More hydrogen

There's lots of debate happening about this topic, of course.  Romm sounds convincing but I don't know enough to say whether he's correct.  I just listened to a debate about this topic on CBC Radio's Ideas: The Hydrogen Solution (it's a 3-part series, but I've only heard part 3).  David Scott argued the pro-hydrogen side and Norm Rubin argued the anti- side.  It was interesting but I came away feeling more confused (though still leaning towards anti) because both were pretty good at demolishing their opponent's arguments.  Scott did a good job of poking holes in some standard environmentalist lines against hydrogen and nuclear.  Rubin sounded at times suspiciously like a climate change denier, so I don't know how credible he is.

Notes on the Underground

The MIT Press has published a new edition of Rosalind Williams‘s 1990 book Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination.  A description from the publisher’s page:

The underground has always played a prominent
role in human imaginings, both as a place of refuge and as a source of
fear. The late nineteenth century saw a new fascination with the
underground as Western societies tried to cope with the pervasive
changes of a new social and technological order. In Notes on the Underground,
Rosalind Williams takes us inside that critical historical moment,
giving equal coverage to actual and imaginary undergrounds. She looks
at the real-life invasions of the underground that occurred as modern
urban infrastructures of sewers and subways were laid, and at the
simultaneous archaeological excavations that were unearthing both human
history and the planet’s deep past. She also examines the subterranean
stories of Verne, Wells, Forster, Hugo, Bulwer-Lytton, and other
writers who proposed alternative visions of the coming technological

Williams argues that these imagined and real underground environments
provide models of human life in a world dominated by human presence and
offer a prophetic look at today’s technology-dominated society. In a
new afterword written for this edition, Williams points out that her
book traces the emergence in the nineteenth century of what we would
now call an environmental consciousness–an awareness that there will
be consequences when humans live in a sealed, finite environment. Today
we are more aware than ever of our limited biosphere and how vulnerable
it is. Notes on the Underground,
now even more than when it first appeared, offers a guide to the human,
cultural, and technical consequences of what Williams calls "the human
empire on earth."

I just picked up a copy of this today and am looking forward to reading it.  (Coincidentally, Williams is a past president of SHOT, which I wrote about in the previous post.)

Google’s Energy Addiction

Harper’s has a little piece about Google’s energy habits: Keyword: Evil — Google’s addiction to cheap electricity.

Fake Steve Jobs gives us a summary:

I was gratified to see this article in Harper’s
which describes the obscene amount of energy Google eats up with its
data centers ("a new heavy industry, an energy glutton that is only
growing hungrier") and the slick trickery that Google employed in
Oregon so it could keep getting us taxpayers to pay part of their
electric bills. The Bush administration wanted to privatize a utility.
Google and a friendly congressman persuaded Bush not to do it so they
could keep getting below-market-rate electricity — ie, electricity
subsidized by us, the taxpayers.

Starting to see the pattern
here? We subsidize Google’s electric bills so they can run their giant
data centers. But those data centers cause global warming. So Google
and the VCs create new companies to solve global warming. We subsidize
those companies too. Google and the VCs get rich. We get a nice card at
Christmas, and a free Gmail account. Right on, dudes. Don’t be evil.

Link: Larry Page, friend of the environment.

James Howard Kunstler’s New Novel: World Made by Hand

Orion magazine has a review by John Galvin of James Howard Kunstler’s new novel, World Made by Hand.  An excerpt:

Islamic Fundamentalists have blown up Los Angeles and DC. That puts
the global economy into a smoking tailspin. A flu pandemic has wiped
out a good third of the population, maybe more. Oil, or access to
what’s left of it anyway, is as good as gone. The Chinese have
reportedly landed a man on the moon, but that’s probably more legend
than fact in these paranoid times. The federal government has retreated
to Minnesota, of all places (because who would attack them up there?),
and with resources limited, race wars have erupted across the South.
The globe is no longer flat (sorry, Tom Friedman!). It’s as round and
as large as it’s ever been.

