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More Solar Energy, Clojure, and Other Random Bits and Bytes

October 1, 2011

This post is going to pose a challenge in terms of tags (the words and phrases associated with a blog post in hopes of rising in web searches).  The reason is that I haven’t posted for a few days, have lots of ideas for posts, but no time to actually develop them, and promised myself that I would post something today.

So I’m going to give a sneak preview of my list of future posts.  Starting Monday I’ll actually have a breathing space to develop them.

The first gaggle of topics involve solar energy.  While this may not be the golden age of stock prices with respect to solar energy, it’s certainly the golden age of articles about solar.  A combination of GE’s entry into the market, the Solyndra collapse, the recommendations for shorting solar stocks by Jim Chanos (whom I greatly admire, although I think he’s dead wrong in the medium to long term about this one), and the U.S. military’s increasing role as a customer for solar power , has created a rich field of speculative articles about the future prospects for the solar industry.  I think my next blog post on solar energy might be about  the analysis of Jim Chanos, simply because he’s such a brilliant, interesting, and gutsy guy (ALL short sellers are gutsy, but Chanos is often correct in addition to being gutsy).

The second general topic I plan on writing about is Clojure.  This may not be of any interest to the non-programmers among my readers, but it’s of a great deal of interest to me.  Clojure is a contemporary dialect of Lisp, one of the oldest computer programming languages.  When I post about Clojure I’ll attempt to put together a description which is at least comprehensible to anyone with programming experience, but a quick synopsis would be that Clojure is a Lisp variant which tries to behave more like a consistently functional language (like ML or Haskell) than an imperative language (like C or PHP).  Clojure sits atop the Java Virtual Machine, which also gives it access to a wide range of Java classes and methods.

The other topics upon which I intend to ruminate over the next few months include personal productivity, simplicity, the very political topic of the role of government in technology, and why cycling is the most efficient and beneficial means of transportation ever devised 🙂


Definition of Technology, Internet Dating, and Metrics

September 27, 2011

Somewhere in one of the descriptions I set up for  this blog, when I was publicizing it on one of the website pimping sites, I stated that my definition of technology was broader than most.  I am interested in technology in the more standard sense of the word (computers, applied science, industrial technology) and in fact technology in that sense is my business.

But I also feel perfectly comfortable describing low tech productivity systems, ecologically friendly lifestyle choices, even issues of dating, love, and family life as realms of technology.

Here’s my reasoning.  When I did a web search on the word “technology” the first definition on the top of the list was

1. The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry: “computer technology“; “recycling technologies“.

Drilling down a bit further, science is defined as

1. The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

I realize there’s a danger inherent in applying those terms to concerns outside the realm of technology and science as narrowly defined.  From businesses which mis-apply the notion of “metrics”, to lonely geeks attempting to bring the “scientific method” to bear on their sparse dating life, the results can resemble material for a Dilbert story arc.  And there have been many attempts, with horrifying or hilarious results, to apply scientific reasoning to economics, politics, or sociology.

But on the other hand, business can benefit from good, well-considered, and consistently gathered metrics, economics, politics, and sociology does benefit from accurate observation and measurement  …

And lonely geeks can bring technology, even narrowly defined, to bear on their dating life.  Internet date.  Just be sure to bathe,  be polite and talk about things your date is interested in, and for God’s sake don’t prattle on about the Star Wars universe, World of Warcraft, Linux, or Steam-punk, unless your date is an enthusiast, too.  It worked for me, big time  🙂

So in other words, technology is whatever I say it is.  But mostly it’s trying to observe things in a systematic manner, learning lessons from those observations, and applying the lessons in a practical manner.

By that token Zen Habits is the best technology website out there.

Cost of junk food versus cost of healthy food

September 26, 2011

I love to cook, and food fascinates me.  I enjoy perusing everything from cooking techniques, to nutritional content, to the economics of agriculture and the grocery and restaurant industries.  This past weekend’s New York Times Sunday Review  ran an article by Mark Bittman entitled Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?  The article comes to the same conclusion that I reached decades ago: in general fast food is expensive, and in fact, it’s usually more expensive than healthier food.

The advantages of fast food, and to me they are dubious advantages at best, are convenience and uniformity.  When you buy a Big Mac you can drive your car to a drive-in window, snarf the thing down in the car, and relegate the packaging to a landfill.  You can also be reasonably certain that the Big Mac you purchase in Sheboygan will have the same taste and texture as one you would buy in Pensacola.  It’s engineered that way.

The NYT article is correct in it’s conclusion  that fast food is not cheaper.  In fact, the main factor driving the price of food for a family isn’t whether it’s fast food or healthy food, but how much of their food is prepared at home, and how much is eaten out.

