I have no idea if this (which I got to via Instapundit and then Walter Russell Mead) is for real, but it sure sounds good:
A defense contractor better known for building jet fighters and lethal missiles says it has found a way to slash the amount of energy needed to remove salt from seawater, potentially making it vastly cheaper to produce clean water at a time when scarcity has become a global security issue.
How does it work?
The process, officials and engineers at Lockheed Martin Corp say, would enable filter manufacturers to produce thin carbon membranes with regular holes about a nanometer in size that are large enough to allow water to pass through but small enough to block the molecules of salt in seawater. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.
Because the sheets of pure carbon known as graphene are so thin – just one atom in thickness – it takes much less energy to push the seawater through the filter with the force required to separate the salt from the water, they said.
So, is this a genuine prospect, or is it, to use a phrase from an earlier techno comment thread here, geek porn? Mead is careful to say that whereas such inventiveness is, in general, good, this particular inventiveness may come to nothing.
At most sites these days there are either too few comments to be bothering with, or far too many comments to be bothering with. Mead has no commenters at all to tell him if it makes sense to be optimistic about this new technique or not, and Instapundit only has occasional emailed-in updates.
Here, on the other hand, we not only do have comments, but we get a middlingly useful number of comments on most of our postings, and what is more comments that are often well worth reading, especially on subjects like this one.
So, might these carbon membranes work their water purification magic, or is this just hype?
LATER: Tim Worstall explains it a bit more, and there are some interesting comments there also.
One many significant dividing lines between, on the one hand, enthusiasts for free economies and free societies, and on the other hand those who favour a large role for the state in directing and energising society, concerns where you think art and science come from.
Those looking for an excuse to expand the role of the state tend to assume that art and science come from the thoughts and actions of an educated and powerful elite, and then flow downwards, bestowing their blessings upon the worlds of technology and entertainment, and upon the world generally. Science gives rise to new technology. Art likewise leads the way in new forms of entertainment, communication, and so on.
While channel surfing a while back, I heard Dr Sheldon Cooper, the presiding monster of the hit US sitcom The Big Bang Theory, describe engineering as the “dull younger brother” (or some such dismissive phrase) of physics. The BBT gang were trying to improve their fighting robot, and in the absence of the one true engineer in their group (Howard Wolowitz), Sheldon tries to seize the initiative. “Watch and learn” says Sheldon. Sheldon’s attitude concerning the relationship between science and technology is the dominant one these days, because it explains why the government must pay for science on the scale that it now does. Either governments fund science, or science will stop. Luckily governments do now fund science, so science proceeds, and technology trundles along in its wake. Hence modern industrial civilisation.
If the above model of how science and art work was completely wrong, it would not be so widely believed in. There is some truth to it. Science does often give rise to new technology, especially nowadays. Some artists are indeed pioneers in more than art. But how do science and art arise in the first place?
Howard Wolowitz is the only one of The Big Bang Theory gang of four who does not have a “Dr” at the front of his name. But he is the one who goes into space. He builds space toilets. He was the one who actually built the fighting robot. Dr Sheldon Cooper, though very clever about physics, is wrong about technology, and it was good to see a bunch of comedy sitcom writers acknowledging this. After “Watch and learn”, Sheldon Cooper’s next words, greeted by much studio audience mirth, are “Does anyone know how to open this toolbox?”
→ Continue reading: Some thoughts about where science and art come from (and about why governments don’t need to pay for either of them)
This news item about the anatomy drawings of Leonardo da Vinci looks like a good excuse to go to Edinburgh in August:
In a series of 30 pictures, the Royal Collection Trust will show da Vinci’s distinctive anatomical drawings alongside a newly-taken MRI or CT scan. The comparison is intended to show just how accurate da Vinci was, despite his limited technology and lack of contemporary medical knowledge.
The Edinburgh Festival is mainly about the arts, rather than sciences, although in a way this exhibition transcends both. I hear mixed things about the Festival: it is, apparently, great fun but it can be a pain getting accomodation. My wife has never been to Scotland – an omission that needs to be sorted out soon.
And of course the da Vinci exhibition in this beautiful Scottish city is a reminder of the grand tradition of medicine in that part of the world.
