3D Printing From Shapeways  

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Jamais Cascio has a post at open The Future on a new 3D Fabber service offered by a company called Shapeways - 3D Print-To_Order.

Whenever I talk about the rise of low-cost 3D fabrication, one inevitable question (after "how expensive is a printer?") is "does anyone do print-on-demand fabbing?" Real soon now, the answer will be yes. (Update: As Sven notes in the comments, print-on-demand fabbing has been around for a bit, but this one seems to be the first aimed at non-professional users.) Shapeways is a new startup service that promises to take your dusty old X3D or Collada-format 3D design files and turn them into shiny new physical objects. Mashable has more, including invites to the closed beta program.

Prices range from $2.50 to $3.44 per cubic centimeter, depending upon the chosen material (which can be solid, flexible, or transparent) and whether or not you're ordering from the EU. That's not cheap, if what you're looking for is a finished consumer item (they use the cute/creepy "monkey baby" dolls shown above as samples; they measure just a couple of inches tall, and run upwards of $60), but it's terrific if you're looking to get a one-off of a unique design. Many of the pages on the Shapeways site remain locked to non-beta visitors, but the blog is open. The blog is good even for folks not about to get stuff printed, as it provides photos of and details about the 3D printers they use, and discusses the stumbling blocks Shapeways has encountered as they get this thing rolling.

This won't be for everybody. You'll have to do the hard design work, in a 3D program that outputs their preferred formats, so I really don't expect this to be the Next Big Web 2.0 extravaganza. Make an app that will convert Second Life (or other Metaverse environment) objects into fully-qualified X3D files, and we'll talk. I'm just fascinated by how fast this market evolves.

Technology Review also has an article on Shapeways - 3-D Printing for the Masses.
"From a technology viewpoint, Shapeways is not that new," says Weijmarshausen. "Rapid prototyping has been used by the aircraft and automotive industries for years, but now we're making it accessible to consumers."

Users submit their design in digital form, after which Shapeways's software checks it over to ensure that it can be made. Shapeways then passes the design to its production line of polymer printers, delivering the tangible object within 10 days of ordering, with prices typically between $50 and $150.

Making this kind of technology accessible enables people to be more creative, says Hod Lipson, an engineer at Cornell University, in Ithaca, NY, and founder of Fab@Home, a 3-D printing community that helps people learn how to build their own cheap printers. "People might have an idea of something they want to create, but don't have the skills or resources to make it," he says.

The 3-D printers that Shapeways is using are commercially available, made by Israeli firm Objet and Stratsys in Eden Prairie, MN. The company also aims to increase the range of plastic materials that can be printed, and eventually move on to metals and ceramics. But currently, these tend to require laser sintering and thus are considerably more expensive and time consuming, says Weijmarshausen.

Some services, such as Ponoko, based in New Zealand, already let people create customized parts and objects--anything from jewelry to fully functional tables, says Derek Elley, Ponoko's chief strategy officer. But this is achieved using two-dimensional laser cutters; 3-D objects need to be assembled afterward.

According to Weijmarshausen, Shapeways's use of 3-D printers takes this concept further. Objects are built in one piece and can include moving parts. "You can even make a working clock," Weijmarshausen says.

Fabbers have been a staple of science fiction in recent years, with Cory Doctorow's story Printcrime being a good example.
The coppers smashed my father’s printer when I was eight. I remember the hot, cling-film-in-a-microwave smell of it, and Da’s look of ferocious concentration as he filled it with fresh goop, and the warm, fresh-baked feel of the objects that came out of it.

The coppers came through the door with truncheons swinging, one of them reciting the terms of the warrant through a bullhorn. One of Da’s customers had shopped him. The ipolice paid in high-grade pharmaceuticals — performance enhancers, memory supplements, metabolic boosters. The kind of things that cost a fortune over the counter; the kind of things you could print at home, if you didn’t mind the risk of having your kitchen filled with a sudden crush of big, beefy bodies, hard truncheons whistling through the air, smashing anyone and anything that got in the way.

Sunrise Floating On The Timor Sea  

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The Australian has a report on progress on the Sunrise LNG project in the Timor Sea. Unsurprisingly, operator Woodisde has decided not to build an LNG plant in East Timor (much to the outrage of the Timorese) and instead is favouring a world first floating LNG platform - Darwin beats Timor for site of LNG plant.

WOODSIDE Petroleum has ruled out a $15 billion East Timor liquefied natural gas export plant to process output from its Greater Sunrise fields. East Timor's natural resource secretary of state said the decision would be a "major problem" for the Government.

A Woodside spokeswoman said yesterday that the Perth company had told East Timorese authorities a local plant was not commercially attractive and it would instead focus on piping gas to Darwin or building a floating LNG plant. East Timor Natural Resources State Secretary Alfredo Pires said he had not been informed of the decision and the Government, which had to approve the Sunrise project, would still push hard to for an East Timor plant.

"If there is a decision of that nature it will be a major problem for us," Mr Pires said yesterday after being informed of Woodside's statements. "To my understanding we have an agreement that no decision on a site shall be made until early next year."

Mr Pires said he was more than just hopeful an LNG plant would be built in East Timor. When asked if he was instead demanding, he said "yes". "We think it is only fair that the gas pipeline comes to Timor Leste," he said. "Timor Leste's needs have to be taken into account this time round."

After delaying the project since 2004 until fiscal and legal certainty could be obtained from East Timor, Woodside late last year restaffed the project.

That was done after East Timor ratified a treaty splitting royalties from the project 50:50 with Australia, an improvement for the smaller nation on a previous agreement. The Greater Sunrise fields straddle the boundary of the Joint Petroleum Development Area of the Timor Sea. Woodside had previously said the East Timor plant was the least preferred of the three options and yesterday said it was no longer being considered.

"Floating LNG is the most attractive in-field option and Darwin is the most commercially attractive onshore option for Sunrise," a Woodside spokeswoman said.

Utah's Solar Fired Furnace  

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Celsias has a look at a new Fresnel lens based CSP (solar thermal) technology originating in Utah from a company called IAUS - Utah's Solar Fired Furnace to Power California for Less Than the Cost of Coal or Gas.

In an arid region of the western U.S. known as the Great Basin, the desert floor has recently been reaching temperatures in excess of 1,300 degrees Farenheit. No, this isn't due to global warming, but perhaps part of the solution to it. A Utah based company called IAUS (International Automated Systems Inc.) has developed a solar lens technology that transmits solar energy with an efficiency of 92%.

A California energy consortium has invested in the first stage of the project. Twenty specially designed solar towers are being erected close to the Great Basin in Delta, Utah. Each tower holds four solar lenses that follow the sun as it crosses the clear blue desert sky. Each lens will focus the sun's rays onto specially designed heat exchangers that will convert the solar energy to super-heated steam. The heat exchangers double as high-efficiency turbines that will drive electrical generators to produce alternating current output.

Later stages will involve placing 1000 towers over 700 acres of desert. With each tower having a capacity to produce 100 kW of power, the entire field stands to produce close to 100 MW of power when finished. That's enough energy to power 50,000 average Californian homes. Once generated, the power will travel around five miles to be integrated with the U.S. national power grid.

The key to the success of the project are the unique thin-film solar lenses. Lenses of this size are typically heavy and expensive to produce. IAUS have developed a technique of embedding magnifying material into cheap, light, rolled plastic. The plastic is composited into extremely large Fresnel lenses. The lenses are light, relatively cheap to manufacture and easy to maintain. This compares favourably with traditional solar collectors.

The plant is located in one of the best solar locations in the country due to its high altitude and thin air. Solar energy is absorbed as it travels through our atmosphere, so placing a solar energy plant in a rarefied environment allows more solar radiation to be captured. IAUS also point out that the land on which the final solar plant is to be situated is one tenth the price of equivalent land in California. Combined with the comparatively inexpensive cost of the plant equipment, this means that the entire facility would cost roughly half of what a coal fired power plant would cost to construct.

Biodiesel Doesn't Grow On Trees, Does It ?  

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Biodiesel magazine has a report on some research to extract biodiesel from "diesel" trees - Colorado researchers study biodiesel tree.

Chhandak Basu, a biological sciences assistant professor at the University of Northern Colorado, has received a $49,643 grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade to study the viability of using biodiesel derived from a tropical tree. The university will match the funds, bringing the total amount of grant money to nearly $100,000.

During a two-year collaborative project through the Bioscience Discovery Evaluation Grant Program, Basu is cloning the genes responsible for the production of oleoresin, a diesel-like fuel, produced in the copaiba or “diesel tree.” The genes will then be transferred into plants and algae to determine which plants are compatible and can produce the most biodiesel. Basu has been working on the project with University of Tennessee-Knoxville Professor C. Neal Stewart Jr., Ph.D.

