We need more POWAAAAH!

Cold Fusion: Future of physics or phoney? (Wired UK).

Today is set to be the start of a new era of cheap power, as a new type of low-cost nuclear reactor goes live in front of an audience of scientists and media representatives in Bologna. Once the mystery customer who commissioned the device has confirmed that it really is producing one megawatt, they’ll pay the developer, Andrea Rossi.

Unless, of course, it all goes horribly wrong.

Rossi’s “energy catalyser” or E-Cat is based on a Low Energy Nuclear Reaction which produces vast quantities of energy from a few grams of hydrogen. Otherwise known as Cold Fusion, it’s a field largely shunned by mainstream physicists. Rossi’s work may have a significant number of followers, but  it’s still extremely controversial and some critics accuse him of outright fraud.

A demonstration earlier this month in Bologna with a smaller E-Cat was intended to answer some of the criticisms. Previously, Rossi had used the E-Cat to produce steam; this has led to arguments about the measurement method used to determine the weight and temperature of the steam. In a demonstration on 6 October, an E-Cat with a heat exchanger warmed a quantity of water. After initial electrical input from an external source, the E-Cat ran in “self-sustaining” mode for three and a half hours.

Just that. I really hope this works, because energy is the foundational bedrock to everything. That, and would really like to not have to pay for electricity.

What’s funny about me reading this article is that not two minutes earlier I was reading this on Life’s Little Mysteries about the challenges we face with rising energy costs:

Future energy

Currently, there isn’t enough energy being extracted from known sources of fossil fuels to sustain 10 billion people. This means that humans will be forced to turn to a new energy source before the end of the century. However, it’s a mystery what that new source will be.

“Energy is the basic resource which underlies every other,” said Klaus Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy. “And actually, technology is not quite ready to solve the [energy] problem. We know there’s plenty of energy in solar, in nuclear, in carbon itself — in fossil carbon — for probably 100 or 200 years (if we are willing to clean up after ourselves and pay the extra to make that happen). But none of these technologies are quite ready. Solar has its problems and is still too expensive.”

Carbon storage — a technology that prevents carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from escaping into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned — is still on the drawing board, though it looks possible, he added. “And lastly, nuclear energy: if we were betting on that, we may have just lost that one,” Lackner said, referring to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, earlier this year.

“Let me just give you a feeling how big today our energy consumption is: In New Jersey, the energy consumption exceeds the photosynthetic productivity of the same area if it were left pristine,” Lackner said. “We have to have technology help us out. I am optimistic … that the technologies can be developed to solve these problems … but I am a pessimist because we lack the societal structures which would enable us to employ these technologies, and we could very well fall on our own faces.”

In short, the future will match one of these two pictures: Either some new, superior form of energy extraction (such as highly efficient solar panels) will be widespread, or the technology, or its implementation, will fail, and humanity will face a major energy crisis.

Assuming that this project goes well, I think we’ll be in good hands. Cheap energy for all. It will certainly revolutionize the entire world, and all of our preconceptions will have to change. For one thing, with this new source of power, I doubt the Middle East will be anywhere near as important for US interests in the future. Goodbye, OPEC. Since energy would also be drastically cheaper, expect shipping costs to go down, as well as damn near the costs of everything (since you need energy to manufacture new items.) I can’t even begin to think of what other things would change, either.

This, of course, assuming it all works, and doesn’t, yanno, blow up in your face.

Advertising? Slick design? Who needs it?

About a week ago, I was at my sister’s house in upstate New York visiting, and she told me about this wonderful thing called X10. It’s a company that develops “home automation systems,” allowing you to control your lighting, doors, appliances, and everything remotely, or set up schedules for turning things on or off or doing other crazy things. Her example was using a TV remote to control the lighting in her home theater, which, actually, was really neat. I mean, she had those light cables they string down the aisles at the movie theater, and she could dim them so it looked like Regal Cinemas…you just have to trust me on this one. It was cool.

