An Incubator for Glass #innovation

Over the weekend, I finished How We Got to Now, the new book by Steven Johnson.

The book interweaves technology and history and explores how they interact and shape each other. Specifically, it details the history of the now everyday—glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light. PBS has also launched a mini-series with an episode covering each topic.

One of the most fascinating chapters is about glass. In 1204, with the sacking of Constantinople, a small group of glass blowers sailed to Venice to find refuge. There they developed their craft, but there was just one problem—the kilns at 1200 degrees would often catch fire and burn down large parts of Venice, which was mostly wood at the time. In an effort to protect the public, the government exiled all the glassmakers to the island of Murano, a mile across the Venetian Lagoon.

There, with talent concentrated, they flourished, giving birth to clear glass and, ultimately, lenses and mirrors. Lenses (from the Italian word for lentil because of their original bean shape) would lead to reading glasses, telescopes, and microscopes. The development of the mirror had the most unexpected consequences. They became pervasive, showing up, for example, in paintings like Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas. All of a sudden, we could look at ourselves as individuals. We began to analyze ourselves in diaries and to scrutinize our lives. Johnson argues that, debatably, this led to new social conventions, property rights, and other legal customs revolving around the individual rather than the older, more collective units of family or kingdom.

Unknowingly, the Venetians created an innovation hub, not too different than what many cities are trying to do today (think of Chicago’s recently launched Matter). As Johnson illustrated with the example of the glassmakers moving to Murano, innovation seems to follow from increased density. This makes you appreciate city planning and zoning—otherwise seemingly simple zoning decisions have the ability to create pockets of innovation. This is one of the ways government can guide design and development.

 

The Earth as an Egg

This cushion-for-error of humanity’s survival and growth up to now was apparently provided just as a bird inside of the egg is provided with liquid nutriment to develop it to a certain point. But then by design the nutriment is exhausted at just the time when the chick is large enough to be able to locomote on its own legs. And as the chick pecks at the shell seeking more nutriment it inadvertently breaks open the shell. Stepping forth from its initial sanctuary, the young bird must now forage on its own legs and wings to discover the next phase of its regenerative sustenance. —Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

Good writers changes your perspective through their choice of words. Buckminster Fuller did this by calling the planet “Spaceship Earth,” which immediately alters the imagery — now, thanks to his words, we’re flying through space. His analogy of the earth as an egg does this as well, and it’s beautiful and frightening at the same time.

It’s a very Goldilocks sort of view — everything is just right. We’ve been given all that we need to hatch humanity into perpetuity like the chick that consumes the nutrients until it has the strength to peck its way out of its shell.

And as we wrestle with renewable energy and increasing food demands, the analogy is even more fitting. Fossil fuels are the nutrients that have propelled us thus far. The biosphere — a thin, fragile ribbon around the earth — is our yolk. It encompasses all life as we know it and stores all of the energy we have. The atmosphere is the shell that traps all of the sunlight we need and protects us from harmful rays and errant asteroids. We are encapsulated and safe.

However, the egg analogy also suggests an end, that the clock is ticking — we have to make sure that we don’t consume all the nutrients before we have the strength to break through. But what does this mean, this breaking through? With a renewed interest in space travel, maybe it means leaving the planet, that we’ve been given enough nutrients here to build a machine to take flight and explore.

It’s a beautiful thought to me that the universe is full of millions of little blue eggs, incubated by distant suns, waiting to hatch their inhabitants into space. But the fact remains that someday our sun will be no more, and then what? Do we break through to a new world, a new existence, or do we wither away to nothing within the shell?

 

Acceleration — The World has a Wicked Second Derivative

A derivative is a mathematical tool to measure the rate of change. In physics, this takes the form of change in distance over time, or what we call speed. And if you take the derivative of the derivative, you get acceleration — the second derivative. We tend to think in straight lines, but the world is accelerating — i.e., it has a wicked second derivative.

Technology & Information

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense “intuitive linear” view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). —Ray Kurzweil, Law of Accelerating Returns

chart03

Moore’s Law is what is often cited in describing technological change (note the above graph is logarithmic, not linear), but what is astonishing is that it’s not just silicon chips. The exponential growth in the density of transistors, which drives storage and computation, has been accelerating for nearly a hundred years. The trend is not just about silicon; it’s a line that runs from the first electromechanical technologies through silicon and on next to biological and quantum computers.