Such is the fictionalized world envisioned by James Howard Kunstler in his new book, World Made by Hand. This isn’t a sci-fi view into a future one hundred or fifty years away. It’s anti–sci-fi, set maybe ten to twenty years out.

Link: World Made by Hand.

Kunstler is best known for his non-fiction.  His most recent is The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.

Presidential Candidates Invited to Science Quiz, er, Debate

The Science Debate 2008 campaign sent out invitations to the four major candidates recently for the debate, now set for April 18th if anyone shows up.  In the invitation they write:

This is a policy debate.  It is not intended to be a science quiz. Nor
are we interested in state-level battles such as the evolution versus
creationism/ID debate.  Our goal is to find out how aware candidates
are of America’s major science and technology problems and
opportunities, and how they propose to offer the kind of visionary
leadership and policy solutions that will tackle those challenges and
ensure America’s place as the most scientifically and technologically
advanced nation on earth.  This is your opportunity to demonstrate that
you are such a leader.

It’s telling that they needed to reassure candidates that it’s not a quiz, because when Science Debate first came on the scene it was clear that many of the people pushing for it wanted a quiz.  There was gloating in comment boards about the chance to make fun of candidates who don’t believe in evolution or don’t understand science.  (Not that those are excusable — thank the gods that Mike Huckabee doesn’t have a chance of winning.)

There are important science and tech policy issues to discuss, but I’m still skeptical of the need for a separate debate on this.  (Previous post: Do we need a presidential debate on science?)

There have been several recent articles on the story:

Our Paperless Future

The New York Times had an article yesterday on our glorious paperless future — which may already be here!  It’s a reasonably balanced piece, aside from some hyperbole from the experts they quote.  Most of this stuff makes sense, like using scanners to keep documents.  In fact that’s mostly what the article is about (scanning documents), whereas the graphic that accompanies it shows such wonders as the electronic bartender with built-in drink recipes and a perennial futurist favorite: the smart refrigerator with digital display.  (Mark Kuniavsky recently posted a nice gallery of these: Evolution of the Fridge Computer.)

An excerpt from the NYT article:

“Paper is no longer the master copy; the digital version is,” says
Brewster Kahle, the founder and director of the Internet Archive, a
nonprofit digital library. “Paper has been dealt a complete deathblow.
When was the last time you saw a telephone book?”

Some homes may
no longer have phone books, but many have scanners — and, increasingly,
more than one. Flatbed scanners, which most people use for photographs,
offer high resolution but are cumbersome for scanning large volumes of
paper. New, cheap document-feed scanners that can digitize a stack of
papers, receipts or business cards in seconds are becoming popular. Add
multiple computers, digital cameras and maybe an electronic book
reader, and suddenly paper seems to be on the endangered-species list.

rising steadily in the 1980s and ’90s, worldwide paper consumption per
capita has plateaued in recent years. In the richest countries,
consumption fell 6 percent from 2000 to 2005, from 531 to 502 pounds a
person. The data bolsters the view of experts like Mr. Kahle who say
paper is becoming passé. […]

A paperless world isn’t automatically a boon for the environment,
though. While these digital toys reduce dependence on one resource,
they increase it on another: energy. Some devices are always plugged
in, eating electricity even when not in use, and gobbling huge amounts
of power when they are. Others, like digital cameras and laptop
computers, use electricity while they are recharging.

And the
shift might not happen as fast as some technology gurus predict. The
paperless office, which some experts had said would be the norm by the
1990s, has so far failed to materialize. Employees are reckless about
printing long e-mail messages, reports and memos, largely because the
company picks up the bill for the laser printers, photocopiers, ink and

Link: Pushing paper out the door.

There are some good comments on the article at TreeHugger and LifeHacker.  Many are about phone books — in the US, phone companies keep delivering these, though hardly anybody wants one.

One thing that’s not often mentioned in stories like these is that you can make paper from things other than trees, which can be more eco-friendly, and also that it’s important to promote sustainable forestry and recycling.  Removing paper completely from our lives shouldn’t necessarily be our goal.