Why Fusion Power Isn’t Happening

obama_new_goal

In 1961, Kennedy said, “Hey, Russia. We saw your Sputnik, and that was cool. But hey, guess what? We’re going to put a dude on the moon. That’s right. That moon.”

And we did. In 1969, Neil Armstrong ambulated in a way that was at once small and giant, once again proving that distance is dependent on perception–without a doubt the most important discovery of the Apollo missions.

So that’s why things like this are really frustrating. Why is it that this so complicated? I would really like it if someone could explain to me why it takes fifteen years to build a nuclear reactor, when Wal-Mart can throw up a store in seven weeks? Is it a question of money? They’ve got the design already. What is it that costs so much?

We used to be able to set a goal and meet it. What went wrong? Is it a matter of money? Motivation? Are we simply not smart enough?

What is this barrier that’s preventing us from cranking out a working tokamak in six months? The design and the technology exist today. If it’s a problem of motivation, perhaps it’s that we don’t have anybody with a forceful enough personality to come out and say, “Here’s how shit’s going down, so listen up.” We need an Alexander. We need a Genghis. We need a freaking Kennedy. And none of the old, red-faced, boring Kennedys. We need the young Kennedy who told us we could land on the moon. Nuclear fusion should be a walk in the park by comparison. I had high hopes for Obama. I’m not seeing the results that I want, but I haven’t given up on him. Yet.

We know that there’s an astonishing amount of money locked up in hydrogen. The math is solid and so is the physics. It’s a given. It’s clean energy. It solves almost all of the energy problems that currently plague us. It’s as abundant as stray cats in Rome.

The deputy director of the project says, “you really need to know whether the major components work. It’s absolutely clear that this is the right approach.” I’m not so sure. But I can see a couple of different perspectives.

It’s entirely likely that this is a situation where we have too many hands in the pot. It’s great to see an international project that brings people together into a unified goal. But when that goal is just a huge, inefficient money sink, then it’s not serving anyone’s needs. My problem is the fact that this is actually something that we need. This needs to happen or we’re all screwed. Fifteen years is too long to wait for a solution to our budding energy crisis. We need it like yesterday.

Maybe it wasn’t Kennedy that was our motivator. Maybe it was the Russians. It was a threat that the Russians were going to beat us to the moon that really kicked the space race into high gear. What we need is the new millennium’s Russia. Terrorism is obviously not it because they’re not strong enough, not pervasive enough, and nobody really takes them seriously. There’s no palpable fear. We need a threat the size of Russia during the Cold War to drive us toward what we’re actually capable of. Alien invasion, maybe?

Perhaps the guy is right. Maybe the fusion project actually is too big to complete without the kind of bureaucratic machine behind this one. If that’s the case, then I have my doubts about whether we’re capable of such a feat. I mean, look at the Large Hadron Collider. It was proposed and approved in 1995. Fourteen years ago, we decided to build it. That means that it was theoretically possible for us to build it fifteen years ago. This means that technology has not improved in that time. It was beset by problems and delays and other nonsense and despite the fact that it was successfully activated, it broke pretty much right away.

If we extrapolate that out, assume that the same level of ineptitude is likely to plague this fusion project, there’s very little hope that this thing will be operational until 2050, far too late to solve any of our energy problems.

Our only option, as far as I can see, is to not hold our breaths on this one. Our current attitude toward goal-setting is pretty loose. In the 60’s we set goals and we met them. We don’t really do that so much anymore. Multiple sources of energy are going to be needed to fill the gaping hole left when oil prices get too high. Solar, wind, and possibly good old fashioned nuclear fission. Fusion is probably going to remain a pipe dream for some time yet.

Bummer.

Suicide is Painless

bungee_thrill

Just to be clear, I in no way advocate suicide. 90% of the time, there’s a better option. That’s why this story is so interesting. In case you didn’t read the story, here it is: China. A bridge on an overpass. Traffic is at a standstill because a crowd is gathered. Why? A man in debt is threatening to commit suicide by throwing himself off the bridge. One commuter, fed up with it–this is the twelfth time in two months–pushes through the police cordon and shoves the suicidal man off the bridge and onto the inflated emergency cushion waiting below.

The suicidal is hospitalized with minor injuries and the pusher is arrested.

The question is not whether the shover did the right or wrong thing. Hell, if he hadn’t shoved the dude, we would never have heard that this was the twelfth time since April that someone had threatened to jump off that very bridge. We never would have heard the story. I would never have written this post. You, dear reader, would never have read it.