This report is a snapshot of what the information revolution means to the average American on an average day, who consumes 34 gigabytes and 100,000 words of information. —University of California

The consequence of this, as Eric Schmidt has said, is that “every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. That’s something like five exabytes of data.” Think about that: every two days, we create more information than humanity did during its entire history. That’s the problem with exponential growth — you start with a couple of rabbits, and a year later there are hundreds running around.

Adoption Rates

And we’re adopting this technology even faster. The Internet was adopted faster than the mobile phone, which was faster than the computer, which was faster than VCRs.

History of Products and Their Adoption Rates

Think about the Nest thermostat — they created a $3 billion company in a couple years. Consumers adopted the product incredibly quickly, leading to rapid growth and creating immense value.

This is going to continue. Costs for gene sequencing are dropping faster than they did for computers. Biological and quantum computers are becoming a reality — we’ll compute in DNA and other universes. Solar installation is growing exponentially as well and driving an energy transition.

Consequences

There’s a cultural consequence to this as well — events happen faster and news spreads more quickly and widely before it is digested and discarded. There is no information arbitrage anymore — news and economic data circle the globe in milliseconds. There is no dampening effect, which leads to reactionary moves and quicker corrections — short-term shocks and retracements.

This affects businesses as well. A company like GroupOn can export its business model around the world in a matter of months. It’s how a company like Zara reacts to consumer demands by re-tooling, re-designing, and producing new designs in their stores in a matter of weeks, not seasons.

And there are consequences for governments that can’t react to this change. Regulation is design for last-generation technology, or worse yet, a couple generations ago. And it leads to such inanities as the banning of home genetics kits by the FDA.

This type of change isn’t a new phenomenon. Reuters started by sending pigeons to London to report on World War I, which greatly sped up the dissemination of news. What is different now is the pace of change — the acceleration — the second derivative.

Skills that Matter

I think this environment rewards two people — the long-term thinkers and the editors.

The long-term thinkers will excel because an abundance of change leads to overreaction. Those that can see the big picture, the long history, and who can navigate the short-term changes, will create a lot of value. Perspective is important in a world where we’re consuming 34 gigabytes of information a day.

You can’t stop the onslaught, and thus your only hope is to contain it. To do this, we need to learn how to edit, to reduce, to find the most valuable streams. All this change has created a lot of noise — we need better filters. The people that learn to use the filters and the companies that build them will also create a lot of value. Editing may be the skill of the next century.

Lastly, we need to be open to change. We may yearn for nostalgia, but it’s dangerous not to evolve — evolution, by definition, kills those who don’t adapt.

Limits

These trajectories do have limits though. We live on a finite planet with finite resources. There is a physical upper limit that needs to be managed. The balance between our appetite and the limits of the planet is delicate.

We also have mental limits. Our bodies and our brains were not designed for a world that is changing faster than we can adapt to it. This causes stress as we are overwhelmed by choice and change.

The acceleration of technology can also lead us to imagine a techno-utopian view of the world, one where we don’t have to think about or solve the complicated problems as technology will solve them for us. But this technological change is just a change of tools; it’s not an ideal.

Harness the Force

Lastly, back to physics, if we take this acceleration and multiply it by mass, we get force: Force = Mass x Acceleration or F=MA, Newton’s second law of motion. This force can be good or bad — it could be a baseball that hits you in the head or it could be the a rocket engine that lifts us to other planets. Acceleration is important: it’s the variable that matters, it’s what creates force. Our job is to not get knocked over by the acceleration but to harness it and create a positive force.

Further Reading

The Age of the Infovore: Succeeding in the Information Economy
Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now
Law of Accelerating Returns

Nitrogen Fixing Fern that Grows in Water

I’ve been looking at hydro/aqua-ponics lately and ran across Azolla. The only real economic reason for the fish is nitrogen. Azolla would be a possible substitute for the fish—need to figure out conversion ratios and space. Would think growing plants has to be more effective then feeding fish but might take up more space.

Azolla’s significance comes from its partnership with several species of bacteria that can manage a trick no plant finds possible by itself: extracting nitrogen from the air and “fixing” it into chemicals such as ammonia, so that it is available to make proteins. Asian rice farmers have known of Azolla’s fertilising properties for at least 1,500 years, and in many places the fern is encouraged to grow alongside rice in paddies—a sort of aquatic version of alfalfa. Dr Pryer’s primary pitch, therefore, is that understanding the genomes of Azolla and its associated bacteria (which she proposes to sequence at the same time) might assist the improvement of this process, and maybe aid its transfer to other plants.

