Guedelon Castle

Monday, November 30th, 2015

In a forest in Burgundy, a 13th-century castle is being built using only the tools, techniques, and materials available to the builders of the time:

It’s archaeology in reverse.

The Guédelon project was started in 1997 at this location, which was chosen because it was near an abandoned stone quarry, a pond for water, and in a forest that could provide wood. The whole exercise is an experimental archaeology endeavor that seeks to discover what it would have been like to create a castle centuries ago, not by making guesses from artifacts from the past, but by experiencing it in real time. Knotted rope is used to make measurements, stone is imperfectly cut to denote the station of the castle’s owner, and rock is chiseled by hand.

Guedelon Castle 2013

Guedelon Castle 2013 Opposite

Something similar is going on in Arkansas.

Sustainable Produce

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

Modern greenhouses are now in the vanguard of sustainability.

The logic of farmers’ markets begins with this: that the route from harvest to plate ought to be as direct as possible. That’s fine if farmers live round the corner from consumers. But urban land is in short supply, expensive, often polluted, and unsuitable for horticulture. And there is more. Even in a short chain from farm to table, produce can get spoiled. A fresh tomato is not dead; like all fresh products, it’s a living organism with an active metabolism, post-harvesting, that provides a fertile substrate for microorganisms and causes tomatoes to deteriorate very fast. Freshness does not in itself translate into sustainability: unless the supply chain is well?organised, losses can be considerable. And food losses come down to a waste of land, water, energy and chemicals used to produce what is ultimately discarded. This ought to be a good argument for local markets, but it is not. Everything depends on transportation, storage and speed. Poorly packed products go to waste in a matter of hours.

Thanks to decades of research, we now understand the interacting metabolisms of vegetables and microorganisms. We can design high-tech transport and storage techniques that slow down, even halt, deterioration through the use of harmless mixtures of gases. Chips fitted to containers give off signals when the gas composition and temperature need adjusting to plan ripening at the exact moment of delivery. Likewise, to minimise food losses in supermarkets, packaging techniques and materials have been developed to prolong shelf life. Surprising but true: modern treatments with biodegradable plastic bags and sealing create an optimal environment inside the package and reduce loss. So does the industrial washing of packed and cut vegetables, which also saves water, compared with household?level processing.

What then of labour? While ‘handpicked’ sounds attractive to the urban consumer or occasional gardener, this type of manual labour is backbreaking if done all day long. Remuneration is poor, job security close to zero, and only few are willing to do this kind of work. To top it all, the yield from organic farming is low. So think about the alternative: harvesting vegetables such as tomatoes with smart robots that carefully grab each fruit, after assessing its ripeness with a special camera; using smart technology to fine-tune the dosing of fertiliser to every stage of plant development. This enhances flavour and texture, and reduces the overall amount of fertiliser needed. The result is that, in greenhouses, one square metre of tomato plants produces more than 70 kilos of high?quality tomatoes, all of which make it to consumers’ kitchens.

Since we’re on the subject of freshness, consider this: ketchup might actually be better for us than fresh tomatoes – and not just because of economics (the tomatoes used in ketchup are subgrade ones that would otherwise be destroyed). While fresh tomatoes contribute to a healthy diet, human digestive systems are not tuned to extracting most nutrients from fresh tomatoes. Tomatoes are far more nutritious when cooked or processed into ketchup or paste. So, ketchup is no bad thing – unless overloaded with sugar and salt. Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests that the discovery of fire and cooking – that is, heating food – has been essential in the evolution of the human brain because it allowed for a better absorption of nutrients. Moreover, drying and smoking promoted the preservation of perishable foodstuffs, and perhaps facilitated the emergence of a more complex diet and division of labour.

But surely, you’ll object, tomatoes grown in small-scale gardens taste better. Not so! Double-blind tasting panels have been unable to pick out the greenhouse tomatoes as lacking in flavour, or tomatoes grown without fertiliser as more tasteful. According to Dutch reports on such testing, taste is more dependent on the variety of tomato than on the way it is grown. More importantly, the context of eating determines everything. The on-the-vine tomatoes you consume with mozzarella and olive oil on a village square in Italy will never taste the same at home. It’s a matter of psychology and gastronomy, not chemistry and biology.