See how one small act has given you some amazing water-cooler conversation? Every single person who reads this post will tell their friends this story. Without fail. Why is that? It’s partly because we have a morbid fascination with suicide and death. It’s also because it’s such an unexpected story. Ask yourself, how do people normally deal with suicidal people?

We mollycoddle them. We try to reassure them: “Your life is worth living for.” We try to talk them down: “Why don’t you just step away from the edge.” This is, in essence, what’s been ingrained in us since we first started reading and watching TV: If you threaten to kill yourself, people will listen to you.

Have you ever had a boyfriend or girlfriend who threatened suicide if you dumped them? Have you, yourself threatened suicide if your significant other dumped you? You’re doing it because whether you want to kill yourself or not, you know that it gets people’s attention. The thought of death makes people act differently toward you. It would be a lot easier to break up with someone if you knew that they would get along just fine without you. A threat of suicide throws all sorts of other thoughts and emotions into the mix.

So what, in essence, did the pusher in the story do? He broke the jumper’s spell on the crowd. He had their attention. He fed off of their energy. It’s an incredibly selfish act because real suicidals, that is, people who actually commit suicide, are far more likely to do it in secret so they won’t be stopped, either by themselves or others.

Consider that Hunter S. Thompson killed himself in a way that might actually be considered courageous. He was not insane at the time. It was likely that he had been planning it for weeks. He was on the phone with his wife when he shot himself. He did it because he was ill and didn’t want to drag it out any longer. He wasn’t happy anymore. He wasn’t having fun. Since he couldn’t enjoy life and because it would be worse if, for some reason, suicide was no longer an option, he decided to do himself in.

Consider that Kurt Vonnegut smoked Pall Mall straights every day of his life because he said it was a “classy way to commit suicide.” Strange then, that it wasn’t the cigarettes that killed him.

The question here is whether or not we are the sort of culture who values the right to choose the time and place of one’s own end. If we did, then no crowd would have gathered for the jumper. He would not have been able to gain the attention of the crowd. No one would have had to push him to make a very poignant point. If the guy were really going to kill himself he would have done it already. The only reason he was able to draw a crowd is the fact that we have made suicidal threats a viable method of gathering a crowd. We treat suicidals like children (granted, they probably have some sort of psychological need to be treated like children, to no longer be responsible for their actions) and this feeds into their pathos. Why don’t we just push them? Why don’t we just tell them to grow up? Where do you draw the line when it comes to something like this? Normal, sane people don’t have the emotional energy to deal with suicidal friends, so why do they hurt us in an attempt to aggrandize their own psychological problems?

And how do we mistake the attention seekers for the people who actually need and deserve real help? These people do exist.

I’m not trying to be crass or insensitive here. And so before you judge me harshly for saying these things, bear in mind that I am only asking questions. Carefully consider what I’m saying and then decide whether or not this is worth thinking about. I am merely trying to point out an interesting disconnect in which some people are exploiting a society’s tendency to indulge people who actually have problems. It’s interesting from a distant, intellectual perspective. It’s deeply troubling from a human one. And I don’t have any specific answers.

Have Organic and Eat it Too

batterhenspowers

The expression “to have one’s cake and eat it too” has always struck me as strange. It is, essentially, the act of consuming a resource and then attempting to further benefit from it after the fact. But if we deconstruct the actual words of the expression, it is a completely incomprehensible word salad. In the context of the sentence “to have” and “eat” are equivalent, so having and eating are both happening in the first half of the expression. The last part is redundant. I’m not deliberately trying to be obtuse here. I understand what the expression means idiomatically. I just think it’s a stupid expression.

What I want to talk about is organic food, using eggs as an example. I happen to work at a natural foods grocery co-op (maybe sometime I’ll get into my take on cooperativism). Some people call us a health-food store, which has certain negative connotations for certain types of people. I prefer to call it a grocery store because that’s what we sell. In fact, a pretty large selection of our product is not even healthy. Candy and potato chips (organic or not) are probably not to be consumed without restriction because you’re still going to get diabetes.

A few days ago, Science Daily ran this story. The article poses the question of whether or not organic food is really worth the cost, which is often double or more than the cost of conventionally produced food. The question is whether purchasing and consuming organic food is equivalent to having your cake and eating it too. Are you really getting health benefits that justify the cost of admission?

The article does little except ask the question. The dietitian quoted in the article is most likely right in the assertion that actually consuming fresh fruit and vegetables (organic or not) is preferable to not consuming them at all. Obviously. She also points out that there is little scientific evidence that pesticides are harmful, or that organic produce is more nutritious. Though, I suspect that there might be a suppression of evidence fallacy committed here. I have read numerous articles touting the higher nutrition value of organic food versus conventional foods.

