Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Solving Solar, and then Some

Solar and Innovation
Irregardless of your view on the solar industry there is a statistic out there that will support your claim.  As different companies try to develop studies to get the information they want; as the same information is gathered using different means; there is always different information.  Are solar panels 8% or 20% efficient.  Is China undercutting pricing so other countries cannot compete?  Has solar power reached parity with other forms of generating electricity?  It takes an expert studying the subject full time to be able to interpret all the data available.  Can you trust the expert who is reporting the data?  Who pays him?  What were his sources of information?  My goal is to convince you of a particular direction for the solar industry without you having to make many assumptions.

2008 was a depressing time in America.  The economy was tanking.  The housing market and auto industries were on the brink of collapse.  When asked how America would cope going into the future, the frequent answer from political pundits and financial analysts was ‘American innovation’.  (Oh no, he’s going into politics.  Profanity involving Obama and Solyndra are spewing from the conservatives’ heads like puss from a canker sore.)  I agree, it is not the best practice for the government to get into capital investments.  It is not ideal when the majority of new companies are likely to struggle, when any corporate connection will be analyzed by every news channel for weeks and sit on the skins of voters like a bad rash (resulting in the canker).  But that was how this term tried to spur innovation when most other investment paths had dried up.  The result was a backlash that may have set back the solar industry with all the controversy.  The common accepted belief is that the US has the most advanced solar tech, but other countries, China and Germany, are adopting it faster and exporting it at a faster rate.  If they are getting more profits from it, then their industry is going to be driven by better products that will reach parity faster what does that imply?  Other countries will be the leaders in this growing industry.  

Where is America’s innovation?  The American innovative spirit is what has been indoctrinated in several political speeches as the saving grace for the economy.  So where can it show up?  The auto industry?  Don’t worry, nothing too hurtful to be said here.  Sure there can be small improvements in the overall design of a standard car.  The components can be more efficient, but that is not the type of innovation that drives a country.  The hybrid and plug-in hybrid variants have potential.  But people respond slowly to justifying the cost.  If you want to sell products that are in demand across the globe look to solar.  Solar has the characteristics needed to drive innovation.  

That is why the statistics do not matter about whether there is cost parity or how much more efficient it is in an area.  Globally there is demand and America cannot afford to take the back seat while other countries drive solar revolution.

Solar and Immigration
Now for something different; let’s talk immigration.  Remember when Newt Gingrich promised an electrified fence at the border if he were elected President.  That does not have to be such a horrible idea.  (And my friends say I’m an over-zealous Obama supporter)  I discussed immigration with a co-worker at a previous job.  His name was Fortino.  He was very clear and concise and in very short order convinced me that no action should be taken to change immigration.  In short, if you deport all illegal immigrants, prices skyrocket, good bye re-election.  If you open the borders there would be a rush of people into the country that would be abhorred by the average American for taking jobs that would otherwise be available.  The goal of any immigration law should not be to impact immigration, but rather to diminish drug routes into America and restrict the means of getting arms into Mexico from America.  

By itself solar is a tough sell.  But if it is able to be incorporated into the cost of another project it could become a worthwhile investment.  I propose that the US and Mexico work out a deal to build an electrified fence; not one that will electrocute people, but rather one that will send power into both countries.  The greatest benefit will be if Mexicans build and sustain the fence and American companies provide the solar panels for it.  The location is ideal to achieve maximum efficiency in solar panels.  The quantities would drive profits and innovation to ensure America can hold its own.  Since Mexicans would then have greater opportunities for gainful employment there will be less reason to go into gangs.  Communities would spring up on both sides of the fence across the entire border.  Instead of necessarily a physical fence you have the fence of a community watch.  There is then a reason to put in a highway system that runs from the Pacific coast to the Gulf of Mexico.  This allows quick maintenance of the fence and allows any illegal activities to more easily be caught.  There is then a reason to have police to protect the towns that spring up and the security to protect the power companies.  These forces would take on some if not all of the duties of the border patrol.
In recent news, the Obama administration set a solar road map that opens up large extents of land for utility scale solar projects.  Details can be found in this LA Times article.  Maybe he is on his way to build an electric fence.  It would be a great zinger in the up coming debates with Romney.

