Category Archives: technology

Toyota’s fuel cell mirage.


Toyota Mirai

Pardon me: Mirai, which is the name of Toyota’s hydrogen-fueled fuel cell car that’s just come onto the market. Make that, a market, as in: only in California where there are a few dozen stations to fill up. Toyota doesn’t believe in the battery-powered electric car. It should know, it’s been in the business of developing, selling, and servicing the hybrid petrol-electric Prius since 1997. The billions spent in R&D paid off handsomely, as the Prius became a runaway success, stealing a march on all of its competitors.

It was expected that the company would continue on the chosen path, and it did. For a while at least. After three generations of Priuses, each one better and thriftier than the previous -a fourth is about to launch- with total sales of close to four million, Toyota no longer believes in electric.

Or rather, it doesn’t believe in the lithium-ion battery currently propelling a plug-in version of the latest Prius up to 20 kilometers on electric power alone before the gasoline engine kicks in. Continuing that evolution, relying less on the petrol-part of its hybrid system, in favor of going electric is, according to Toyota engineers, technically not feasible. Until charging a battery takes minutes and not hours, as it currently does, nothing can be done.

Rather than R&D its way out of the slow-battery-charging quagmire, the company set out on a different path altogether. Behold: the Mirai. You quickly fill it up with hydrogen, and a nifty device called a fuel cell will turn that hydrogen into electric power, and water. The motor of the car is electric. No oil or gas needed. Except the oil and gas currently used to fabricate the hydrogen of course.

Clean hydrogen anyone?

Clean hydrogen anyone?

It’s possible, using electrolysis, to simply split water into oxygen and hydrogen. But overwhelmingly, 95% of all hydrogen is currently produced using hydrocarbons. Moreover, roughly half of that hydrogen is used in the process of oil refinement itself. Filling up the Mirai with hydrogen currently costs about twice what you would pay for gasoline although Toyota hopes the price will eventually be comparable.

With the Mirai you have yourself an electric car, almost as dear as a (battery-electric) model S Tesla, that you can charge very quickly, and drive for about the same distance you would a Tesla. You cannot charge the Mirai from your home for 5 to 10 Euros (depending on where you live), but industry are planning to expand the number of hydrogen stations in North America and Europe. In Germany for instance, these good folks have taken it upon them to invest the necessary billions: Air Liquide, Daimler, Linde, OMV, Shell and Total.

The good old days, reloaded.

The good old days, reloaded.

In other words, the petrol people have seen the light. For a price you understand. In stead of a cable connecting a wind turbine or solar (ideally sitting on top of your house) with your car, they want to keep pumping oil and gas, and shipping it to their refineries, turning it into hydrogen and then trucking it out to petrol, excuse me, hydrogen stations where you, for a good price, will go and fetch a good old physical product. Out with the old, in with the old.

An article (on Motley Fool) recently argued that Toyota’s move towards hydrogen should worry automakers like Tesla who are opting for battery-electric cars, because “Toyota’s standing makes it hard to dismiss”. What they really seem to be offering is another lease on life for an energy infrastructure that has served humanity well for about a hundred years, but that has destabilized entire regions, destroyed countries, and potentially, the world.

battery-electric 2018 Chevrolet Bolt

battery-electric 2018 Chevrolet Bolt

Luckily consumers can be expected to make the right choice, financially and environmentally, especially when cheaper, 20.000 to 40.000 euro electric cars start hitting the market in the coming years. Investors should likewise see Toyota’s hydrogen venture for what it is: a mirage.


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“Basic Income is the answer to technological developments”

Written for Mo* Magazine in March 2015

Increasingly, intelligent computers are taking over more and more intellectual jobs hitherto considered ‘safe’ from automation, author Tom Kenis argues. Where will it end? Kenis points to a basic guaranteed income as a way forward.

The world as we know it is coming to an end. A succession of inventions threatens existing economic activities and the income they provide. The political world is slow in responding to the social challenges of a new economic paradigm.

The above will sound familiar to contemporary commentators and historians alike. Similar words were used to describe the first industrial revolution some two hundred years ago – artisans giving way to Spinning Jenny’s, Slubbing Billy’s and so on. Innovation did not, as feared, lead to mass unemployment. However, it took almost a hundred years of strikes, and lobbying by unions and workers parties before the exploitation of these ‘new’ workers was tackled by meaningful social legislation.