Admittedly, the evidence is often shaky. Studies have been conducted, though there is suspicion of bias.

So, here’s my take on organic food, nutrition value aside. For the record, I consume a fair amount of both. I shop at my co-op (since I work there, it’s sort of unavoidable) and I shop at the local conventional grocery store (and also for the record, our organic produce is about fifty percent the cost, on average, of theirs).

One: Organic food tastes way better. There’s simply no comparison, especially in terms of animal products like eggs, milk, and meats. Organic, local milk is far superior to the watery lactose-juice that gets peddled at the local store. Some people think it tastes “funny” but if you start drinking it, you’ll grow to like it, and then the conventional milk will start to taste funny. Eggs are the prime example. And here, it’s not even organic that makes the difference. Free range is far more important than organic. Free range eggs have richer yolks, are more flavorful, and according to at least one study, contain half the bad cholesterol and double the good proteins and other nutrients. Whether it’s true or not, the taste justifies the cost.

Two: It’s better for the environment. A recent study showed that farms that grow organic produce had a dramatically decreased impact on soil degradation than conventional methods. And this is the clincher because, as hippy-ish as it sounds, this is the only planet that we have, and we’re going to be in a whole crap-ton of trouble in a decade or so if we keep doing things the way we are now. I’m not trying to be on a soap box or anything. Far be it from me to care about anything other than my own personal well-being, but the fact remains, these problems are imminent and might actually affect those golden years that I’d rather spend building model airplanes and blogging than dead or worse–scavenging in a post-apocalyptic world for fifty-year-old canned goods with no labels.

Now, there are other things to consider here. What is considered “conventional” in production standards was revolutionary not so long ago. The use of pesticides and herbicides dramatically increased the food supply and may or may not be responsible for the current level of comfort that Americans enjoy. We could suddenly produce food in vast quantities cheaply. Great. The long-term costs are up for debate, however. Large scale irrigation is not sustainable. Aquifers will run out of water and then where will we be? The long term health effects of pesticides and herbicides are also not known regardless of whether the foods themselves are less nutritious. Regardless, you should probably wash all produce before consuming it.

What about genetically modified food products? Anything genetically modified is automatically considered non-organic (no matter what other methods are employed in its production). Honestly, I don’t see what the big deal is. Genetic modification is something we’ve been doing for years. We’ve been putting selective pressures on all sorts of crops and food producing plants and animals for thousands of years. So much so that very few of them would survive as species without humans around. Have you ever heard of Ray Comfort? He’s this guy that uses the banana as proof of god’s existence. The problem is, for thousands of years, the banana has been undergoing forced evolution. It has been domesticated over thousands of years. Wild bananas? Not the most edible food in the world. They are ugly and look nothing like the fruit that we buy by the bunches at the grocery store.

Until someone can show differently, I don’t see any reason why adding salmon DNA to tomatoes in an effort to make them resistant to frost is somehow a bad idea. Most people that object to it have a faulty understanding of how genes and DNA work. Genes merely code for proteins. It doesn’t make the tomato taste fishy, it just makes it hardier. It’s not an exact science at this point, but I give full support to any endeavor to design foods using genetic modification. I would also like to see those foods produced without using pesticides and herbicides, but you remember what we said earlier about cake.

The bottom line here is that we can afford what we want to afford. Almost all of the families that buy their groceries exclusively at my co-op are not wealthy at all. They have merely made a lifestyle choice that I would imagine affects their health. On the one hand, their food is fresher. The fact that they buy organic food means that they are cooking most their own food and are more aware of what they are ingesting (fewer preservatives, etc). It’s a tradeoff. They probably don’t have as many other creature comforts. I mean, the simple act of cutting out cable TV frees up plenty of cash every month and would more than make up for it, increasing your well-being by forcing you to find better things to do with your time.

It’s about choices. Are you going to have your cake? Or eat it? Or…whatever.

Why the California Supreme Court Screwed Up on Gay Marriage

frankenfurter

My fiancée thinks that Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter is hot. To test it again, just now, I said, “Hey, you should see this,” and I turned the monitor so she could see the above image (before my modifications). Her eyes immediately clouded over and she smiled, emitting sort of a “hmm…” sound. The fascinating thing is that he is deliberately dressed to be androgynous. He’s a transvestite. While it’s probably obvious that it’s a man, there is a blurring of the lines here. His bone structure is that of of a man, but his behavior–if you’ve ever seen Rocky Horror Picture Show–is often feminine. You might call Frank-N-Furter a sort of melding of two genders, lying solidly in neither. Such is the nature of “trans-gender” individuals. Drag queens sometimes blur the lines further. I’ve seen drag queens that I could have sworn were women.