According to Basu, oleoresin from genetically modified plants could potentially be mass-produced and used without further refining fuel automobiles. “The agricultural/physiological aspects of oleoresin have been studied extensively, but not the molecular biology part, not the genes responsible for this type of synthesis,” Basu said.

The diesel tree itself does not grow well outside of tropical environments, making it unlikely the trees could ever become a reliable source of large-scale biodiesel production. Standing at roughly 40 feet tall, it would take more than ten years of growth for the tree to produce a significant amount of fuel. Even then, a single tree would likely produce approximately 4 or 5 gallons of oleoresin every 6 months. The oleoresin is tapped from the trees in a way that is similar to collecting sap to make maple syrup. One benefit of the substance is that, unlike oil from traditional biodiesel feedstocks such as soybeans, oleoresin doesn’t have to be refined or manufactured before it’s used.

Basu and two graduate research students will transform Arabidopsis, a small non-invasive flowering plant, and algae with oleoresin genes. Genetic material for use in the study was collected from the copaiba tree by Basu during a trip to the University of Puerto Rico, San Juan.

Basu said Arabidopsis was chosen in part because if successfully modified it would not negatively affect food supplies or strain the economy. The plant is generally referred to as a weed and considered useless.

Flocking For Financial Safety  

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The SMh has a report on an academic proposal for aircraft to flock like geese, with the aim of reducing fuel costs - Aircraft could flock to save fuel.

AIRCRAFT flying in geese-like formation, refuelling at service stations in the sky and making extra stops over long distances have been suggested as radical ways for airlines to save fuel.

Nick Lieven, dean of engineering at Bristol University, told the Asia Pacific Aviation Conference in Sydney that such "wacky" measures could be considered if the oil price kept rising.

Professor Lieven said studies had found that "flocking" could provide a fuel saving of about 20%. "Birds are very clever and if you think of the way they fly, the lead bird creates a vortex which then makes it easier for the other birds to fly as well, and they rotate around every so often," he said.

Professor Lieven said aircraft could also refuel in mid-air, a practice used by military aircraft. "The difficulty is not the in-flight refuelling technology but what happens if you miss the refuelling stop," he said.

Professor Lieven said both ideas were probably about 20 years off and would realistically only be used for cargo planes.

Peak Oil In The Washington Post  

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Coby at A Few Things Ill-Considered points to a Washington Post series on peak oil called "Oil Shock". From Calif. Field Goes from Rush To Reflection of Global Limits:

In May 1899, a pair of oil prospectors wielding picks and shovels dug into a bank of the Kern River where some gooey liquid had seeped to the surface. About 45 feet down, they hit oil, and when the local newspaper printed the news, it set off an oil rush that swept up hundreds of fortune seekers, oil companies, a big railroad and even some enterprising school districts that bought up tracts in hope of turning a profit.

Today, on an arid square of land the size of Manhattan, thousands upon thousands of black derricks crowd the landscape, bobbing gently up and down and sipping crude oil from the field discovered a century ago. The wells aren't gushers these days, but they still squeeze out a few barrels a day here, a few more there.

Chevron has injected steam into the reservoirs, coaxing the sedimentary rock into giving up millions of barrels of heavy oil that was too thick and sticky to retrieve using the technology of decades past.

But the Kern River field, like most U.S. oil fields, is in decline. After surging to new highs during the 1980s, Kern River production has dropped to just over 80,000 barrels a day, more than 40 percent below its peak. Enhanced recovery techniques will continue to prolong its profitable life, but its days are numbered.

Kern River is the story of America's oil supply. Four decades ago, the United States was the world's biggest oil producer. But U.S. crude oil output peaked in 1970, at 9.6 million barrels a day, which was enough to cover the bulk of the country's needs back then. Now, U.S. crude production stands at 5.1 million barrels a day. Together with liquids derived from natural gas and other inputs, domestic production covers only 42 percent of the country's needs. The balance comes from imports. Ever since President Richard Nixon called for "Project Independence" in a 1973 address to the nation, U.S. energy independence has been little more than a throwaway line in political speeches.

The United States is at the leading edge of what may lie ahead for worldwide oil production. Global petroleum output is still rising, but the rate of growth is slowing. Supply is not increasing fast enough to keep up with soaring global demand, putting ever more upward pressure on oil prices.

Over at the WSJ they report that the neoconservative "Prince of Darkness", Richard Perle, is getting in on the Iraq oil theft - Perle Linked to Kurdish Oil Plan.
Influential former Pentagon official Richard Perle has been exploring going into the oil business in Iraq and Kazakhstan, according to people with knowledge of the matter and documents outlining possible deals.

Mr. Perle, one of a group of security experts who began pushing the case for toppling Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein about a decade ago, has been discussing a possible deal with officials of northern Iraq's Kurdistan regional government, including its Washington envoy, according to these people and the documents.

It would involve a tract called K18, near the Kurdish city of Erbil, according to documents describing the plan.

"Fueling stations" for electric cars in Portland  

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Ron at Newshoggers points to this article at NewsChannel 8 in Portland on a new initiative in Portland, Oregon, which seems to be the green frontier in a lot of ways - PGE offers free 'fueling' station for electric cars.

Portland has a reputation for being green. And according to PGE, that reputation is well earned.

The electric utility unveiled its first electric fueling station near Southwest 1st Avenue and Salmon Street Monday. Officials said there will soon be a network of 12 electric stations located all across the city as PGE prepares for the future.

"The City of Portland already has the highest percentage of hybrid vehicles of any city in the nation. So we know that Portlanders are already buying electric vehicles, and as more of these hybrid plug-ins get rolled out we want to be ready to serve them," said Bill Nicholson, PGE vice president of customers and economic development.

Meantime, automakers continue to work on new technologies - like plug-in hybrids - that may drive demand higher. So even though the network of electric filling stations may start off small, PGE officials said they plan to expand in the future.

And when consumers learn about the economics of an electric fill-up, PGE officials believe they won't ever want to go back.

"Some of the early returns show you can charge a vehicle for 40 miles for less than a dollar. You compare that to how much you're going to pay; $5 or $6 for gas to run 40 miles, and we think it's going to be cheaper and better for the environment," Nicholson said.

And at least in the beginning, customers won't even have to pay that $1 to go 40 miles as PGE wants to make it as easy as possible for its customers to use the plug-in stations and they will offer the electric power for free.

Smart Meters In New Zealand  

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I'm seeing stories about rollouts of smart meters somewhere or other just about every day now (step 1 towards the smart grid).

Computerworld reports the Kiwis are now getting with the program - Aucklanders to get smart electricity meters

Over 300,000 Auckland-based Mercury Energy customers will receive a new smart meter for their electricity services through Mercury's metering services provider, Metrix.

Smart meters record usage in 30 minute periods, meaning that information for bills will always be up to date. This information can also be used by customers to manage their power consumption.

The meters, which are now being installed, can also be read remotely, replacing physical visits by meter readers each month. The meters use adaptive radio mesh technology to conduct the remote readings, a system first developed for military applications.

“The use of smart meters enables the development of more flexible electricity pricing plan options that can be tailored to customers’ needs – much like mobile phone plans today," says Mercury Energy’s general manager, John Foote. "We are only at the start of the journey but this could have the same impact on the retail electricity sector that electronic transaction technology did in the banking industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s.”

WorldChanging also has a post on smart meters - Old homes get smart.
The Times profiles two British seaside towns on the forefront of the low-tech energy efficiency revolution. Take, for example, Hove residents Brenda and Jeffrey Marchant, owners of a typical Victorian house. The Marchants were always energy-thrifty, but instant feedback is a uniquely motivating force.
"Turn on a computer and the device — a type of so-called smart meter — goes from 300 watts to 400 watts. Turn off a light and it goes from 299 to 215. At 500, the meter is set to sound an alarm.

'I’ve become like one of Pavlov’s dogs,” Mrs. Marchant said. “Every time it bleeps I think I’m going to take one of those pans off the stove. I’d do anything to make it stop. It helps you change your habits.'"

Homeowners are insulating attics and swapping out windows as part of an ambitious effort to drop the city’s emissions 20% by 2012. None of the efficiency measures are particularly exotic, and most pay for themselves. The city provides grants for some of the more expensive items, such as solar water heaters.

The U.S., of course, lags, but already technology providers are working on more sophisticated forms of smart meter that can adjust power consumption automatically by controlling appliances. When woven together into a smart grid, these systems can help reduce peak power demand. (In March 2008, Worldchanging covered Boulder, Colo.'s plans for the first U.S. smart grid)

Demand management is good for the environment, and also good for utilities. Southern California Edison plans to distribute smart meters to all 5.3 million customers by 2012. Such a program would have been financially infeasible just a few years ago. With prices on the technology dropping, the utility now expects to at least break even.

LEDs - The Next Generation Of Lighting  

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The New York Times has a look at the slow evolution of LED lighting - Fans of L.E.D.’s Say This Bulb’s Time Has Come.