Several months ago I instructed the internet to tell me about anything concerning 3D printing, but I usually now file the resulting emails under: to be looked at later if at all. People saying they have worked out how to make ever more intricate and ever more tasteless and 70s-ish napkin rings no longer excite me that much. Okay, I get it. The technique works. But come on. A napkin ring? That takes four hours to get made? (That’s how long the damn video goes on for! Although I now learn from another video at the same site that the process may have got stuck after an hour. So, how long does it actually take to 3D print this napkin ring? Don’t tell me. I really do not care.)
I earlier here pondered, and quickly discarded, the idea that 3D printing would be arriving in our homes some time quite soon. What 3D printing really is is better stuff-making, by the people who already make stuff.
So it was that this link – which does not concern brightly coloured napkin rings, but on the contrary is to a story (here is the original Wired version) about an enterprise that has used 3D printing to make the body of a car – really did get my attention. This car body is just as strong as a regular steel car body but much lighter, and hence much more fuel efficient. Oh sure, it’ll still be years before most cars are made this way, but this surely is the future starting to reveal itself, to those of us beyond the circle of specialists who are already paying close attention to such developments. As was noted in one of the comments on my earlier 3D printing here (that’s the link again), car makers (Mercedes was singled out for our attention) already use 3D printing, to make small but important car parts. So it won’t be a huge leap for them to use 3D printing to make rather bigger car parts, until hey presto, they’re 3D printing entire cars!
The comments on that earlier posting were very informative. But nobody, except me in the original posting, discussed the possibility that 3D printing could shift the balance of manufacturing power somewhat back from the getting-rich world to the already-rich world. This is an idea you now hear quite a lot. Thinking about that idea some more, I think that 3D printing may be less of a macro-economic game changer that at first it looked, to me, like being. The idea, in other words, resembles the idea of a 3D printer in every home. After all, here is yet another manufacturing method, devised and developed in the richest and cleverest places, but then, surely, easily unleashable in any place, and in particular in places that are merely getting richer and getting cleverer. Does that change the game? It sounds like the game as usual to me. Which could be why nobody else thought the idea worth commenting on. But maybe I am getting that wrong.
Over at the blog Gene Expression – a site focusing on issues such as inheritability of certain conditions and traits – I left a short comment in response to an article, entitled, Human Nature and Libertarianism:
“I guess a short answer is that anyone who argues that our inherited traits outweigh things such as our volition and capacity for free will (not necessarily using those words in the old religious sense) will find it to be an unreliable guide to their politics. Some Darwinians seem to be socialists, some on the right, some libertarian. The truth of the insights of Hayek, or Milton Friedman, or Ludwig von Mises, say, are not in my mind remotely affected one way or the other by whatever might be the latest insights from evolutionary psychology. I am concerned if issues of political philosophy (the proper role of the state, individual rights, whatever) are placed at the mercy of the laboratory.”
I suppose I should add that there are useful insights, of course, that can be drawn from scientific studies that try to get at how and why people hold the views they do, although I think these things need to be treated with a great deal of care.
Google have caved in and decided to appease the French groups shaking them down over having the audacity to spider their news.
Google has agreed to create a 60m euro ($82m; £52m) fund to help French media organisations improve their internet operations. It follows two months of negotiations after local news sites had demanded payment for the privilege of letting the search giant display their links. The French government had threatened to tax the revenue Google made from posting ads alongside the results. The US firm had retorted it might stop indexing French papers’ articles.
But refusing the index the stories in question is exactly what Google should have done. The notion that this appeasement will satisfy these rent seekers is risible. They have seen Google fold under pressure and they will be back for more.
Tonight I have the first of my new lot of Brian’s Fridays, and with this in mind I have been keeping half an eye open for cheap, cheerful chairs. In the course of which process I recently discovered a new use for digital photography.
I am fond of joking that my digital camera, especially the latest one with its super-zoom lens, has better eyesight than I do, but this is more than a joke, which is why it is, I think, quite a good joke. It’s true.
So there I was in Tottenham Court Road looking through the window of a shop, long after it had closed, and observing from a distance a chair that looked pretty cheap to start with and had been reduced from … £something, to £something-even-less. From what? Even if I had more up-to-date glasses I probably couldn’t have made it out. And more to the point to what? Those vital numerals were quite big, but unclear.
I got out the camera, cranked up the auto-focus, took a photo, and I quickly had my answer:
Still too much, I think. But good to know, in real time.
I’m still a bit hazy about how to do that click-and-enlarge thing here at New Samizdata, but trust me, on the original I could also see that it was reduced from £90.