Word on the street is, the California Supreme Court did something today. Or rather, failed to do something, which is strike down Proposition 8. You know, back in 2008, when I first saw this commercial, I thought it was a joke. Nobody in their right mind could possibly say these things without some irony. These people defend Prop 8 on the grounds that if same-sex couples are allowed to get married, it will somehow infringe on their rights. Of course, there is no mention of the homosexuals in question having their rights restricted.

Here’s the thing. I was talking with a science teacher friend of mine and he asked me what I thought the difference between females and males was. I pretty much assumed it must have something to do with the wang. Well, as he pointed out, biologically speaking, the only clear-cut way that scientists have of differentiating between is the size of their gametes. The female of any given, sexually-reproducing species will always have the larger gametes (eggs) while the males have the smaller gametes (sperm). That’s it. There is no other way of differentiating between the two across species. For instance, female spotted hyenas have an organ that resembles the males’ genitals, referred to as a pseudopenis. To the untrained eye, it’s almost impossible to tell a male from a female.

Look at seahorses. The males are the ones that get pregnant and give birth to live young. Reminds me of a terrible Schwarzenegger movie, speaking of California.

So what’s the deal with humans? Aren’t we somehow different? We’d like to think that we are, wouldn’t we? If aliens came to Earth today, do you think they’d be able to tell a male from a female human without some research?

Sexual reproduction evolved as a novel way of blending genes between generations. The reasons for sexual reproduction persisting are not exactly clear. A number of species of animals reproduce asexually (some lizards, insects and sharks are able to reproduce through parthenogenesis), which is a lot more efficient. It is thought that wider diversity is the result of sexual reproduction and that it allows for quicker adaptation to changing environmental conditions. Regardless of the truth-value of this assertion, we are a species among many species which produce sexually.

The question of the naturalness of homosexuality arises now. Only a heterosexual coupling among humans is going to produce any viable offspring, so this is the evidence that is often cited in opposition to allowing same-sex couplings. I would posit that since the only real biological difference between the genders (and therefore making any other differences largely cultural) then any random coupling of humans is essentially the same as any other. If, by some chance, a few of those couplings are “heterosexual” and result in offspring, then so much the better for the species. In fact, the way evolution works, this is, of course, going to be far more common than a same-sex coupling. But, as we have seen with many species, including chimps, bonobos, and other mammals, homosexual couplings do happen. It is, for lack of a better word, normal. It’s not strange or weird, and nature allows for it simply because it’s possible.

I am not here to argue for whether these relationships are more or less loving and functional (there are plenty of hetero- couplings that are completely dysfunctional), but to argue that biology allows for homosexuality. The differences between the sexes are subtle and the differences between the genders are cultural.

Whether or not Chief Justice George actually believes that he is serving democracy best by upholding Proposition 8, the fact remains, the proposition itself is just another cultural battle that has absolutely no bearing on biology or the efficacy of humans to continue existing on this planet.

No marriage, no matter what genders are involved, is official until its sanctioned by the state. You can have ceremonies all day long, but until the ink is dry on the marriage license and submitted to the county registry, then you aren’t married in the only eyes that matter: society’s. I’m not a huge fan of state institutions, but this peculiar institution shows that it’s not just a religious one and it cannot be defined as such.

And that is why the California Supreme Court screwed up.

Why Terminator Salvation is not a terrible movie.

terminator_awkward

Spoilers follow.

If you were to follow my Twitter, you’d know that I watched Terminator Salvation yesterday. You’d also know that my reaction to the movie was positive. And so I won’t bore you with a review of the film, but instead, an analysis. Lots of people who make lots more money than I do have already reviewed the crap out of it and they got to see it before it was officially released. I am not in a position to get special screenings and so I’ll take the high road and rely on the far less time-dependent nature of analysis. I mean, they’re still analyzing Plato and that was sooo last millennium.

Most good science fiction stories are based on a simple idea. It is usually possible to distill the essence of the story into a “what if” type of question. Since the Terminator franchise is science fiction, it seems to follow that there’s an idea somewhere in underlying story, the action, the explosions and the scary freaking skeleton robots. The first Terminator movie is by far the best thing the genre has created. And the germ that lies at the heart of this now sprawling franchise might have a pitch that looks something like this:

What if a robot assassin from the future were sent back in time to kill a woman before she can give birth the savior of mankind?

From this germ, the idea is expanded. We already have, of course, the robot apocalypse. We also have time travel. And then, to make things even more crazy, the savior, upon discovering this plot, sends one of his best soldiers back in time to stop the robot assassin. Even better? The soldier sent back is the one who will sire the savior of mankind.

