Floating tidal turbine off Orkney Islands smashes generation records

June 14th, 2017

A floating tidal turbine off the Orkney Islands generated 18 MWh over a 24-hour period, matching the generation capacity of offshore wind turbines:

The turbine is composed of a floating hull, with two turbines on the lower half of the body which sit just below the sea surface, the prime position for harnessing the energy of tidal flows. The turbines are also designed to fold upwards into the hull of the generator, which reduces transportation costs.

The machine has been designed to perform in areas with fast tidal flows, such as Scotland and Canada, but can be calibrated to perform in areas with softer breaks.

Scotrenewables Tidal Power SR2000

The SR2000 in numbers

Weight: 500 tonnes
Length: 64 metres
Rotor Diameter: 16 meters
Rotor Speed: 16 rpm
Rated Power: 2 MW

Researchers funded by NASA are developing small fusion rockets

June 13th, 2017

So far, no one has built a fusion reactor that generates more energy than it consumes, but researchers funded by NASA are developing small fusion rockets:

The large fusion reactors under development today, such as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), usually strive to generate hundreds of megawatts of power. In contrast, Paluszek and his colleagues at Princeton Satellite Systems are designing reactors meant to produce only a dozen megawatts or so. This humbler goal results in a smaller, lighter reactor that is easier to build and launch into space “for practical robotic and human missions,” Paluszek said.

In addition, these small fusion reactors are much cheaper than larger devices. Paluszek noted that, whereas modern fusion experiments might cost $20 billion, a prototype fusion rocket the researchers plan to develop should cost just $20 million. So far, they have received three NASA grants to fund the project, he said.

The aim for the fusion drives is to get about 1 kilowatt of power per 2.2 lbs. (1 kilogram) of mass. A 10-megawatt fusion rocket would therefore weigh about 11 tons (10 metric tons).

“It would probably be 1.5 meters [4.9 feet] in diameter and 4 to 8 meters [13 to 26 feet] long,” Paluszek said.

Nuclear fusion requires extremely high temperatures and pressures to force atoms to fuse, a process that converts some of the mass of the atoms into energy. The fusion reactors that Princeton Satellite Systems is developing uses low-frequency radio waves to heat a mix of deuterium and helium-3, and magnetic fields to confine the resulting plasma in a ring. (Deuterium is made of hydrogen atoms that each have an extra neutron; helium-3 is made of helium atoms, each of which is missing a neutron; and plasma is the state of matter found in stars, lightning bolts and neon lights.)

As this plasma rotates in a ring, some of it can spiral out and get directed from the fusion rocket’s nozzle for thrust. “We can get very high exhaust velocities of up to about 25,000 kilometers per second [55.9 million mph],” Paluszek said.

The large amounts of thrust this fusion rocket may deliver compared to its mass could enable very fast spacecraft. For instance, whereas round-trip crewed missions to Mars are estimated to take more than two years using current technology, the researchers estimated that six 5-megawatt fusion rockets could accomplish such missions in 310 days. This extra speed would reduce the risks of radiation that astronauts might experience from the sun or deep space, as well as dramatically cut the amount of food, water and other supplies they would need to bring with them.

In addition, the fusion reactors could also help generate ample electricity for scientific instruments and communications devices. For instance, whereas NASA’s New Horizons mission took more than nine years to get to Pluto and had little more than 200 watts of power to work with once it arrived, broadcasting about 1,000 bits of data back per second, a 1-megawatt fusion rocket could get a robotic mission to Pluto in four years, supply 2 million watts of power and broadcast more than 1 million bits of data back per second, Paluszek said. Such a mission could also carry a lander to Pluto and power it by beaming down energy, he added.

[...]

Previous research suggested this kind of fusion rocket in the 1960s, but the designs proposed for them would not stably confine the plasmas, Paluszek said. About 10 years ago, reactor designer Sam Cohen figured out a magnetic-field design “that could make stable plasmas,” Paluszek explained.

