Friday, January 25, 2008

Solving the omnivore's dilemma

I've been reading Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's about where food on the American table comes from, from gigantic industrial farms to local hunters and gatherers. Pollan argues, quite convincingly, that industrial agriculture is an ecological and nutritional disaster. It creates unstable monocultures, sustains them with huge quantities of chemicals, undermines other kinds of farming, and yet fails to pay a living wage to the people who practice it.

So far so good. Unfortunately, the book -- at least so far, I'm about halfway through -- is long on problems and short on solutions. It's all well and good to suggest that we should all eat locally and sustainably grown food, but Pollan also estimates that two-fifths of the world's current population would starve without synthetic fertilizers. Some argue that industrial agriculture makes the problem worse by crowding out local agriculture in the developing world, but Pollan completely ignores the question.

At the other end of the income scale, the United States and Europe have come to expect tomatoes in January and citrus in places where it could never grow naturally. Suggesting that large numbers of people will turn their backs on these luxuries seems ludicrously naive. Here in Seattle, some "community-supported" "local" farms include California citrus in their offerings, while others are very vague about which products they actually grow themselves. Clearly, their subscribers would rather fudge their definitions of "sustainable" and "locally grown" than do without.

I don't have answers either, I'm afraid, but then I don't tell people what they should eat. It would be nice to see someone like Pollan go beyond "agribusiness is bad" and suggest a scalable alternative.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Tracking electricity costs

I went looking for information about electricity rates, and found a treasure trove. The US Energy Information Administration collects and publishes a huge amount of information on energy consumption, costs, and fuel sources, both in the US and overseas. It's pretty well organized, with both html and downloadable spreadsheets for most information. All courtesy of US taxpayers.

I was looking for the information with an eye to more work on photovoltaics. The more expensive conventional electricity generation becomes, the easier it is for solar and other technologies to compete.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

OLEDs time has (almost) come

I wouldn't say that $2500 for an 11" TV is the kind of price that's going to displace LCDs anytime soon. But it does let you be the first on your block to own an OLED display that David Pogue describes as "breathtakingly spectacular."

I agree with Pogue. The size will go up, the price will come down. Once that happens, older technologies could be in big trouble.

The story also offers (again) a lesson in just how long it can take for new technologies to make it to market. I first started writing about organic semiconductors in 2002. That's already six years, but I wasn't the first to notice them and they haven't really exploded yet.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Fancy titles don't make you smart

This would be pretty funny if the comments didn't raise the scary possibility that some people actually agree with the author. Yaron Brook argues that sweeping deregulation of health care would unleash the benefits of capitalism, leading to improved access for all Americans.

Never mind that study after study has shown that the highly regulated single-payer systems common in many other countries lead to better outcomes at lower cost. And that much of the advantage of those systems lies in better treatment of patients with chronic illnesses, precisely the ones deregulated insurers try to avoid.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Be careful what you wish for (political edition)

A compressed primary schedule usually favors the front runners. Early wins build momentum, and the compressed schedule means that there isn't much time for opponents or negative information to derail the train.

The problem (depending on your point of view) is that the schedule is set months before anyone actually votes. At that point, the entrenched party insiders (yes, I'm looking at you Senator Clinton, Governor Romney) probably have an advantage in fundraising and name recognition, leading to an advantage in early opinion polls. And, as party insiders, they have enough clout to have some influence over the schedule.

It's too early to say the scheduling strategy has backfired. But it is amusing to watch a couple of upstarts reap its benefits.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Your tax dollars at work

I've done enough traveling on business to appreciate the value of a good hotel room. A good night's sleep really does help you be more functional the following day. Comfortable rooms in major cities aren't cheap, so I don't cringe (much) when it costs three times more to attend Semicon West than to visit my family.

But then I look at the travel budget for officials at the Smithsonian, and I wonder what planet they're living on. Remember, these are government employees, traveling at taxpayer expense while keeping both hands out for donations. Thousand-dollar hotels for the head of a museum paid for by children's lunch money. Sheesh.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Found in the blogosphere

My friend Janet is blogging about art, and mindfulness, and culture, and all sorts of interesting stuff. With lots of fascinating pictures, too. Her latest, about Huichol art as a means of cultural communication, is especially worth a visit. Enjoy!