Thursday, May 25, 2006

Peter Brown

Through history and pre-history, scientists have learned to understand groups of people by the tools they left behind. Whether small family units or large masses of humanity, society has best expressed itself in the ways they devised to get their jobs done.

Whole eras, sometimes spanning thousands of years, have been categorized by the broadest extensions of their simple implements. The stone age, broken down into the various ways that stones were transformed into useful devices, like the polished stone era, the small chip era where knapping was done in a way to maximize the aesthetics and enhancing functionality. The Bronze Age with its brilliant Greek weapons of war and even more beautiful pottery and jewelry are prime example of the tool being an extension of the tribal ethic.

There are even occasions where the absence of tools has left us wondering about the level of civilization achieved by a society; the pyramids of Egypt were built with tools that have since disappeared. Stonehenge, in the Anglian Plains, is another example where the use of advanced tools for the time and place have all but disappeared and left only the monument to their usage. In the jungles of Central America, numerous Mayan and Aztec structures seem to have sprung full grown from the ground, without even the trace of a building tool. Even on lonely Easter Island, the top knotted heads of long gone gods, or heroes, express a level of toolsmanship that has since gone into extinction or traveled to other continents.

Through the industrial age, with its large banks of chuffing steam engines and into our own era, where the tools of the trade are increasingly intangible, the progress of man is stalked by an equally striking progress in the development of his tools. In some cases, the tool itself is too far advanced for the age and has lead to disasters of increasing magnitude. Think of Chernobyl, but more importantly ponder the wisdom of Hiroshima and the nuclear bomb as a tool of diplomacy.

But always the trend has been the creation of a utilitarian solution to a perceived need, followed by an increasingly complex refinement process that includes improving the tool’s utility and functionality with an equally clear attention to the inherent beauty of the device.

Tool design and designer tools have always been the technology two-step of product improvement. The first transistor from TI was an ugly glob of molten plastic, a far cry from today’s sleek and slender IC packages. The first mouse was a block of wood with small wheels.

A mature industry seeks to increase the appeal of its products. When customers are no longer satisfied with the basic device, design steps in from the technological and the esthetic side to recreate demand. Keyboards have undergone some amazing transformations spurred on by medical (Carpal Tunnel), utility and ease of use reasons. Now we have wireless, sleek devices that add not one iota to the functional basic utility of the board, but improve productivity through comfort, speed and relaxed esthetic considerations. If so the keyboard, so also the mouse with a truly stunning array of options made available to an increasingly demanding buying public.

Our tools need to express our conquest over the basic computing needs. First we unloaded from the IBM mainframe option, and then we created smaller desktops, now we are all in charge of our own computing device. Imagine, there is more power in an advanced cell phone than in the Apollo 13 moon Lander. The moon Lander was appropriate technology and will remain a cultural and scientific icon of an era. The cell phone will be replaced during this transition stage by something even more complex, a 21st. century stone tool that remains a transition product for an era in transition.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

What Is Alternate Energy?
The term alternate energy refers to a number of energy sources that have not reached mainstream production yet. They are considered alternatives to existing sources for a number of reasons, not all of which are rational.

Historically we consider one of the oldest sources of energy as derived from burning wood to produce heat and to enable cooking. The wood stove was first replaced by the coal stove and later by natural gas and electricity. More modern forms of energy for cooking are the microwave, radiant heat and convection. The last three are electrically produced. So what is the alternate energy? Well, in heating, one of the latest forms of energy is derived from wood pellets. This is a situation where an energy source has come full circle.

But in the broader context, alternate energy is anything that is not coal, hydro, gas, petroleum or nuclear. Some would not put nuclear energy as a standard form of energy, and since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, it has been relegated to alternate status in many countries.

That leaves solar, wind, tidal, fuel cells, flywheels and a host of other energy sources squarely in the alternate category. But is that fair?

Surely solar power, with the increased efficiency of the photovoltaic panels and the large solar farms in Germany, Japan and the United States, is becoming a commodity and hence a standard energy source?

Do the examples of the wood pellets and solar power indicate a need to rethink what is alternate and what is standard? The time may have come to actually define the terms “alternate energy” in a more comprehensive manner and relegate the losers to one category and the winners to another.

Where to start? One school of thought looks to the future and says that energy sources that are largely untapped should be called Potential Energy, the sources that are running down, or have been left by the wayside would be called Depleted Energy. How would that work in practice and what are the ramifications of such a classification?

To start with, solar energy is the epitome of the Potential Energy source. Since 99.9% of the sun’s rays that hit the earth are not harvested directly for energy production it represents a huge waste of a huge potential. It is also a completely renewable energy source, and here is another popular way to differentiate energy sources, renewable and non-renewable.

Where would that category place nuclear energy? Well, depending on the reactor type, it could be renewable or not renewable. The standard boiling water reactor uses enriched uranium and regular water. This presents a number of safety factors such as in a meltdown situation such as occurred at Three Mile Island, the water to cool the reactor also promoted the fission and hence the continued spiraling nuclear reaction that leads to a core meltdown. There isCanadianian reactor that uses natural uranium and heavy water. The CANDU power plant can be cooled down with regular water in the case of a runaway reaction, and to cool it down and stop the fission, the heavy water can be dumped.

