Hopeful about solar

I vaguely remember reading an article a few years ago that discussed some of the effects of moving to en energy economy driven by solar and wind. Aside from the superficial environmental impact, there’s a fundamental change in moving from a world where energy plants consume fuel and therefore have high marginal costs, to a world where the marginal cost of energy production effectively drops to zero. (Apart from comparatively small ongoing maintenance costs.)

A sufficiently large quantitative change can easily flip over into a qualitative change. If electricity can be made abundantly and (effectively) “for free”, all kinds of things become possible that previously were non-viable. I think this is similar to what the availability of computing power has done in the cloud era. (Like how you can set up a tech company without owning your own racks of servers; machine learning; and, regrettably, blockchains.)

This blog post by Casey Handmer of Terraform Industries shows big ambition and presents a hopeful vision for a possible future where the bulk of the world’s hydrocarbons can be mined from the atmosphere as a result of this shift in cost:

Our process works by using solar power to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, concentrating CO2 from the atmosphere, then combining CO2 and hydrogen to form natural gas. […] As far as any of the market participants are concerned, fuel synthesis plants are less polluting, cheaper gas wells that convert capital investment into steady flows of fuel in a boringly predictable way.

There is nothing particularly special about the technological approach we’re taking. Each of the various parts is built on at least 100 years of industrial development, but up until this point no-one has considered scaling these up as a fundamental source of hydrocarbons, because doing so would be cost prohibitive. Why? The machinery is not particularly complex, but the energy demands are astronomical. Yet as our atmospheric CO2 concentration creeps steadily ever upwards year over year, our ability to extract silicon from rocks and transform it in frankly magical ways continues to progress.

One of these ways has produced the cheapest electricity ever. Electricity so cheap that in an ever growing number of markets it now makes more sense to turn solar electricity into hydrocarbons, than to burn hydrocarbons to make electricity.

Casey Handmer, “We’re going to need a lot of solar panels”

Covid sucks

We were at a wedding two weekends ago, and used the busy Eurostar from Amsterdam to London to get there. The train journey was lovely, but that’s probably where I picked up the disease. When we got back on the Sunday evening I had a sore throat. The following morning it was worse, and I tested positive for the coronavirus: an angry red T line that appeared even before the liquid had crept up to the C. We’ve been very cautious over for the last two years, and attending the wedding was a calculated risk. We masked as much as we could, but the dice rolled against us.

Fortunately we have a guest room with an en-suite bathroom that allows us to isolate from the rest of the household. Although Abi’s test on the Monday morning was negative, she wasn’t feeling great. As a precaution to shield Alex and Fiona, Abi joined me in the isolation chamber on Tuesday evening, and by Thursday she was testing positive as well. We’ve used Albert Heijn home delivery to keep the groceries flowing. Without a fridge, we’ve been living mostly on mueslibollen, cheese, and dry Kellogg’s cereal straight from the packet.

This was a rough ride. It’s only in the last couple of days that I’ve been starting to feel like myself again. After a week of nothing, my sense of smell has partly returned. Yesterday I actually felt bored, which was interesting. Until then I’d had a hard time concentrating on anything for any length of time. I’ve had a couple of books in here with me, but I only managed to finish one of them. We’ve watched some movies & TV shows together in the evenings, but mostly I’ve been feeling too exhausted to move or think.

Yesterday was a psychological low point. As well as feeling bored, I was starting to despair that this would ever end. We’ve been testing every day, and although my T line was fainter than the C line, I wasn’t seeing much change from day to day. I was scared that my immune system just wasn’t up to the task of clearing the virus, and that I’d still be in this state for weeks: the line getting slowly fainter, asymptotically approaching invisibility. Fiona is moving out next week. I’m upset that I haven’t been around with them for the last two weeks, and the thought of seeing them off to the airport in a taxi on Tuesday morning was painful. I had wanted these last couple of weeks at home to play out very differently.

Today, however, I tested and it was negative. I hardly dared to get my hopes up when a few minutes passed and there was still no line. But when 15 and 30 minutes went by and the T was still clear, I felt cautious relief. I’m still coughing, but that’s normal for me. (I have shitty lungs. I’ve never met a respiratory infection that didn’t love them.) My sense of smell isn’t all the way back, but at least it’s recovering.

Progression of my recent Covid tests, from Day 7 (18 July) to Day 11 (22 July). Day 0 was day of first positive test, Monday 11 July.

Abi is still testing positive, but her line is faint now as well, and today her C line appeared before the T line did. Also progress! But because we really don’t want to run the risk of Fiona testing positive on Tuesday morning before their flight, or Alex testing positive on Friday before we head off on our big road trip, I’m going to stay in isolation until tomorrow. If tomorrow’s test is negative as well, though, I’ll exit. I’ll probably keep wearing a mask around the house. Risk management is all about impact assessments and trade-offs. The impact of Alex or Fiona getting infected in the next few days would be really high, so extra caution is warranted.

Kevin Kelly’s wisdom

For the last couple of years Kevin Kelly has been marking his birthday with lists of pieces of wisdom he has accumulated over the years: 2022, 2021, 2020. As one reads through them, some will resonate, some won’t. I often say that I get all my best ideas in the shower, but I also get all my worst ideas in the shower as well. The hard bit is figuring out which is which.

In the light of a recent car rental, I can say that these two pieces of advice from his 2022 piece are in conflict:

• Getting cheated occasionally is the small price for trusting the best of everyone, because when you trust the best in others, they generally treat you best.

• Don’t purchase extra insurance if you are renting a car with a credit card.

All car rental companies will try to extract money from you with extra charges and inflated damage waiver insurance. You’re always better off buying such insurance separately. However, this is still no comfort when the company decides to charge your credit card for spurious damage after the fact. The sense of betrayal stings.

The lesson I feel I should have learned by now is: avoid unattended drop-offs, because they will try to take advantage of you whenever they can. Always take photographs of the car (or any other rental item for that matter) when you take receipt and when you return it.

This piece of Kelly’s advice from 2021 is also relevant:

• What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals. At your funeral people will not recall what you did; they will only remember how you made them feel.

I’m more familiar with this cautionary formulation: “people remember how you made them feel long after they’ve forgotten what you actually said or did.”

Let’s say that car rental company Easirent is on my shit list.

On solidarity


If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Lilla Watson et al.

McNamara Fallacy

From Wikipedia:

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.

Daniel Yankelovich, “Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands on business” (1972).