not work that way.

Tired and overworked people do not have the capacity to accept additional challenges. They will drive to work, order takeout food for lunch/dinner even if it comes in Styrofoam containers, forget their reusable bags, throw garbage in compost bins by mistake, generally waste resources that otherwise could be saved.

Employers/cities can’t just tell us to get on our bikes. They need to understand the reasons why we need cars, and then address that.

She calls us to the scary but also inspiring task of radically rethinking universities:

We will have to slow down and think hard about what is important to us. What do we want to create? What do we want to save and preserve for future generations?

We will probably continue to teach and do math research. Both education and creativity are basic human needs. Look to WW2 in Poland: underground classes were held even when penalties included death and concentration camps. Mathematicians did math in horrifying conditions, if only to distract themselves. We won’t give up on it easily.

But we do need to think about which parts of our jobs are less
important and could be discarded.

• We spend so much time on gatekeeping. Refereeing, proposal evaluations, ranking decisions, writing and reading recommendation letters, deciding whether this paper is just good enough for Journal X but not for Y. What if we didn’t have to do that? We only have limited time available; how much of that time do we want to spend on refereeing?

• Gatekeeping would be less intense if the stakes were not as high. We can’t continue with the Hunger Games model where only a handful of decent jobs are available and everyone else is an adjunct with no job security.

• Hi NSF! Smaller grants distributed to more researchers would
be a great model to adopt.

• A Green New Deal in math would have to mean redistribution of work. Lower the workloads by splitting them up between more people. Creates new jobs, not in construction but in education. I’d accept that, even if it meant lower pay for me.

• Allow for specialization and division of work. Tenured faculty
already do their research, supervise grad students, teach large classes, teach small classes, write grant proposals, hustle for funding. Also asked to learn innovative teaching methods, serve as health counsellors/therapists when needed, engage in public outreach, etc. These are all good things to do, but can one person really do it all? In the limited time we have? And still ride a bike to work?

• But make that division equitable.

And, she points out the importance of dissemination and preservation of knowledge, not mere “production” of knowledge—especially in a time of crisis:

• Do we still have time to read other people’s papers? 30-40 years ago, people would rediscover previously known results because research dissemination was less effective. (No internet, limited access to professional journals, publishing delays.) Now, this happens because young mathematicians are under so much pressure to produce new results that they have no time left for reading. Also because some papers are very
diffcult to decipher, even for experts.

• Knowledge can and does get lost, especially during major upheavals. We need to spend less time “producing” new papers making incremental progress, and pay more attention to consolidation, exposition and preservation of the knowledge we already have.

I’ve quoted so much you may think you’ve read her whole talk here, but you haven’t. Read her slides (she also plans to write a longer version). And if you work at a university, or know people who do, please spread the word.

Some last words:

Universities, as non-profit organizations dedicated to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge, should be leading the way. We should experiment and model the change for others.

We need more quiet study, reflection and contemplation. We need to learn to make do with less.


Vaclav Smil on Growth

22 September, 2019

Yet another interesting book I haven’t read yet:

• Vaclav Smil, Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2019.

As I hope you know, Vaclav Smil is an expert on energy, food, population, and economics, who assembles and analyzes data in fact-filled books like Energy and Civilization: a History.  Bill Gates has said “I wait for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next ‘Star Wars’ movie.”

He was interviewed here:

• Jonathan Watts, Vaclav Smil: ‘Growth must end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that’, 21 September 2019.

The interview begins:

You are the nerd’s nerd. There is perhaps no other academic who paints pictures with numbers like you. You dug up the astonishing statistic that China has poured more cement every three years since 2003 than the US managed in the entire 20th century. You calculated that in 2000, the dry mass of all the humans in the world was 125m metric tonnes compared with just 10m tonnes for all wild vertebrates. And now you explore patterns of growth, from the healthy development of forests and brains to the unhealthy increase in obesity and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Before we get into those deeper issues, can I ask if you see yourself as a nerd?

The facts here are fascinating but the question is absurd. Are we really sinking into such anti-intellectualism that a journalist feels the need to start a conversation with a scientist by asking if he sees himself as a “nerd”?

I’d have been tempted to reply “First, can I ask if you see yourself as a twit?” Smil more wisely replied:

Not at all. I’m just an old-fashioned scientist describing the world and the lay of the land as it is. That’s all there is to it.

Here’s why he wrote the book:

I have deliberately set out to write the megabook on growth. In a way, it’s unwieldy and unreasonable. People can take any number of books out of it–economists can read about the growth of GDP and population; biologists can read about the growth of organisms and human bodies. But I wanted to put it all together under one roof so people could see how these things are inevitably connected and how it all shares one crystal clarity: that growth must come to an end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that.

He advocates degrowth in some places… but growth in others:

[…] it’s important not to talk in global terms. There will be many approaches which have to be tailored and targeted to each different audience. There is this pernicious idea by this [Thomas] Friedman guy that the world is flat and everything is now the same, so what works in one place can work for everyone. But that’s totally wrong. For example, Denmark has nothing in common with Nigeria. What you do in each place will be different. What we need in Nigeria is more food, more growth. In Philippines we need a little more of it. And in Canada and Sweden, we need less of it. We have to look at it from different points of view. In some places we have to foster what economists call de-growth. In other places, we have to foster growth.