Sam Bowman, my speaker for the evening, has just arrived, and I told him about this posting. Yes, he said, a little telescope in your pocket. Exactly so.
One of the many uncertainties about the future generally (such as the portentous banking uncertainties that Sam Bowman will be speaking about) and about the applications that people will find for new technology in particular is that you often can’t tell beforehand what rather surprising applications people will find for new technology. Digital photography costs more than nothing, quite a lot more than nothing if you really like it, but its marginal cost, the cost of the next photo, really is, pretty much, nothing. That means a world full of hard discs full of photo-crap. But it also means that if you have digital photography on you, you will find further genuinely useful uses for it, the way you never would for photography done with shops or dark rooms.
I have long used my camera to photograph signs, next to tourist attractions or to paintings in galleries. I even choose to speculate that in the age of digital photography such signs may well have become more elaborate, long-winded and informative. I routinely photo local maps while on my photographic wanderings, so that I later know where everything was, even years later. But I have never before used my camera actually to see something very trivial, very boring to anyone else, right then, right there.
The boringness and the triviality being the point. Capitalism doesn’t just do big stuff, like: digital photography! It does the little things, like telling you the price of a chair which is too far away for you to be able to read the label. And, you never know what other boring and trivial things it might be able to do for you in the future.
Don’t kill it.
“Did you know that the Earth is getting greener, quite literally? Satellites are now confirming that the amount of green vegetation on the planet has been increasing for three decades. This will be news to those accustomed to alarming tales about deforestation, over-development and ecosystem destruction.”
- Matt Ridley
The point about faster, and greater, plant growth is often ignored by those who bleat about the dangers of greater carbon emissions. Indeed, the upside of global warming – assuming that is happening – such as greater plant growth is often downplayed against the supposed downsides (rising sea levels).
I recently read a fiery book, full of strong argument, well-presented data and verve, by Robert Zubrin, called “Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism… ” The book takes a blowtorch to today’s heirs of the Rev Thomas Malthus, the 18th/early 19th century political economist who argued that Man is doomed to outrun resources. Zubrin nicely skewers this reasoning, and takes on a range of population control characters ranging from Nazi advocates of eugenics through to supposedly well-meaning birth control enthusiasts in post-imperial India. (In the latter case, birth control was carried out with great brutality, as it was in China, with its “one-child” policy.)
And now, Sir David Attenborough, famous to generations of British TV viewers for his programmes about the natural world, reiterates the idea that humans are a “plague” on the planet and that there should be a lot fewer of them. Don’t worry, Sir David: judging by childbirth rates not just in the West, but in certain other countries, the risk of an accelerating growth in population numbers is unfounded, or at least that is how it seems to me. In some extreme cases, such as Japan and Italy, or arguably, Russia, the population is actually shrinking. (Maybe people just don’t get randy in those countries any more). According to this article in the New York Times, population growth of the sort that gets Attenborough so steamed is not happening and may be in reverse soon. Attenborough is not just wrong, he’s out of date.
Attenborough will be listened to with a certain level of respect that gets granted to persons of his type. He is very grand, and yet comes across also as that “jolly nice English chap who likes his gorillas, moths and strange fish”. What he seems to lose sight of is that humans are as much a part of nature as any other species, and that he wants to deny to humans what any other creatures pursue, which is to thrive and flourish. (In the case of other species, they do so through the iron process set out by Darwin. A paradox, given that humans are the only species we know of to care about the fate of other animals.) Then there is the point, made by the late Julian Simon and others, that humans are themselves a crucial resource, a fact that those who take a fixed-wealth approach to life seem to overlook. (Simon famously beat population-control fanatic Paul Ehrlich in a bet about the prices of commodities. Ehrlich’s predictions have been so wrong as to be beyond parody.)
There is also the assumption that people who have “too many kids” in poor countries such as Ethiopia are too thick to figure out the supposed downsides (in countries where there are few social safety nets and mortality rates are high, having plenty of kids is entirely rational).
The history of government-led efforts at birth control and population control has been that it is ineffectual at best and savagely brutal and destructive, at worst. If you have any doubt of that, read Zubrin’s excellent book, and ask yourself what sort of person can support the ideas of Sir David, and his ilk, given the likely results.
