Category Archives: Technology

Greg Laden Illustrates the Case For a Carbon Tax

Science blogger Greg Laden is having trouble figuring out whether or not to install a solar electric power system in his home.

I want to put a solar panel on my roof so that I am releasing less greenhouse gas into the environment. But then I hear that manufacturing solar panels causes the release of greenhouse gasses, so I have to subtract that from the good I think I’m doing. But then I realize that the people who are making the solar panels have to change their method so they release less greenhouse gas into the environment.

We hear this argument all the time (for example, here). You think you are doing something “green” but it really isn’t green because yadayadayada.

Laden has decided he isn’t real impressed by that argument. For one thing, he just doesn’t trust some of the sources for those numbers. I wouldn’t either. With billions of dollars in play and ideological positions to defend, it’s hard to find unbiased information on climate and energy issues.

Laden lists three more reasons for disdaining that argument, but they are all variations of the same thing:

So what? Nobody tells me I have to make a rational decision about buying the 72 inch wide TV to replace my 64 inch wide TV, but suddenly I’m a bad person if I don’t do a detailed Carbon-based cost benefit analysis when I want to do something EVEN COOLER than having a bigger TV, like putting a freakin’ cool solar panel on my roof?

This is an excellent reason for buying solar power. I think it’s cool too, and I’ll definitely look into it when we move out of our condo into a house where we can do stuff like that. In fact, according to a recent Lazard report, solar photovoltaic electricity generation is starting to become competitive with some of the more expensive conventional electricity generation methods. I expect the next ten years will see a lot of solar powered homes and a lot more solar generation from electrical utilities.

Laden thinks this will also apply to electric cars:

Driving an electric car in a region where more coal is used to make electricity, would have to be MUCH less efficient than not driving the electric car (in terms of carbon release) to make me think twice about it. I’ll drive my electric car and at the same time we’ll watch the electricity companies make more and more of their electricity from wind and solar, and they will have a bigger market to sell that in because we are locally replacing gas with electricity.

Laden has clearly thought about this a lot, at least in terms of the carbon footprint produced by his next car. But he has apparently given very little thought to many other aspects of his new electric car.

For example, how much valuable steel is it going to consume? We use steel in a lot of different ways in this country — for everything from wall fasteners to medical devices — so how do we know that providing Laden with a car to drive is the best use of that steel? It would be unfortunate if some poor diseased person died because the medical device that would have saved their life was never built because the steel was used to make Laden’s car.

Or what about the people who spent collectively hundreds of hours on the assembly line building the car? Perhaps they could have been doing something more important, like teaching children how to read or working to reduce the spread of infections in hospitals. Or maybe they would rather have had that extra time to take a class at a local college or stay at home with their children.

And should we even have that assembly line? Maybe that factory could be put to better use making dishwashers or big screen TVs. Maybe the land the factory is on would be better used as a Walmart or as apartment buildings for people who work nearby.

For that matter, once the car is built, who’s to say that Greg Laden is the best person it could go to? Maybe there’s a father of three who needs it to get to work, or a single mom who needs to drive to night classes so she can get her nursing degree. How do we know that Laden is the right person for the car?

My guess is that Greg Laden has spent very little time thinking about any of these issues, and rightly so. The answer to any one of these questions would be difficult to find. But fortunately the answer to all of these questions turns out to be quite simple:

Of course, I will need the electric car to get cheaper before I can get one…

There you go. Every question I raised involves something that is traded on the (more or less) free market. The steel foundries sell their output to the highest bidders, and the buyers — car makers, wall fastener manufactures, medical device suppliers — each bid on as much steel as they can profitably use. The laborers can choose to work for a car maker, a school, or a hospital, each of whom will bid on their labor according to how valuable it would be for them.

The same calculations apply to the factory owner and the land developer. They will make their resources available to the buyer offering the highest price, and the buyer that can offer the highest price is the buyer that can do the most with those resources. And when the electric car arrives in the dealer’s showroom, they will try to sell it at the highest price they can, to the person willing to pay the most for it.

