We sometimes think (in our age of progress) that if we look back, we must see very primitive creatures.
But even if we go back ten thousand years, we don’t find primitive humans. We find modern humans. Genetically, we have not changed very much in 10,000 years. What has changed? We have learned a huge amount of chemistry, biology, etc. Of course we didn’t know which bits were useful. It took a hundred years to figure out. That’s how science works.
The discoveries of past centuries created some rapid changes. Example of progress: within a few hundred years we went from knowing what gunpowder was, to seizing guano Islands, to synthesizing ammonium nitrate to nuclear weapons.
Ancient impulses with modern weapons are weird. I have this picture in my head of an angry person saying “I’m going to get that guy. I’m going to go lay claim to a guano Island, refine potassium nitrate, make black powder, and use an explosion to propel a small metal ball through his body.” Then the pre-modern human says “I’d just hit him with this rock. Simpler.”
According to Wired, a new nanotube-based ink allows RFID tags to be printed directly onto packaging materials. The end result would be that no bar-code scanning, just wheel a cart of gorceries through the exit, and you’re good. Plus, if your credit card is RFID enabled, then you could, in principle, have your account debited at the same time! No human interaction required at all. Pretty sweet. I can’t wait to see what the Fringe has to say about this.
Wired has an article today on the first use of an artificial heart back in 1982. The patient survived for 112 days – pretty remarkable. I wonder if he felt any unnatural urges toward appliances… robot love, as it were. I doubt it. It sounds like it was a pretty miserable 112 days. I suspect that subtle emotional changes toward toasters… or uncomfortable fantasies about R2-D2… were secondary concerns.
I wrote up a little piece a bit ago on the complexities of the food-or-fuelchoice implied in the manufacture of biofuels.
Richard Jones at Softmachines.org wrote about biofuels a while back (Driving on sunshine). He has returned to the matter more recently. “It seems that some of the drawbacks were more easy to anticipate than others. What’s sobering about the whole episode, though, is that it does show how complicated things can get when science, politics and economics get closely coupled in situations needing urgent action in the face of major uncertainties.”
I love biofuels in principle. The idea that we could use the agricultural technology of the whole of human history to power the most modern inventions seems appropriate. But the economics are complicated. There is always switchgrass which promises to make use of otherwise useless land. And there’s algae on which I did my high school science project. There you can use huge regions of the ocean to produce energy. That won’t have unintended consequences.
In any case, I think there could be a future in biofuels. If it raises the value of agriculture, then we can see more agriculture. I think that could be a good thing for people at the bottom of the economic ladder. Traditionally, agriculture was how cultures developed themselves. That seems like a worthy subject for development. I’m not sure right now, though. Corn ethanol, for instance, barely breaks even on the energy balance.
What that means (in simplified terms) is that you burn a gallon of gasoline to grow, process, and transport a gallon of corn ethanol. Ethanol is “green” except if you burned a gallon of petrol to get it. In that case it is utterly useless in energy terms. It makes a job or two, but you might as well pay people to not grow corn. Some of you might remember the discussion of the lucrative possibilities in getting paid to not grow corn in Catch 22. More recently: “Acreage Reduction Programs (ARP) paid farmers to set aside an amount of land on which they would not grow corn.”
Anyhoo, I have a dissertation to write and a second job to pay the bills. I wish I could believe that greenwashed fuels were the solution to the energy crisis.
I’m a chemist, and I love the idea of biofuels. America could do better on the energy production side of things, and biofuels seem like an opportunity. What we need is a replacement for petroleum, but what we have is an agricultural production capacity. Biofuels are also an opportunity for readjustment of markets. Right now, big farm production has pushed the third world out of the agricultural game – they don’t have the technology to produce cheap food. It’s cheaper to ship food from the US than it is to grow it almost anywhere else. Ironically, raising food prices and cutting US subsidies could end up really helping the poor, since they could then make a profit selling the food that they grow for themselves.
Think of it this way: cheap US food means that farming is financially useless in places without massive agribusiness infrastructure. Yet, growing food has been the way people have built their own economies since the advent of agriculture. It’s only recently with industrial farming that it has become necessary to trade factory labor for food.
Now, I hope that it is obvious that this is an oversimplification. The above implies that it’s more complicated than simply making the choice to burn our corn instead or feed the poor. But there is some truth to that, too. The economic reality is that a price increase on food could end up being the best thing ever for poor communities. They can begin to farm their own food and supply their own needs. But if the price goes up faster than the demand can be met by local sources, then people will starve.
When people are going hungry, it is unacceptable to turn corn into fuel. It is unacceptable to be wasteful consumers of corn while our fellow humans contend with food riots. There are new projects on the books. Turning inedible plants and plant waste into liquid transportation fuels feels a lot more reasonable. Congress is investing in these options which I think is a wise move on the part of our legislators.