In complete contrast to the mantras of organic farming, modern greenhouses are now in the vanguard of sustainability. No longer net?energy absorbers, pilot schemes show that they can produce enough additional energy to heat an entire neighbourhood by storing excess heat from the summer sun in groundwater to be released during winter. Since plants use only a small part of the solar spectrum in photosynthesis, modern technology enables us to find applications for the rest of the spectrum. Greenhouses also utilise residual CO2 from industry to promote plant growth and, in the Netherlands, CO2 from natural?gas production is routinely reused in agriculture. Conceiving greenhouses as net?energy producers opens up new opportunities to build them in hot, arid climates in order to use the stored energy for cooling down the facility.

But energy is just one dimension of sustainable production. Water is equally important. Here too, greenhouses optimise resource use. Under the very best conditions, one kilo of tomatoes can be produced using just 4-6 litres of water, because evaporation from plants can be collected and reused. Meanwhile, according to a 2015 study published in Science Direct, for tomatoes grown in the open air or under open plastic, the production of the same one kilo requires as much as 60 litres of water. Just as water might be reused in greenhouses, pests can be kept out. In a controlled environment, you can minimise the use of pesticides, or opt to use biological controls in the form of predatory insects.

Agricultural science has made great strides in breeding tomatoes with resistance to disease and pests, or with longer shelf-lives and better taste; while the latest genetic and biological techniques have increased our understanding of the genetic diversity of tomatoes and enabled us to speed up the breeding process. Such techniques do not always lead to genetically modified tomatoes. For that to happen, genes from other species would need to be introduced, of the kind that lead to higher vitamin contents in sweet potatoes, for example, or that use bacteria to build resistance against fungi.

So what do we really mean by sustainability? There have been many attempts at providing an exact and measurable definition beyond the statement of the Brundtland Report (1987), which coined the term in the context of equitable development that would not endanger the livelihoods of future generations. The concept originated in 19th-century forestry science to indicate the amount of wood that could be harvested from a forest without damaging future productivity. Since then, it has evolved to mean ‘respecting people, planet and profits’, in the parlance of the UN Earth Summit of 1992 and subsequent Millennium Development Goals.

Historic Rocket Landing

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin has made a historic rocket landing. They then mixed launch and landing footage with some jarring CGI in between:

The New Shepard is a fully reusable vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) space vehicle:

Blue Origin Trajectory

Tomorrow Land: Disney in Space and Beyond

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

I may have picked up Tomorrow Land: Disney in Space and Beyond on a whim a decade ago — even though I was never really a space geek — but it stuck with me.

I grew up in an era when we took going to the moon for granted — but anything equally ambitious seemed ludicrous.

Nick B. Steves recently watched one of the included pieces and noted the civilizational confidence of post-war America:

This talk of civilizational confidence reminds me of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (and the new Amazon show), where the victorious Nazis go on to drain the Mediterranean.

The Space Shuttle wasn’t scrapped

Thursday, November 5th, 2015

Contrary to popular belief, the Space Shuttle wasn’t scrapped, according to astronaut Chris Hadfield in a recent Q&A:

No vehicle lasts forever; eventually you retire your ’73 Dodge; eventually you got to retire all vehicles and build new ones, because technology comes along. There wasn’t a hard date set to retire the Shuttle, but after the Columbia accident in 2003 there was a huge push to never fly again; an enormous body of the American public, management and people who pay for it thought you killed everybody on Challenger, everybody on Columbia; you do not have the permission to ever fly again. So we had to first figure out what all the problems were, try to fix them, and then we had to convince ourselves, as an organization, that we actually knew enough of what we’re doing, that we thought we could actually safely fly again, and then we had to convince all the people that are paying for it, that we could be trusted to fly again.