The nation’s Big Three of lighting — General Electric, Osram Sylvania and Royal Philips Electronics — are embracing a new era of more efficient technologies, like halogen, compact fluorescent and solid-state devices. Encouraged by legislation and the rising cost of energy, as well as concerns about greenhouse gases, consumers are swapping out incandescent bulbs.

The switch is forcing a fast change in strategy, as companies reposition their manufacturing lines. General Electric, for instance, said earlier this month that it was spinning off its unit that makes bulbs.

The bulb makers face a tough problem. Their businesses were built on customers who regularly replaced light bulbs. How do you make a profit when new lighting may commonly last 50 to 100 times as long as a standard bulb? Compact fluorescents, which use less than one-third the power and last up to 10 times as long as standard bulbs, have replaced incandescent bulbs in many homes and offices.

In some types of commercial buildings, L.E.D.’s are rapidly replacing older products. The industry seems convinced that new lower-cost L.E.D. bulbs, with their improved efficiency, will eventually become the chief substitutes for incandescent bulbs in homes.

L.E.D.’s, including new bulb types and applications, dominated the exhibits at Lightfair, the lighting industry’s annual trade event held in May in Las Vegas. Traditional tungsten bulbs were largely absent. L.E.D.’s were shown for street and parking lot lighting, under-counter lighting, residential bulb replacements and office lighting. They are being used in commercial refrigerators, as substitutes for fluorescents and for illuminating the outside of buildings, allowing for easy color changes. Television production studios are installing L.E.D.’s to save money and eliminate the need for climbing in the rafters to change bulbs or filters.

The problem, though, is the price. A standard 60-watt incandescent usually costs less than $1. An equivalent compact fluorescent is about $2. But in Europe this September, Philips, the Dutch company dealing in consumer electronics, health care machines and lighting, is to introduce the Ledino, its first L.E.D. replacement for a standard incandescent. Priced at $107 a bulb, it is unlikely to have more than a few takers.

“L.E.D. performance is there, but the price is not,” said Kevin Dowling, a Philips Lighting vice president and past chairman of the Next Generation Lighting Industry Alliance, an industry group that works with the Department of Energy. “Even at $10 to $15, consumers won’t buy L.E.D. bulbs,” Mr. Dowling said.

The L.E.D., a type of semiconductor, generates light when an electric current is passed through positive and negative materials. Energy is given off in the form of heat and light. Different colors and greater efficiency are created by altering the composition of the material. Typically, a compact fluorescent bulb uses about 20 percent of the energy needed for a standard bulb to create the same amount of light. Today’s L.E.D.’s use about 15 percent. Next-generation bulbs still in the labs do even better.

While compact fluorescents are beginning to replace standard light bulbs in many homes, lighting executives see those as an interim technology. They say the large size of the bulbs, the inability to dim many of them, the unpleasant color of the light and the five milligrams of mercury in each bulb will limit their appeal.

Philips is working to decrease the penetration of compact fluorescent bulbs. “We are not spending one dollar on research and development for compact fluorescents,” said Kaj den Daas, chairman and chief executive of Philips Lighting. Instead, the bulk of its R.& D. budget, which is 5.2 percent of the company’s global lighting revenue, is for L.E.D. research. Philips is betting the store on the L.E.D. bulbs, which it expects to represent 20 percent of its professional lighting revenue in two years.

Technology Review also has an article on LED's, explaining how replacing sapphire with silicon could lead to Cheaper White-Light LEDs.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are better than compact fluorescent bulbs--LEDs use less energy, last longer, and contain no toxic mercury--but for general white-light illumination, they're still far too expensive for mass adoption. Now, researchers at Purdue University have taken a step toward making white LEDs with cheaper materials.

LEDs are semiconductors that emit photons when a charge is applied. To make white LEDs, you need an LED that emits blue light (the blue light is then either filtered or combined with red and green LEDs, to make white). Today's commercial LEDs generate blue light from a gallium nitride semiconductor expensively fabricated on a sapphire substrate. The Purdue group found a way to build blue gallium nitride LEDs by stacking metallic layers on silicon.

The benefits are several. Silicon is cheaper and available in larger diameters than sapphire is. Silicon also carries away heat effectively, meaning that it can remain in a finished LED device and allow the lamp to last longer and stay bright. Since sapphire is a poor thermal conductor, LEDs grown on the substrate have to be removed and transferred onto a different surface--costly extra steps, says Timothy Sands, director of the Birck Nanotechnology Center at Purdue, who led the research.

Although Sands says that he can't identify an exact cost savings until the devices are manufactured, the cheapness and scalability of silicon are reason enough for him to be "confident that it will be much cheaper [than sapphire]." Other improvements, such as better heat dissipation and reflectivity, also boost performance. The researchers have yet to report how the device's efficiency and total light output compare to that of current LEDs. "What's exciting is the impact this could have on energy savings" that would be derived from cheaper white-light LEDs replacing conventional lighting, Sands says.

The group achieved the trick using metallic layers. Since silicon absorbs light--a negative when the goal is to release it--Sands's group coated the silicon with a layer of zirconium nitride that reflects the downward-traveling light back to the top. To solve a second problem--that zirconium nitride reacts with silicon in a way that degraded the LED--they put a layer of aluminum nitride in between, which prevented these reactions. The last step is the addition of a layer of gallium nitride.

Putting Tall Ships Back To Work  

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CleanTechnica has a post on the revival of a wind powered ship, now used to transport wine from France to Ireland - Wind-Powered Tall Ships Are Once Again Important As Oil Prices Hurt Trade. I'm not sure we'll see a huge resurgence of tall ships in future (hybrid schemes like SkySails seem more likely to see widespread acceptance), but it is one oil free alternative for shipping.

Sometimes it takes an energy crisis to make us realize the value of old technology. As oil prices soar, tall wind-powered ships are looking like an increasingly viable alternative.

The first commercial cargo of French wine to be transported by sailboat in the modern era is due to arrive in Dublin this week after a six-day trip. The 108 year-old boat, chartered by French shipping company Compagnie de Transport Maritime a la Voile (CMTV), is carrying 30,000 bottles of wine.

Though the ship travels at a top speed of eight knots— half the speed of a modern cargo vessel—it is completely pollution-free. The 50,000 other merchant ships traveling the world emit 800 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.

The Kathleen & May spent most of its life transporting coal and clay. It was taken out of commercial service in 1960. Now it’s once again hard at work, as CMTV has contracted for 80 vineyard owners from southern France to carry their wine bottles to Ireland on the ship. The company is also working on another deal to bring Irish whiskey and scotch to France using the boat, and it eventually plans on building its own tall ships for transport.

CMTV may be on to something; according to the French Association of Shipowners, wind-powered boats could capture .5% of the commercial shipping market. This may not sound like much—until you consider that 90% of the world’s traded goods are transported via boat.

Tall ships may move a bit slower than fossil-fuel powered ships, but their minimal environmental impact could make them sea trade’s best hope for the future.

Coal to liquids in the US  

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Keith Johnson at the WSJ reports that the US may soon get its first coal to liquids plant, noting that one unfortunate side effect of high oil prices is that it makes both dirty and clean energy alternatives more attractive - Coal Juice: High Energy Prices Prompt First U.S. Coal-to-Liquids Plant.

It’s far from clear that higher energy prices are environmentalists’ friend. Though they migh eventually spur clean energy, they’re doing a good bit of the opposite right now.

Today’s energy prices—and just as importantly, growing concern over energy security—are driving ever-dirtier energy solutions, from Canadian tar sands, to a rush to develop shale oil and gas in the U.S., to a dash away from natural gas and back toward coal. The latest unintended consequence? America’s first coal-to-liquids plant, to be built in West Virginia.

Consol Energy and Synthesis Energy Systems, or SES, announced today they will build a smallish plant right next to a Consol mine that can turn abundant West Virginia coal into gas. Eventually, and with the help of ExxonMobil, the pair hope to crank out 100 million gallons a year of gasoline from the coal. Technology permitting, Consol and SES hope to one day stick the plant’s carbon-dioxide emissions underground, making it a “clean coal” gasification plant.

The pilot project responds to the two dirtiest words in America’s energy lexicon—“foreign oil”—with a politically, if not environmentally, appealing alternative—“domestic coal.” Both West Virginia senators love the idea, praising it as an answer to the state’s economic development and America’s quest for energy security. Environmentalists hate it.

Coal-to-liquids technology isn’t new—the process was developed in Weimar Germany in the 1920s. Apartheid-era South Africa used the technology to escape sanctions. Today, coal-rich and oil-poor China is leading the world’s charge to turn coal into industrial gases and transport fuel, though other countries with oodles of coal reserves—from the U.S. to Australia—are increasingly turning to the black stuff as an answer to the oil crunch.