But then she showed me their website, because, well, it’s not what you expect.

For a contrast, let’s take a brief look at the Apple website. (I’ll move past the special splash page about Steve Jobs–not to belittle him, but simply because that’s not the regular design.) Slick, eh? It’s pretty, clean, and, if you’re a Firefly fan like me, deserving of the descriptor “shiny.” It’s like everything else with Apple–very pretty packaging.

Now back to X10. Now back to Apple. Back to X10. I think you can see the difference.

My sister said she thought that X10 was originally scam of some sort, with all of this “Buy this! Sale now! Speaker Palooza!” malarkey. Yet, it apparently worked, since my sister and her husband have already bought some of their products and, I think, they’re looking to buy some more. Another thing they told me is that you won’t see their ads on TV, or around the Internet, either–I’m not exactly sure how they found out about it, but it looks like our winner is “word of mouth” (followed by a ding! ding! ding! noise.) Of course, I’m helping it along too. I know that. Really.

So, basically, these guys have a really cool product, which they are apparently making a good deal of money off of (enough to sell their own $200 Android tablet, which I’m sure would also have their apps for controlling your garage door from work), and they don’t spend a great deal of money on either web design or advertising. I would really like to see their profit margin–I don’t do stocks, but if I did, I might invest in these guys. Oh, and better still, they offer a way to kill their ads if they appear on your machine. A company offering to take out their own ads for you? Holy moly! Finally, someone who understands the average American! (Yes, I’m sure there’s a catch of some sort, but still, the intention is quite noble and refreshing.)

And here I was, thinking we needed all that extra stuff, needed to take extra special time to think about how I would write something or design the presentation. Apparently, not so much.

Personally, if I got a house, I would get their intercom system and make the kids call me Captain Kirk:

Child: Bridge to Captain Kirk.

Me: Kirk here.

Child: Captain, we’ve just run out of toilet paper, and sensors have detected more Klingons coming from Uranus.

Me: Go to Red Alert and take evasive action. I’m on my way.

God, I would be so annoying.

Thomas Friedman is Full (Of It)

The Earth Is Full – NYTimes.com.

Next to Paul Krugman–also a New York Times columnist–Thomas L. Friedman (no relation to the other Friedman family of Milton, David, and Patri) may be one of the silliest columnists I have ever read.

He came up with the idea that the “Earth is flat”–an idea whose origin was appropriately ridiculed in the National Review Online–stated that he preferred a Chinese style dictatorship to good old-fashioned American democracy where people have the gall to disagree, and is now preaching his usual schtick that the world is going to change very dramatically very soon. This time, it’s because Earth has hit its carrying capacity of human beings.

Which might be believable, if Friedman had done some research and hadn’t completely lost his credibility.

Where does he get this idea (in part) as well as his silliness? From Yemen:

While in Yemen last year, I saw a tanker truck delivering water in the capital, Sana. Why? Because Sana could be the first big city in the world to run out of water, within a decade. That is what happens when one generation in one country lives at 150 percent of sustainable capacity.

No, that’s what happens when you live in a goddamn desert. The average rainfall in Sana is approximately 7 inches. How much does Washington, DC get? 39. When you live in a desert, there’s naturally a lack of water. That’s why i’ts called a desert. How this escapes Friedman, I am not sure. I’m not even sure if I want to be sure.

One of his other sources is China’s environmental minister. Excuse me, but are we really going to take the government official from a one-party, authoritarian state that continually represses its people at face value? He could be the Minister of Silly Walks for all I care, I’m going to take a very critical look at what he’s saying. Friedman gives no evidence that he does so.

He also blames increasing world population for driving up food prices. Apparently he forget about what the Federal Reserve was doing with its monetary diarrhea. There’s more than one aspect to everything.

The final thing that Friedman ignores is the massive leap in technological progress we’ve achieved over the past 20 years.