In that process we said how much longer, why are we flying them for, and when is the end of the natural life of the Shuttle. So during that process post Columbia, ’03 to ’04–’05, we said we’re going to finish building the Space Station, and that is the natural end, that’s what Space Shuttles were really for anyway, and that’s gonna be the natural end of the Space Shuttles. So we built the whole program after Columbia to finish building the Space Station; we decided in ’04 that we’re not gonna fly Shuttles after 2010, because then you can start winding down the whole parts supply chain and plan how to wind down facilities, manning, all of that.

We ended up a little bit later, summer 2011, but the beauty of it was that we finished the entire Space Shuttle program, didn’t hurt one more person and got the Space Station built; it was an enormous rollicking success, from our point of view. So when someone says you scrapped the Shuttle program, it’s a complete misrepresentation of what actually happened. There is a huge amount of pride that we prolonged the Shuttle program, got it flying again, and finished building the Space Station.

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest — who also transcribed that passage.)

Feedback Considered Harmful

Friday, October 30th, 2015

Feedback can be harmful to learning, rather than helpful, when it’s simplistic:

Research shows the effects of feedback on learning are not always positive — and can even be negative. Our team collected and compared existing studies that looked at different methods for providing feedback in digital learning tools in order to find out which feedback methods actually improve student learning.

Digital tools, such as Improve, often give simple correct/incorrect messages to students, usually marking the answers with a tick or a cross. Research shows this kind of feedback is not effective.

Half of the studies that examined this kind of correct/incorrect feedback found that students who did not receive any feedback actually performed better than those who had received feedback.


One-third of the studies examined showed that students did not learn from being given the correct answer. Those students are more likely to disengage from the task as they can mindlessly click until they answer the task correctly without learning anything.

How Cheap Can Energy Storage Get?

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

How cheap can energy storage get? Pretty cheap, since lithium-ion batteries appear to be on a typical learning curve:

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) reviewed a variety of data to find that lithium-ion batteries drop in price by 15% per doubling of volume.

Winfriend Hoffman, the former CTO of Applied Materials, and one of the first to apply the learning curve concept to solar, similarly finds a 15% learning rate in large format lithium-ion batteries

Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), meanwhile, uses more recent data, and finds a 21.6% learning rate in electric vehicle batteries. In fact, the learning rate they find is strikingly similar to the learning rate for solar panels.

So the range of estimates of from 15% to 21%. How cheap does that suggest lithium-ion battery storage will get?


If you’re informed on wholesale electricity prices, the prices above may sound ridiculously high. Wholesale natural gas electricity from a new plant is roughly 7 cents per kwh (though that doesn’t include the cost of carbon emitted). How could batteries priced at 25 cents per kwh, or even 10 cents a kwh, compete? Particularly when you also have to pay for electricity to go into those batteries?

The answer is that batteries don’t compete with baseload power generation alone. Batteries deployed by utilities allow them to reduce the use of (or entirely remove) expensive peaker plants that only run for a few hours a month. They allow utilities to reduce spending on new transmission and distribution lines that are (up until now) built out for peak load and which sit idle at many other hours. In a world with batteries distributed close to the edge, utilities can keep their transmission lines full even during low-demand hours, using them to charge batteries close to their customers, and thus cutting the need for transmission and distribution during peak demand. And batteries reduce outages.

To roughly estimate the value that batteries provide, look at the gap between the peak retail prices customers pay at the most expensive hours of the day versus the cheapest retail power available throughout the day. In a state like California, that’s a difference of almost 20 cents per kwh, from peak-of-day prices of more 34 cents to night time power that’s less than 14 cents. That difference is an opportunity for storage.

Another opportunity is the difference between the cheapest wholesale power price – wind at 2 cents per kwh – and peak of day wholesale prices from natural gas peaker plants, which can be over 20 cents per kwh. Again, the gap is close to 20 cents per kwh.

IQ testing across space and time

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

Raw IQs have been steadily increasing for decades, and IQ tests have been renormed along the way, but this Flynn Effect has been more pronounced in the more abstract, less culturally loaded sections of the test:

The kind of cognitive facilities that come up in normal conversation, such as vocabulary, arithmetic and general knowledge, have only seen small Flynn Effects, which is why the Flynn Effect isn’t easily noticeable in much of daily life (although I’ll point out below where it can be seen).