Refrigerators and Soviets

One hundred years after the first, a second industrial revolution, bringing electricity and conveyor belt Taylorism, carried with it an inherent social component. Higher wages through higher productivity allowed for factory workers to buy the Tin Lizzies and refrigerators they themselves were producing. Ever cheaper oil lent a helping hand as well.

Authorities, still under pressure from unions and socialist parties, now had the means, taxing the increased output, to further expand the welfare state. Social reforms within a market framework in addition were seen as a way to fend off the communist threat.

Watts to Watson.

The ‘third industrial revolution’ – automated employees, otherwise known as robots, started supplanting workers from the early seventies onwards. This, together with an oil crisis and, after the fall of the Berlin wall, globalizing trade, slowly but surely put the thumbscrews on Western social safety nets.

Today free market competition marches on unchallenged. Meanwhile a ‘fourth technological revolution is taking place: smarter and smarter computers have started taking on more and more intellectual jobs.

Watson, one of IBM’s supercomputers, systematically reads and ‘understands’ a compendium of the world’s medical literature to help doctors diagnose illnesses. Bloomberg’s humdrum stock market reports are written with little human intervention. Cars are learning how to brake, steer, park and more. Computers are being programmed to program themselves. Belgium’s embattled autoworkers, as well as office-bound knowledge workers are in dire straits. Not Yash in Bangalore benefits but Samantha, the intelligent operating system given a voice by Scarlett Johansson in the movie ‘Her’. Reality is fast catching up with science-fiction.

People jobs disappear

Which tasks will the new ‘knowledge power’ perform when all the boring jobs are taken by Siri or Cortana? Which people jobs are set to disappear? What’s left to do for humans? Will these new jobs further loosen the employer-employee relationship? Will the new ‘on-off-worker’, freed from daily commutes and fixed working hours, experience this as a liberation: the ability finally to reconcile family and work? Or will he or she be enslaved by email and smartphones, on call twenty-four seven, and the crippling fear of what’s (not) to come, like the tons of paperwork between beginning and end of each temporary job?

Red scare to red tape

In an ideal world more technology leads to higher productivity per worker and – when efficiently taxed and redistributed – more funds for social policy. Previous innovation waves rendered social policy both necessary and possible. Government stimulates or steers the transition, as much as possible mitigating negative effects. Traditional levers of such social policy are unemployment benefits, vocational training, investments in infrastructure, etc..

However, since its inception the social safety net itself as well as the financing thereof – adapted to changing circumstances but also to cater to various special interests – has become ever more complex, a tangled-up mess of red tape understood only by hardened professionals and lawyers. The swollen ranks of dedicated government and payroll agencies add nothing to the economy. They have become as much of a financial burden as the welfare recipients themselves. The most vulnerable are barely able to navigate the Byzantine maze purported to help them. Entrepreneurs, more mobile than ever, turn away in disgust.

Brain drain versus brain dead

Centre-right parties, through their constituents, intuit the problem, but in analysis and recipe offer few ideas beyond tweaks or budget cuts, often allowing problems to fester in the hopes a veritable budget emergency will mandate a more drastic rollback of the safety net.

Education budgets are cut whereas the new economy requires substantial investment. The highly skilled tend to do well in the flex-economy. Governments instead seem to bet on Sunday shopping, after-work shopping, and facilitating the construction of more and more shopping malls. Such nihilistic policies threaten to reduce citizens to ever-more indebted zombie-like consumers.

Socialist governments on the defensive offer tweaks, budget cuts disguised as Pyrrhic victories or the other way around, fingers crossed for the next economic upswing.

Free to decide

What if you could radically reduce the size of government, create hyper-flexible labour markets, and at the same time offer flexible workers unprecedented protection? The idea to provide ​​every citizen with a basic guaranteed income, no questions asked, is not new and has been field-tested on a small scale for decades. People as far afield as Martin Luther King Jr. and conservative economist Milton Friedman have advocated various forms of the scheme.

Under most scenarios government would no longer need to hire armies of officials to make sure the unemployed are actually sitting at home doing nothing. Citizens would be free to decide whether and how much they want to work in addition to a monthly-allocated living wage. Benefit traps, fraught retirement age negotiations, whether and how much pensioners are allowed to work on the side, would become a thing of the past.

Waste of space

The cost of such a guaranteed basic income varies according to the specific monthly amount put forward. A Belgian working group of basic income proponents recently suggested 1500 euros per month per adult citizen, funded by scrapping a panoply of targeted benefits as well as thousands of government workers doing the targeting.