Despite the complicated processes involved, the economics aren’t bad. Oil prices are high, and coal is still relatively cheap (and companies like Consol’s new partner SES can use the really cheap grades of coal.) Worse are the environmental impacts—burning the coal once to make a gas, which is then turned into gasoline, which is then burned again in cars. That’s the same charge levied against tar sands development—even though pricey oil now makes so-called dg“unconventional reserves” an economically—attractive project for oil companies, it takes a lot more energy to get the stuff out of the ground, leading to a lot more emissions of greenhouse gases.

Mitsubishi Goes Electric in Australia  

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The Courier Mail reports that Mitsubishi is going straight to electric cars in Australia, bypassing hybrids entirely - Mitsubishi's plug-in i MiEV on sale in 2009.

AUSTRALIA will have its first plug-in electric car by the end of next year. The baby Mitsubishi i MiEV has been confirmed for local sales, with a showroom target in the final months of 2009 and a starting price in the $30,000 range. The company plans to skip the hybrid phase of future car development and go straight to a plug-in, with a claimed top speed of 180km/h and a range of 200km.

"Mitsubishi don't make hybrid cars. They make electric cars. And we will have one here as soon as we possibly can," says the managing director of Mitsubishi Motors Australia, Rob McEniry. "We will have the i-car initially. But it doesn't go into volume production until next year. How many we get depends on the reaction by some of the key fleets in Australia, and governments. We would dearly like to have a number of them here in 2009."

The news comes as several European manufacturers, including BMW and VW, confirmed they were also getting ready to build electric production cars.

Mitsubishi's i MiEV has only been a motor show concept until recently, both as a standard car and a sports model, but Mitsubishi is pushing ahead with a solid production plan for the aluminium-framed baby. It has an on-board power pack, using lithium-ion batteries, with three motors. One turns each of the front wheels, with the third powering the back axle. The power pack is in the rear of the car, creating maximum cabin space despite an overall length of only 3.4m.

CNet reports electric car startup Aptera has received funding from a range of sources, including Google - Electric carmaker Aptera raises $24 million round.
Aptera Motors, the electric car start-up that on Tuesday nabbed funding from Google.org, announced Thursday that it has secured $24 million in a series C round. The Carlsbad, Calif., company aims to spend the funds on its manufacturing center in nearby Vista.

Aptera has set the end of this year for the release of its all-electric Typ-1, a two-seater, three-wheeled electric car whose streamlined shape might look at home in a Jetsons cartoon. Each street-legal vehicle would cost less than $30,000.

The electric version of the three-wheeler would drive 120 miles per charge, while a hybrid version due for release near the end of 2009 is meant to achieve 300 miles per gallon.

"The Aptera Typ-1 is designed to be the lowest-energy way to transport two passengers safely from point A to point B," Bill Gross, chairman and CEO of start-up incubator Idealab, which backs Aptera, said in a statement.

Google's philanthropic arm on Wednesday shared that it will split $2.75 million toward its RechargeIt initiative between Aptera and battery start-up ActaCell.

The Mind of the Market  

Posted by Big Gav

Time for a change of pace, in this case a diversion over to the endless debate about what a "libertarian" is. From a book review of The Mind of the Market, by Michael Shermer by Kevin Carson at the Mutualist Blog:

If you can get past the flaws in Shermer's book (things others might prefer to think of as my fixations, hangups, and dead horses), it's quite an enjoyable read.

But given my obsession with the ubiquity of vulgar libertarianism, comparable to Captain Ahab's with Moby Dick, I can't refrain from pointing out the flaws.

Before I say a lot of nasty things about Shermer's ideological assumptions, I have to make the disclaimer up front that he comes across as thoroughly decent and likeable on a personal level. That he takes for granted certain ideological assumptions that I have long since declared war on is no reflection on him as a human being. Shermer states, as one of his fundamental guiding principles, a dictum of Spinoza's: "I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." I'll try to keep to that spirit as closely as I can in discussing my caveats about Shermer's book.

Nevertheless, Shermer displays a considerable vulgar libertarian element in his background assumptions. His writing, over and over, tacitly equates the phenomena of existing corporate capitalism to the "free market." He constantly uses things like Bill Gates, Wal-Mart, and other transnational corporations to illustrate the principles of the "market," and treats them as living embodiments of Adam Smith's invisible hand. He equates "the market" to the existing corporate economy, quoting attacks on the evils of corporate power and then "proving" they can't be right because "that's not how the market works." Implicit in his rejection of The Corporation, of Chomsky and Zinn, is the assumption that the present system, the one they're attacking, is the market.

A parallel theme is alleged popular hostility or resistance to "free market economics," which he assumes is motivated by irrationality. A particularly atrocious example (I'm tempted to call it a howler) occurs on page 16:
Folk economics leads us to disdain excessive wealth, label usury a sin, and mistrust the invisible hand of the market. What we do not understand we often fear, and what we fear we often loathe. (As one New Yorker cartoon featuring two people in conversation reads: "I hated Bill Gates before it became so fashionable.")

There you have it: invisible hand=excessive wealth=Bill Gates. Anybody who has problems with Bill Gates and excessive wealth must harbor an irrational fear and/or hatred for "the invisible hand of the market." After all, it's not like Gates could have gotten so rich by any other means, like the visible hand of the state's "intellectual property" [sic] monopoly, could he? And we know all those other billionaires got rich through the operation of the "free market." I mean, we hear it from neoliberal politicians and commentators at MSNBC every friggin' day, so it must be true. This all reminds me of Dick Cheney in 2000 boasting, of Halliburton's wealth, that "Government had nothing to do with it."

The public mindset isn't really all that irrational, if you keep in mind that their hostility is not so much to free markets, as to what has been called "free markets" by the usual gang of corporate apologists.

I'm about as close to a free market fundamentalist as you can get. But if I thought the "free market" meant what Tom Friedman and other neoliberal politicians and talking heads meant by it, I'd hate it more than anybody.

The average person sees Wal-Mart, Microsoft, downsizings, oil company profits, offshoring, and all the other unsavory phenomena of the corporate global economy defended in "free market" language, and his response is "if that's the free market, then the free market be damned." It's essentially the same reaction as Huckleberry Finn's. Huck lacked the conceptual apparatus to make an effective critique of the legitimizing ideology of slavery, or to debunk the Widow Douglas's "property rights" in Jim. He took the slave system's ideological self-justification at face value--and then said "All right, then, I'll go to hell." The average American, likewise, looks at the inequalities and injustices of our corporatist economic system, made possible by massive state intervention on behalf of organized capital, and sees it defended as the "free market." And his response is the same: "If this is the free market, I'll go to hell."

Shermer asks why people reject Adam Smith's theory of economics, despite its being so profound and proven. The answer just might be that the rhetoric of free markets, so closely associated with Adam Smith, has been misappropriated to defend a system of corporate power far closer to what Smith condemned than to what he supported. Adam Smith, like the other early classical liberals, was a revolutionary thinker who attacked the entrenched privileges of the landed oligarchy and the mercantile capitalists. It's almost impossible to go to a mainstream "libertarian" website these days without seeing the thought of Adam Smith misappropriated to defend the modern institution most closely resembling the landed interests and privileged monopolists of the Old Regime: the giant, state-subsidized, state-protected corporation.

As I suggested earlier, most people who display egalitarian reactions against existing inequalities and concentrations of wealth may well believe that what they hate is the "free market." But that's only because the rhetoric of "free markets" has been perverted, for the most part, by apologists for those concentrations of wealth which result from privilege and other forms of state intervention. What they hate, they rightly hate. They're wrong to believe that what they hate is the "free market." But it's hard to blame them, when you can't turn on the TV or read an editorial page without seeing a fundamentally statist economic system of special privilege and protection for big business and the rich described as "our free market system."

More Shale Oil. Yawn.  

Posted by Big Gav in

The Australian's "Pure Speculation" column reports that local investors are finding it hard to get interested, let alone excited, about various minnows touting their oil shale finds - Investors cool to oil shale discoveries.

WAS it memories of burned fingers or speculators' capitulation to the bear market?

Whatever the reason, no one is getting excited about oil shale. It may be one of those stories that will -- unlike uranium and phosphate -- creep up on people rather than go into overdrive from the beginning, especially if oil prices cement themselves at some level over $US150 a barrel.

We talked here last week about the possible resurrection of the oil shale story. Extracting oil from such formations has a long history in Australia: between 1870 and 1911 oil shale was mined at Mittagong south of Sydney and there were other operations at Murrurundi, Glen Davis and at Newnes near Lithgow, the last closing in 1932 when sufficient crude supplies put it out of business.

The oil shale story came back into vogue after the crude price shocks of the late 1970s. Oil shale has a similar story to that of uranium -- a great deal of work was done back in the 1970s and early 1980s when prices were high; then the prices of both uranium and oil went into a dive and the explorers left. Now old projects are being dusted off.