In this way, the pricing system of the free market is used to coordinate the decisions of thousands of people all over the world to allocate their resources and time to produce the goods and services that will be valuable to the final consumers. And what it all comes down to is that when the car is sitting in the showroom, the sticker price represents everything Greg Laden needs to know about all the decisions used to produce it all over the world. And he took a look at the sticker and thought, “Eh, not today.” Decision made.

However, there’s at least one important resource that is not included in the price of the car: Its impact on global warming. The factories and steel foundries consume energy and dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, raising the planet’s temperature in a way that will harm other people. Laden’s car would contribute a very small amount of global warming and does an almost infinitesimally small amount of harm to Laden himself, but when you multiply out that harm by the billions of people living on the planet, the amount is probably significantly more than zero, which is the amount global warming currently adds to the sticker price.

That’s a problem, because the cost of the car’s contribution to global warming is every bit as real as the cost of the car’s steel or the cost of the labor that goes into assembling the car. But since nobody involved in making the car has to pay that cost, the final sticker price of the car understates the true cost of manufacturing the car. So people like Greg Laden may be tempted into buying the electric car because the sticker price is less than the true cost. Of course the same thing applies to any other car Laden might buy, and more importantly, it applies to the energy that Laden’s car consumes when he drives it, whether he’s charging an electric car or burning gasoline in a sports car.

The basic problem is that the Earth’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases is not traded in the market. It is available free to anyone who wants to use it: All they have to do is release the gases into the air. The price of releasing gases is effectively zero. But the cost of the damage they do to the climate is significant. The fact that people can do damage without paying for it is the source of all of our climate problems.

One especially attractive solution to this problem is to use taxation to put a price on releasing greenhouse gases. This is usually called a carbon tax, after a principle element in greenhouse gases. The idea is to set the tax rate for releasing a ton of carbon as close as we can get to an economic estimate of the damage done to the climate by releasing the carbon. This tax will be applied to all sources of energy — coal, oil, gas, nuclear, solar, wind — according to the amount of carbon released (lots for coal, zilch for solar). Thus the price at the electric meter or the gas pump will include the cost of climate damage.

That cost will cascade through all the productive processes in the economy. Laden will no longer have to worry about the carbon released to build his solar cells or his electric car, because that price will have been incorporated into the cost of the manufacturing process. Climate-damaging energy consumption will raise the costs of the product. And when Laden walks into the electric car dealership, the cost of the car will have gone up enough to include climate damage. But the cost of operating a gasoline-powered car will also have gone up due to the carbon tax, so Laden may find that gasoline cars are no longer as cost effective, which might make an electric car worth the price after all.

Or maybe not. But the point is that with carbon taxes (or a number of similar ideas) we can be climate conscious without researching the total carbon footprint of everything we buy. All we have to do is compare prices.

Mysteries of Comcast

So last night around 2am I sat down at my computer and…no internet. Called Comcast and accepted the automated system’s offer to reset my modem. When that didn’t work, I asked for a human being. The technician told me there was an outage in the area, but they couldn’t give me anymore information, and they couldn’t take a trouble ticket because their system was down for maintenance.

Woke up this morning, and it was still down, so I called Comcast and went through the automated diagnostic procedure, which gave up and transferred me to a human tech. He poked around from his end and said everything seemed to be up. He could access my modem, but he said my router hadn’t requested an IP address from the modem.

Something didn’t sound right about that…oh yeah, I have a static IP address. My router doesn’t have to ask for an IP address because it already knows one. Once before, some piece of Comcast equipment had forgotten my address and stopped routing my internet traffic. It looked like it was happening again.

I mentioned this to the tech, and he checked my order and proceeded to set up the static IP service again. For some reason, however, he issued me a new IP address instead of giving me the one I had before. He doesn’t know what happened. I don’t know what happened. It’s just one of those mysteries, I guess.

Anyway, I’m back up. For now.

