Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tuesday Links

  • Above is Chinese coal consumption vs the rest of the world.  Read it and weep.
  • New York Time is cautiously opening up to the idea that being prepared for a risk of major disaster may not be crazy.  I'm in agreement.  While I think the risk of a serious civilizational collapse is small, I don't think it's zero.  And certainly the risk of living through major regional weather disasters is just going to keep getting higher.
  • A philosopher buys into the singularity as an existential risk.
  • Maybe we should rethink our concerns about nuclear waste.  Apparently it's not nearly as bad for wildlife as humans are.
  • Cellulosic ethanol fail (although I'd really love to see Robert Rapier on a unicorn - somebody should totally get on that with Photoshop).

Sunday, January 27, 2013

More on Driverless Cars

Closet Porsche driver Kevin Drum now argues:
Second, though, I think commuting will be changed. The hard part of carpooling right now is finding fellow passengers. With rare exceptions, it's not practical to round up a new carpool every day, so you need to find one or two people who (a) live near you, (b) work near you, (c) all work regular hours, and (d) all work the same regular hours. That's pretty hard.

Once they reach critical mass, fleets of driverless cars completely transform this. When you need a car, you click a smartphone app that immediately starts searching a central database for matches. As long as there are lots of people looking for rides—and drive time is precisely when lots of people are looking for rides—you have a pretty good chance of finding a match anytime you look for one. What's more, because the car is driverless, it has more flexibility: a human would want everyone to have destinations really close to each other, because the driver doesn't want to spend tons of extra time dropping everyone off. A driverless car doesn't care. If it has to drive a few extra miles, it's no big deal.

This is obviously better for the driver, since she can now read the paper or play Angry Birds instead of driving. It's also better for the passengers, who don't have to worry about being precisely on time every day and also don't have to worry about whether the other passengers are precisely on time. If you're running a little late, no big deal. If you work flex time, no big deal. If you have a doctor's appointment and need to leave for work an hour later than usual, no big deal.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Naivety on Driverless Cars

Felix Salmon argues that driverless cars are coming, and that this will result in massive efficiency gains:
If and when self-driving cars really start taking off, it’s easy to see where the road leads. Firstly, they probably won’t be operated on the owner-occupier model that we use for cars today....Given driverless cars’ ability to come pick you up whenever you need one, it makes much more sense to just join a network of such things....therefore the freeing up of lots of space currently given over to parking spots.

What’s more, the capacity of all that freed-up space will be much greater than the capacity of our current roads. Put enough [] self-driving cars onto the road, and it’s entirely conceivable that the number of vehicle-miles driven per hour, on any given stretch of road, could double from its current level, even without any increase in the speed limit. Then, take account of the fact that vehicle mileage will continue to improve. The result is that with existing dumb roads, we could wind up moving more people more miles for less total energy expenditure in cars — even when most of those cars continue to have just one person in them — than by forcing those people to cluster together and take huge, heavy trains instead.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Tuesday Links

  • The above shows a reputable estimate of the peak warming that will occur in a scenario where we start reducing global carbon emissions at a certain year on the x-axis and by a certain percentage rate post-peak (on the y-axis).  For comparison - we've got about 0.8 oC of warming since 1850 and that's proven enough to pretty much melt the North Pole and flood parts of Manhattan and New Orleans (once each so far).  Do we really want to see what 3 oC or 6 oC will do?
  • Interesting paper on the Fermi paradox in the presence of self-replicating machines.  The Fermi paradox is that, since the universe is very large, and life and civilization are possible in it (since we exist), we would expect other civilizations to have arisen elsewhere, probably many times, and if so it's very strange that we don't see obvious signs of them (eg their radio signals).  It's basically an observation that tuning the probability of life/civilization arising to give rise to exactly one civilization in such a very large universe seems hard to do.  Here "hard to do" is code for "it would seem like there must be many more possible universes with a lot of civilizations than possible universes with exactly one" - pointing out that the underlying metaphysical assumption is that the universe should have arisen out of some kind of random process.  This latest paper basically points out that the paradox gets that much harder if you believe computer intelligence will rise to the point of allowing a self-replicating space probe before too long.  Personally, given that we've yet to get out of our own solar system, I view it as considerably less obvious than the author that this is certain to be feasible.  You could see the Fermi paradox as an argument for God(s), who, after all, could presumably have tuned the relevant probabilities to create whatever effect they was trying for, so the whole problem goes away. Or is shifted to a question about why the gods felt it necessary to create such a large universe for a single planetary civilization - but who is in a position to question the aesthetic preferences of the gods?
  • Trying to figure out the maximum sea level during the Pliocene (when CO2 was 400ppm - which we will reach in a another few years)  Was it high enough that the main East Antarctic ice sheet was stable then?  Scientists don't know: old Pliocene beaches have been found from 33' to 295' above modern sea level, indicating the earth's crust has moved around a lot in the intervening few million years.
  • Oh - and the President made climate change the most prominent note in his inauguration speech.  Outstanding.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Weekend Links