A few weeks ago we had Tasman Resources (TAS) dip its toe in the story with an announcement about finding oil shale in South Australia. No one got excited.

Likewise in the past week. It didn't help that the latest announcements came out as the oil price buckled to a seven-week low, and each correction such as this week's one will leave investors jittery about a concept that has both a dodgy history in terms of failed projects and also relies on crude prices staying sky high.

Back in 1983 the then BHP found lignite and oil shale on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. But the market seemed to yawn when Uranium SA (USA) reported last week that nine of 30 uranium exploration holes at its main Eyre Peninsula prospect had hit significant lignite and oil shale in the same area. All of 12 shares (worth a total $1.32) went through the day after the announcement.

Oil shale exploration took place in Queensland, between Cloncurry and Julia Creek, around 30 years ago and large near-surface deposits were found but the grades were low, about 0.25 barrels a tonne. Now Paradigm Metals (PDM) and Exco Resources (EXS) report they have oil shale on covering 100sq km on ground at Cloncurry with the shales at least 10m thick.

Tidal Power In Korea  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Korean network KBS has a report on tidal power in Korea - News In Zoom: Tidal Power Generation.

Securing energy is a matter of global concern, due to high-flying oil prices, and tidal power generation has emerged as an alternative energy source. The on-going construction of the Sihwa-ho tidal power plant will be completed in November 2009, and the planned Garorimman tidal power plant is now enjoying the limelight for its feasibility. The west coast is now expected to become the world’s largest tidal power plant belt. ...

The West Sea, also called the “Yellow Sea,” refers to a mass of water lying west of the Korean peninsula. Covering the area of 4,000km2, the West Sea is about 1,000km north and south and 700km east and west. Its average depth is 44m, and the sea bed is relatively flat. The gap between the rise and fall of the tide is about 9 m off Incheon, and 6 m off Asan Bay. The bid difference isn’t conducive to the development of a port or harbor, but is advantageous to power generation.

The frontrunner in the nation’s tidal power generation is the Sihwa-ho tidal power plant. The Sihwa-ho lake was converted from a fresh water lake to a sea lake in 2004 as part of efforts to improve the quality of the lake water. Construction of a tidal power plant began and is expected to be dedicated by November 2009. The construction will likely cost 254,000 KW (ten 25,400 KW power generators). If completed, the lake will beat the La Rance plant to become the world’s largest tidal power plant. Its annual power production is 550 million KW, which will save 39 billion won in annual energy imports and reduce the annual CO2 generation by 152,000 tons.

Garorim Bay is located between Seosan and Taean, South Chungcheong Province. The jar-shaped bay is known for big differences between the rise and fall of the tide. Just a two kilometer-long embankment will make it possible to install tidal power generating facilities. Construction of a tidal power plant was approved back in 1980, when the Korean economy was hit by the second oil crisis. But as oil prices stabilized, the project lost ground. Recently, due to high oil pirces, the shelved project began attracting attention. KOREA WESTERNPOWER, together with POSCO, DAEWOO Engineering and Construction, and Lotte Engineering and Construction are participating in the effort. The project is to construct a tidal power plant, which can also serve as a four-lane bridge, with an estimated cost of 1,002.2 billion won, and develop a huge tourist complex in the vicinity. It will have a general capacity of 520,000 KW.

Technology Review has a look at Marine Current Turbine's Seagen tidal power project in Northern Ireland - Tidal Power Comes to Market.
The world's first commercial tidal-power system has been connected to the National Grid in Northern Ireland. Built by the British tidal-energy company Marine Current Technologies (MCT), the 1.2-megawatt system consists of two submerged turbines that are harvesting energy from Strangford Lough's tidal currents. The company expects that once the system, called SeaGen, is fully operational, it will be able to provide electricity to approximately one thousand homes. The system is currently being tested and has briefly generated 150 kilowatts of power into the grid. ...

The technology works like a wind turbine, but instead of wind, the turbines are driven by the flow of tidal currents. It offers a significant advantage over wind because currents are predictable, says James Taylor, the general manager of environmental planning and monitoring at Nova Scotia Power, a company that also has plans for a one-megawatt tidal-power project. "Wind is intermittent and, because of that, is much more difficult and expensive to integrate in a power system," he says.

Generating power from currents in the form of "watermills" was first demonstrated by MCT in 1994 with a 15-kilowatt system in Loch Linnhe, off the west coast of Scotland. In 2003, MCT installed a 300-kilowatt system off the coast of Lynmouth, England. At the same time, a Norway-based energy company, Hammerfest Strom, installed a like-sized system in the Kvalsund strait. In the spring of 2007, Verdant Power submerged six 35-kilowatt turbines in New York City's East River. SeaGen, however, is much larger than any of these systems and is not an experimental device, says Fraenkel.

SeaGen uses two rotors that are 16 meters in diameter and can each produce 600 kilowatts of power. Fraenkel says that using two rotors is a "cost-effective solution" because the depth of the seas limits the size of the rotors. "We have to grow sideways," he says.

The researchers also have complete control over the rotors. "They are pitched like the propeller on an old aircraft, so by changing the angle--which dictates how much force is produced--of the blades, it allows us to optimize the rotor," says Fraenkel. The researchers can start and stop the rotor, and make it go faster or slower. And to prevent any damage to the ecosystem, it is important that the researchers keep the rotors at about 14 revolutions per minute, a speed that is too slow for marine life to run into the blades or to alter tides.

Unfortunately the plant had a setback a few days after going live, with a computer error resulting in a damaged turbine blade. Full operation is expected to restart in the northern autumn.
A plan to produce electricity from a tidal turbine installed near the mouth of Strangford Lough has been delayed. Seagen, the world's first commercial scale tidal turbine, began supplying a small amount of electricity to the National Grid last Thursday. But a programming fault led to damage to one of the blades the next day.

Seagen is calling it a "minor hiccup" - but the date for supplying full power has now slipped into early autumn at best.

Industrial Agriculture Input Costs On The Rise  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Grain News has a report on the rising cost of fertiliser, in particular, and agricultural inputs in general, driven by rising oil and gas prices and rising demand from China and India - Nationwide Ag Production Costs On The Rise.

Much attention has focused lately on the run up in the production of agricultural commodities and its effect on food prices. Additionally, key crop input prices are also rising and show no sign of slowing, according to a new Rabobank report, "U.S. Crop Inputs."

"Farmers' use of key crop inputs is reaching record highs, while prices are also at record highs, which is putting the pinch on pocketbooks," said Associate Erin FitzPatrick with Rabobank's Food & Agribusiness Research and Advisory (FAR) department.

One reason for the increase in crop input usage is the economic growth in emerging markets where demand for food is driving the need for production. Additionally, the cost of inputs has increased because of higher price tags on transportation, labor, energy and raw materials as well as the weakened U.S. dollar and regulatory constraints.

During this planting season, farmers have seen a huge increase in the cost of fertilizer -- in some case as much as double. Demand has depleted reserves and strained supplies as 2007 global fertilizer consumption climbed more than 4 percent over 2006.

That may seem small, but individual countries, such as China and India, have increased their fertilizer use 38 percent and 54 percent respectively, putting pressure on prices around the world. "With demand for fertilizers expected to grow and no significant increase in short-term supplies, farmers are likely to continue paying high fertilizer prices," said FitzPatrick.

Jeff Vail also had a post on fertilser a few weeks ago - specifically "fertiliser mercantilism" in North Africa and the tension it is causing between Algeria and Morocco - Algeria & Morocco: Natural Gas Cartels, Fertilizer Mercantilism, and Rising Tensions.
Algeria is one of the world’s most important oil and gas exporters. Morocco has no significant oil and gas production, but has about 2/3 of the world’s rock phosphate reserves, a critical component in global fertilizer supply that increased 300% in price in the past year (.pdf) and may peak alongside global oil production. The two nations have historically been at odds, especially over the phosphate-rich territory of Western Sahara. Now, more than ever, their exports are critical to the energy and food supplies of the world. Alongside increasing importance, tensions between the two are on the rise as the US and Russia provoke the situation with massive opposing arms deals and bi-lateral trade agreements. This article will look at the forces behind these rising tensions and consider issues of fertilizer mercantilism, infrastructure vulnerability, and the potential formation of a natural gas cartel. ...

Recently, the fragile 1991 cease fire agreement with the Western Saharan Polisario Front has become increasingly unstable. Complicating the situation with Western Sahara, French President Sarkozy announced his support to Morocco's decision to postpone indefinitely the self-determination referendum promised in the 1991 accord, along with increased Algerian support to Polisario leadership. All this comes against a backdrop of rising military tensions between Morocco and Algeria. In 2008, the US doubled military aide to Morocco and announced arms deals worth billions of dollars. At the same time, various sources confirmed that Russian concluded a $7.5 billion deal to provide advanced arms to Algeria.