Even more difficult to quantify, and usually not included in cost-benefit estimates, is the innovation dividend. The entrepreneurially-inclined who, in uncertain times, cling to a brain-dead nine-to-five job, are suddenly free to pursue innovative and potentially lucrative ideas.

Costs related to stress, burnout and absenteeism decrease. The unemployed who in the present context gain little by accepting a job are activated, while others are free to care for sick or elderly family members. More broadly: doing what you like doing equals doing a better job at it. Again: everybody wins.

Overhauling the education system will be critical to transitioning to this hyper-flexible, hyper-social, hyper-innovative future. Businesses will benefit from better-motivated employees, but will have to compete harder to retain them.

Cake or death

Economists will have to use other indicators than hitherto employed to gauge the health of economies. Activity rate, working population, and unemployment, would in this scenario need to be redefined.

Of interest to the new, freer economy will be the overall productivity per worker on the one hand, and what is paid out to citizens. Automation, electronic or mechanical, will no longer be a threat to the system.

As long as the overall size of the cake increases, everyone automatically receives the same slice of that cake as long as he or she lives. If the aggregate economy adds enough value, any which way but loose, all citizens benefit. The overall productivity increase of these highly motivated, thinking citizens provided with a basic income will improve a nation’s competitiveness without rolling back the social safety net.

Local economy

Like the first and second industrial revolutions the current shift combines novel production techniques with a new energy paradigm. Europe not only competes with China and others on labour cost, but also on access to increasingly expensive fossil fuels –current, temporary dip notwithstanding. The present Western economic system is based on cheap oil, allowing one to commute and shop far from home.

But how many people would put up with daily traffic if, supplemented with a basic income, they could work closer to home in a job not necessarily based on producing or moving objects? Both the renewably energy revolution, and basic guaranteed income point to a more local economy. Electricity from wind and sun is typically consumed closer to the source, negatively impacting nations’ trade balance less than oil or gas and costing less in treasure (and lives) to get the stuff to consumers.


The US Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, was conceived as a (more or less) universal health insurance –one of the last industrialized countries to adopt one. Perhaps equally important, the logic of the law cuts employees loose from employers who in many cases picked up the tab for increasingly expensive health policies. The fear of getting sick without such a cover is thus no longer a factor in the insured individual’s choice of work. The Basic Guaranteed Income extends that philosophy to the cost of life itself. A living allowance, not unlike passing Start in Monopoly, covering basic needs also dispels the erroneous notion that to live better one need only earn and consume more. Economists however shouldn’t fret. The concept of growth itself shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater. In Belgium for example, greenhouse gases emitted per unit of value added, declined between 1995 and 2008 by 35%. According to a recent report the amount of globally emitted CO2 seems to have slightly declined in 2014 compared to previous years for the first time not due to an economic crisis.

To completely disconnect growth from ‘making more things’ has, partly due to the current technological revolution, not only become possible but necessary.

Moving towards a Basic Guaranteed Income policy will reinforce ecological de-materialization of the economy and digital flexibility. Economic development will become synonymous with development as such, something intangible, increasingly taking place in the minds of its participants: self-determination, self-realization, at once global, freer than ever and more together. Or as economists call it: the pursuit of happiness.

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More is more.

More is more.

(originally published on

Wikileaks, an online repository of classified documents leaked anonymously by whistleblowers, is drawing criticism after posting close to 400.000 classified documents detailing American military operations in Iraq, and gruesome details of detainee abuse by American-sponsored Iraqi security personnel. Beyond discomfort to the defense establishment, facilitating whistle-blowing has wider implications for media, democracy, and diplomacy.

Democratic government is a free marketplace of ideas. Government, arguably, is a basket of services you buy with taxes. Customers who are not happy with the service they are receiving will choose other providers, either through the ballot box, or if that option is not available, by moving to another country. Economic theories model their predictions of bread-and-butter behavior on the basis of a range of simplifications. Human beings will always take rational decisions, to name an easily falsifiable one. The more transparent the marketplace, the better informed the shopper, in short: the more you get what you bargained for.

Of such fraught assumptions, transparency becomes particularly tricky when applied to the business of politics. Compared to, say, a hair dryer, a politician’s actual functioning is hard to predict from what’s advertized on the box. More often than not the shopper comes home with a toaster in stead. There is no money-back guarantee, only the option to try a different brand after 4 or 5 years. What if we were somehow able to hold our office-holders accountable to a higher degree than hitherto thought possible? What if you could go to bed at night in the comforting knowledge your government was doing exactly what it said it was doing both at home and abroad?