I’m sure his book will be more interesting than these quotes, because it’ll be full of well-organized and important facts—and the questions surrounding growth are some of the most pressing of our age.


Klein on the Green New Deal

14 September, 2019

I’m going to try to post more short news items. For example, here’s a new book I haven’t read yet:

• Naomi Klein, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, Simon and Schuster, 2019.

I think she’s right when she says this:

I feel confident in saying that a climate-disrupted future is a bleak and an austere future, one capable of turning all our material possessions into rubble or ash with terrifying speed. We can pretend that extending the status quo into the future, unchanged, is one of the options available to us. But that is a fantasy. Change is coming one way or another. Our choice is whether we try to shape that change to the maximum benefit of all or wait passively as the forces of climate disaster, scarcity, and fear of the “other” fundamentally reshape us.

Nonetheless Robert Jensen argues that the book is too “inspiring”, in the sense of unrealistic optimism:

• Robert Jensen, The danger of inspiration: a review of On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, Resilience, 10 September 2019.

Let me quote him:

On Fire focuses primarily on the climate crisis and the Green New Deal’s vision, which is widely assailed as too radical by the two different kinds of climate-change deniers in the United States today—one that denies the conclusions of climate science and another that denies the implications of that science. The first, based in the Republican Party, is committed to a full-throated defense of our pathological economic system. The second, articulated by the few remaining moderate Republicans and most mainstream Democrats, imagines that market-based tinkering to mitigate the pathology is adequate.

Thankfully, other approaches exist. The most prominent in the United States is the Green New Deal’s call for legislation that recognizes the severity of the ecological crises while advocating for economic equality and social justice. Supporters come from varied backgrounds, but all are happy to critique and modify, or even scrap, capitalism. Avoiding dogmatic slogans or revolutionary rhetoric, Klein writes realistically about moving toward a socialist (or, perhaps, socialist-like) future, using available tools involving “public infrastructure, economic planning, corporate regulation, international trade, consumption, and taxation” to steer out of the existing debacle.

One of the strengths of Klein’s blunt talk about the social and ecological problems in the context of real-world policy proposals is that she speaks of motion forward in a long struggle rather than pretending the Green New Deal is the solution for all our problems. On Fire makes it clear that there are no magic wands to wave, no magic bullets to fire.

The problem is that the Green New Deal does rely on one bit of magical thinking—the techno-optimism that emerges from the modern world’s underlying technological fundamentalism, defined as the faith that the use of evermore advanced technology is always a good thing. Extreme technological fundamentalists argue that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. (If anyone thinks this definition a caricature, read “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.”)

Klein does not advocate such fundamentalism, but that faith hides just below the surface of the Green New Deal, jumping out in “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” which Klein champions in On Fire. Written by U.S. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (the most prominent legislator advancing the Green New Deal) and Avi Lewis (Klein’s husband and collaborator), the seven-and-a-half minute video elegantly combines political analysis with engaging storytelling and beautiful visuals. But one sentence in that video reveals the fatal flaw of the analysis: “We knew that we needed to save the planet and that we had all the technology to do it [in 2019].”

First, talk of saving the planet is misguided. As many have pointed out in response to that rhetoric, the Earth will continue with or without humans. Charitably, we can interpret that phrase to mean, “reducing the damage that humans do to the ecosphere and creating a livable future for humans.” The problem is, we don’t have all technology to do that, and if we insist that better gadgets can accomplish that, we are guaranteed to fail.

Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about this claim. (For example, “The science is in,” proclaims the Nature Conservancy, and we can have a “future in which catastrophic climate change is kept at bay while we still power our developing world” and “feed 10 billion people.”) But even accepting overly optimistic assessments of renewable energy and energy-saving technologies, we have to face that we don’t have the means to maintain the lifestyle that “A Message from the Future” promises for the United States, let alone the entire world. The problem is not just that the concentration of wealth leads to so much wasteful consumption and wasted resources, but that the infrastructure of our world was built by the dense energy of fossil fuels that renewables cannot replace. Without that dense energy, a smaller human population is going to live in dramatically different fashion.

I don’t know what Klein actually thinks about this, but she does think drastic changes are coming, one way or another.  She writes:

Because while it is true that climate change is a crisis produced by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is also, in a more profound sense, a crisis produced by an extractive mind-set, by a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard. I call it the “gig and dig” economy and firmly believe that we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview at every level, a transformation to an ethos of care and repair.

Jensen adds:

The domination/subordination dynamic that creates so much suffering within the human family also defines the modern world’s destructive relationship to the larger living world. Throughout the book, Klein presses the importance of telling a new story about all those relationships. Scientific data and policy proposals matter, but they don’t get us far without a story for people to embrace. Klein is right, and On Fire helps us imagine a new story for a human future.

I offer a friendly amendment to the story she is constructing: Our challenge is to highlight not only what we can but also what we cannot accomplish, to build our moral capacity to face a frightening future but continue to fight for what can be achieved, even when we know that won’t be enough.

One story I would tell is of the growing gatherings of people, admittedly small in number today, who take comfort in saying forthrightly what they believe, no matter how painful—people who do not want to suppress their grief, yet do not let their grief overwhelm them.