Is there any deeper meaning behind these moves? At least two possibilities must be considered. The first is proxy-mercantilism by the United States to secure control of phosphate supplies. In 2004, the US entered into a bi-lateral free trade agreement with Morocco. This can be explained as a natural extension of the long history of economic and military cooperation between the US and Morocco, but in light of proposed biofuel programs, skyrocketing rock phosphate prices, potentially peaking phosphate production, and mercantilist moves by other great powers, the more nefarious possibilities must be considered. The second possibility is that Russia hopes to leverage increased influence with Algeria to exert greater influence in global natural gas markets. Because Algeria is one of Western Europe's few true alternatives to Russian natural gas supplies, especially given the prospect of sharp increases in Algerian natural gas exports, Algeria represents either a threat to Russian natural gas leverage, or a great enhancement of that leverage by entering a defacto gas cartel. At a minimum, we know that Russia and Algeria are actively engaged in talks on this topic. Also, a recent offer by Gazprom to buy all of Libya's additional oil and gas production supports this suggestions that Russia hopes to control Europe's alternative sources of natural gas.

Both notions of phosphate mercantilism and a gas cartel are merely informed speculation at this point, but the stakes are so high that these possibilities must be considered. While there may be no deeper motive behind recent moves with Morocco and Algeria, at a minimum the stakes and tensions are increasing. Because both Algeria and Morocco are fragile Nation-States, with active Islamist separatist movements, significant internal terrorist threats, and complicated ethnic/territorial problems, the potential for interruption in critical exports of phosphate, oil, and gas is increasing.

Energy Efficient Paving Stones  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

TransMaterial has a post on a material made from recycled glass that takes less half the energy to make compared to clay or portland cement pavers - Bottlestone.

Bottlestone is a solid surface material designed as an alternative to stone. Made from 80% post-consumer recycled glass, Bottlestone is suitable for a variety of commercial and residential horizontal surface applications, such as countertops, tabletops, and fireplace hearths.

Bottlestone is manufactured from post-consumer glass using a flexible process that allows the inclusion of a wide variety of sources, such as fluorescent light bulbs or waste door and window glass. Because no special cleaning is required, water use is minimized during fabrication - unlike the recycled glass found in some concrete countertops.

Bottlestone also compares favorably to stone and brick in terms of embodied energy and strength. A one-inch thick Bottlestone paver, for example, requires 9,800 BTU/SF, as opposed to 26,750 BTU/SF for a Portland cement paver or 20,000 BTU/SF for a clay paver of equivalent strength.

Fifty Cents For Your Thoughts ?  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

The Far East Economic review has an interesting look at the techniques the Chinese Communist Party is using to spread the party line, online - China’s Guerrilla War for the Web.

They have been called the “Fifty Cent Party,” the “red vests” and the “red vanguard.” But China’s growing armies of Web commentators—instigated, trained and financed by party organizations—have just one mission: to safeguard the interests of the Communist Party by infiltrating and policing a rapidly growing Chinese Internet. They set out to neutralize undesirable public opinion by pushing pro-Party views through chat rooms and Web forums, reporting dangerous content to authorities.

By some estimates, these commentary teams now comprise as many as 280,000 members nationwide, and they show just how serious China’s leaders are about the political challenges posed by the Web. More importantly, they offer tangible clues about China’s next generation of information controls—what President Hu Jintao last month called “a new pattern of public-opinion guidance.”

It was around 2005 that party leaders started getting more creative about how to influence public opinion on the Internet. The problem was that China’s traditional propaganda apparatus was geared toward suppression of news and information. This or that story, Web site or keyword could be banned, blocked or filtered. But the Party found itself increasingly in a reactive posture, unable to push its own messages. This problem was compounded by more than a decade of commercial media reforms, which had driven a gap of credibility and influence between commercial Web sites and metropolitan media on the one hand, and old party mouthpieces on the other.

In March 2005, a bold new tactic emerged in the wake of a nationwide purge by the Ministry of Education of college bulletin-board systems. As Nanjing University, one of the country’s leading academic institutions, readied itself for the launch of a new campus forum after the forced closure of its popular “Little Lily” BBS, school officials recruited a team of zealous students to work part time as “Web commentators.” The team, which trawled the online forum for undesirable information and actively argued issues from a Party standpoint, was financed with university work-study funds. In the months that followed, party leaders across Jiangsu Province began recruiting their own teams of Web commentators. Rumors traveled quickly across the Internet that these Party-backed monitors received 50 mao, or roughly seven cents, for each positive post they made. The term Fifty Cent Party, or wumaodang, was born.

The push to outsource Web controls to these teams of pro-government stringers went national on Jan. 23, 2007, as President Hu urged party leaders to “assert supremacy over online public opinion, raise the level and study the art of online guidance, and actively use new technologies to increase the strength of positive propaganda.” Mr. Hu stressed that the Party needed to “use” the Internet as well as control it.

Ah, control freaks - all this sounds like a less ambitious version of Rumsfeld's infamous "Information Operations Roadmap" (whatever happened to that cartoon villain anyway ?).

Of course, we have our own equivalent of Chinese Communist Party propaganda trolls in the West as well (no surprise to Orwell fans) - except in our case neoconservative propaganda is generally spouted by the private sector, in the form of paid trolls like Netvocates rather than by the state.

Bruce Sterling has some comments on another piece of information warfare in China recently - Kiss That Chinese Chick From the Disco, Lose Your Government Blackberry.
(((I think Gordon Brown's govt is getting a bad press on its hapless computer security, but this latest episode is downright pathetic.)))

(((From SANS, and several dozen other sources who find themselves just kind of emptily staring at the train-wreck.)))

--Gordon Brown Aide's BlackBerry Stolen on China Trip

An aide to UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown fell prey to a likely "honeytrap" scheme in January when his BlackBerry phone was stolen after he brought a woman he met at a disco in China back to his hotel room. The aide was accompanying the PM on the trip; he reported the device missing the next morning. Officials suspect the incident was orchestrated by Chinese intelligence. It was not disclosed whether the device held top-secret information, but even so, it could potentially be used to gain access to the Downing Street server. Blackberrys used by Downing Street staff are password-protected but most are not encrypted. The aide has been informally reprimanded.

Moving back to the internet, The Edge has a set of responses to the recent Atlantic Monthly piece - Is Google Making Us Stupid ?. This excerpt is from Danny Hillis:
Nicholas Carr is correct in noticing that something is "Making us Stupid", but it is not Google. Think of Google as a life preserver, thrown to us in a rising flood. True, we use it to stay on the surface, but it is not for the sake of laziness. It is for survival.

The flood that is drowning us is, of course, the flood of information, a metaphor so trite that we have ceased to question it. If the metaphor was new we might ask, where exactly is this flood coming from? Is it a consequence of advances in communication technology? The power of media companies? Is it generated by our recently developed weakness for information snacks? All of these trends are real, but I believe they are not the cause. They are the symptoms of our predicament.

Fast communication, powerful media and superficial skimming are all creations of our insatiable demand for information. We don't just want more, we need more. While we complain about the overload, we sign up for faster internet service, in-pocket email, unlimited talk-time and premium cable. In the mist of the flood, we are turning on all the taps.

So why do we need so much information? Here is where we can blame technology, at least in part. Technology has destroyed the isolation of distance, so more of what happens matters to us. It is not just that the world has gotten more complicated (it has), but rather that more of the world has become relevant. Not only is world more connected (or, as Thomas Friedman would, say, flatter), but it is also bigger. There are more people, and more of them than ever have the resources to do something that matters to us. We need to know more because our world is bigger, flatter, and more complex.

Besides technology, we must also blame politics. We need to know more because we are expected to make more decisions. I can choose my own religion, my own communications carrier, and my own health care provider. As a resident of California, I vote my opinion on the generation of power, the definition of marriage and the treatment of farm animals. In the olden days, these kinds of things were decided by the King. ...

We evolved in a world where our survival depended on an intimate knowledge of our surroundings. This is still true, but our surroundings have grown. We are now trying to comprehend the global village with minds that were designed to handle a patch of savanna and a close circle of friends. Our problem is not so much that we are stupider, but rather that the world is demanding that we become smarter. Forced to be broad, we sacrifice depth. We skim, we summarize, we skip the fine print and, all too often, we miss the fine point. We know we are drowning, but we do what we can to stay afloat.

As an optimist, I assume that we will eventually invent our way out of our peril, perhaps by building new technologies that make us smarter, or by building new societies that better fit our limitations. In the meantime, we will have to struggle.

Wandering ever further off topic, here's an excerpt from a talk by Clay Shirky a few months ago on uses for our cognitive surplus - "Gin, Television, and Social Surplus".
I was recently reminded of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing-- there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

And it wasn't until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders--a lot of things we like--didn't happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.