It’s a brilliant story, but it can only go so far.

We can make one decent sequel. The robots try again, sending a more advanced robot this time, armed with the newest in CGI technology. This time, the savior sends a reprogrammed robot assassin back in time to save his own rebellious teenage ass. It follows pretty well. It makes sense. At the very least, it’s fun. It still needs little to no extra explanation. It holds its own as a science fiction story. Maybe it’s not as good as the original, but it’s got our attention. We get all that emotional garble that is admittedly pretty seamlessly integrated, but still shows a very common tendency in science fiction to ask the question, “What if robots had feelings? Does that make them human?” The thing that saves it is that most of the world didn’t know that it was a cliché, though plenty of science fiction nerds did.

I have a confession to make. I have never seen T3. It looked really bad and while I usually will get around to seeing just about everything that even remotely appeals to my science fiction sensibility–I saw Wolverine twice and I hated it the first time around–I somehow managed to miss this one. Based on what I’ve read, I haven’t missed much and that doesn’t surprise me. It seems like a backhanded attempt to make further cash-money by rehashing the same damned plot from T2 with a hot chick terminator. Absurdly bad sci-fi.

That brings us to Terminator Salvation and what it means for the franchise and what it means as science fiction. Schwarzenegger was apparently treated to an early screening and was “underwhelmed.” To be fair, he didn’t see the whole movie, but he said he “wasn’t sure who the terminator was,” which is a pretty telling remark of a)Schwarzenegger’s complete ignorance of anything of substance and b)the fact that this is not a “terminator film,” in the sense of T1 and T2. It’s a completely different type of story. You see, Terminator 2 was really a remake disguised as a sequel. Same plot. Same characters. Slightly different take.

What are the common elements of the first two films? Robot assassin, time travel. T4 is missing the time travel element, though it retains the robot assassin designed to blend into a human society. But at its heart, it draws from a completely different science fiction mode. This is a post-apocalyptic film. It’s in the vein of Mad Max, A Boy and his Dog, and, well, most of Harlan Ellison’s stuff. The other films were, more properly, pre-apocalyptic films. In the original films, Judgment Day is a sort of vaguely defined event some time in the future. It’s a fearful event just beyond our vision. It’s mysterious, terrifying, and the fact that it is unknowable is what makes it so terrifying. In T4, it’s a history lesson. It happened a while ago.

This is what I mean by the fact that it totally abandons the original concept of the former films and draws upon something artificial, that is, the specific mythos of the original films with which to build its story. The first two (or three) films were based on the same idea and were, in essence, iterations of the same idea (two different tellings of the same idea, though passed of as sequential). This new creature continues chronologically, but not necessarily building on the original concept. It is, instead, based on the specific plot events that transpired in the original films.

The original film is pure and undiluted. Characters were created to fill necessary roles in a drama based on a “what if?” question. The new film is answers the question “What happens next?” if Judgement Day were to actually occur. Thus the original idea is diluted and it is now about something completely different. Put another way, the first film answers the “what if?” question and the second film, answers a second “what if?” question using the end of the first film as its initial conditions.

Again, at its core, it could be any robot apocalypse movie. The fact that it draws from an established mythos is beside the point. All this gives us is easy plotting: John Connor has to save his teenage father so that he can send him back in time to shack up with his mother. The rest of it is essentially the same as any apocalypse movie (zombie, robot, nuclear, or otherwise): Survive.

In other words, the proper way to make Terminator 4 would be to say, “Let’s make a robot apocalypse movie” and then use the Terminator mythos as a convenient vehicle for setting up the scenario that plays out in the film. In many ways, it feels like this is exactly what McG did.

Understanding the film from this perspective, we can see that it’s actually pretty stupendous. Post-apocalyptic movies should be terrifying. That giant robot is damned terrifying–the sound effects are pretty key in establishing this tension, I might add. In fact, zombie and robot apocalypse movies have a lot in common in this respect.

In some ways, it is still a “Terminator” movie. Skynet employs a lone robot assassin in an attempt to kill John Connor. The twist is that the robot assassin doesn’t know that he’s a robot assassin. He thinks he’s a human. That’s cool. I can get behind that.

In the end, however, this is just too different a film to actually be thought to spawn from the same original idea as James Cameron conceived it. As a standalone story, it’s solid–decent action, tolerable acting, fair-to-decent scripting, excellent pacing–and that’s how it should be viewed.

After all, it’s been a while since we’ve had a good robot apocalypse movie. At the very least, it’s a hundred times better than the last two Matrix films, though for accomplishing that, I don’t think we should give McG a medal or anything. Just a pat on the back, I think.