You could say it was a--oh never mind.

Let’s think back to 1990 and the end of the Cold War. Cellphones–still called “cellular phones” or “mobile phones” back then, before we had bit.ly shortening our language–were massive bricks that a judge could use if there was no book to throw. Laptops? Fougettaboudit. The Internet? What’s that? Being able to talk to someone for free across the world? That’s crazy! Knowing where a friend goes every day, what she’s doing, who she’s dating, and how she’s feeling? Now that’s just science fiction! (“And a bit creepy, too.” “No argument there.”)

And that’s just the past twenty years. We keep coming up with new stuff all the time. Read io9, Engadget, CNet, or this man’s fine blog, and you’ll see that “Holy Scott Bakula, Batman, we’re really chugging along!” In fact, if you go back and read the main source for Friedman’s piece:

We are now using so many resources and putting out so much waste into the Earth that we have reached some kind of limit, given current technologies.

Emphasis is so obviously mine. The point is: what the hell is current? Things are changing on a daily basis. What is current today is nigh-obsolete tomorrow, and not just because manufacturers plan it that way. We are constantly developing new technologies that increase crop yields, better utilize natural resources, unleash new sources of energy, and increase material strength while decreasing mass and weight (which is very important if you’re building, oh, I dunno, an orbital habitat.)

Friedman seems to think that this will radically change our entire society, agreeing with the source of the above quote, Paul Gilding. He seems to think that we’re going to move to a “happiness-based economy,” ignoring that we’re already sort of (a hamburger brings me happiness, so I buy it and I’m happy; not a difficult concept to get your head around) have it. True, its not perfect, but it would be far better than any sense of top-down, artificial command/management. And yet, despite all these massive changes in the past twenty years–or heck, past fifty–have we really changed all that dramatically? Did we completely transform our economies? I would say no. There has been tremendous social change–the Civil Rights movement, the acceptance of gays and lesbians, and the simple demographic changes–but has the economy been transformed? No. Despite all the government mucking about, it has still remained a fairly free market system, based on hard work, individual choice, and voluntary agreements. If the past fifty years haven’t wrecked it–and with our ability to use resources and new forms of energy getting better all the time–I highly doubt that fears of global warming are going to do it.

In short, Friedman just didn’t do his research. He missed a ton of issues, from the laughably obvious (Yemen) to the not so obvious (Federal Reserve and technological growth, though the last one’s obviousness is debatable.) That’s an important thing, when you’re a writer, and I would say that I’m shocked that the Times employs a columnist who fails to do it, but then, I have done my research.

Facebook, Anonymity, and Commenting

I was thinking about writing on Charlie Sheen’s disastrous fall today, sort of trying to look at it from the PR (and just the “common sense”) angle, but frankly, he’s a tired topic already. (There is far too much “#winning” on Twitter for me to handle at the moment.)

There was also a better topic, one that hit a nerve with me: this editorial from Engadget on anonymity and using Facebook to manage a comment system, ostensibly to get rid of trolls and spammers.

For me, it struck a nerve because I’ve been watching over the past couple of years as everything seems to be assimilated into the ZuckerBorg collective. No longer does someone say “send me an email” or “I’ll text you,” it’s more along the lines of “I’ll send you a Facebook message” or “Here’s the invite to the party.” And that worries me, that one service is beginning to monopolize the very basic act of communication. No company should be in that position, especially with the kind of person Zuckerburg is.

We already know that Zuckerburg has–or at least, at one point in time, had–a serious disdain for his users. We know he prefers to dictate policies on high, telling his customers what they want, rather than actually doing market research and finding out what they truly do want. We know that his company isn’t really concerned about privacy, something that should be at the forefront of everyone (or at least, I would assume everyone’s) mind. Is this really a person/company we want having a monopoly on our interactions?