One drawback of the kind of nuclear reactor that Princeton Satellite Systems is developing is that radio waves do not penetrate deeply into plasma. “We’re limited to something like 10 meters [33 feet] in diameter,” Paluszek said. To generate large amounts of power with this strategy, the researchers have to rely on multiple reactors.

Another pitfall is that, while this fusion reactor generates less deadly neutron radiation than most fusion reactors under development, it still does produce some neutrons, as well as X-rays. “Radiation shielding is key,” Paluszek said.

In addition, helium-3 is rare on Earth. Still, it is possible to generate helium-3 using nuclear reactors, Paluszek said.

Princeton Satellite Systems is not alone in pursuing small fusion reactors. For instance, Paluszek noted that Helion Energy in Redmond, Washington, also intends to fuse deuterium and helium-3, while Tri Alpha Energy in Foothill Ranch, California, aims to fuse boron and protons.

Students earn their degrees without improving their ability to think critically or solve problems

June 12th, 2017

The Wall Street Journal took a closer look at CLA+ test results, which purport to measure critical-thinking skills, and found that the average graduate shows little improvement in critical thinking over four years:

A survey by PayScale Inc., an online pay and benefits researcher, showed 50% of employers complain that college graduates they hire aren’t ready for the workplace. Their No. 1 complaint? Poor critical-reasoning skills.

“At most schools in this country, students basically spend four years in college, and they don’t necessarily become better thinkers and problem solvers,” said Josipa Roksa, a University of Virginia sociology professor who co-wrote a book in 2011 about the CLA+ test. “Employers are going to hire the best they can get, and if we don’t have that, then what is at stake in the long run is our ability to compete.”

International rankings show U.S. college graduates are in the middle of the pack when it comes to numeracy and literacy and near the bottom when it comes to problem solving.

The CLA+ test raises questions about the purpose of a college degree and taps into a longstanding debate about the role of colleges: Are they are designed to raise students’ intellectual abilities or to sort high-school graduates so they can find the niche for which they are best suited?

The role of a diploma as signal of ability has been in the ascendancy recently, given how having a degree is closely related to graduates’ lifetime earnings. The test data, by contrast, show that many students earn their degrees without improving their ability to think critically or solve problems.

Jewelry is money

June 11th, 2017

Nick Szabo describes the astronomical origins of precious metals and then explains how they became money and treasure:

Billions of years later, naked apes evolved with hypertrophied brains and clever hands, living on a planet in this gold-dusted solar system. They dug out the gold and silver they could find and separated it from the more common earth.  Other more common metals were more useful for concretely usable tools; instead they fashioned the precious metals into what looks to our eyes like jewelry. They formed these precious metals into shapes both repetitive and unique, bragged about them, displayed them, stored them as “treasure”, “wealth”, and “money”. They fashioned gold and silver into wearable objects, transferred them to each other or stole them, even injuring or killing each other in pursuit of them. They used the gold and silver to pay each other compensation for those and many other injuries. People transferred gold and silver to each other in order to satisfy important obligations as well as to obtain items of more direct and obvious use.  Since the most important such obligations happened at many of the most fitness-critical junctures of life — marriage, death, injury, war — gold and silver, as treasure and as money, came to be greatly desired.

Some metal collectibles came in a wide variety of artistically skilled forms. Others came in the form of coins: labeled, mass-produced pieces of metal stamped by the blow of a hammer or cast in molds, whereby a mostly-trusted brand named their alleged value. Still others came in forms that look odd to us, resembling neither coins nor fancy jewelry, but rather utilitarian-looking pieces that manage to make precious metals ugly, and that might have been worn but that look, long before the era of factories, like they were mass produced.  People around the world wore gold jewelry proudly, and globe-straddling monetary systems, on which economies were said to be based, were defined around gold and silver objects and debts denominated in weights of those metals.

We can think of collectibles as coming at us at two levels, like railroads and trains, or like pipelines and the oil they carry. At the most basic or “inner layer” is the metal itself that constitutes the substance of the collectible: occasionally iron, more typically copper or bronze for the less valuable collectibles, and the precious metals, especially gold and silver, for the more valuable money and treasure.