Wikileaks aims to do just that. Thermostat The going assumption here is not that government is inherently bad, and should therefore be curtailed. The premise must be that governments are run by humans, and that humans are prone to human error. Knowing about these errors is a necessary first step in correcting them. To perform this function, classical democracies have provided checks and balances to institutions of power, mostly by other institutions of power. The system of bestowing or renewal of popular mandates every so many years however is running at or above capacity.

Society evolves ever faster, produces ever more information, and ideas based on this information. In short, the product cycle of thought is shortening. Direct democracy equals direct media Since the invention of representative, indirect, democracy education levels have increased dramatically. To adapt to this new sociology it is desirable for citizens to know, at all times, everything their government does, at home or abroad. The media, often dubbed ‘the fourth branch of government’, has so far played this role admirably, but the sheer amount of information produced by individuals, corporations, and governments has put a strain on its adequate functioning.

Experiments in direct democracy can only avoid the pitfalls of demagoguery, in other words the manipulated interpretation of facts, if the barriers between information in its integral, raw form and people are removed. Aggregate brain power Arguably, the answer lies in harnessing the scrutiny, and yes, analytical power of the many. Putting more information in the public domain for discussion does exactly that.

With so-called ‘grid’ computer power, individuals allow a far-off laboratory to use their machine’s excess processor muscle to help in for instance cancer research. So too should the raw data of a government’s inner functioning and actions be made available to all. Too many exemptions exist in current laws like the American Freedom of information Act or other such legislation. …to end all wars Anything a government gets up to that’s deemed ‘too sensitive’ for the general public to know about, is probably worthy of public scrutiny. Opponents might claim that competition with non-free states require actions that are less-palatable to freedom-loving folk.

For instance, to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons it is necessary for us not to let Iran know about everything we’re doing to achieve our noble goal. Wikileaks, in other words, will hurt the intelligence efforts. On the other hand, to restrict Wikileaks would deny Iranian dissidents, of which undoubtedly there are many, the opportunity to steal a march on their oppressors and publicize details of the country’s fissile dabbling. The most powerful weapon in advocating freedom, is to at least espouse the very idea fully and unambiguously.

The crux and implications of this freedom however are unmistakable. War as a foreign policy instrument will eventually become impractical, if not impossible. By their very nature, war efforts can only be sustained if the exorbitant financial and human cost can be withheld or filtered from the general consciousness. Wikileaks threatens to shatter the intermediary role of governments to both wage a war, and explain its proceedings to those paying for it.

Free and easy access to all information by everyone is antithetical to the manipulation of facts necessary to justify wars of aggression. For lack of the latter, defensive wars are eventually set on the same path. The Jack is out of the box Among others, China has taken the lead in checking the free flow of information toward and between its citizens. Thailand too has blocked the Wikileaks website. German police have raided the house of Theodor Reppe, registrant of the German WikiLeaks domain name,

In 2009, the Australian Communications and Media Authority added WikiLeaks to their proposed list of sites to be blocked for all Australians. Wikileaks members have complained of harassment, surveillance etc.. Its continued existence is all but certain. At the end of the day however, censorship technologies are easily overcome, witness the Iranian government’s failed attempts to keep its violent crackdown on regime opponents a secret, or the spam that finds its way into your inbox everyday regardless of any efforts to the contrary.

The future of information.

In a way, information seems beholden to some sort of sociological equivalent of the second law of thermodynamics, i.e. an expression of the fact that over time, differences in temperature, pressure, and chemical potential tend to balance out. A very free place, say Sweden, one of a few places where the Wikileaks website uses server space, will either continue to allow other states’ secrets to be revealed, and hence make other states more free, or cave in to outside pressure to curb the website’s actions, and become a less free state as a result. Regardless, balance is restored.

Human nature provides cautious ground for optimism. People, by their very constitution, are communicators. History does not, in the end, favor barriers. Whistle-blowing will not replace classical journalism. It will be complimentary to it. There will always be a need for interpretation, context, and analysis. The only thing that is bound to disappear is the journalist’s monopoly access to sources. More people will vet more information, underpinning better decision-making. More is more, and a hair dryer is not a toaster.

Tom Kenis (33), graduated MA in Middle-East studies and International Relations, has studied Arabic in Cairo, and worked for three years in the occupied Palestinian territories. He currently works for Channel Research, a consultancy active in the field of peace-building, development impact assessment, and corporate governance. Kenis writes extensively on Middle East and international affairs, technology, and sustainable development on his blog:

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Proposal for crowd-funded, post-national space exploration.