While it’s true that not everybody is on Facebook–including, thank golly Miss Molly, my own parents–there sure are a lot of people. Facebook has a sort of built in momentum, an inertia that nothing else can stop at the moment.

Help Us Obi-Wan Diaspora*! You're our only hope!

That inertia is backed up by Facebook’s aggressive campaign to take over media sharing and now, as Endgadget here notes, commenting systems. (Not that that’s new, really; I think it’s been around for at least a year. But who’s counting? Oh wait, Mashable, I forgot.) You can’t escape the Zucktopus even if you tried. Even I’m forced to put a “Sign In With Facebook” button here for people to use (although I also offer Twitter, and I think OpenID is working, though if it isn’t, feel free to chuck a wrench at my noggin.)

The trend really worries me. I don’t like monopolies. I like users having choice, having maximum flexibility (one reason why I like Google Buzz over Twitter, though I guess its time to say “nuts to that idea”), and ultimately having the freedom to do what they want without having to jump over hurdles to do so. And if blogs start using Facebook alone for their commenting system–as TechCrunch in this article have done–that’s going to be the exact opposite of that.

I can already see the first problem that will arise from this: young homosexual and bisexual teenagers who haven’t yet come out of the closet will want to talk about their experiences on a blog, yet if they have to comment via Facebook, it will be pretty quick to force them out of the closet when they are not yet ready. Of course, a blog could choose to not use Facebook to run its comments, but as more and more turn to Facebook, that could put pressure on other outlets to do the same. And we wouldn’t want that.

I myself have several different social media outlets, and I want that. I don’t like commenting with my Facebook profile all the time, because I view Facebook as my private profile, where I can rant and say stupid things without much thought. Twitter is more public, I have a Buzz that I don’t think anybody follows, I have a Livejournal (also locked, mostly) and of course I also have this WordPress blog.

The good news is that other companies are not following Zuckerburg’s policy of trying to put everyone into one “identity” and restrict consumer choice. For example–also from Engadget–Motorola is upgrading customers’ new XOOM tablets to 4G, even if they’ve rooted it. How awesome is that? You can buy the product, with its manufacturer imposed restrictions, and cope with them; or, you can root it, unlock all its features, and do whatever, and they’ll still upgrade it (although its not a perfect situation.)

The concern over trolls is also misplaced. Really, who focuses that much on trolls? As one commentator pointed out:

I enjoyed reading your piece here. And as I got to the end I realized the solution. Don’t delete anything. Seriously. Why delete “You’re paid by Apple” posts? Let others decide whether or not they want to see those posts by allowing them to Ignore those posters, a feature prevalent in many forum sites.

Remember, there is Freedom of Speech still, even the crappy stuff. Let the reader do the filtering.

Where is that, I wonder, that concept that the reader should be an active one, and filter out such nonsense? Why must everything be given over to some authority from on high to make these decisions, to take care of someone? Why can’t people just deal with it themselves? Those are deep questions that go far beyond this one issue, but they are questions we really need to consider in the 21st century.

I expect that some libertarians will jump in and say that, as long as the government stays out of the market and allows new competitors to enter and actually, well, compete, there will be no problem: people will get fed up and leave the service for something else. And I agree, completely. I’m not arguing that the government should forcibly break up Facebook. But I am worried about creating a leviathan in the online identity business. People should be able to own their identity, not Facebook, period.

Perhaps my fears overblown. Perhaps by 2016 Facebook will be a thing of the past. Maybe. I certainly hope so. But for now, can we not let that Zucktopus expand any farther? Can we please let people choose their own identities on the internet and have some independence? Please?