It wasn't until people started thinking of this as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than just dissipate, that we started to get what we think of now as an industrial society.

If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would've come off the whole enterprise, I'd say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened--rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before--free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan's Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

And it's only now, as we're waking up from that collective bender, that we're starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We're seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody's basement.

This hit me in a conversation I had about two months ago. As Jen said in the introduction, I've finished a book called Here Comes Everybody, which has recently come out, and this recognition came out of a conversation I had about the book. I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I should be on their show, and she asked me, "What are you seeing out there that's interesting?"

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus--"How should we characterize this change in Pluto's status?" And a little bit at a time they move the article--fighting offstage all the while--from, "Pluto is the ninth planet," to "Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system."

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, "Okay, we're going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever." That wasn't her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, "Where do people find the time?" That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, "No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you've been masking for 50 years."

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it's the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn't know what to do with it at first--hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn't be a surplus, would it? It's precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.

The early phase for taking advantage of this cognitive surplus, the phase I think we're still in, is all special cases. The physics of participation is much more like the physics of weather than it is like the physics of gravity. We know all the forces that combine to make these kinds of things work: there's an interesting community over here, there's an interesting sharing model over there, those people are collaborating on open source software. But despite knowing the inputs, we can't predict the outputs yet because there's so much complexity.

The way you explore complex ecosystems is you just try lots and lots and lots of things, and you hope that everybody who fails fails informatively so that you can at least find a skull on a pikestaff near where you're going. That's the phase we're in now.

The Distributed Energy Cloud  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Earth2Tech has an article on the possibility of data centres following the example of aluminium smelters by chasing renewable energy sources - Data Centers Will Follow the Sun and Chase the Wind (via Politics In The Zeros).

Data centers’ ability to suck up inordinate amounts of electricity is turning them into the Hummers of the computing world. And much like Hummers, their power-guzzling ways means they are becoming increasingly costly to run. We’ve already covered the efforts of companies to reduce heat, increase server utilization and build green data centers. Now Andrew Hopper, head of the Cambridge University Computing Lab, is working on a solution that could help reduce the demand data centers place on the grid.

Hopper’s vision combines cloud computing and renewable energy: He wants to take electrical transmissions costs out of the equation by placing a data center directly at the site of a renewable energy source and use fiber optic cable to link it to the entity that uses it. Hopper is also the co-founder of Level 5 Networks, which was bought by 10 Gigabit chip maker SolarFlare.

Virtualization and fast Ethernet, which enable services such as Amazon’s EC2, will make Hopper’s idea feasible. The ability to separate the hardware from software through virtualization is what enables computing clouds to exist. Those clouds allow companies, developers or anyone with the ability to tap into that resource, to ship its computing jobs over to Amazon’s servers, no matter where they are located in the world.

The challenge is figuring out how to build software that can monitor electrical generation, prioritize compute jobs and then figure out when and where to send those jobs based on whether the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. Hopper believes it would make sense to attach data centers, possibly in a container, directly to a renewable energy source. The source could be located in the middle of a desert, on a platform attached to an ocean wind turbine, or anywhere else where power could be easily generated.

One of the issues with renewable sources of energy, is that the places where it’s most abundant, such as winds blowing across the ocean or solar power in the desert, are inaccessible and thus, expensive to attach to the electrical grid. An example is Texas’ $4.9 billion plan to bring wind energy generated in the barren, western part of the state to the more populous center. Bringing the data center to the power solves that problem as long as the area can be reached via a cheaper fiber optic cable. There are still issues of servicing such remote data centers, but the plan to have multiple ones around the world offers redundancy.

But there are still computing tasks that need to be worked out if this vision is to materialize in the next decade or so. “If it turns out you’re chasing the energy and copying a lot of data, then that’s less attractive,” says Hopper. “But with good caching, and if you’re only moving the data once or twice it, might work. You could design software similar to old-fashioned job scheduling on a mainframe. Back then the scarcity was the computing and today it’s energy.”

Why we never need to build another polluting power plant  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Joe Romm has a good article at Salon looking at California's progress in encouraging energy efficiency - Why we never need to build another polluting power plant.

Suppose I paid you for every pound of pollution you generated and punished you for every pound you reduced. You would probably spend most of your time trying to figure out how to generate more pollution. And suppose that if you generated enough pollution, I had to pay you to build a new plant, no matter what the cost, and no matter how much cheaper it might be to not pollute in the first place.

Well, that's pretty much how we have run the U.S. electric grid for nearly a century. The more electricity a utility sells, the more money it makes. If it's able to boost electricity demand enough, the utility is allowed to build a new power plant with a guaranteed profit. The only way a typical utility can lose money is if demand drops. So the last thing most utilities want to do is seriously push strategies that save energy, strategies that do not pollute in the first place.

America is the Saudi Arabia of energy waste. A 2007 report from the international consulting firm McKinsey and Co. found that improving energy efficiency in buildings, appliances and factories could offset almost all of the projected demand for electricity in 2030 and largely negate the need for new coal-fired power plants. McKinsey estimates that one-third of the U.S. greenhouse gas reductions by 2030 could come from electricity efficiency and be achieved at negative marginal costs. In short, the cost of the efficient equipment would quickly pay for itself in energy savings.

While a few states have energy-efficiency strategies, none matches what California has done. In the past three decades, electricity consumption per capita grew 60 percent in the rest of the nation, while it stayed flat in high-tech, fast-growing California. If all Americans had the same per capita electricity demand as Californians currently do, we would cut electricity consumption 40 percent. If the entire nation had California's much cleaner electric grid, we would cut total U.S. global-warming pollution by more than a quarter without raising American electric bills. And if all of America adopted the same energy-efficiency policies that California is now putting in place, the country would never have to build another polluting power plant.

How did California do it? In part, a smart California Energy Commission has promoted strong building standards and the aggressive deployment of energy-efficient technologies and strategies -- and has done so with support of both Democratic and Republican leadership over three decades.

Many of the strategies are obvious: better insulation, energy-efficient lighting, heating and cooling. But some of the strategies were unexpected. The state found that the average residential air duct leaked 20 to 30 percent of the heated and cooled air it carried. It then required leakage rates below 6 percent, and every seventh new house is inspected. The state found that in outdoor lighting for parking lots and streets, about 15 percent of the light was directed up, illuminating nothing but the sky. The state required new outdoor lighting to cut that to below 6 percent. Flat roofs on commercial buildings must be white, which reflects the sunlight and keeps the buildings cooler, reducing air-conditioning energy demands. The state subsidized high-efficiency LED traffic lights for cities that lacked the money, ultimately converting the entire state.

Significantly, California adopted regulations so that utility company profits are not tied to how much electricity they sell. This is called "decoupling." It also allowed utilities to take a share of any energy savings they help consumers and businesses achieve. The bottom line is that California utilities can make money when their customers save money. That puts energy-efficiency investments on the same competitive playing field as generation from new power plants.

The cost of efficiency programs has averaged 2 to 3 cents per avoided kilowatt hour, which is about one-fifth the cost of electricity generated from new nuclear, coal and natural gas-fired plants. And, of course, energy efficiency does not require new power lines and does not generate greenhouse-gas emissions or long-lived radioactive waste. While California is far more efficient than the rest of the country, the state still thinks that with an even more aggressive effort, it can achieve as much additional electricity savings by 2020 as it has in the past three decades.

Serious energy efficiency is not a one-shot resource, where you pick the low-hanging fruit and you're done. In fact, the fruit grows back. The efficiency resource never gets exhausted because technology keeps improving and knowledge spreads to more people.

Joe also has an article on the sorry state of nuclear power (reusing The Economist's great quote "too costly to matter" quip) - "Nuclear Bomb".
No nuclear power plants have been ordered in this country for three decades. Once touted as "too cheap to meter," nuclear power simply became "too costly to matter," as the Economist put it back in May 2001.

Yet growing concern over greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel plants has created a surge of new interest in nuclear. Wired magazine just proclaimed "Go nuclear" on its cover. Environmentalists like Stewart Brand and James Lovelock have begun embracing nukes as a core climate solution. And GOP presidential nominee John McCain, who has called for building hundreds of new nuclear plants in this country, recently announced he won't bother showing up to vote on his friend Joe Lieberman's climate bill because of insufficient subsidies (read "pork") for nuclear power.

What do they know that scores of utility executives and the Economist don't? Nothing, actually. Nuclear power still has so many problems that unless the federal government shovels tens of billions of dollars more in subsidies to the industry, and then shoves it down the throat of U.S. utilities and the public with mandates, it is unlikely to see a significant renaissance in this country. Nor is nuclear power likely to make up even 10 percent of the solution to the climate problem globally.