So important is the “lower layer” of the traditional cultural understanding of gold and silver, the natural substance itself, evaluated by its weight rather than by any value added via the craftsmanship or its form, that Europeans of earlier generations evolved a word for it: bullion. Bullion is the metal itself, considered and valued only for its substance. Jewelry, coins, and other ways of shaping precious metals are just various forms of the underlying bullion.

[...]

In 1959 Paul Bohannan coined the phrase “spheres of exchange” to refer to moral or legal distinctions made between different types of exchange. Often one set of collectibles was expected to be used in one kind of exchange, and another distinct set in another. Since there are several important kinds of wealth transfer besides exchange, we can generalize Bohannan’s idea to the concept of spheres of transfer. In Western cultures (and many other modern cultures under their influence), for example, we make a strong distinction between money, meant for the rapid turnover of earning and spending, and heirlooms that are expected to stay in the family for generations, with feelings of guilt or shame occurring if we have to sell a family heirloom. But it’s fine to use an heirloom ring for a marriage. Similarly, we make a strong distinction between stocks and bonds on the one hand and decorative wealth objects such as jewelry and artwork on the other. So strong is our taboo that if a Western archaeologist finds a wearable (as in forager days they mostly were) collectible, it is automatically and dogmatically labeled “ornamental” or “symbolic”, with wealth-related uses seldom considered. (It also doesn’t help that shells, often scarce and precious treasures in indigenous environments, look like cheap tourist knick-knacks to modern eyes).

Legal or moral sanctions discourage transfer of objects from one sphere to another. In feudal European societies it was shameful and often even illegal to sell or mortgage land: a lord’s duty was to preserve his land and devise it intact to his eldest son. In modern Western society, weddings are one sphere of transfer (where a gift of a finger-ring is expected, as well as some household items from the guests and a feast or party thrown by the parents), whereas commerce and legal remedy in civil law is another (where payment of money is expected). Some aspects of our bodies (such as ownership of humans or payment for sex or body organs) are off limits to monetary compensation — one is expected to donate an organ, not to sell it — while many others are not (most health care, for example). All of these spheres can involve transfers of objects of substantial value, but it is disgraceful and/or illegal if they are the too obviously the wrong ones for the given sphere.

In the modern West, we consider the realm of jewelry and the realm of money to be very separate spheres of transfer. It is considered either a shameful betrayal or a grim necessity if the winner of an Olympic or Nobel Prize medal or a Super Bowl ring sells it to raise money. The finger-ring is a central feature of modern weddings, but few things would offend a typical modern bride more than being paid a bride price, she or her kin being indemnified by money as if she, as we would see it, were a prostitute on long-term contract. Meanwhile, our economists obsess over money while touching on the subject of jewelry hardly at all, and certainly not as any sort of form or variant of money. We moderns can hardly imagine confusing such seemingly very different things, and indeed the very idea offends our sensibilities. But in many non-Western and earlier Western cultures this was far from the case. For them the fundamental protocol layer, the substance itself, is cherished for its own sake, and forms the great majority of the value of the item, while its protocol layer two, the “outer layer”, the particular form it has been fashioned into, while often of considerable interest, is usually quite secondary in determining its value for purposes of the display and transfer of wealth.

This modern Western restriction involves the more culturally local aspect of gold and silver, namely the particular form it takes (jewelry vs. coin), even though these objects are made out of the same underlying substance, and traditionally were mainly prized for the content by weight of that substance. Even in our own culture we have businesses that serve to transfer gold and silver from one sphere to another. Nevertheless, economists and other academicians often act as if money and jewelry are scientifically and objectively very distinct objects, when in fact this is a cultural convention that is largely confined to the modern West.

Globe-trotting gold dealer Roy Sebag has described the differences between Asian and Western views of jewelry. As he describes it, over $2 trillion worth of jewelry is owned by about 2 billion people in India and China alone, constituting a much larger fraction of their wealth on average than in the West. The metal content of the gold jewelry constitutes the vast majority of its sales price and its assessed value as collateral, as it also does in Brazil, Russia, and most other countries outside of Western Europe, the British Commonwealth, and the United States. In the latter countries, precious metal content constitutes only a small fraction of the sales price or pawning value of jewelry. “Jewelry is money” is how Sebag summarizes his observations of the modern Asian jewelry market.