Often when people argue that fast food is cheaper, they compare the cost of a Happy Meal with the cost of organic vegetables purchased at Whole Foods (and one person with whom I was discussing the issue chose the cost of red bell pepper, a relatively expensive vegetable, at Whole Foods, a relatively expensive store, for comparison)..  This is a false comparison.  Even if you confine the definition of “healthy” to organic produce (which I don’t accept, because a conventionally grown cabbage is still going to be healthier than an order of fast food french fries) most regions have less expensive alternatives to Whole Foods.  For instance, here in Atlanta the Dekalb Farmer’s Market has very reasonably priced organic produce.

Junk-food-is-cheaper advocates  also appeal to cost-per-calorie as an argument.  That argument is easy to shoot down.   I can pile vegetable oil  or margerine on a serving of beans or cabbage (both cheap foods) and drive the calorie count through the roof.

So why do people continue to eat fast food?

There are several the basic reasons:

1) humans crave high calories for genetic reasons.  Those reasons have changed from necessary to pernicious, since we’re not in a desperate hunter-gatherer struggle for enough calories to survive, but the urges are still with us.  Fast food has concentrated calories.

2) Fast foods are convenient.  Cooking takes time, effort, and knowledge.  Driving up to a drive-in window is fast, easy, and requires few skills beyond the ability to drive and open the driver’s side window.

3) Fast foods are engineered for appealing taste and texture, and uniformity.

4) Marketing and advertising hooks consumers in to fast food at a really early age.  A balanced meal containing adequate servings of vegetables can’t compete with Ronald McDonald.

In summation, the best way to save money on food is to cook at home.  Healthy eating is a separate issue.


Simplification, Part One — Confessions of an Underpants Gnome

September 25, 2011

You may have heard of the Gnomes, aka the Underpants Gnomes, from the animated series  South Park (you can watch the full episode by following this link).  The Underpants Gnomes were entrepreneurial types, who had a very compelling business plan.   They were marching around in the middle of the night, singing a work song reminiscent of a deranged version of the dwarve’s work song from  Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, stealing underpants from the drawers of South Park residents to fulfill the first part of the following simple three phase plan.


Phase 1.  Collect Underpants

Phase 2. ?

Phase 3. Profit

The Underpants Gnomes are well on their  way to becoming a serious cultural metaphor, along the lines of “Catch 22”, or “Houston, we have a problem”, or  “He made him an offer he can’t refuse”.

While I was desperately trying to clean 30 years or so of accumulated clutter in preparation for selling my house, I began thinking of myself as an Underpants Gnome, with the following business plan:

Phase 1. Collect clutter

Phase 2. ?

Phase 3. Profit

Let me explain …

I’ve never had expensive, ostentatious tastes, and certainly don’t crave the largest items available.  Likewise I’m not an early adopter of electronic gadgetry.

I don’t want a Chevy Suburban or a Bugatti Veyron,  a yacht or a bass boat.  I don’t have an iPhone, and iPad, a kindle or a nook.  When I replace a cell phone I don’t get a smart phone, and in fact strive to get the stupidest phone possible (“Will it alert me when a call comes in?  Does the plan have voice mail?  No, I don’t want a camera, or texting, or anything extraneous to the core function of a telephone”).

However, if I allow my natural impulses to hold sway, I’m a serious pack rat.  I can hang on to broken, obsolete, or seldom-to-never-used items as if I’ve been in a lifetime audition for the TV show Hoarders.  The hoarding of objects also has characteristics which cause the process to accelerate.  When you exceed a certain number of discrete items in a finite space, keeping up with any one item becomes nearly impossible.  So if there’s an actual need for the item, the fastest way to deal with the problem is to go out and buy another one.  Hence, as I was cleaning out the house I was selling, I found several number 2 Phillips screwdrivers, three blenders, and multiple copies of “Diet for a Small Planet”.  It struck me as hilariously ironic that I had multiple unused copies of a book on environmental issues.

For any given item, there might be a plausible reason for hanging onto it.  Practical reasons, such as “I made need it someday”.  Sentimental reasons, which is fine unless I get to the point of having hundreds of badly stored sentimental items.  Environmental reasons such as “I know I can donate or recycle this item”.  The insidious thing about the environmental argument is that it’s true, but often irrelevant unless that commitment to recycle or donate is practiced habitually, over time.  If I accumulate a sufficient quantity of junk, it’s going to wind up in a landfill some day anyhow, either arranged for by me while I’m alive,  or my surviving family after I’m gone.

I did manage to get the house cleaned out.  I also donated and recycled as much of the stuff as I could without bogging down the project to the point that it never finished.

Now I’m poised to carry the process further, and pare down my belongings to the point that I don’t have anything that doesn’t serve a real purpose.

I wrote a post last week entitled Tiny houses, close proximity, and simplicity.  This post is the introduction to that part of the series dealing with simplicity.  I wrote it as a confessional to acknowledge that I’m struggling with that issue myself, and that I’m not really a simplicity guru.

If I had to choose someone for that title, I’d probably pick Leo Babauta, whose wonderful website Zen Habits is a treasure trove of resources on simple and minimalistic living.