Fun With TweetDeck

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/romenesko/status/37650397652983808″]

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/JDKolassa/status/37650741300568066″]

Not exactly the wittiest comeback in the world–I suspect that someone will quibble with “PowerPoint slides” and comment that I should have said “canvas”–but it needed to be pointed out, at any rate. And it did get this out of them:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/romenesko/status/37651729382121472″]

In other news, TweetDeck is a fabulous piece of software. Never before have I been able to control, monitor, and effortlessly go through my social media. I used to flip between tabs of Facebook and Twitter, would have to wait for them to reload, and if I’m sitting on Facebook I’m liable to get hit on FB chat, which is not something I desire, entirely. (I’m one of those jerks who likes to initiate conversations rather than be drawn into them. Sue me.) Too bad I can’t actually write a novel on it, though.

Oof, you screwed up there

I just love capturing mistakes. I try not to point out things which are bad grammar or spelling–that just comes out as me being a nitpicker Grammar Nazi–but sometimes, I can’t help myself.

Like on this piece about the Ford Focus Electric, which points out what car parts you won’t have to worry about, since the car won’t have them. Point out which one shouldn’t be there. (I’ll give you a hint in the list.)

Here are the top 25 items that usually require inspection, maintenance or replacement during the 10-year, 150,000-mile life of a conventional car that the driver of a Ford Focus Electric will never have to worry about:

Air filter
Alternator
Battery*!!!1†‡
Clutch
Fuel filter
Fuel injectors/fuel pump
Motor mounts
Motor oil
Muffler
Oil filter
O2 sensors
Power steering fluid
Radiator
Radiator hose, lower
Radiator hose, upper
Serpentine belt
Spark plugs
Spark plug wires
Starter
Thermostat
Timing belt
Transmission adjustment (automatics)
Transmission filter (automatics)
Transmission fluid or oil
Water pump

Right. An electric car would never need a battery!

Good going Ford. Made yourself look real great there. Maybe next time you should think about these things.

It’d be one thing if they actually stepped forward and explained a battery’s inclusion on the list–are they saying that no one would have to service those lithium batteries? I am aware that they are different from what we put into our flashlights–but they don’t. The press release just ends. I’m assuming that they were trying to get to a nice, divisible-by-5 number that looks goods in quick figures, and someone just tossed that in there, but c’mon, they could have gone with just 24 things a Ford Focus Electric driver doesn’t have to worry about. Then they could say its Jack Bauer’s car. And who wouldn’t want to drive that?

(h/t FuturePundit)

I want my Coruscant!

The Daily Mail–or, as some of my colleagues call it, the “Daily Fail”--published a story on cities of the future, and I just have to say: wow.

That is a lot of huge pictures. Do the editors get paid extra to put them up like that?

But past the snark, I do find future architecture and city planning to be fascinating. Ever since I saw that History Channel Modern Marvels episode on the giant city-tower they were planning to build in Tokyo in, oh, 1 Berjillion AD, I’ve been fascinated. To think that we could, with the right technologies, radically overhaul our urban areas, and even change the fundamental living arrangements of our society, is breathtaking. For a while now, I’ve been thinking that the optimal living situation on Earth would be to have most of the planet uninhabited wilderness, with arcologies scattered across the globe, connected via either high-speed rail, air transport, or a global highway network, or maybe a combination of all three. (Who says libertarians don’t care about the environment?)

The ocean towers are particularly interesting. The oceans are really the last frontier on Earth (space being the last frontier for everything.) Why haven’t we colonized them yet? We could have Seaquest and talking dolphins and a genius kid who won’t shut up and that nerdy guy and then go into outer space to fight those–whoops, went into season 3. Sorry about that. *Ahem* Needless to say, there is great opportunity here for better use of our oceans, and also some interesting political questions, namely: If you’re out there, in the middle of an ocean, outside of any national territory, do you become a new state? (Well, if you can hold your “territory,” that is…)

There is one thing I have to gripe about, though: that third picture, the tower with the big balloons. The caption says it will have “helium-filled observation decks” moving up its side, and work will apparently start next year. To which I say: yeah right. Does anybody seriously think this will actually come to pass within the next, oh, let’s be generous, 50 years? I like interesting ideas and glimpses to the future, but let’s be honest with ourselves here, that isn’t going to be finished until I’m a pensioner. At least the Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid says its still only a “pipe dream.” That thing is just…nuts.