This last point that jewelry is money also comes up in Barton Biggs’ Wealth, War and Wisdom, which discusses preserving wealth through bad times, with examples of what worked or didn’t work during World War 2.

Few left Alsace-Lorraine

June 10th, 2017

Bryan Caplan thinks that expressive voting explains the lack of emigration from Alsace-Lorraine after it became Elsass-Lothringen:

In 1871, the German Empire annexed the French territory of Alsace-Lorraine, known to the Germans as Elsass-Lothringen.  The inhabitants were overwhelmingly German-speaking, but most clearly resented absorption into the new German Empire.  What is striking, however, is how differently this resentment expressed itself in voting versus actual behavior.

For their first five elections, over 90% of the new citizens of the Second Reich voted for “autonomists” — anti-Prussian regional parties.  Their ultimate goal, pretty clearly, was to rejoin France.  Beginning in 1890, autonomists rapidly lost support to the Social Democrats (and, to a lesser extent, the Conservatives).  But even in 1912, autonomists remained the plurality party of Alsace-Lorraine.

Given this near-unanimous political resentment against German annexation, you might think that the people of Alsace-Lorraine would be leaving in droves — or at least struggling mightily to do so.  The reality was quite different.  While they were free to escape German rule by selling out and moving a few miles over the border, few chose to do so:

The Treaty of Frankfurt gave the residents of the region until October 1, 1872 to choose between emigrating to France or remaining in the region and having their nationality legally changed to German. By 1876, about 100,000 or 5% of the residents of Alsace-Lorraine had emigrated to France.

[...]

To rationalize the divergence between voting and emigration, you need something like Brennan and Lomasky’s expressive voting theory. The essence of the theory: When people decide how to vote, their main goal is to express their support for what sounds good. When people decide where to live, however, they focus on practicalities, not symbolism.

He misses the point that ordinary folks aren’t atomistic cosmopolitans, as commenter Fazal Majid points out:

I’m sorry, but this article is spectacularly callous. Most people feel a visceral attachment to their homeland. Involuntary exile, even self-exile, is incredibly painful for those concerned, and leaves lasting scars.

Shane L. said something similar:

I tend to agree with Fazal here: leaving home means abandoning family, friends, community, and also livelihood. Surely many inhabitants of 19th century Alsace-Lorraine were farmers? If so, their incomes were probably reliant on their lands too.

Finally there could be a sense of bitter nationalist defiance. Inhabitants might have deliberately wanted to remain on land they considered their own, to spite the invaders, and hoping (correctly, as it turned out) that it would be returned to France in due course.

Hansjörg Walther shared some German insights:

Alsace-Lorraine was the only “Reichsland” which meant it was directly subordinate to the Emperor and not a real state of the German federation with a government. Only in 1911 did it get a parliament of its own and also representatives in the “Bundesrat” (representation of the states).

The elections are for the German parliament. So the most you could hope for was that a block of Alsatian deputies could under certain circumstances obtain some concessions. And then you could also signal to the French that you were still waiting to be redeemed.

The good point of not being a state was that you also did not have to pay state taxes, which usually were higher than taxes on the Reich level. That made it also attractive for “Altdeutsche” (Germans from the old parts of Germany) to move to the region, which may also explain part of the shift to “reichsfreundlich” (friendly to the Reich) parties later on.

They wanted their land back the way it was. No individual could recreate home somewhere else.

Sourdough is just white bread

June 9th, 2017

I would have assumed that sourdough bread and ordinary white bread were nutritionally very, very similar, but wild yeast strains and bacteria that fill sourdough with sour acids purportedly reduce its glycemic index. Or so scientists thought, until a recent study found otherwise:

In a study led by students Tal Korem and David Zeevi, the Israeli team picked two extremes from the bread world. They hired a local baker to prepare artisanal sourdough from whole-grain flour. They also bought mass-manufactured loaves of white bread, made from refined flour and loaded with preservatives.

