Sympathy for the Trolls

We should feel sorry for trolls

I once spent some time in Florida during Major League Baseball’s spring training. It’s a time when many young players from the top of the minor leagues (“Triple A ball”) get a shot at breaking into the majors. In what had to be an exciting moment for them, they would get placed into the lineup alongside established pros for a few innings or maybe even a few games.

What I most remember about those games was the clutch of paunchy middle-aged and older guys who sat in the bleachers and shouted abuse when the tryouts would have a bad moment on the field (e.g., “You suck!”, “Go back to Tidewater!”, “You ain’t major league, kid!”). For those of you who are not baseball fans, it is worth noting that someone who is talented enough to play Triple A baseball and who gets even a failed tryout with a major league team has gone farther in the game than 99% of the myriad little leaguers who dream of a professional baseball career. This observation would certainly have applied to the gang of fat critics screaming at the young players from the stands, who might between them have been able to muster up a few stories of their glory days on the junior varsity team in seventh grade.

I thought of those guys when I watched celebrities reading mean tweets directed at them:

Our natural impulse is to feel sorry for people who are subjected to the torrent of abuse that new technology enables; the victims themselves may feel understandable hurt and rage. Many of them are not celebrities who can insulate themselves with handlers. They might just be a high school kid who plays on the basketball team or won a scholarship or organized a successful prom.

As they deal with their pain, it may be helpful for the victims to reflect upon the misery of the people who take the time to send them hateful tweets or eviscerate them on websites. Many people desperately wanted to someday become a pro athlete or beloved stand-up comedian or famous scientist or gorgeous movie star or respected television commentator or rock-and-roll legend or even just the kid who could organize a successful prom. But it didn’t work out for them. And every day of their lives, via the very technology that is their tool of attack, they see other people living the dream that fate denied them.

New technology allows such people a chance to lash out in ways they never could before, and it’s wrong of them to do that. But it’s also pretty pathetic. If they come after you, it probably means you are more successful and a lot happier than they are, and that should be vengeance enough for you if you need that. It’s emotionally and spiritually challenging, but if you are victimized in this way, try to feel some sympathy for your attackers, who are sitting in mom’s basement or wherever day after day, brooding over life’s disappointments and raging impotently on their keyboards at complete strangers. That’s truly a life to be pitied.

Things we won’t hear in the big climate speech tomorrow

By now all but the hopelessly stupid or deliberately ignorant understand the basics of climate change. Increasing the amounts of a few gases in the atmosphere traps heat and make the planet’s equilibrium temperature higher. The big three are methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and mainly carbon dioxide (CO2): humans are pumping these gases out like there’s no tomorrow – more precisely, as though we were all leaving the planet in a few decades.  CO2 is the big one, and it mainly comes from burning coal, oil, natural gas, and forests: if we want the planet to be habitable for the big 2076 parties, that’s what we have to stop doing.

These gases are, in effect, pollutants like the gunk in automobile exhaust that made the air in LA brown until we put a stop to it, or the phosphorus in your dish soap that makes algae grow in lakes and rivers, but they have two tragic and pernicious qualities that our familiar pollutants don’t have. First, because they last a long time in the air, and the atmosphere is well mixed with winds, their effects aren’t felt only in the legal jurisdiction in which they are emitted, but everywhere, by everyone. Second, because the processes are slow and easy to miss in the normal variation of weather, Exxon and Consolidation Coal can pay politicians and TV weather reporters to say it isn’t happening, and doing the right, expensive things about climate will not show results we can see before the next election or the one after that.

Continue reading “Things we won’t hear in the big climate speech tomorrow”

Green Australia coming to a grid near you

The Australian electricity grid operator confirms that a 100% renewable supply is doable.

Yet another study has come out, this one for Australia, concluding that all-renewable electricity is feasible while maintaining current standards for reliability. The difference here is the authors, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO). These are conservative professional engineers not green activists. They prepared the report (technically still in draft) because their political masters told them to do it, not out of enthusiasm. As John Quiggin points out :

The AEMO is the body that manages the electricity market on a minute-to-minute basis, so it has the expertise to assess this claim, unlike the many amateurs who have tried their hands. And, since it might have to do the job, it has no reason to understate the difficulties of a renewables-based system.

The extra costs are significant but not absurd. Quiggin again:

Second, the estimated cost of $111 to $133 per megawatt-hour represents an increase of $60-80/MwH on current wholesale prices, or 6-8c/Kwh on retail prices. That’s much less than the increase we’ve seen thanks to the mishandling of electricity market reform.

AEMO modelled two scenarios: slow demand growth and rapid technological progress, and higher demand and slower progress. Continue reading “Green Australia coming to a grid near you”

BlueTooth May Help Destigmatize Serious Mental Illness

I was standing on a street corner, waiting to cross on my way to a meeting at a large public hospital. A man in his 40s walked down the sidewalk behind me, staring straight ahead. He was alone, but was carrying on an animated conversation about the government’s failings.

The lights changed and I started to walk across the street. In the crosswalk coming toward me was a woman in her 30s, also staring into the middle distance and taking no notice of me. She was alone, but was carrying on an animated conversation about how the big banks are ruining the country.

As I said, neither took any notice of me, but I knew them both. One works as a cashier at the pharmacy I use and the other is a long-term psychiatric patient with schizophrenia. One had on a barely visible Bluetooth, the other has been engaged in discussions with imagined others long before the technology was invented.

