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February 28, 2014

Offshore Wind Turbines Can Tame Hurricanes. Yay, Right? Maybe.

Wind turbine hurricanesStanford University Civil Engineering professor Mark Jacobson (and team) have published an article in Nature Climate Change showing that a large cluster of offshore wind turbines -- about 300+ GW worth -- could significantly reduce the wind speeds and storm surges from hurricanes. BBC article & video. PDF of NCC article. From the abstract:

Benefits occur whether turbine arrays are placed immediately upstream of a city or along an expanse of coastline. The reduction in wind speed due to large arrays increases the probability of survival of even present turbine designs. The net cost of turbine arrays (capital plus operation cost less cost reduction from electricity generation and from health, climate, and hurricane damage avoidance) is estimated to be less than today’s fossil fuel electricity generation net cost in these regions and less than the net cost of sea walls used solely to avoid storm surge damage.

With the possibility that anthropogenic global warming is increasing the frequency and/or intensity of hurricanes (a still-ambiguous issue), this seems like a good thing. After all, these wind turbines are built to generate power, and the hurricane-dampening effect would be a pleasant side-effect. Reduced wind speeds and storm surges mean reduced losses of life, property, and resources. Good news, everybody.

But remember that the climate is a complex system with myriad interactions with the ocean, plant/animal ecosystems, aquifers, soil, and on and on. If hurricane impacts are reduced to below the pre-AGW norm, it's highly likely that we'll see some level of unintended cost to environmental systems that had evolved to be dependent upon periodic inrushes of water, high winds (think seed and insect dispersal), or other consequences of hurricane landfall.

If Jacobson et al are correct (and for now, this is entirely model-based -- so probably generally accurate, but with the potential for small-but-important errors), think of this as both an opportunity and a warning. Offshore wind turbines, built to generate electricity, may also have the capacity to measurably reduce the intensity of hurricanes approaching land. As attractive as this sounds, we'll have to be all the more alert to the possibility of upstream ecosystem disruptions.

February 27, 2014

You Are the Service, Not the Customer

German public radio program DRadio Wissen spoke with me this week on the subject of Google and the Future, with a particular emphasis on privacy. The conversation, which ran about 20 minutes, was edited down to a 12 minute report, mixing German and English.

The DRadio Wissen page in English (via Google Translate, of course).

The original DRadio Wissen page in German (hit the "Abspielen" button to play the audio).

The title here (also the title given the piece at DRadio Wissen) nicely sums up my argument: Google is a long-term focused company, with plenty of smart people and big ideas, but everything (for now) remains driven by advertising. Gmail, Maps, and all of its other services are offered solely as a way to bring eyeballs to Google's real customers, advertisers.

February 18, 2014

Everything Will Be Alright*

A couple of years ago, Christian Moran interviewed me for a series of short films he planned to make, focusing on reasons for optimism. That film series is now available at his website, and it's a decent variety of people grappling with big ideas from different perspectives. Technologists, scientists, journalists, artists, doctors... and me. The half-hour interview may be one of the best ones I've done, in terms of how well the ideas I'm trying to articulate come across.

A few caveats, though. Christian was really taken with a somewhat offhand comment I made in the course of the conversation and highlights it in his introduction; fortunately, it's not made the focus of the video. Also, remember that it was recorded in mid-2012, so if there's an obvious reference that I'm not including (e.g., Snowden stuff), that's why. Finally, I really need not to slouch, especially when I wear t-shirts and jackets.

* And yes, I know "alright" isn't grammatically correct, but it's his movie series and he can name it what he wants.

February 4, 2014

500 Words on Cryptocurrencies

Such money. Big spender. Wow.It will likely come as little or no surprise that cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Litecoin, and Dogecoin (my favorite) are frequent topics of conversation among futurist types. After all, they're supposed to be paradigm-breaking disruptions of the status quo, or something. But I still haven't gotten over my sense that something isn't quite fully-baked about the current generation of digital currencies, and I'm going to spend my ~500 words here trying to spell out why.

Cryptocurrencies are computationally-derived mathematical artifacts intended to function as money -- they're to be used to store value and to be exchanged for goods and services. The difference between cryptocurrencies and the US Dollar (or other sovereign-state currency) is that the Dollar is backed by the "full faith and credit" of the United States, meaning that as long as the US is a functioning political entity, the dollar can be used to (at minimum) pay American taxes. Conversely, cryptocurrencies are backed by mutual agreement; as long as the market for it exists, a cryptocurrency has some value. The logic behind cryptocurrencies isn't new, and can be seen in the various complementary currencies that have been used for decades in communities around the world, often (as with some cryptocurrencies) with an explicit social or political goal.

Many supporters of cryptocurrencies prefer to draw a parallel to gold, which is not under the control of any single political entity and does not have a set value, instead being priced based on how much people will pay for it (in another currency). This floating value of cryptocurrencies is one recognized challenge for their continued utility. As economist Paul Krugman and others have pointed out, gold has a minimum value, due to its use in industry and jewelry; cryptocurrencies have no minimum value, and could in principle crash to a level where they have effectively zero worth. Hoarding, regulatory decisions, and fraud can all cause wild swings in currency price. This floating value, which for many cryptocurrencies can be extremely volatile, impedes use as stable media of exchange. If the trading value of a Bitcoin versus a Dollar varies throughout the day, a business owner that primarily buys and sells and pays taxes in Dollars takes a risk any time he or she sets a price in Bitcoins. Some businesses may be willing to swallow that risk in order to gain the support of Bitcoin advocates, but for many others, it's just not worth the hassle.

Solving the floating value problem will be difficult, not for arcane economic reasons, but because there are as yet no physical communities where a cryptocurrency serves as a primary currency, usable for a broad variety of run-of-the-mill transactions. No place for the currencies to create a persistent, mutually-understood perceived value outside of its value in exchange for a sovereign currency. Where the users know at a gut level what it means to say that something costs (for example) 100 Bitcoin, the way an American knows what it means when something costs $100. Until then, cryptocurrencies will always be secondary at best, somewhat more fungible than gold coins from World of Warcraft. And that points to what may be the source of my continued skepticism about the current generation of cryptocurrencies: advocates have embraced the argument that all money is imaginary, that the vast majority of transactions now are digital, and that we now live in a globalized market, but have neglected the corresponding social and political grounding that makes this digital decentralization viable.

Jamais Cascio

Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

Affiliate, Institute for the Future


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