The team recruited 20 volunteers and asked half to spend a week eating the white bread and another eating the sourdough. The other volunteers did the same in the reverse order. Before and after each bread-filled week, the team took a census of the bacteria in each volunteer’s gut, as well as measured 20 variables including blood pressure, weight, blood sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides, and various hormones. They found that the bread the participants ate had no significant effect on any of these factors. Even the microbiome, which can shift quickly and extensively after a change in diet, was barely affected by the choice of breads.

If liberty means anything at all

June 8th, 2017

Thomas E. Ricks’ new book, Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, notes that, although the two never met, their paths ran parallel in many ways:

Significantly, both were estranged from their fathers. Orwell remembered his as “a gruff-voiced elderly man forever saying ‘Don’t’” (the source, Ricks contends, of his lifelong skepticism of authority). Churchill’s father continually and publicly expressed his disappointment in him. “A son who could survive such an upbringing would either be thoroughly damaged or, with some luck, enormously self-confident,” Ricks asserts. “Churchill was very lucky.”

Neither went to university; instead, both went off in service of the Empire. For reasons that remain obscure, the anti-authoritarian Orwell joined the Indian Imperial Police, serving in Burma; Churchill served as a cavalry officer in India. After their service (and during, in Churchill’s case), both became war correspondents. And both almost died well before they rose to greatness — a term Ricks unabashedly applies to both, although he is not unmindful of their failings and blind spots.

But Ricks wisely skims lightly over the early years of his subjects and, with Churchill, his ineffectual later years, as well, focusing instead on the “fulcrum point,” the 1930s and 1940s, when both men were frequently lonely voices in the wilderness. As authoritarianism rose across the globe, faith in democracy wavered, particularly among the intelligentsia in Britain (and the U.S.): Striking a deal with Hitler struck many as the only pragmatic possibility. On the left, many were willing to turn a blind eye to Stalin’s death squads in the service of the Revolution. Orwell and Churchill “led the way, politically and intellectually, in responding to the twin threats of fascism and communism.”

Thus both men spoke out eloquently against abuse of power; both refused to bend the facts in service of ideology; both insisted on “the need to assert that high officials might be in error — most especially when those in power believe strongly they are not.” In Orwell’s words, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Nick Szabo’s security through obscurity takes a hit

June 7th, 2017

Tim Ferriss calls Nick Szabo the quiet master of cryptocurrency.

Hipster libertarian-neoreactionaries may be tempted to say, “I only like old Unenumerated, before Szabo sold out.”

Erik Prince recommends the MacArthur model for Afghanistan

June 7th, 2017

Afghanistan is an expensive disaster for America, argues Erik Prince. He recommends the MacArthur model:

The Pentagon has already consumed $828 billion on the war, and taxpayers will be liable for trillions more in veterans’ health-care costs for decades to come. More than 2,000 American soldiers have died there, with more than 20,000 wounded in action. For all that effort, Afghanistan is failing. The terrorist cohort consistently gains control of more territory, including key economic arteries. It’s time for President Trump to fix our approach to Afghanistan in five ways.

First, he should consolidate authority in Afghanistan with one person: an American viceroy who would lead all U.S. government and coalition efforts — including command, budget, policy, promotion and contracting — and report directly to the president. As it is, there are too many cooks in the kitchen — and the cooks change shift annually. The coalition has had 17 different military commanders in the past 15 years, which means none of them had time to develop or be held responsible for a coherent strategy.

A better approach would resemble Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s leadership of postwar Japan. Given clear multiyear authority, MacArthur made bold moves like repealing restrictive speech laws and granting property rights. Those directives moved Japan ahead by centuries. In Afghanistan, the viceroy approach would reduce rampant fraud by focusing spending on initiatives that further the central strategy, rather than handing cash to every outstretched hand from a U.S. system bereft of institutional memory.