Don’t Dis the iPad

I think it’s fair to say that Scott Greenfield is not a fan of Apple’s iPad. From reading his banter with Brian Tannebaum, I gather there’s been a lot of hype about how the iPad is a “game changer” for lawyers — I guess because it can serve as a thin client front-end to some sort of “virtual office in the cloud” web application. Whatever. As criminal defense lawyers, Scott and Brian have no need for such things.

That seems reasonable, but sometimes Scott’s hatred for the iPad goes a bit overboard. I always assumed it was an act — hyperbole for the purpose of emphasis — but his latest post seems pretty serious:

When President John F. Kennedy announced in 1961 that America would put a man on the moon within ten years, it began a commitment to the future that drove us to create innovation which carried us to great heights and banal depths.  And with the last flight of the space shuttle, it’s over.  And we have given up.

Actually, I’m with Scott here. We stopped going to the moon almost 40 years ago, and the shuttle has been hideously expensive to operate because it has to be human-rated, and we never developed any sort of unmanned heavy spacelift vehicles, which is why the space station is small and pitiful compared to some of the earlier plans for a permanent station. More recently, I believe they just postponed plans to develop a sort of space-tug for moving stuff around the inner system.

(We don’t post about it here, but my co-blogger Ken and I have been complaining about the state of our space program since the 70s. And I’m sure he can correct anything I just got wrong.)

But the most significant thing represented by the last shuttle mission is America’s abdication of concern with our future.  To the extent something as self-serving as American Exceptionalism exists, it does so because of our drive to find the future, to dream big and achieve our dreams.  We have no dreams anymore.

We have no goals.  As a society, we think we’ve accomplished something by putting out a fire, never considering that at best we’re stagnant.  At worst, we fool ourselves, as the first isn’t really out but just left smoldering, waiting for someone else to shoulder the burden of putting it out later.

We’re a nation of big shots, every one of us too important to get our hands dirty doing hard work, or suffering personal sacrifice to achieve a future goal.

That sounds a lot like “national greatness,” which is how Republicans used to waste our money (and sometimes lives) when they weren’t busy complaining that Democrats were wasting our money on social programs. Of course, in our modern times, both parties seem quite flexible as to how they waste our money.

Anyway, guess what Scott sees as a symbol of all that is wrong with us today?

The lovers of technology hold dear to shiny gadgets like the iPad in the belief that they are the future. They are toys, which suck money out of the pockets of those least able to afford toys and give back nothing. Do you really think a great future exists because we can check our emails anywhere, or watch television shows we missed while we were twitting to each other?

I don’t have an iPad, but if it’s anything like my iPhone, it can also keep a list of everyone I know, and it can show me where they live, and give me turn-by-turn directions to get there. It lets me view a map of all the visible stars, showing exactly what they look like from where I am on Earth, or it can show me the Earth from space and zoom in to show me a single building, and pictures people have taken of the area, and all the nearest restaurants, ATMs, police stations, and hospitals. Or I can take my own pictures and movies, edit them, and share them with my friends.

My iPhone can keep a list of groceries, which my wife can update as I drive to the store, and if I’m not sure what she wants, I can send her pictures of what’s available. Then I can find the nearest theater that’s playing a movie I want to see and reserve two tickets. And if we’re too far from home, I can find the nearest hotel and book a room.

I can read all the world’s newspapers, watch all the world’s news feeds, find the current prices of all the world’s commodities, and read all the world’s public domain books. I can lookup the population of Connecticut in 1950 or the address of a good sushi bar in Avalon. If a friend has a book I like, I can scan the bar code and have a copy delivered to my house, or maybe I can just download it directly to the phone. Of course that’s only after I’ve read a few online reviews.

And I haven’t even mentioned that it holds every song I own, lets me buy more from a catalog of millions, and recommends other I might like. It also lets me manage my bank account and cash checks just by scanning them. I can track my wife’s flight as it approaches Chicago so I can pick her up within minutes of landing. I also have access to the world’s largest encyclopedia, photographs of every landmark in the world, weather reports from anywhere in the world, a notebook, a calendar, a voice memo recorder, and several types of calculators.