Correction: a reader points out that it was Thomas Carlyle, not Malthus, who branded economics as a dismal science. My error.
One day it will be recognised how the Met Office’s betrayal of proper science played a key part in creating the most expensive scare story the world has ever known, the colossal bill for which we will all be paying for decades to come.
Meanwhile, it is not just here that this latest fiasco, reported in many countries, has been raising eyebrows. Our ministers love to boast that British science commands respect throughout the world, They should note that the sorry record of our Met Office is beginning to do that reputation no good at all.
- Christopher Booker
I have filed this under “UK affairs” and “science and technology”. Perhaps, when it comes to the Met Office and such places, we need another topic code: “propaganda”.
Now some folk, such as libertarian Charles Steele, who is based in the US, get a bit exercised by those libertarians who, for example, pounce on the shenanigans of the CAGW alarmists. And he has a good point of course: whether the world is or is not heating up or not is not, specifically, anything to do with whether one favours free markets over state planning, collectivism or individualism, natural rights or serfdom, etc. (Science respects no ideologies). But – and it is a damn big but – it is a matter of inescapable, practical fact that the vast majority of those pushing the CAGW case are collectivists of one sort of another. Steele and others might try and reject that as they might reject that water flows downhill.
So while it is entirely possible for, say, a hardcore socialist to rejoice if the doom-mongers are proven wrong (the older type of socialist often liked to produce posters full of jolly workers in front of smoky factories), the fact is that showing the CAGW prediction to be the pack of bullshit that it is seems to be positive for a libertarian point of view. For what this will hopefully show is the dangers of when scientists become compromised by the rewards and incentives dangled in front of them by the State. I am sure some of the CAGW scientists are objective and high-minded. But if what Booker says about the Met Office’s behaviour is even half-true, a good many of them are nothing of the sort.
It sometimes makes me wonder why so few people seem to draw the connections between stories in the media that cry out to be connected. Here is one example, to do with food:
The price of basic food items could rise by as much as five per cent this year because of miserable weather last autumn, the managing director of Waitrose has warned.
Mark Price said food price inflation is already hovering at three to three and a half per cent, but this is just “the tip of the iceberg” and prices could increase even more dramatically over the coming months.
Produce such as bread and vegetables will become up to five per cent more expensive because of poor crop yields leading to a shortage of supply, he warned.
Many farmers are reporting that they still have not planted crops for 2013 because of the torrential rainfall which caused flooding across parts of Britain late last year.
From the Daily Telegraph.
Then there is this item about the waste of food in some countries:
Today, we produce about four billion metric tonnes of food per annum. Yet due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach. Furthermore, this figure does not reflect the fact that large amounts of land, energy, fertilisers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which simply end up as waste. This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands.
Something is wrong with this picture. On the one hand, we are warned that food could be in much more scarce supply, hence the risk of skyrocketing prices; on the other, we produce oodles of the stuff and yet are wasting it, in various ways (poor storage, silly bureaucratic rules about sell-by dates, lack of basic knowledge about cooking, the ease of throwing out food rubbish.) It seems to me that inasmuch as there is a genuine problem, it is that we don’t have a full free market in food. If those who talk in horror about rich Westerners chucking out half-eaten meals really are disgusted by this, how much more disgusting are policies such as EU payments to farmers not to produce food under what is called “set aside”? (This is a policy pioneered by that champion of bad economic ideas, FDR, in the 1930s). And tax-subsidies for “biofuels” that distort agriculture markets are another glaring form of waste, surely. (It is also worth bearing in mind that state-subsidised farming is often also the most destructive from a sustainability point of view; the European Common Agricultural Policy saw the use of modern fertilisers and pesticides increase significantly).
If food prices rise due to a natural shift in the supply-demand imbalance, rather than due to the distortions of the State, then we wasteful Westerners will have to relearn some old habits, whether it be never leaving food on a plate and wise storage of our food. And just to finish on this thought: how much more severe would our shortages be, if, instead of being able to tap into a global supply of food, we had to rely on purely “local” produce, as the “locavores” would have us do?
On slightly tangential point, I read that a once-prominent opponent of GM foods has changed his mind and now admits that much of the opposition was not based on honest science and reasoning.
I can not imagine anything that would give me more pleasure than to buy you a beer in a thousand years’ time.
- Michael Jennings, possibly exaggerating somewhat given the pleasure that might be imagined available over the next 1000 years.