Second, Mr. Trump should authorize his viceroy to set rules of engagement in collaboration with the elected Afghan government to make better decisions, faster. Troops fighting for their lives should not have to ask a lawyer sitting in air conditioning 500 miles away for permission to drop a bomb. Our plodding, hand wringing and overcaution have prolonged the war — and the suffering it bears upon the Afghan population. Give the leadership on the ground the authority and responsibility to finish the job.

Third, we must build the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces the effective and proven way, instead of spending billions more pursuing the “ideal” way. The 330,000-strong Afghan army and police were set up under the guidance of U.S. military “advisers” in the mirror image of the U.S. Army. That was the wrong approach.

It has led to fatal and intractable flaws, including weak leadership, endemic corruption and frequent defections, which currently deliver the equivalent of two trained infantry divisions per year to the enemy. Further, barely 40% of Afghanistan’s U.S.-provided fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft are functional, leaving security forces without close air support, unable to resupply, medevac casualties, or move troops in a timely manner.

These deficits can be remedied by a different, centuries-old approach. For 250 years, the East India Company prevailed in the region through the use of private military units known as “presidency armies.” They were locally recruited and trained, supported and led by contracted European professional soldiers. The professionals lived, patrolled, and — when necessary — fought shoulder-to-shoulder with their local counterparts for multiyear deployments. That long-term dwelling ensured the training, discipline, loyalty and material readiness of the men they fought alongside for years, not for a one-time eight-month deployment.

An East India Company approach would use cheaper private solutions to fill the gaps that plague the Afghan security forces, including reliable logistics and aviation support. The U.S. military should maintain a small special-operations command presence in the country to enable it to carry out targeted strikes, with the crucial difference that the viceroy would have complete decision-making authority in the country so no time is wasted waiting for Washington to send instructions. A nimbler special-ops and contracted force like this would cost less than $10 billion per year, as opposed to the $45 billion we expect to spend in Afghanistan in 2017.

Fourth, Mr. Trump needs to abandon the flawed population-centric theory of warfare in Afghanistan. The military default in a conventional war is to control terrain, neglecting the long-term financial arteries that fund the fight, and handicaps long-term economic potential.

The Taliban understand this concept well. They control most of Afghanistan’s economic resources — including lapis, marble, gold, pistachios, hashish and opium — and use profits to spread their influence and perpetuate the insurgency. Our strategy needs to target those resources by placing combat power to cover Afghanistan’s economic arteries.

Coal mines make expensive batteries

June 6th, 2017

The growth of not-so-on-demand renewable power sources has people looking at converting coal mines into pumped-hydro energy-storage systemes:

Compared with other types of energy storage, the underground pump concept is expensive but designed to last longer than a chemical battery.

The cost of the German system is about €2,750 ($3,075) per kilowatt-hour. New Jersey-based Eos Energy Storage, a cutting-edge battery company, offers a storage system powered by zinc-hybrid batteries for $168 a kilowatt-hour that can last around 20 years, according to the company’s director of business development, Charles Russell.

“The advantage of pumped hydro is that it’s high capex, but it’s there for 100 years,” said Gerard Reid, a founding partner at Alexa Capital, a London-based corporate finance firm specializing in energy technology and infrastructure.

The engineer’s report described the pump as “long-lasting and virtually maintenance free.”

But there is another problem affecting all types of power-storage systems. Even if an investor fronted the money to build the pump, the low price of electricity on both sides of the Atlantic would make it difficult to turn a profit. For the pump to make money, it needs wide spreads in the wholesale power market, so it can buy power when prices are low and sell when prices are high.

Right now, wholesale electricity is cheap pretty much all the time.

A cruise ship is not a democracy

June 5th, 2017

While cruising to Bermuda, Bryan Caplan concludes that cruise ships show the logic of open borders:

On a cruise ship, people of all nations — and all skill levels — work together. Top-notch pilots and mechanics from Scandinavia ply their craft alongside cabin stewards and janitors from the Third World. Via comparative advantage, their cooperation allows them to provide an affordable, high-quality vacation to eager consumers.

A Bastiat fan notes that a cruise ship is not a democracy.