Flynn Effect and Cultural Load

One of the big changes in daily life over recent centuries has been the growth of what I might call humans having to deal with “machine logic.” People today deal far more often each day than in the past with semi-intelligent machines who can only be dealt with in a certain way according to their logic. You deal with the ATM rather than with a bank teller, with a gasoline pump rather than with a pump jockey, with elevator buttons rather than with elevator operators. You can’t wave your hands around with these machines until they figure out what you want done. You have to follow a precise logical series of steps.


Generation after generation, children grow up in an environment ever denser with the kind of systems logic that the more Flynn Effected-Wechsler subtests ask about. Growing up, kids these days get more practice with the kind of thinking tested on the Raven’s and on some of the Wechsler subtexts. And they legitimately are better at it.

The Flynn Effect is a side effect of the developers of the IQ test being on “the right side of history.”

The History of the Mason Jar

Monday, October 12th, 2015

The Mason jar, which was created in 1858 by John Landis Mason, a New Jersey native, wasn’t always a hipster accessory:

The idea of “heat-based canning” emerged in 1806 and was popularized by Nicholas Appert, a French cook who had been inspired by the need to preserve foods for long periods during the Napoleonic wars. But, as Sue Shepard writes in her book Pickled, Potted, and Canned, the products of this technique were often compromised by imperfect seals: Appert originally used champagne bottles, which he secured with the improbable mixture of cheese and lime. He soon exchanged champagne bottles for glasses with wider necks, and by 1803 his canned goods were being successfully distributed to the French Navy. Mason’s design, which possessed a ribbed neck and a screw-on cap that created an airtight seal, helped to refine a canning process that had been prone to error. The transparency of the glass that Mason used also made the contents appealingly visible.

In the early 20th century, mass production made Mason jars ubiquitous in America. One of the most prolific manufacturers was the Ball Corporation. One often sees jars etched with this name, in lilting cursive, opposite an engraved cornucopia and measurement markers. Printed discreetly near the bottom is the label: “Made in U.S.A.”


Mason jars experienced a renaissance during World War II, when the U.S. government rationed food and encouraged people to grow their own. In the aftermath of the war, however, economic and industrial developments displaced canning as the primary form of food preservation. Large numbers of people began leaving farms for the city, refrigerators became ubiquitous, and canning was supplanted by freezing. As transportation systems improved, fresh fruits and vegetables became available year-round (even in New Hampshire), lessening the need for food preservation. Tin canning, based on Appert’s glass-canning technique and patented in 1810 by the Englishman Peter Durand, industrialized the food-preservation process, making its benefits available on a massive scale and at relatively cheap prices. (While millions of Americans were purchasing Mason jars during World War II, soldiers overseas were eating daily rations of tinned food.) In the early 20th century, the invention of the plastics bakelite and nylon paved the way for the billions of plastic containers used in contemporary industrial preservation.

Perfectly Pandering

Saturday, October 10th, 2015

Nick Beauchamp, an assistant professor in Northeastern’s department of political science, decided to analyze political arguments, sentence by sentence:

First, he needed to pick an issue. He settled on Obamacare because, he says, it’s an issue on which many Americans still have fluid opinions. He then skimmed 2,000 sentences from a pro-Obamacare website called and fed it to a machine learning model. The system grouped the 2,000 sentences into individual topics, such as sentences related to costs or health care exchanges — and began mixing and matching.

After the machines took a swing at political discourse, Beauchamp turned to the human brains on Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s online community for crowdsourcing tasks. Using the formulations developed by the model, Beauchamp sent hundreds of Turkers in the United States various combinations of sentences, then asked them, on a scale of 1 to 9, whether they strongly approve or strongly disapprove of Obamacare. Based on their answers, the system would go back to the topic pools to find more and more favorable sentence combinations and send them out to a new group of Turkers.

“The goal is: Can you combine better and better collections of sentences such that after people read them they’re more disposed toward Obamacare?” Beauchamp says.