Why? In a word, cost. Many other technologies can deliver more low-carbon power at far less cost. As a 2003 MIT study, "The Future of Nuclear Energy," concluded: "The prospects for nuclear energy as an option are limited" by many "unresolved problems," of which "high relative cost" is only one. Others include environment, safety and health issues, nuclear proliferation concerns, and the challenge of long-term waste management.

Since new nuclear power now costs more than double what the MIT report assumed -- three times what the Economist called "too costly to matter" -- let me focus solely on the unresolved problem of cost. While safety, proliferation and waste issues get most of the publicity, nuclear plants have become so expensive that cost overwhelms the other problems.

Smart Parking Spaces  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

I've long been enthusiastic about ways of monitoring our environment for useful purposes (as opposed to the vast amount of time and money spent creating over-the-top surveillance apparatus'). This article at Technology Review describes a new example of gathering data that can be useful in reducing energy use, even if it is just the small amount of fuel people wasting driving around in circles trying to find a parking spot - Find a Parking Space Online. One day, your GPS co-driver might start telling you where you can park as well as where to turn (and where to slow down).

This fall, San Francisco will implement the largest mesh network for monitoring parking to date. Around 6,000 wireless sensors from the San Francisco company Streetline will be fixed alongside as many parking spots, monitoring both parking availability and the volume and speed of passing traffic. The city hopes that displaying information from the sensors on Web maps, smart phones, and signs on the street will reduce the traffic and pollution caused by circling cars.

A mesh network differs from a typical wireless network in that there's no central transmitter: every node can transmit to every other node. Mesh networks have generally been used for environmental monitoring, or to grant wireless devices Internet access.

When sensor networks have been deployed roadside, it's usually been to monitor traffic, not parking. In urban areas, traffic-monitoring systems have been used for congestion pricing: during business hours in downtown London, for instance, the license plates of cars are photographed, and the drivers are sent a bill. Some parking garages also have signs that tell drivers where the available spaces are, but such systems generally rely on manual car counting, not sensors.

In San Francisco, however, clusters of plastic-encased, networked sensors are embedded in the surface of the street. The main sensor in the cluster, which is commonly used to detect cars, is a magnetic one, says Jim Reich, the vice president of engineering at Streetline. Magnetic sensors detect when a large metal object locally disrupts Earth's magnetic field. One challenge with magnetic sensors is avoiding false positives. "We rely on the magnetometer the most, but in order to fix errors, we use other types of sensors [that] give you much higher reliability," says Reich. He won't elaborate on the supporting sensors, but he says that the Streetline system has a high ninety percent accuracy in recognizing parked cars.

To relay information, the Streetline sensors use Dust Networks' SmartMesh system, a spinoff of the Smart Dust project at the University of California, Berkeley, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. Dust Networks CEO Joy Weiss says that SmartMesh networks are more than 99.99 percent reliable. SmartMesh and Streetline's technology combined gives the nodes an average lifespan of 10 years on only two AA batteries. "We were really the first ones able to build an entire network where every node in the network is able to run on batteries for years, and at the same time deliver very high reliability," says Weiss. "In most [other networks], these are a trade-off."

Dust Networks uses several techniques to combine efficiency and reliability. The first is redundant routing: if a signal doesn't go through the first time, the sending node tries other nearby nodes, or tries the same node after a period of time. A technique called channel hopping circumvents interference by assuming that changing channels every few seconds is more efficient than trying to find a good or bad channel, says Weiss. To save power, she adds, the nodes go to sleep in between transmissions.

Only The Electric Will Survive  

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Bloomberg has an article on ex Intel chief Andy Grove and his push to electrify transport in the US (vai an alarming lecture titled "There could be blood") - Grove Invokes Paranoia to Prove Only Electric Vehicles Survive.

Andy Grove, the former head of Intel Corp., asked students in his Stanford University business school seminar last year to determine whether an electric car market could thrive in the U.S. Their conclusion: It can't.

That propelled the 1997 Time Man of the Year, now retired, on a personal crusade to reshape U.S. energy policy, take on the auto industry and attack America's leaders for risking the nation's security.

Grove, 71, who revolutionized production of devices at the heart of computers, is exploiting his name and ties to investors and politicians to jump-start a similar advance in battery-run vehicles. His idea is to refit millions of gas-guzzling autos to run on electricity part-time and convince carmakers to adopt so- called open source rules on advanced technology so that Americans can convert their cars.

``I came to a few conclusions that I was stunned by because they were so obvious and people don't seem to get it,'' Grove said in a July 8 interview in his office in Los Altos, California. U.S. dependence on oil may bring economic calamity and eventual conflict with China, he said.

Grove, who joined Santa Clara, California-based Intel in 1968 and built it into the world's biggest chipmaker with $38.3 billion in revenue last year, says electrifying cars is the fastest way to ease international competition for energy because passenger autos account for almost half the U.S. use of oil.

`There Could Be Blood'

His path to advocacy includes a disagreement with former Vice President Al Gore and an unreturned message to General Electric Co. Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt.

While Grove's students said a failure of political leadership is what is keeping electric cars from the market, automakers and analysts say challenges include high costs, a lack of batteries sturdy enough for daily use, no recharging infrastructure, and harmful environmental effects if coal-fired plants are the main energy source.

``All these objections are absolutely valid in a peace state,'' said Grove, who entitled his 1996 book on management, ``Only the Paranoid Survive.'' ``What if we are approaching a state of war, whether it is literally shooting or just starving to death economically?''

In Silicon Valley, Grove is prodding venture capitalists to fund electric vehicle technologies with a lecture he's delivered to Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Khosla Ventures titled ``There Could Be Blood.'' He's aiming to tap the entrepreneurial drive that led the region to dominate software and Internet businesses.

In his keynote speech tomorrow at the 2008 Plug-In convention in San Jose, he plans to outline his concerns. The closing slide in a draft of his presentation, Grove says: ``Motivation. Not Cost. Not Environment. SURVIVAL!''

In four years, Grove wants 10 million vehicles to be equipped with battery packs capable of powering at least 40 miles of all-electric driving before the gasoline engine engages. They'd be recharged with power from domestic sources instead of oil, 58 percent of which is imported.

In his speech, he'll call on the U.S. to offer tax credits or interest-free loans to retrofit vehicles and urge utilities to provide fee-free power to charge them for two years. Carmakers should adopt open-source policies to share technology and commit to honoring warranties when consumers do such modifications.

Continuing the theme of paranoia and survival, AlterNet says "With multiple crises on the horizon, survivalist views don't seem as marginal as they did before" - Massive Economic Disaster Seems Possible -- Will Survivalists Get the Last Laugh?.
They used to be paranoid preparation nuts who built bomb shelters for a place to duck and cover during nuclear dustups with communist heathens, but their tangled roots go back to the Great Depression for a reason. If you want to get sociological about it, survivalism started out as a response to economic catastrophe. And now, with a cratering stock market, a housing meltdown that has devalued everything in sight, and skyrocketing prices for food, gas and pretty much everything else, survivalists are preparing for -- and are prepared for -- the rerun. In fact, they may be the only people in America feeling good about the prospects of a major crash.

And the interesting thing about the once-fringe movement at this moment in history is that survivalism has now gone green -- at least in theory.

From peak oil and food crises all the way to catastrophic payback from that bitch Mother Earth, there are more reasons to hide than ever. Conventional society as we know it is already undergoing some disastrous transformations. Ask anyone ducking fires in California, floods in the Midwest or bullets in Baghdad. Maybe it didn't make sense to run for the hills, stockpile water and food, grow your own vegetables and drugs, or unplug from consumerism back when America's budget surplus still existed, its armies weren't burning up all the nation's revenue and its infrastructure wasn't being outsourced to a globalized work force.

But those days are gone, daddy, gone.

What's coming up is weirder. Author, social critic and overall hilarious dude James Kunstler tackled that weirdness, otherwise known as an incoming post-oil dystopia, in his recent novel, World Made by Hand, which has since become one of a handful of survivalist classics. And as Kunstler sees it, whether you are talking about gun nuts or green pioneers, at least you are talking.

"At least they're aware that we've entered the early innings of what could easily become a very disruptive period of our history," the Clusterfuck Nation columnist explains. "Most of them are responding constructively rather than just defensively. They're much more interested in gardening and animal husbandry than firearms."

Not that the gun nuts have gone away. Their ranks have just diversified.

"The gun nuts have been on the scene longer than the peak oil argument has been in play," he adds. "They were initially preoccupied with Big Government and its accompanying narrative fantasy of fascist oppression, which is why they adopted a fascist tone themselves. But peak-oil survivalists are different from the Ruby Ridge generation. They don't think that a bolt-hole in the woods is a very promising strategy. We have no idea at this point what the level of social cohesion or disorder may be, but if the rural areas, especially the agricultural centers, become too lawless for farming, then we'll be in pretty severe trouble because there will be nothing for us to eat."


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