Would work well for cleaning up water on dairy farms as well—solves the surplus phosphorous issue.

…grow at great speed – doubling its biomass every two to three days. The only known limiting factor on its growth is phosphorus, another essential mineral. An abundance of phosphorus, due for example to eutrophication or chemical runoff, often leads to Azolla blooms.”

Full Article

Love the Machine — Cognitive Augmentation and Connection

Love the machine; hate the factory. —Steam Punk Magazine

I don’t memorize things anymore, at least not facts, and why should I? They are a Google away. I don’t know anyone’s phone number, and I don’t have to: I just tap on their face in my contacts list. I don’t write down directions; I just type the address in my phone, or better yet, Google Now tells me when to leave and how to get there. If I need to do math or unit conversion, a simple search returns the answer. In a sense, cognitive augmentation is already here.

I also consume streams of information digitally. For me, there are three major ones — e-mail, RSS, and Twitter — the most prevalent being e-mail, an overlay to my social and professional lives. I don’t use Facebook much, but for many it serves as an adjunct to or, at times, a replacement for their social lives. My understanding of what happens in the world each day comes through a self-curated RSS feed — comments on breaking news, art, editorials. It’s my newspaper in a digital format. Lastly, I use Twitter situationally — watching the Oscars, on election night, or at an event watching comments in real time. These streams act as a digital addendum to the physical world. I almost said “real world” there, but that’s not quite right. These streams are a form of digital connection, in pseudo-real time, to the Internet.

The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them. —Antoine de St. Exupery

Google and similar tools are a form of cognitive augmentation that multiplies our capacity — this gives us depth. Twitter and other social tools are a form of connection that adds a new dimension, extending our presence — and this gives us breadth. We’re at the early stage of science fiction, plugging into Gibson’s cyberspace or the Matrix.

These are kludgy solutions, not physically integrated…yet. But I do feel integrated. When not online, I feel like I’m missing a piece of my mind (I say this in all seriousness). I have urges to look things up, to be “plugged into” the streams. My mind is accustomed to having access to the Internet. For me, it feels physical on some level, and as we strap Fitbits to our wrists and wear Google Glass, the boundary will blur more.

Setting aside the inevitability of it all, is this a good or bad thing? In hindsight, I think we’d all agree that replacing humans (as an implement of labor) with horses and then tractors (machines) was a good idea for farming. Why is this different? Why memorize states and capitals and presidents and multiplication tables? Does this make us better thinkers or problem solvers? Certainly, we should learn the theory — how to do math, interpret statistics, even derive equations, but why learn facts? Why not work on unique, complicated problems or design something or learn through experience? Why not replace the mental labor of math or facts with augmentation? It frees us up to work on bigger, more interesting, more complicated, more creative problems.

I’m not quite ready to put an internet jack in my head, but I am incredibly excited about our access to increasingly powerful tools of cognition. Just because Big Blue can beat us in chess doesn’t mean it will turn into Hal. Logic is basic by definition: it’s breaking down a concept to a set of rules. It’s the big questions that are interesting.

The future belongs to those who can harness the machines.

But the reason is not that the computer will “take over” the decision. The reason is that with the computer’s taking over computation, people all the way down the line in the organization will have to learn to be executives and to make effective business decisions. —Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive, 1967

The Intersection of Big Ag and Big Data

Agriculture will be an interesting space to watch over the next couple of years — GPS-driven automated combines, fertilization by drones, custom seeds based on microclimate parameters, and real-time data from remote soil sensors. The real disruption will be figuring out how to move away from corn and beans.

From The Economist:

INNOVATION is a word that brings to mind small, nimble startups doing clever things with cutting-edge technology. But it is also vital in large, long-established industries—and they do not come much larger or older than agriculture. Farmers can be among the most hidebound of managers, so it is no surprise that they are nervous about a new idea called prescriptive planting, which is set to disrupt their business. In essence, it is a system that tells them with great precision which seeds to plant and how to cultivate them in each patch of land. It could be the biggest change to agriculture in rich countries since genetically modified crops. And it is proving nearly as controversial, since it raises profound questions about who owns the information on which the service is based. It also plunges stick-in-the-mud farmers into an unfamiliar world of “big data” and privacy battles.

Natural Gas Overview — Why is Methane a Clean Fuel?