Proposal for crowd-funded, post-national space exploration.

In 1961 mankind flew up on a rocket ship and visited space for the first time in its three million year history of tool use. The ideas, concepts, and the very science of that voyage originated long before the golden sixties. Rockets were used as an engine of war as early as the thirteenth century by the Chinese in their attempts to ward of Mongol invasions.

But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that another use for these fiery contrivances was contemplated: A mode of transport. Spurred on by science-fiction writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Welles, Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky wrote a paper in 1901 called “The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices”. Robert Goddard, an American pioneer proposed a multi-stage rocket as early as 1915. Hermann Oberth, a German trailblazer built his first model rocket in 1908. He was 14 at the time. It would take almost half a century before governments decided to systematically pour money into the venture. Goddard hardly received any public funding at all.

Charles Lindbergh, who saw the potential of rocket-propelled aviation, put his fame to work in an attempt to secure private funding for Goddard’s efforts. Additionally, despite the stock market crash, the Guggenheim family began funding his work with a grant worth 1,6 million of today’s Dollars. After brief government interest during World War I, public financing began to take off in earnest up to and during WWII. The money then increased exponentially throughout the first half of the Cold War. Many exciting things were achieved –most of which improved life here on earth in countless, measurable ways.

The problem with government-funded space research. Space exploration, although in its most public and spectacular emanations such as the Apollo moon program a civilian affair, has been the near exclusive domain of nations’ military establishments. Although as far as we know to date no weapons have been placed in space or on the moon, the United States aimed first and foremost to beat the Soviets in a propaganda battle between superpowers. Science came a distant second. Nation states logically perceive space as a strategic asset, a Mount Olympus from which to defend against or assail other nation states.

The United States Air Force (military) Space Command for instance today counts 47.000 men and women against (civilian) NASA’s 19.000. A disproportionate amount of funding goes to those projects and technologies that have defense applications, not the ones that further human knowledge or enhance, say, climate protection. Democratic governments are rightly responsive to constituents’ wishes. Sometimes they are not, like when they decide to go to war.

Sometimes, unreflective of the public’s apathy for certain endeavors, they do go ‘out there’. Like CERN, Europe’s particle research center. Building a 27-kilometer circular tunnel underground to find out what crumbs lurk inside a smidgen of a smidgen of a smidgen of an atom is hardly at the top of the average mortgage-paying family’s wish list. Let alone paying 700 million Euros a year for upkeep, even if the check is split among 20 countries. American scientists found that out the hard way when Congress pulled the plug on a similar project right about when it had progressed to a-giant-hole-in-Texas stage. High science is a niche, and probably always will be.

Space, the highest of them all, tops it. International cooperation. One mechanism to unshackle the worthy cause of fundamental scientific research from budget-cutting representatives is for multiple countries to join hands. The International Space Station is an obvious example. Yet here too, politics tends to trump science.

While the ISS is indeed a potent symbol of post cold-war cooperation among former foes, its scientific achievements pale in comparison to the staggering cost. To make things worse, one or more countries pulling out might scupper at any given moment a decade’s worth of lobbing over two hundred tons of beams at the sky. The next Mars rover “Opportunity”, pooling American and European resources could be a good example of collaboration but for it to truly be ‘international’ far more nations should be involved.

Rather, it seems that the coming scramble for precious lunar resources, and the ultimate prestige of a human foot on Mars (attached to a living, breathing astro-, taiko-, kosmo-, or euro-naut) will entice another round of competition rather than cooperation. International collaboration, short of a truly global effort, will not produce the advances that are necessary to tackle practical issues such as global warming, stopping an asteroid hurtling towards earth, nor to answer the fundamental, age-old questions like whether or not we are alone in the universe.


Providing thrill rides to space for the world’s well-heeled, both individuals as well as for instance pharmaceutical researchers, opens up some interesting avenues. A steady stream of income, unencumbered by the occasional government deficit, will do wonders to advance basic enabling technologies like propulsion, and space habitation. Hence, recent developments of private companies like Scaled Composites and SpaceX, spurred on by venture capital and lavish government subsidies, add an important piece to the puzzle.