Solar Versus Nuclear
Several people turn to nuclear power as an answer to energy dilemmas.  However, the risks of nuclear power are far too great in my opinion.  Nuclear waste storage and fallout would be the most common.  If you eliminate the need for nuclear energy you also eliminate the largest reasons governments give for having uranium enrichment capabilities.  Eliminating the need for nuclear power would eliminate the largest reason any country would have for a facility that could potentially manufacture nuclear warheads.  Yes, there are still medical reasons for it, but as contrarian evidence I only need to quote the world renowned Dr. McCoy.  "It's the God Damned Spanish Inquisition!"

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Dr. McCoy confronts other doctors on their primitive practices
The claims that every part is inspected and designed to such incredible safety tolerances that nothing can possibly go wrong have also never set well.  That was said of the original nuclear reactors.  Now, after a few fallouts and several close calls, new designs are being developed that are purportedly safer.  

However, the problem is not the parts.  It is the people.  If a reactor gets built cities will spring up around it.  Gradually more and more strain will be put on it.  Eventually there is a dense population that relies on the continuous surge of power.  The people that work there may go through mundane drills to stay ready for any occurrence, but the relaxation will eventually set in as they rely on the notion that nothing can go wrong or some light would tell them what needs to be done.  As a cost saving measure the power company  may try to cut some corner.  Those 3 factors, population density, false sense of ease, and increasing profits will all act together when something does happen.  So when and if a disaster does happen, millions of people must spontaneously be relocated.  The land is rendered useless for centuries.

An alternative solution has also been sought after.  Nuclear fusion; the same processes evident in every star.  It still harnesses the energy stored inside atoms, but it does it in a way that results in no toxic waste and is so unstable that if something did go wrong in the reactor the entire process would just stop.  I have heard it said recently (sorry, don't remember the source) that 2 gallon jugs of water would provide the energy equivalent of an oil tanker.  On the opposite side of the topic, in the study of fusion, there has yet to be a system that can be run continuously and produce a net energy.  The attempts have consumed more than produced.  20 years down the road and billions of dollars later I can see a scientist approach his funders and say something along the lines of, "Well guys.  It's a funny thing.  Turns out nuclear reactions simply obey the laws of conservation.  Split atoms and get energy.  Fuse them, well, and lose energy.  Sorry."  Net energy gains are the ultimate goal, but reading into it, it looks like intermediate successes with controlling plasmas that could result in advanced technologies elsewhere.  Nuclear fusion makes for such a great sales pitch I have one of my own to present.

Dear Powers that Be,

          The research my company has conducted indicates that implementing nuclear fusion in space will eliminate the continuation and instabilities of current ground based research facilities.  The result of which will certainly produce an influx of energy.  We propose to initiate an orbital satellite around Earth and to beam the energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation back to a distributed ground network of collectors.  The projected cost is estimated to only be $5 million (Less than .1% of current fusion research).

                                           Justin Newsome
                                           President and CEO, Solar Hijinks Inc.

Once funded, install a nice solar panel system on the house I would have just bought.  Contract is technically met.  Then, save the remaining $4 million  for the lawyers needed once the Powers that Be realize the scam.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Thoughts on Ready Player One: Prison

Ok, Wade, the main character in the book Ready Player One, does not actually go to prison.  But when he is unable to pay his bills, he is sentenced to an alternative.  Wade sets himself up to owe a massive debt to Innovative Online Industries; an antagonist company out to turn the virtual world into a new, expansive revenue stream.  This parallels the real world concern of maintaining an open internet.  That is the theme of the majority of Ready Player One, and there are likely several discussions on it.  What I will dive deeper into is a look at the consequences Wade experienced for not paying his bills.

Because the debt he owed was to Innovative Online Industries (IOI), he became employed by IOI. He describes the system as indentured servitude. Representatives of IOI came to pick him up from his apartment. He was indoctrinated to the processes that would become his day to day life.  Wade would work as a help desk rep.  He would answer calls to help people so they could go back to enjoying their lives in the virtual world known as the OASIS. When he was not answering calls he would either be in the cafeteria or in his cell, or dormitory.  The food he ate and living expenses were deducted from his wretched pay.  As such, most people could never afford to pay off their debt and would be forced into servitude for the rest of their lives. To monitor Wade's activities there was a security camera in his room and he was forced to wear an ankle bracelet and ear tag. 