Introduction to Methane

What we call natural gas is mostly the chemical compound methane (95% or more; the rest is ethane or longer carbon chains). Methane, which comes out of the ground as a gas, is produced when microorganisms known as methanogens feed on organic matter in environments with little or no oxygen. It is abundant, seeping out of your garbage, landfills, and swamps. Also, everywhere you find oil, you find methane, usually in a pocket above the oil deposit. This methane emanated from the same organic material (dead plants and animals) that produced the oil. Methane can be captured where it naturally occurs or produced in a controlled environment like an anaerobic digester. After it is captured or produced, it is cleaned (by removing carbon dioxide and other liquids); compressed to a higher pressure; odorized (it’s odorless and lethal in high doses in its natural state); and piped into our homes, power plants, and factories for heat and power.

Clean Combustion

Methane, like all fossil fuels, can be combusted (reacted with oxygen) to form energy and water. In fact, a large and growing part of our electricity supply comes from methane. It is the simplest fossil fuel — a single carbon atom with four hydrogen atoms, or CH4. Compare that to diesel fuel, which is a soup of long-chained carbons with sulfur and other molecules attached.

The basic methane combustion reaction is:

CH4 (methane) + 2 O2 (oxygen) = CO2 (carbon dioxide) + 2 H20 (water) + energy

Because of its simplicity and lack of additional compounds, methane is the cleanest of the fossil fuels to combust. When we say cleanest, though, we often mean different things. In terms of the production of carbon dioxide (i.e., the major greenhouse gas), methane has the lowest density, meaning we get more energy per unit of carbon dioxide than we do with other fuels. It releases 29% less carbon than oil, 43% less than coal, and 20-30% less lifecycle carbon than oil when used as a transportation fuel. In addition, unlike other fuels, methane combustion results in basically no NOx (nitrous oxide), SOx (sulfur dioxide), or particulate matter being released into the atmosphere. These gases are all dangerous to our health and regulated under the Clean Air Act.

Fossil fuels and their energy density:

natural gas (51.6 kJ/g) > petroleum (43.6 kJ/g) > coal (39.3 kJ/g) > ethanol (27.3 kJ/g) > wood (16.1 kJ/g)

It should be noted that methane, by itself, when released into the atmosphere, is a potent greenhouse gas. It captures heat [70 times] better and thus, by weight, is 70 times as dangerous as carbon dioxide. This is why it’s so important to flare methane to ensure that it is completely combusted into carbon dioxide. It also means that it is critical that the infrastructure to transport methane — drilling sites, pipes, and tanks — minimizes any leakage into the air. Otherwise, the benefit of transitioning from coal to natural gas (in terms of greenhouse gases) would quickly be lost.

The Age of Methane

The increased use of methane in the US, predominately replacing coal, has stabilized if not actually lowered our level of emissions, and the retirement of old coal power plants is eliminating one of the country’s largest polluters.

Energy transitions typically move from a lower density fuel to a higher density fuel. We moved from wood to coal to oil, and now methane is creeping up, passing coal to become the second largest source of energy in the US. While denser, it is also a gas, which presents logistical issues for transport and storage.  Nonetheless, I think we will eventually make the transition from oil to methane, at least in the US, before renewables ultimately take over in the second half of this century. And when they do, it will be because technically they are a better fuel — i.e., more energy dense.

EIA-Chart

Global Dynamics

As discussed, methane, being a gas, presents a transportation challenge. The US has a vast network of pipelines, and Russia pipes compressed natural gas into Europe and China from their vast reserves. However, in order to physically move natural gas, as opposed to transferring it via pipeline, you need to cool it to a liquid (at -260 degrees Fahrenheit), at which point it becomes liquified natural gas, or LNG (in it’s compressed form, it’s called compressed natural gas, or not surprisingly, CNG). Once liquified, it can then be transported via ship.

Less than 10 years ago, the US built import terminals to import LNG from abroad. More recently, however, with the discovery of new drilling techniques (i.e., fracking), those same terminals have been re-configured as export terminals as the US is now one of the world’s leading producers of natural gas, along with Russia and Qatar. However, the difficultly and, thus, cost to move it has created a huge pricing disparity around the world. For example, natural gas is routinely under $5/MMBTU in the US, while it can be as much as $20/MMBTU in Japan or China. This has put a huge amount of pressure on producers to export to Asia to satisfy growing demand, as well as on the Asian countries to produce more gas themselves through a combination of the gasification of coal and importing drilling technologies from the US. Just 10 years ago, the US was scared of running out of fuel, but now we find ourselves with an abundance; Asia, by importing fracking technology, could very well find itself in a similar situation.