If you’re interested in starting a campaign to simplify your life, I’d begin by browsing through the articles in the Start Here section of Zen Habits.  The articles are simple, straightforward, practical, and highly readable.

Steel Tired bicycles and inner tube jewelry

September 24, 2011

I have a morning ritual of sitting with my coffee and browsing through the articles on three websites:  MIT’s Technology Review, IEEE’s Spectrum, and Inhabitat.  Technology Review and Spectrum  are great sources of information on technology from the bleeding edge (although the Technology Review has been irritating me lately by running an editorial and a book review with a significant tilt toward the notion that fossil fuels are going to be the dominant source of energy, like,  forever).  Inhabitat is in a class of its own.  It’s probably the most visually well constructed website I regularly follow, and covers green technology, architecture, transportation,  fashion and art.  The stories are unique and well written, with  excellent photography.

This morning  two stories on Inhabitat  both touched on a love of mine, the bicycle.  The first story is of a steel tired bike, designed by Ron Arad.  When I write “steel tired” I don’t mean a rubber tired bike with steel rims, but a bike on which the steel meets the surface of the road.  People who rode it insisted that it wasn’t a rough ride because of the manner in which the steel was arranged (the tires evidently flex with the road), but similar to my view of the nearly all-wooden bike  Inhabitat  reported on earlier, I don’t think I’d want to do a century ride on a bicycle with steel tires.

However, in case the steel tire concept does gain traction in the marker, it makes me happy to note that there’s a use for all those unused bicycle inner tubes.  Inhabitat has run a feature on a line of jewelry made from recycled bicycle inner tubes, named Urban Lace.

Of course on any given day Inhabitat will have a half dozen article available about bikes made from unique materials, or unique items made from recycled bicycle parts.  Just click on transportation.

Solar power and advanced technology startups — they don’t call it bleeding edge for nothing

September 23, 2011

With respect to solar energy, it really is all about the cost.  When the average utility customer flips the light switch they don’t really care whether the electricity is generated by coal, nuclear, solar or hydroelectric.  They want two things:  for the light to come on, and for it to cost them as little as possible.  A very small percentage of those utility customers might be genuinely committed  to cleaner and greener power sources, and be willing to pay more for it, and a somewhat larger percentage might feel good about energy from renewable sources  in a general, abstract sort of way. But the overwhelming majority just want their lights, appliances, and gadgets to work, as cheaply as possible.

So for solar to be more widely adopted, it absolutely has to achieve grid parity.  Grid parity is the point at which solar energy is no more expensive to generate per watt than the average of more conventional sources of energy on the grid.  That number is often set at $1 per watt, depending on how one approaches the math.

The Solyndra debacle has put a spotlight on the tendency of startup companies with new technology to crash and burn. I have no idea whether the company is guilty of anything beyond irrational expectations for the marketability and profitability for their product, although the fact that Solyndra’s officials are taking the Fifth Amendment isn’t a promising indicator.

After the dust settles on the political and legal controversy around Solyndra, though, a question remains which, to me, is more important with respect to energy policy  than the dysfunctional political situation here in the U.S.  That question is whether Solyndra’s particular solar technology is worth pursuing.

The conventional solar panel consists of a grid of 6″ X 6″ flat tiles arranged in panels.  Solyndra’s  approach consisted of racks of cylindrical tubes.  Their claim was that the racks could be mounted horizontally, packed together more closely than traditional panels, and could collect both direct and indirect light, thereby collecting more sunlight, and converting it to more electricity, than conventional flat panels.

The brutal truth is that many interesting technologies never get adequately applied and tested in a real world production environment. due to combinations of under-capitalization,  resistance to change in the market,  the necessity of trial-and-error (and its inefficiencies) in new and uncharted production and marketing territory,  competition, and just plain bad luck.

New and cutting edge technology which succeeds is the exception, not the rule.

That being said, I love poring  through the articles in MIT’s  Technology Review,  IEEE’s Spectrum, and Inhabit to read about the cutting edge in energy technology.

A few recent articles include  Three Dimensional Design Leads to Better Solar Cells in Technology Review,  Nanopillars on Surface of Thin-Film Silicon Could Lead to Better Solar Cells, from Spectrum, and Solar Decathlon Opens in Washington DC from Inhabit.

I just try not to get too disappointed when most of the excellent work showcased in the articles never even make it to market, much less achieve widespread adoption.

China Strategic Monitor’s series — A Quick Tour of Major Players in China’s Solar Market

September 22, 2011

The blog China Strategic Monitor is running a series called A Quick Tour of Major Players in China’s Solar Market.

The Chinese solar industry has been in the news lately for it’s role in bringing down the cost of solar cells and panels, often amid charges of dumping.  This series is giving an overview of the specific major Chinese solar companies.

Click here for Part I of the series

Click here for Part II