That's not so bad right? It's easy to hear the arguments on both sides.  Some people would be for it saying:
Those people never should have gone in debt in the first place. Or..
By keeping them locked up those people can't be driving up the prices I pay. On the other hand..
They are being kept from their friends and family. And..
They could contribute to society much more and pay off their debts sooner in other industries.  And..
The company takes such advantage of them. And..
When they come back to the real world they are less prepared because it would have changed so much. And will make it more likely they will have future debt.

Those are all arguments applied to our prison system.  Outside of those, I like The Shawshank Redemption quote,

"I had to go to prison to be a criminal."

Another issue in our real world scenario is that their living expenses come from taxes.  Because prisons get increasingly over populated, the amount of tax keeps increasing.

National Prison Expenses
Year Cost
1985 $9.6 billion
1990 $12 billion
1996 $22 billion

The main purpose of prisons is to punish.  This point can be argued; someone might say it is to rehabilitate or to protect society by removing the individual.  But as far as being locked in a cell and forced to a limited schedule and structure, that sounds closest to punishment to me.

By invoking the Principle of Shawshank it is observed that prisons are counter-productive to reducing crime. So, what would a prison look like if the primary purpose was to reduce crime with minimal drain on societal resources? What would it look like if punishment was not the primary consideration?

It would look like a society. Personally, I believe everything happens due to cause and effect. If someone commits a crime, there is a reason they committed the crime. A series of events observed by an individual that are interpreted by a series of chemical reactions in an individual's body that result in a consequential action. As such, when the person is arrested and found guilty, they would be offered a choice. The status quo; go to prison for a defined period or enter a new society where privacy would be minimal and potentially need to take a drug regimen. The fabricated society, lack of privacy, and potential therapy and drug regimen would all be to ensure the causes of crime do not enter into the effect; to ensure the individual does not have motivation to commit the crime.  As much as I would like to see this in practice, it is easy to see several fictional plots developed around it with tales of how it would go wrong.

In this society people could work at real jobs making real salaries rather than the pittance of a conventional prison.  People could utilize their time to work and develop a skill rather than working out and developing relationships, forming criminal clubs.  The state funded facilities would cost less because the housing expenses, food, health care, and other necessary amenities would largely be paid for by the inhabitants.  Finally, because most people in society would not go for this idea so far as it has been presented there is one final benefit to mention.  Since the people who committed the crime are able to live normal lives for the most part, the terms of a societal sentence could be longer than the terms of a prison sentence for the same crime.  This means they would be off the streets of main stream America.  Admit it, you can see the benefits, but have already started writing a screen play in your head to catalog the horrific scenarios of how it would pan out.

Those mental screen plays are why this problem cannot be solved.  Think of any water cooler conversation you have had, or maybe over heard, where people complain about the problems of the world, mock the politicians for their horrible decisions, then come to the conclusion of ,"but what can we do?"  People are always far more ready to discuss how bad a decision can be and dismiss it from the beginning rather than discuss a plan in depth, and see how it can develop to improve the world.  Again, it comes back to cause and effect.  This is a perfectly natural response for people to have.  The behavior has its roots in risk aversion that has served most humans so well for centuries.  That, in itself, is a crime and why the risk takers will be the ones who make a difference in the world.


Gangs form for protection.  People who do not feel safe in their environment form together to look after each other.  If a person feels disadvantaged in society they might reach out to the gang for support.  If you are not with the gang, you might be a target for the gang, therefore join the gang.  Then, for whatever reason, a gang member gets sent to prison, now even more unprotected.  This causes the gang to spread further.  The inmates get released and the gang has spread.  I believe gangs should be eliminated, but it is not going to happen by trying to imprison all members.  It should happen by providing everyone with a protected option.  This currently takes the form of community activities.  This is great for prevention, but once in the gang, there needs to be a protected alternative.


With the current prison system, cause and effect make sense for what is observed.  People spend days or years in prison.  Time is largely not spent in productive endeavors.  While in prison, society moves on.  The individual is released back into his original environment, has a huge hole in his work history, and is less knowledgeable about the latest societal trends.  What possible effect could be expected?  If he was on drugs, he has the same drug using acquaintances.  So he goes back to using drugs.  The positive friends may or may not still be around.  Any void there will likely be taken up by more negative influences.  Because life is going to be especially difficult, the same crimes are likely to be taken up.  Cause and effect.  Prison cannot be effectual if it is used primarily as a means of punishment.