Weighted bats don’t quicken a batter’s swing

June 5th, 2017

The Wall Street Journal reports that weighted bats don’t quicken a batter’s swing — but we’ve known that for decades:

“With 20 college baseball players from one university, I found no difference,” said Dr. Szymanski, who referred to the number of players he studied with 10 differently weighted bats. “Their performance was statistically unchanged.”

Other studies, notably those by Dr. DeRenne, have found that warming up with an overloaded bat, especially with a doughnut, slowed down batters.

“The doughnut is the worst,” said Dr. DeRenne, who tested one weighing 28 ounces. “It changes the balance point in the bat.”

The weight may alter the batter’s swing, especially in younger players who are still developing strength and mechanics.

Sport Science, a television series where athletes and scientists explore the biomechanics of different sports activities, tested the effect with a college player in 2008. Without any added weight, the batter averaged 69 mph on 10 swings and routinely connected with the bat’s sweet spot on balls pitched from a machine. After warming up with a doughnut, the batter’s speed decreased to 68.3 mph on average, and on each swing, the ball missed the bat’s sweet spot by several inches.

The experience of a lone batter in a single test can’t be generalized to others, but the results resembled other studies.

Could a minister of bread do even half as well?

June 4th, 2017

I just got around to watching It’s a wonderful loaf:

If you look down upon a city with the widest bird’s eye view
You might wonder how it functions, who takes care of me and you?
Who makes sure there’s food for vegans, and for carnivores as well?
It seems like there’s a wizard who has cast a magic spell

Just think of one small part — who makes sure there’s so much bread?
You want rye, she wants ciabatta, or make it sourdough instead
A baguette or a croissant, it doesn’t matter, don’t you see
You get yours and she gets hers, and I get mine, how can that be?

One’s buying a dozen bagels to grace an impromptu brunch
One’s using food stamps for a simple loaf to make her children lunch
No matter the amount we require, no matter the choices we make
An army of workers has mobilized to fashion the bread we partake

The farmer who grows the wheat, the miller that grinds the flour
The baker and all the others who work hour after hour
They’re all on their own, each one making independent decisions
But somehow their plans fit together with the greatest degree of precision

So there must be a czar of wheat and flour, of trucks and of bread and yeast
To allocate and oversee and plan at the very least
For the unexpected change. What if today’s not like yesterday?
It never is, though, is it? So who keeps chaos away?

Because there’s order all around us — things look as if they’re planned
Like the supply of bread in a city — enough to match up with demand
And though flour is used for more than just bread, we never have to fight
Over where it goes and who gets what. So why do we sleep so well at night

Knowing nobody’s in charge, it looks like all is left to chance
Yet in New York, or London as well as Paris, France
No one’s worried the shelves will be empty, we take supply for granted
But it’s a marvel, it’s a miracle, the world’s somehow enchanted

Of course the result’s never perfect, but the system’s organic, alive
Over time fewer people go hungry and more and more bread-lovers thrive
And if you’re allergic to gluten, there are sellers who work for you, too
Your choices expand and what you demand is created and waiting for you

I have my tastes and you have yours, we each have our own urges
Yet somehow there’s no conflict, a harmony emerges
Our dreams can fit together like a quilt that someone weaves us
But there isn’t a weaver of dreams, reality deceives us

And here’s the crazy thing, if someone really were in charge
To make sure that bread was plentiful, with the power to enlarge
The supply of flour, yeast and of bakers and ovens, too
Would that person with that power have any idea of what to do?

Could a minister of bread do even half as well?
Would there be enough of every kind of bread upon the shelves?
How could he know how much to make of each kind every day?
There’d be shortages and surpluses and waste and much dismay

You might think the job is easy — if the top seller’s rye
Then for every variety push production up that high
Then no one’s disappointed, bread eaters will rejoice
When they see that every bakery is filled with so much choice

Bread eaters, yes, but “Help!” the forgotten pizza lover cries
All the flour’s gone to baking bread there’s none left for the pies
Of pepperoni, deep dish, thin-crust and Sicilian
You’ve solved the bread challenge, yes, but created another million

Problems. No problem! We’ll just grow lots more wheat
But that means less of something else that people like to eat

Which only makes the puzzle of the harmony around us
Much more puzzling — this order, this peace has to astound us
So many things we count on, yet no one’s behind the curtain
No wizard, no controls, yet the supply of stuff — near certain

Every morning the bakers rise early to make sure your bread is fresh
And the world gets more complicated but the plans just continue to mesh
Every morning the bakers rise early, though not under anyone’s command
Where in the anatomy textbooks can I view an invisible hand?