But without my prior contacts with these two people, I would never have known that one of them had a serious mental illness. These fortuitous encounters make me wonder if these new technologies have an unintended but welcome destigmatizing function. Where before people might have shunned a mentally ill person who seemed to be talking to himself, today they usually assume that he’s just chatting on a BlueTooth or similar device.

Dr. Moore, I presume?

The peaceful conquest of Africa by the mobile phone.

Depressed by the deathwish politics of the USA and Europe? Enjoy an album of music found on cellphones of users in the Sahel (Mali, Chad, and similar beauty spots):

(Credit. Buy the album for $5; they say $3 will go to the artists.)

This post is a celebration of the conquest of Africa by the mobile phone.

Somali mobile phone entrepreneurs roll out a new chat service:
Wikipedia lists six mobile phone companies in Somalia, whose nominal government controls Mogadishu and little more. A political map of the current fiefdoms.
Continue reading “Dr. Moore, I presume?”

Terawatt solar or bust

The endless GOP hostage theatre over US budgets succeeds in one of its main purposes: to distract attention from issues that matter. Like the race against the clock to avoid complete climate breakdown. We already have the trailers.

So here comes a fat Victorian-novel style doorstopper weekend post with as many nutritious links as a Christmas pudding has currants.

Renewable energies are still only a drop in an ocean of climate-busting fossil fuels:

world energy consumption table
Spreadsheet here.

What hope is there for my granddaughters? A change of heart by billionaires? A popular insurgency, a Main Street Spring? A miracle discovery?

The one solid basis for optimism is the prospect of terawatts of solar energy. If you just extrapolate the global trend of the last 12 years  – an average growth rate of 43% a year – , the world will reach its first cumulative terawatt of solar PV in 2020. Its expansion would cross the world’s full energy demand soon after 2030. That’s fast enough even for James Hansen.

solar PV projections table
Plenty of experts say it won’t happen. But their reasons are unconvincing. Continue reading “Terawatt solar or bust”

Weekend hagfish slime fashion blogging

Hagfish shed light, or at least slime, on the drivers of innovation.

Pacific hagfish resting

The humble hagfish is bottom of most people´s list of potential pets. The University of California Museum of Paleontology puts it:

The adjective which best describes the Myxini is “Lovecraftian”.

Hagfish are very primitive ur-fish, with no spine or jaws or teeth or proper eyes. They are the scavengers of the sea-floor, resting for months until a dead whale or something shows up, then eating it from inside. They have one defence against predators, but a very effective one. Wikipedia:

When captured and held, e.g., by the tail, they secrete the microfibrous slime, which expands into up to 20 litres of gelatinous and sticky goo when combined with water. If they remain captured, they can tie themselves in an overhand knot which works its way from the head to the tail of the animal, scraping off the slime as it goes and freeing them from their captor, as well as the slime.

Other fish understandably leave hagfish alone (the goo blocks their gills), and they live too deep for most marine mammals and birds. Hagfish reached their current design 300 million years ago, and have seen no reason to change, munching their way through a changing cast of plesiosaurs, megalodons, and whales.

The microfibres behind the gel have now attracted the attention of Canadian materials researchers at Guelph University. Continue reading “Weekend hagfish slime fashion blogging”

Through a glass brightly

A simple solar still using gold nanoparticles.

In time for your Thanksgiving dinner, just what the world was waiting for: the first fundamental breakthrough in distillation for 1200 years. (Via Clean Technica.)

Rice University solar nanoparticle still

This looks low-tech because you can´t see the important bit. (The Fresnel lens concentrator can presumably be replaced by a simple arrangement of parabolic reflectors.)

A team at Sake Rice University under Professor Naomi Halas, assisted by a rainbow team of graduate students including, I am informed, B. Samedi, S.A. Tan and B. L. Zebub (*), have developed a solar still using gold-coated nanoparticles. (Press release, research paper.) Moderately concentrated sunlight heats up the particles in seconds to 150 deg C. They quickly surround themselves with vapour bubbles that rise to the surface and pop, releasing the particle to sink and heat up again. The paper doesn´t say how the valuable gold particles are recovered for the next batch. Everything else is cheap glassware.

The technology can also be used for making steam to generate power, purify waste, etc, but on this blog, alcohol´s our thing. The setup can distil alcohol to 99%: at that Siberian nirvana, all the flavours are presumably lost. But perhaps it can be tuned to keep some of the desirable compounds, as in whisky ¨tails¨. You could of course also waste perfectly drinkable alcohol by putting it in your car.

A boom in backyard ¨sunshine¨ may be unlikely. Booze is cheap enough that few will be tempted on economic grounds. I do predict a niche market in solar-powered hooch, marketed to the kind of people who will pay $20,000 for speaker cable. Purified with gold! No peat bogs were harmed making this exclusive ¨Spirit of the Sun¨!

But if things continue on the current downhill trajectory, a cheap way of staying drunk all the time may be a handy ¨adaptation¨.


A 15th-century imagined European portrait of Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber), 721-815? CE, Persian founder of chemistry and alchemy, and pioneer of the alembic.

Arab glass alembic, date not given, Corning Glass Museum

(*) The actual co-authors of the paper are listed as Oara Neumann, Alex Urban, Jared Day, Surbhi Lal, Peter Nordlander, and Naomi J. Halas. Ms. Lal and Mr. Urban are postdocs, Mr. Day and the lead author Ms. Neumann are graduate students. Peter Nordlander is another professor of physics at Rice, and Ms. Halas´ husband. Professor Halas put herself last – that´s what I call leadership. Congratulations all round.