In the 1980’s, I participated in a government funded educational program that made supercomputers available to students at universities too small to afford their own. The absolute top-of-the-line supercomputer was the Cray 2, which cost $17 million in 1985 dollars. An iPad 2 is just as powerful as a Cray 2, except that it’s smaller, produces less waste heat, runs on batteries, and you can carry it in your pocket. For about 1/70000 the price.

And I know this sounds like an ad for an iPad, but remember that there are at least two other vendors making products that directly compete, and most laptop makers have a small footprint model aimed at the same group of consumers.

We are easily played by emotional appeals that distract us from hard realities, the ones the require some small amount of thought.  We’re a nation of marketers, liars who string together meaningless words and pretend that by making stuff up we can somehow slip past the mess all around us without contributing anything of substance, without actually doing anything that will achieve a needed goal.

Oh my God. Scott, dude, you’re a friggin’ lawyer! Talk about people who don’t contribute anything of substance…most people would put lawyers very near the top of that list. Those aren’t lawyers on that Space Shuttle.

And yet, lawyers are completely necessary in our society. They may not fly spaceships or cure diseases or invent cleaner sources of energy, but they’re a part of the vast cooperative enterprise we like to call civilization. As are we all. (I don’t talk about my job much on this blog, but trust me, as fascinating as it is to me, it’s nothing that will ever be in the history books.)

The space program was only partially about space, though the vast unknown around us offered the potential to survive the damage we do to our own planet because we’re too lazy to pick up our own garbage, and too enamored of our shiny toys to worry about where to put the nuclear waste.  As long as it’s not in our backyard, we just don’t care.

This is nit-picking, I know, but the Space Shuttle only goes up into low earth orbit. It never really got out into the vast unknown. I mean, if you knew where and when to look (something an iPad could tell you) you could see it from your backyard.

The space program gave us a wealth of opportunity along the way, as scientists and engineers created things that could be used to create more things to solve previously unsolvable problems.

That’s pretty much the process behind the iPad as well. In addition to the pocket supercomputer aspect I mentioned earlier, iPads also have state-of-the-art LCD displays, state of the art digital cameras, state-of-the-art batteries, state-of-the-art 3G transceivers, and even state-of-the-art glass panels. It’s not like Apple spent billions of dollars to invent these things from scratch, they are just one of many products that can be built from high-tech parts that are becoming ever more common.

There was a time when Mr. Fusion might have been a reality someday, instead of oil from the mideast.

Uh, no. I loved Back to the Future, but Mr. Fusion was fiction inspired by cold fusion research, which also turned out to be fiction.

There are still people who have the knowledge and interest to create a future out of the mess that swirls around us today, but the death of the space program reflects our nation’s decision to look backward rather than forward.  We have been seduced by the shiny toys, and they are good enough to make us forget that we are doing nothing as a society to invest in our future.

Enjoy your iPad 5. There may not be many new toys on the horizon because the drive that brought us this far is gone. We’re too cheap to pay the price of innovation, and we’re too lazy and preoccupied with our transitory self-interest to put in the effort necessary to change.  There will be a few tweaks to our shiny toys, which will be touted as wonders and snapped up at exorbitant prices by young people spending their daddy’s money, so that they can sit on their couches and eat Cheetos while surfing youtube.

Is this enough of a future for you?

The iPad is nothing less than a personal pocket supercomputer that gives you instant wireless access to a multi-million-node world-wide computer network. That’s about as science fiction as it gets. I know we don’t have the flying cars, but we are living in the future.

Do you not realize that you’ve bet the farm that some kid in Cambridge or Palo Alto, with no help from you, is going to come up with some truly incredible brainstorm that will create an industry, revitalize America, drive our economy in a direction that we can’t conceive of today?

If I did something like that, I’d be an idiot.

Consider Scott’s example of fusion power. Scientists have been experimenting with nuclear fusion for 50-60 years. Getting hydrogen to fuse came early, but the process required more energy than it produced. I believe scientists reached technological breakeven in the 80’s, but only on a small scale, and at great expense. Creating industrial-scale economical fusion power systems will be a long, slow process. It’s unlikely there will be any giant breakthroughs, just hundreds or thousands of small engineering breakthroughs that eventually advance the technology far enough for us to benefit.

