February 24, 2010

This sounds great . . . if it works as advertised

Filed under: Economics, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 18:02

A freezer-sized box to provide power to 100 homes, running on renewable fuel? Sounds good, doesn’t it? If it turns out to be economical, practical, and efficient, it could be great:

A mini power station containing fuel cells that can run on anything from natural gas to the more renewable stuff, Bloom’s device has received the level of hype in Silicon Valley normally reserved for a new product from Apple.

For the past week, newspapers and websites have been filled with rumours about Bloom boxes, as the devices have been nicknamed, invented by former Nasa scientist KR Sridhar.

Fuel cells, which convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity by an electrochemical process, are a promising source of energy while emitting less CO² and other pollutants, as well as being much more efficient, than burning. But most modern designs use expensive materials, such as platinum, or corrosive chemicals that shorten their lifespan.

At the heart of Sridhar’s device is a thin fuel cell made from a plentiful resource, sand. The size of a floppy disk, it is painted with proprietary inks that allow the fuels to react with oxygen from the air, a chemical process that produces electricity.

Bloom Energy claims that the boxes provide electricity at about half the cost of current conventional sources. Current customers include heavy hitters like Google, FedEx, WalMart, and Coca-Cola.

Of course, the company hasn’t been providing a lot of detailed technical information, so it’s not clear if this is one of the breakthroughs in electrical generation that will change everything, or if it’s another interesting blip that will quickly disappear.

Richard Miller, an innovation platform leader at the UK’s Technology Strategy Board, said Bloom Energy had yet to provide data to allow a fully informed decision on the value of its technology.

Update, 25 February: Alexis Madrigal says it’s too expensive for the current market conditions:

The analyst firm Lux Research posted a note to its blog today noting that Bloom had confirmed their 100-kilowatt boxes are priced between $700,000 and $800,000 without subsidies of any kind.

In fact, a long-term R&D collaboration between the Department of Energy and multiple solid-oxide fuel-cell manufacturers, the Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance, estimates that fuel cells will need to cost $700 per kilowatt of peak capacity to compete unsubsidized with the grid. Bloom’s product costs 10 times that.

“The cost is about an order of magnitude higher than it needs to be, to be truly competitive,” said Michael Tucker, a fuel cell scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

When you do the math, the Bloom box’s electricity costs substantially more per kilowatt hour than the grid.

“Without incentives, we calculate electricity would cost $0.13/kWh to $0.14/kWh, with about $0.09/kWh from system cost and about $0.05/kWh coming from fuel cost,” Lux wrote. “Note that this is high compared to average retail U.S. electricity costs of roughly $0.11/kWh.”

An order of magnitude more than conventional power? Yep, that qualifies as “spendy”.

Tweet of the day

Filed under: Cancon, Humour, Sports, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 17:37

Remind me how this clownish, feeble US team beat us? Oh, right, our goalie in that game was 52 years old and tripping balls on peyote.

Roleplaying games, back-in-the-day

Filed under: Gaming, History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 13:00

Jon, my former virtual landlord (and still host for my original blog archives), sent along a link to this article. Knowing Jon’s distaste for such things, he must have been grimacing when he clicked Send:

I was initiated into the mysteries of gaming via a grade school classmate’s copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. A mysterious artifact, this red box contained a set of waxy, dull-edged dice and a couple of thin rulebooks. Designed to be played on its own or as an introduction to the complexities of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the Basic Set-or “Red Box” as it came to be known by gamers-became the key to an entire universe of adventure and magic. Little did I know at the time this would be the beginning of a lifelong love affair with gaming and fantasy in general.

With the news that D&D publishers Wizards of the Coast intends to release a new edition of the introductory rule set-in a red box no less-I thought it might be fun to ask a few writers about their own early experiences with the world’s best known fantasy role-playing game.

My first experience with the game was in high school, where a classmate found out that I was into wargames and wanted to “help me” by diverting me away from such evil warmongering stuff. His gaming methadone involved mass slaughter of beings and beasts in a “dungeon” he’d created. About a dozen of us were introduced to the game in the same session . . . let’s just say that it didn’t go terribly well. With no experienced players in the pack, we specialized in aggravating the Dungeon Master (the person running the game for us). After about an hour, the DM was deliberately killing us off as fast as he could.

I played several other role playing game systems after that, but never found one I was comfortable with. I ended up “rolling my own” by basing it on Metagaming’s Melee and Wizard games (both designs originally by the great Steve Jackson) for the combat and magic systems. I found this worked best for my occasional RPG sessions, as I hate-with-a-passion being in games with rules lawyers (the archetypical one has memorized all the rulebooks, tables, supplements, and so on). If I don’t explain why something is happening, they have to concentrate on what to do about it instead of getting into heated arguments about die roll modifiers and such.

In the early 1980’s, I ended up working at Mr. Gameway’s Ark in Toronto (which appears to be Google-proof . . . or doesn’t have more than occasional mentions in mailing list conversations), which was the largest independent game store in town. I got to read the rules of dozens of RPG systems, but perhaps I was spoiled for choice . . . I never did end up playing any.

Rechecking the data (where it still exists) is the only solution

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:58

Given all the “missing”, “normalized”, and “cherry-picked” data in the climate change debate, this is the only rational way forward:

More than 150 years of global temperature records are to be re-examined by scientists in an attempt to regain public trust in climate science after revelations about errors and suppression of data.

The Met Office has submitted proposals for the reassessment by an independent panel in a tacit admission that its previous reports have been marred by their reliance on analysis by the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU).