I should point out that I don’t actually want Coruscant, the famous city planet capital of that galaxy far, far away. It might be a cool place to visit a few times, maybe even bearable to do work there, but who in their right minds would want to visit a planet entirely covered by mile-tall skyscrapers? You’d be dead inside. No, I’d rather live out in the countryside, where I feel the dirt under my feet if I choose, go camping in the woods, fish in the streams, and ride giant grizzly bears.

You heard me.

For rent: Kennedy Space Center

For rent: Kennedy Space Center facilities, launch pads – Science Fair: Science and Space News – USATODAY.com.

For once, let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth.

Straight off the bat, this could be a huge moneymaking opportunity for NASA. Start-up costs are a major consideration in any endeavor, and building the proper launch facilities is quite expensive, I’d imagine. But renting out the KSC from NASA, well, I dunno how much NASA would charge, but it would have to be cheaper than building your launch facilities from scratch, and they’re probably better than most commercial launch sites, at least if you’re intending to send up manned spacecraft (that aren’t Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne.)

But secondly, this could also help re-ignite the drive to space. Since the 70’s we’ve been languishing in the space exploration department thanks to politics, which have bogged down any sort of continuation into the final frontier, while not really opening up the field to private organizations that are actually interested in it. See, this is the major problem with putting anything under the thumb of government: the politicians are only going to follow the majority of the public, that 51% (or less, in some cases) of voters that will put them in office, which means that if the majority of the public loses interest in space, we’re not going to do anything with it; and the minority who are interested can’t do anything about it because they would have to go through an indifferent, disinterested government. At least let them use their own resources–waste them, even–on getting into space, but let them do it. What harm could come of it? In fact, their purchasing of materials and labor would probably have given the economy a boost.

But, even if we’re a few decades late on this front, better late than never. I’m quite sure all the “private” spaceflight for the next 20 years will be some sort of public-private partnership, which I am told is the “worst of both worlds,” but I feel it must be better than having a fully public program. At least we’ll be getting people up there, and onto more than just the ISS. Who knows, maybe…the Moon? Mars? Or even the stars? (Okay, I did that just to make a rhyme.)

The Red Planet, ready for its close-up.
We need to get our redstone from somewhere.

I’m going to get lumped with other sci-fi writers out there for saying this, but so be it: it’s vital we get back into space. The last space race was a huge technological leap forward for our entire planet, and with what we have now, think of what could happen if we go to another one. Teflon is so 1980s; tomorrow we’ll have transparisteel! But not only that, there’s also the environment to consider. I’m not exactly the biggest greenie weenie out there, but I still care about Mother Earth, and its clear that we’re poisoning her, no doubt about it. We’re also running low on natural resources, at least those we need to sustain our global society, so we need to start looking for other places to get resources from.

And finally there’s the whole issue of just having an offworld colony as a “backup.” I don’t really think we’re going to have a mass extinction event in the next 100 years, but even so, there’s no harm in having an offworld colony. It might actually be good, stimulating trade, and most importantly, a sense of adventure that I feel has not been nourished very well for the past generation; sure, we feel it, but the only time it gets satiated is in a movie theater or playing a video game. No, I’m talking about really taking care of it. Then there’s the political possibilities; the last time we had a major colonization effort in the “New World,” there was a revolution and the establishment of the first modern representative democracy, with limited government and checks and balances. If we start colonizing Mars–or just space in general if we want to go the orbital habitat route, although that’s more effort-intensive–who knows what sort of political and societal revolutions we’ll engender. It could be the spark to re-ignite a stagnate global civilization. But we won’t know if we don’t go out there.

I look upon this with great interest and great hope. I’m sure something will get botched up, it always does, but hopefully there will be more good than bad coming out of this.