So, what I’m betting on is that millions of people in thousands of cities will come up with millions of ideas, each of which improves our life a tiny, tiny bit, and that this process of continuous improvement will slowly grind away to make our lives better. After all, that’s how we got this far.

When you’ve got that many people working together, an awful lot of effort goes into dealing with the complexities of communications and organizing, and while each of those people is a specialist, an awful lot of their productive time is spent doing routine activities outside their area of specialization. Anything that makes those routine activities less time consuming is going to leave more time for people to do what they’re best at. This is why we need lawyers and accountants and garbage collectors and teachers and dog walkers. It’s also why we need overnight mail and photocopiers and email and iPads. Every little bit helps. It’s the story of civilization.

Besides, unless the medical folks figure out how to solve that death problem, it’s not like we’re going to live much longer than our great grandparents did. And if we can’t live longer, than at least we should use our vast technological wealth to live better. And if living better means streaming kitten videos while you’re sipping a Frappuchino at Starbucks, what the hell is wrong with that?

Irony Addendum: The last shuttle flight is not the last manned space flight. We’ll be using foreign spacecraft to get into orbit for a little while, and there are about five private companies developing various forms of spacelift, several of which will be man-rated.

Meanwhile, the astronauts on this last shuttle flight took a pair of iPhones:

Why the iPhone and not the iPad? “There’s no reason in principle why we couldn’t have done the iPad,” Rishikof says. Yet, the compact size of the iPhone gives the device less mass and volume, and therefore a smaller footprint when calculating measurements. “In the future, the iPad is definitely on our list,” he says.

It’s a supercomputer that talks to a world-wide cloud of supercomputers. Of course a bunch of rocket scientists can put it to good use.

Are We Living In the 21st Century or What?

My wife is flying back home right now, and I’ve got to pick her up from the airport.

In one window, I’ve got a display of the plane’s flight track from FlightAware. In another window, I’m running a Google Earth satellite image with her plane’s current position superimposed, thanks to In yet another window, I’m running streaming audio of the airport tower courtesy of

They cleared her plane to land a few minutes ago, and it just dropped below 5000 feet. Time to get in the car and drive out to the airport.

Apple’s Knowledge Navigator – 1987

I first saw this technology concept video about 20 years ago at a presentation at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Part of NCSA’s mission was to explore personal computing applications that required supercomputer-level processing at the time, but which would make sense in the future when everyone has a supercomputer on their desk.

I vaguely remember my impressions at the time:

  • I was skeptical about the voice recognition and natural-language in the interface. That seemed like an awful hard thing to do back then, and it still seems pretty hard to do. Modern voice recognition is a lot better, but it’s still hard to get a computer to understand the structure of natural languages.
  • I was also skeptical about the document searching capability shown in the video. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to do useful searches of millions of documents without natural language processing to understand what the documents were about, but it turns out you can do a useful amount of information retrieval using relatively simple keyword algorithms. We even have some form of the video’s query completion.
  • I thought the talking-head to represent the computer was excessive and pointless. I think the world-wide hatred for Microsoft’s “Clippy” proves I was right.
  • I thought the streaming video conferencing was excessive too. I was mostly wrong about that. The technology is well within reach, and we could have it whenever we want, but we don’t seem to want it very much. Phone calls are intrusive enough without having to worry about how we look.

The most interesting part for me was the computing technology behind the real-time climate simulation. The NCSA had one of the most powerful computers available—a multi-million dollar liquid-cooled Cray-2 supercomputer—and it would take thousands of them running in parallel to perform that kind of climate simulation at the speed shown in the video.

The capability shown in the video implied some sort of computing utility—the term “grid computing” would later become fashionable—that could quickly and cheaply provide massive amounts of computing from a shared resource pool, much the same way you can quickly grab a few kilowatts of electricity off the power grid whenever you need it.