Two separate inquiries are being held into allegations that the CRU tried to hide its raw data from critics and that it exaggerated the extent of global warming.

In a document entitled Proposal for a New International Analysis of Land Surface Air Temperature Data, the Met Office says: “We feel it is timely to propose an international effort to reanalyse surface temperature data in collaboration with the World Meteorological Organisation.”

As I’ve said several times, we may actually have a global problem with rising temperatures, and if so we need to consider the potential impact and possible ways to address it. However, the science is far from settled — in fact, it’s more unsettled now than it was at any time in the last fifteen years. Without reliable data, we can’t pretend to make any predictions or recommend any course of action because we don’t know whether global temperatures are rising or not.

Sex and the single warlord

Filed under: Media, Middle East, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:50

Strategy Page discusses one of the less-well-publicized aspects of life in Afghanistan:

[. . .] in the Islamic world, sex is, well classified. Especially illicit sex. Thus some enterprising reporters have latched onto the ancient practice (in the entire region, from North Africa to India) of using young (well, teenage down to about ten) boys for sex and other entertainments (dancing, cross dressing, camel jockeys). This has been a thing with the rich and powerful in the area, for thousands of years. In some places it is sort of legal, but generally it is tolerated, even if officially forbidden. That’s because this sort of thing is most popular among the wealthy and powerful. Getting this story for Western audiences is dangerous, as those who indulge would rather make Western reporters disappear, than stop. These guys don’t consider themselves pederasts, just the custodians of ancient cultural traditions. Or something like that.

When the Taliban came to power in the mid 1990s, they outlawed the practice, but it continued anyway, just more discreetly. The Taliban tried to crack down on homosexuality in general, especially in the south, around Kandahar (the “capital” of the pro-Taliban Pushtun tribes.) Didn’t work. Casual homosexuality has long been the custom down there, and Afghans from other parts of the country (especially non-Pushtuns) have a large repertoire of humor and insults about the proclivities of those Kandaharis (one of the more printable ones is about how birds flying over Kandahar have to do so with one wing, as the other one must be used to cover the avian backside.)

Was there anyone in Dubai who wasn’t involved in the killing?

Filed under: Middle East — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:57

Dubai’s investigators announce another 15 suspects in the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a military leader with Hamas:

Dubai has identified 15 new suspects in the assassination of a Hamas official at a Dubai luxury hotel, bringing the total number of people believed involved in the death to 26, the government said on Wednesday.

Hamas military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was killed last month in his hotel room in what Dubai police have said they are near certain was an Israeli hit. They said the killers travelled to the Gulf Arab emirate on European passports.

Of the new suspects, six carried British passports, three held Irish documents, three Australian, and three French, the Dubai government’s media office said in an emailed statement.

At this rate, they’ll be trying to arrest hundreds of people in connection to the assassination. Israel, of course, has not admitted any involvement (and you have to admit that previous Mossad activity didn’t appear to require a cast of this size).

Make up your minds!

Filed under: Germany, History, Military, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:17

American soldiers have been accused of being too “egg-headed” in their approach to war, with much being made about the constant upgrading of equipment with newer electronic and computerized gizmos. But it’s not what it seems — now a New York Times Idea of the Day blogger says the US military has a “fetish” for Wilhelmine and Hitlerian Germany:

“Why do people have a fixation with the German military when they haven’t won a war since 1871?”

That’s the Tom Clancy quote William J. Astore uses to begin this essay on TomDispatch (picked up by Mother Jones), renewing a critique of what some see as a Clausewitz cult among American military strategists.

Mr. Astore, a former Air Force Academy history instructor (and Wehrmacht buff as a boy), says “the American military’s fascination with German military methods and modes of thinking” is reflected outwardly in busts of Clausewitz on display American military academies, and more tangibly in echoes of the Blitzkrieg in the first and second Iraq wars:

In retrospect, what disturbs me most is that the military swallowed the Clausewitzian/German notion of war as a dialectical or creative art, one in which well-trained and highly motivated leaders can impose their will on events. In this notional construct, war became not destructive, but constructive. It became not the last resort of kings, but the preferred recourse of “creative” warlords who demonstrated their mastery of it by cultivating such qualities as flexibility, adaptability and quickness. One aimed to get inside the enemy’s “decision cycle” . . . while at the same time cultivating a “warrior ethos” within a tight-knit professional army that was to stand above, and also separate from, ordinary citizens.

There were lots of things that western armies could profitably learn after 1945 from German tactical and operational models. There was no intrinsic reason why small German units fought better and more effectively than their allied opponents, in spite of Nazi propaganda, there was no “racial” strength that made German soldiers better at their trade than other nations. Remember that a lot of “German” soldiers were Austrians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and other allied or conquered peoples.

German soldiers were better trained, and had much greater tactical autonomy, which gave them more flexibility and encouraged improvisation at all levels. Western armies were much more hierarchical and didn’t delegate decision-making to lower ranks. That alone made German battalions, companies, and platoons far more dangerous: when things didn’t go according to the detailed plan, they adapted and still tried to accomplish their assigned mission. British, French, and (especially) Soviet units were not rewarded for departing from their (inevitably) more detailed orders.

Non-military critics may easily assume that trying to learn anything from the Kaiser’s army or Hitler’s army carries a moral taint, but paradoxically, those soldiers — fighting for an authoritarian or dictatorial government — had more tactical freedom than Allied soldiers who could vote (and whose votes actually mattered).

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