So here we have a new classification of energy, safe and dangerous. Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) is probably one of the most dangerous forms of energy available on the planet. A supertanker loaded with LNG is a spark away from destroying a city the size of Boston. It has not happened yet, and maybe never will, but the potential is there since we know that LNG trucks have been known to blow up with loss of life. Yet LNG cars produce no pollution and require little rework to operate.

Then we have the hoary question of clean energy versus polluting energy sources. Clearly, coal-burning power plants are not clean. There are acid rain polluted lakes in Ontario and Quebec that can trace their demise to Ohio coal burners. But what about nuclear power, surely an energy source that keeps all its pollutants safely stored in a holding tank should not be considered polluting? Although solar power is absolutely clean in its production stage, some of the most toxic chemicals known to man are required to create the panels. Where does one start counting the cost? When does the pollution meter tick in?

Hydropower, the harnessing of large or even small rivers to turn turbines is considered an essentially clean energy source. And in a sense it is one of the cleanest, but then man exaggerates and turns whole regions into water catch fields, the James Bay project, the Hoover Dam and recent Chinese projects have dislocated the environment and caused human tragedies. Wind power has been banned in certain States that happily endorse solar.

Creating energy is a matter of compromise and acceptable risk. No matter which category you select there will always be insiders and outsiders. My personal favorites are personal energy and corporate energy. Personal is the energy I control and produce. Solar panels on my roof and batteries in my garage are personal sources of energy. A small biodiesel production facility in my garage is personal and allows me to produce up to sixty gallons of diesel fuel a day. A wind driven pump to pull water out of the ground and a large tree lot are other forms of personal energy. Corporate ends up enriching someone else, like Petroleum giants, a PUC or a local coop.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Great, now the Christians are up in arms about a fictional story concerning a mythical character. The Da Vinci Code movie is out, and in the spirit of Muslim tolerance, we are being urged not to see the movie.

The idea of a horde of suicide bombing followers of Christ is pretty funny since that particular form of mythology actually spawns meek and meager victims rather than angry young people with too much time on their hands blowing up airplanes.

No, much better to have irritated Christians than pissed off Muslims, but that can change. All we need is for some Ayatollah to declare that his kids care more for the Prophet than our kids care for Christ and off we go into the suicide finals. Showdown at the Roman corral.

Hey 12 really bad cartoons compared to a very boring, two hour, movie! Sounds like a deal to me, besides, I always preferred cartoons, it kept me from having to think. The old Playboy mantra, it's not the pictures it's the articles.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

I stand in awe of the visionary solution to the imminent threat of invasion by millions of disenfranchised Mexican pouring over our borders on a daily basis (whew, what a mouthful) Seriously, how original, how blindingly simple, let's build a 700 mile long wall to keep the immigrants on their side and the prisoners on our side.

Brilliant, but I would like to offer a solution to the obvious questions that will go begging in the wake of this gigantic building program. Who will build it? I suggest that we round up the illegal immigrants and put them to work on their wall, poetic, no? We get all the illegally imported Mexicans to stay on their side of the wall to build it, we pay them minimum wages and make sure that after working on the damn thing for several years they are aware of the Wall and its purpose, plus, they'll be on the other side of the wall when it's finished, neat and clean.

I already hear your objections, what about our side? Who will build our side of the wall to ensure the quality and esthetic criteria that such a monumentally ridiculous task will entail? Simple, we round up the other group of illegal immigrants, those that failed to qualify for H1B visas, the doctors and nurses from abroad who are cleaning homes, the nannies from India and the refugees who are under employed according to their education, the software engineers working at Frys or the entire Wal Mart customer service department. Let's not forget the Tien Amin square PRC refugees who will have a very important role to play.

Oh yes, the PRC, the People's Republic of China immigrants will have a very special task. Historically, they are the progeny of the people who still hold the international wall building record, over four thousand miles of wall! Awesome, inspirational, totally Texan in outlook when mine has to bigger than yours. Better than the East Germans, longer than the Israelis, stronger than the Roman Hadrian wall in the UK. Yes the Chinese will be the designers and task masters of this wonderful project. They have the history, they have the numbers and they certainly have the drive to get it done. Who knows, they may even ask Halliburton to come in as consultants, and it will avoid having to outsource because the outsource is already here. In-house outsourcing, a new concept in urban planning and renewal that so far was only available to the upper crust in need of nannies, gardeners and chefs.

You have to admire our present administration, the great wall of Mexico (named after the builders, not the designers) will turn our economy around, protect us from Mexican terrorist gardeners and provide work for every failed H1B applicant for years to come.

Once the Southern wall is complete, there is an even longer border to the North, after all we need to protect our great democracy from returning Viet Nam era draft dodgers and Bush era national guardsmen yearning to be free. The only problem with the Canadian wall is that it will soon have to designed to keep our no longer free citizens on our side of the border, but it is more than a thousand miles longer than that puny Chinese effort. So finally, our wall will be bigger than their wall.

Who knows, Canada might even be tempted to pay Halliburton to build it.

Dick, Dick, the phone is ringing!!

Peter W. Brown