We are tantalizingly close to reality here:

  • Making some rough assumptions about relative computing power and speed two decades ago and now, think I could rent the modern equivalent of 1000 Cray-2 computers from the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud service for about $40/hour. It’s not quite like the video yet because it would take about 10 minutes to bring them all online and get them running a particular program.
  • Every time you do a Google search, you probably grab that much computing power for the split-second it takes to do the search. Google’s datacenter has their search software pre-installed on pre-provisioned hardware, so you couldn’t do that with an arbitrary computer program of your own design like in the video.
  • A 3D graphics gaming card for a personal computer uses specialized graphics processing units. Although optimized for shading computer-generated images, modern GPUs are becoming complex enough to perform general purpose computing. A top-end gaming card for under $500 is probably comparable to hundreds of Cray-2 computers for solving certain specialized problems.

It won’t be much longer.

I found this video at Google Blogoscoped, which also has some interesting examples of more recent concept videos from other companies.

A Taste of Future Shock

My wife and I got my mother a Tivo DVR this Christmas. It was a calculated risk.

My mother is in her 80’s and doesn’t like learning to use new stuff. On the other hand, she has a VCR which she manages to use, but she gets confused about the whole tune-the-TV v.s. tune-the-VCR issue, and sometimes she uses the wrong remote or gets some part of the system (TV, VCR, remote) into a state where she doesn’t understand what’s happening.

Our thinking was that the Tivo system is simpler. A single remote controls everything, and it doesn’t allow you to get into any difficult situations. It avoids the confusion inherent in tuning both the TV and the VCR. The basic functions are pretty simple.

At least that was the theory, but we stopped in on my parents yesterday, and now I’m not so sure. My mother is having trouble with the concept. She comes from a time before mice and menus, before everything was a computer. She comes from a time when your tools didn’t have a mind of their own.

We knew all that, of course, but we thought she could probably puzzle it out anyway. (After all, my mother used be a bookkeeper, which meant she could run one of these. How hard could a Tivo be?) My gut reaction is that she’s just resisting the change, but she’ll like it once she gets used to it.

Meanwhile, a few weeks ago we bought an alarm system and remote starter for the RAV4. While driving to see my parents, I noticed the alarm’s key-fob remote control beeping a few times in my pants pocket. My leg was pressed against a part of the car and it was pressing the buttons. That’s happened before with every alarm I had, so I didn’t think much about it.

When I got out of the car, however, the remote control didn’t work anymore. The signal LED flickered, and I could hear the remote beeping, but the car didn’t respond at all. I had to leave the alarm off and lock the doors the old-fashioned way.

My working theory was that I had accidentally pressed the buttons too much, and the alarm control module had decided to ignore my remote. I don’t know if car alarms actually have such a feature, but I know that computer network applications do things like that all the time: When they receive too many spurious requests from another node, they decide for reasons of efficiency or security to lock it out and ignore it. The effect usually wears off after a while to allow for the possibility that the misbehaving node has been fixed.

When we left my parents place several hours later, my wife’s remote worked fine, but the car was still ignoring mine, which shot down my theory.

I thought about it some more on the way home. Alarm remotes have to be registered with the control module in the car before they’ll work. Could the control module somehow have forgotten about my remote? That seemed possible, but unlikely. Computer failures are rarely so specific and clean. Whatever was going on, the alarm system was doing what it was supposed to do. But what did it think it was doing?

It came to me as I was crossing the parking lot at home. I’d bought one of the more featureful systems, and I remembered something I’d read in the instruction manual: The system could be programmed to allow one remote control to work with two cars.

I dug up the manual and found the section that explained the multi-car control capability. It explained how to tell which car the remote was set for, and sure enough, it was sending signals for car number 2. I punched in the sequence that switched it back to car number 1, and everything was working again.

I think I just got a taste of how my mother feels in this new high-tech world. I wonder if someday I’ll be too old to adapt to the technology—if someday I’ll be remembering the good old days while eyeing the new household matter transmutator with unease…