Within an hour-and-a-half, Beauchamp was left with a collection of text that had a 30 percent higher approval rating than the original text. He discovered that sentences about pre-existing conditions and employer-employee relationships tended to be viewed most favorably, while sentences about legal rights and state and federal rights were viewed least favorably.

The conclusion:

“Democracy has this inherent problem where if you do it right, you’re perfectly pandering to the audience,” he says. “We’re all worried by that, but we also, at the same time, all believe in democracy.”

If we’re more aware of how easily we can be manipulated, perhaps we’ll be more willing to question those who are trying to manipulate us.

Maybe we shouldn’t all believe in democracy?

Reason Interviews Andy Weir

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

“I want us to have a self-sufficient population somewhere other than Earth,” Andy Weir (The Martian) says, “because 25 years of being a computer programmer has taught me the value of backing things up”:

Glen Keane Steps into the Page

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

Disney legend Glen Keane, son of Family Circus-creator Bil Keane, puts on a virtual-reality headset and steps into the page to sketch some of his creations in 3D:


Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

The Americans and the Soviets famously scooped up Nazi rocket scientists at the end of the war, but so did the French and the British:

Known as Operation Backfire, the British program involved firing V2 rockets from the Netherlands to the edge of space before they splashed down in the North Sea. The experiment proved successful, with the missiles reportedly descending within three miles of their targets – more accurately than the Germans managed during the war.

Engineers overseeing the tests realized that von Braun had solved fundamental problems in rocketry: he had designed a sizeable engine, an advanced pump to get fuel in fast enough and a sophisticated guidance system.

“The rocket was out of this world, literally,” says Becklake who later helped restore a V2 for museum display. “It was packed full of high technology.”

Engineers at the British Interplanetary Society in London decided this technology could help them realise their dream of building a spaceship, a dream that had been considered fanciful only five years earlier. In 1946, society member, designer and artist Ralph Smith put forward a detailed proposal to adapt the V2 missile into a “man-carrying rocket.”

Smith’s Megaroc design involved enlarging and strengthening the V2’s hull, increasing the amount of fuel and replacing the one-tonne warhead with a man-carrying capsule. The rocket would not have been powerful enough to carry a person into orbit. Instead, the spaceman (and only a man was considered) would have been launched on a parabolic trajectory some 300,000 metres above the Earth.

Launched at an angle of two degrees, once in space the rocket would drop away and the segmented nose-cone would peel back to expose the capsule. Smith provided two windows in his design and suggested the space pioneer, kitted out in a high-altitude flying suit, might use his few minutes in space to carry out observations of the Earth, atmosphere and Sun. With the West squaring up to the Soviet Union, Megaroc would also have been ideal for spying on enemy territory.

After five minutes or so of weightlessness the capsule would fall back to Earth, its heatshield protecting the spaceman from harm. Parachutes would be deployed and it would float slowly to the ground. There was even a separate parachute for the rocket, intended to make the whole spacecraft reusable.

Smith worked out everything – from the exact dimensions of the rocket to the thrust of the engines and g-forces the astronaut would experience.

“The design was totally practical,” says space historian and editor of Spaceflight magazine David Baker, who has studied the Megaroc designs. “All the technology existed and it could have been achieved within three to five years.”

Baker, who was trained on V2 technology in the States and has spent most of his career as a Nasa engineer working on the Space Shuttle programme, says Megaroc was 10 years ahead of its time. “By 1951 Britain could have been routinely putting people into space on a ballistic trajectory,” he says.

The Brits were in no position to follow up on this early work though.

(Hat tip to Nyrath.)

Space Conquerors

Saturday, August 29th, 2015

Henry Kujawa first encountered Al Stenzel’s Space Conquerors comic strip in Boys’ Life in 1968, soon after he’d joined the cub scouts, but the series had started back in 1952:

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It was a simpler time. By 1954 the stories became a bit harder, scientifically speaking.

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How Cheap Can Solar Get?

Monday, August 24th, 2015

How cheap can solar get, without subsidies, as a function of scale, if current trends hold?

Solar Cost Projections