Friday, January 18, 2013

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Tuesday Links

  • Jet stream in extreme configuration causing anomalously cold temperatures in California and anomalously warm ones on the east coast.  This is broadly consistent with the latest thinking that Arctic warming will cause slower loopier Rossby waves in the jet stream, leading to more extreme and longer-lasting weather patterns in the northern hemisphere.
  • This is interesting: Ran Prieur, dropout/doomer extraordinaire, is sounding more like me in his views.  I still think there are non-trivial tail risks of this-century societal collapse running around.  One is that climate change turns out to be a runaway process and basically burns all/most of the biosphere in a massive drought.  Another is that the process of keeping ever larger numbers of technologically unemployed people from revolting turns out to be too hard.  A third is a massive cyberwar.  I agree peak-oil has become very implausible as a sole collapse trigger (indeed, once it became clear a number of years back that the decline rate would be slow, that should have been obvious).  Peak (or rather plateau) oil is a stressor though.
  • US coal production down almost 7% in 2012.  Excellent.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

CO2 Concentration in "Panic and Repent" Scenarios

Weekend Links

  • More background on new semi-automated driving systems coming to market soon.  Obviously, these systems will do a lot of good in many ways.  But in a decade or so, it's going to be another notch down in the employment/population ratio for high school grads as these systems get good enough to dispense with taxi and truck drivers.  My guesses from 2010 of how this market would develop are here - I would say that piece is still not looking too bad; if anything, it's going a little faster than I expected.
  • The middle class is totally screwed.  I noticed this a while back; I believe many people need to think in terms of making pretty radical changes in their lives.  (My personal solution was to telecommute from a low-cost area to a high-wage area).
  • BMW bringing more diesel models to the US

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Human Response Function to Climate Change

Extreme Weather Rages Around the World

Seems like climate change has arrived on the front page of the New York Times.  Does this mean we could maybe think about doing something about it?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Thursday Links

  • The above is Arctic land snow cover in June.  This hasn't gotten as much coverage as the sea-ice, but it's collapsing too and it's probably even more important.  The total area lost is larger, and the land is at lower latitude than the Arctic ocean (ie higher sun angle), so the amount of extra absorbed sunlight being introduced into the top of the planet is likely larger due to land snow loss than sea ice loss.
  • Cars driving themselves: another step closer.
  • 2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States.
  • Widespread fires in Australia right now due to record-breaking heat.
  • For those of you in cold places, if you have ice dams or big icicles hanging off your roof, it means your attic is leaking far too much heat; that's a waste of energy.  This article has a good simple overview of the do-it-yourself approach to fixing it.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Eurozone Unemployment still Rising

No relief in sight in that data.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Weekend Links

  • US small business revenue has stalled out.
  • Biofuels making poor people hungry in Guatemala.
  • Anomalously extensive snow cover in December in the Northern Hemisphere (as expected, given the large moisture source in the Arctic Ocean following last summer's record low sea ice).
  • You're not imagining that the weather has gotten crazier in the last decade: there's been a sharp increase in the quantity of blocking patterns in which loops in the jet stream waves get stuck and cause the weather to stop moving and stay the same for a longer than usual period.
  • More electricity production from natural gas than coal in the US for the first time.
  • Climate change threatens wine production - will this be enough to get the attention of elites?
  • Interesting potential power source.  Economic projections should be taken with a sack of salt until it's tested at scale.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Thursday Links

  • Thought-provoking Kevin Kelly essay arguing that it's not actually obvious that the economic benefits of the third industrial revolution (computers, internet) are less than the second industrial revolution (electricity and internal combustion engines). 
  • I didn't know this: it's possible to uprate existing nuclear power plants by modifying them to produce more power.  In the US we've done about 6 MW GW worth of this since the early nineties. 
  • Off topic, but what an extraordinary story: it just goes to show that sometimes life hands you an opportunity and you just have to drop everything and make the most of it.  In seven days' very hard work at the age of 22, this woman had a massive impact on an entire country and did more good than in the entire rest of her life (or most of our lives).  No-one could have intentionally planned ahead to achieve what she ended up achieving.
  • Also semi-off-topic, but it is absolutely appalling that the President can order targeted execution of American citizens with no transparent legal process.  It makes a mockery of our democracy and constitutional tradition.  The NYT and the ACLU are absolutely right to demand more detailed disclosures.
  • I have to say I am somewhat encouraged that, as limited and problematic as it was, Dems and Repubs in the senate where able to come up with a strongly bipartisan vote on some solution to the fiscal cliff.  Almost any agreement is preferable to complete gridlock and dysfunction.  I know, I know, very low expectations.
  • Awesome Kevin Drum essay on the lead-in-gas/violent-crime hypothesis.  If you want to dig into more details this paper is pretty impressive.  Is there a risks-to-civilization angle here?  Maybe - there are people who think that lead poisoning did in the western Roman empire.  This post suggests that levels of lead in Roman skeletons really were higher than those in previous millenia (and much higher than modern standards).  However, late medieval skeletons showed even higher levels of lead than the Romans, so at a minimum this can only be a contributing threat to civilization.  Little doubt it can greatly reduce quality of life, however.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year Links

  • Egypt at risk of a currency crisis?
  • Senate passes a bipartisan short term fix to the fiscal cliff.
  • Doesn't sound like house republicans are going for it.  I had a feeling they wouldn't. It seems like we are in for a long series of eleventh hour crises (or thirteenth hour crises) as Republicans and Democrats war over whose ox is going to get gored to gradually bring the deficit under control.  Is it going to be the welfare state spending on the poor and middle class that Democrats achieved mainly in the mid twentieth century?  Or the very low taxes for the upper class that Republicans have achieved since the 1960s?  We can't have both over the long haul.
Update: well the house did pass it!  So I was wrong.  However, it was with a minority of Republicans voting for it - the majority of the house repubs were against it but Boehner put it to a vote anyway and it passed mainly on democratic votes.  I wonder if he'll survive as speaker after that?  No clue.