The key to the process is prices and the freedom to shop where you want
Competition among all the bakers, makes sure that they rise before dawn
To make sure the bread’s near perfection, to make sure that the buyer’s content
You don’t have to know economics to know when your money’s well-spent

We know there’s order built into the fabric of the world
Of nature. Flocks of geese! Schools of fish! And every boy and girl
Delights in how the stars shine down in all their constellations
And the planets stay on track and keep the most sublime relations

With each other. Order’s everywhere. Yet we humans too create it
It emerges. No one intends it. No one has to orchestrate it.
It’s the product of our actions but no single mind’s designed it
There’s magic without wizards if you just know how to find it

Cannabis wards off dementia

June 4th, 2017

Rather than dulling or impairing cognition, THC appears to reverse the aging process and improve mental processes:

To test the hypothesis, mice were given a small daily dose of THC over the course of one month at the age of 2 months, 12 months and again at 18 months of age. It is important to understand that mice typically live until 2 years old. The dose was small enough to avoid any psychoactive effects.

Tests assessed the animals’ learning, memory, orientation and recognition skills. Interestingly, 18-month-old mice given THC demonstrated cognitive skills equal to 2-month-old controls, while the placebo group suffered cognitive deterioration associated with normal aging.

According to one of the authors, neurobiology professor Andreas Zimmer, University of Bonn, “The treatment completely reversed the loss of performance in the old animals. We repeated these experiments many times. It’s a very robust and profound effect.” Even more remarkable, gene activity and the molecular profile in the brain tissue was that of much younger animals. Specifically, neurons in the hippocampus grew more synaptic spines — points of contact necessary for communication between neurons.

(Almost) Everything he learned about science he learned from Isaac Asimov

June 3rd, 2017

(Almost) everything he learned about science he learned from Isaac Asimov, Jamie Todd Rubin says:

I never learned about the Germinid meteor shower in any of my schooling. Instead, I learned about it and about meteor showers in general through Isaac Asimov’s science essays that appeared monthly in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The first of Asimov’s science essays appeared in the November 1958 issue (of which I happen to posses a copy).

Those monthly science columns continued unabated for 399 consecutive months. (And eventually, Isaac’s wife, Janet, put together a 400th column after his death.) The essays were collected in more than two dozen books. The columns themselves ranged through all realms of science, and occasionally into philosophy and humanities. They were written in Asimov’s familiar colloquial style, making it easy for anyone to approach even arcane subjects. I devoured every one of those essays and it is from those essays that I truly believe that I learned nearly everything I know about science today.

[...]

Asimov’s essays taught me not only the hows and whys of science, they taught me the history of science. Taken together, anyone who reads all 399 F&SF science essays can’t miss certain patterns in logic and reasoning, can’t miss the evolution of thought and experiment. The essays taught me that scientists were real men and women.

[...]

Today, only a few of these essays are truly dated. Some facts have changed because science evolves, but the core is still valid and the history that these essays provides is an invaluable tool for understanding the cumulative nature of science. Seven of these early essays were never put into any collections, and there were six or seven that Asimov wrote before his death that have not, to my knowledge, been collected either. Perhaps I am a lone voice in the wilderness here, but I think it’s high time that a newly reissued compendium of all of Isaac Asimov’s F&SF science essays be put together and re-released.

I was shocked to find that Amazon’s Isaac Asimov page doesn’t list any nonfiction, at least not until the second page, where Understanding Physics shows up. It’s out of print.

Asimov’s New Guide To Science is the book that came to mind when Rubin mentioned the history of science. I had that same experience of finding historical context really, really illuminating.