Yet it remains to be seen whether they can deliver on audacious promises. More importantly, it is likely ventures of a purely profit-seeking nature, will not use those enabling technologies to engage in fundamental research. Beyond.. In some countries it is optional for citizens to pay taxes toward maintaining religious institutions. After all, not everybody believes in God. Citizens are not given that choice in other matters of state expenditure like defense or, indeed, space exploration. Not everybody believes that public money should literally be combusted in pursuit of celestial bodies.

For idealists and dreamers on the other hand, things can hardly go fast enough, and the sky is no longer the limit. SETI, otherwise known as the quixotic machinery designed to receive ET phone calls, popularized by Jodi Foster’s performance in “Contact”, ran into financial trouble recently. It was saved by a global internet-based collection round. Nerds of the world unite, if you will. A template for aspiring Luke Skywalkers. But seriously…

And then some.

A crowd-sourced, post-national space exploration venture would preferably be based in international waters, or a neutral and stable country near the equator. It would boldly go where fickle nations can’t afford to go, and do what private companies don’t figure profitable. Contributions would come from basement sci-fi fans to visionary CEO’s. Anyone with a dollar to spare and an intellectual stake in exploration for exploration’s sake. Projects could range from developing next-generation propulsion systems, fancy space-based telescopes, to fully-fledged colonization of Mars.

Space is simply too expensive, too risky, and too big for any single nation, let alone individual, to explore. Furthermore, a successful post-national, crowd-funded model for space could be used as a template to tackle other huge, and non profit-generating problems. How about a crowd-sourced, non-commercial venture to cure cancer, malaria, or AIDS? A global no-strings-attached project to improve agriculture? The possibilities are as limitless as space itself.

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We landed on the Moon, for crying out loud.

We landed on the Moon, for crying out loud.

Apollo_16Yes we did. Awesome, no? In just one generation mankind has managed to invert the expression “crying for the moon”, to: “We went to the Moon. Christ!” Thus, this dusty pebble in the sky has come to signify our technological, and yes, aspirational prowess. We can do anything. Even if it was all just part of a gargantuan pissing contest. The problem is, we haven’t been back since the last Apollo mission in 1972. That’s 40 years of slumber.

Slowly but surely “We went to the Moon” has taken on an ulterior hue, or compound sentences like “We did, right?” or “Look at us now.” To paraphrase Tom Wolfe’s magnificent rendering of the birth of the American space age, have we lost the right stuff? “Space” as we knew it from the early days of Sputnik, retreated from the limelight, to return occasionally to satisfy morbid fascination when yet another shuttle fell from the heavens in a fiery fury. There, in the basement of the collective mind, ‘Space’ made its most prominent forays into the unknown with such marvels as the Hubble telescope, and a pair of RC cars crawling about on the surface of Mars.

And while half a dozen astronauts continuously swoosh around the globe in the International Space Station, traveling in infinity became almost boringly routine, its funding munched upon by economic distress and public apathy. The Second Space Age. America’s four space shuttles have each been assigned to museums across the country. George Bush’s return to the Moon, a.k.a. the re-invention of hot water, has been cancelled.

Instead, a plethora of private entrepreneurs are revving up a bevy of increasingly sophisticated soapboxes to realize childhood dreams and, well, profits. From Richard Branson to Paypal founder Elon Musk: well-heeled individuals or companies will soon have a ticket to ride. Expect to pay between one and two hundred thousand dollars for a quick nip up through the stratosphere. And back, obviously, if all goes well. That’s a lot more than the price of, say, an iPad, but a far cry from the millions and millions that government agencies require to accomplish the same feat.

Everyone’s going.

Going into space will no longer be the prerogative of a few trained government employees or visitors to the finer recreational establishments of Amsterdam. After the launch of the last shuttle later this year five hundred people will have flown in space. That’s ten per year since Yuri Gagarin on average. Expect about five thousand to earn their astronaut wings in the current decade alone.

As more go, prices will go down, and even more will go. The world will never be the same. The fleet of private rockets and space planes will be joined by a newly ambitious Russia, followed by Taikonauts from China scaling the long celestial ladder in a great, great hurry. The latter expect to visit the Moon around the start of the next decade. It’s too early to say what effect this will have on international cooperation /competition in space.

What is certain is a new phase of hyper-activity has started. Hearts and minds. The iconic Earth-rise over the moon’s horizon, shot by Apollo VIII in 1968, has not missed its effect. Or rather, completely missed its effect, depending on whether you’re the glass-is-half-full type or not. Fact of the matter is the global ecological movement, with all of its achievements and failures, can be traced back, at least in part, to snapshots of that brittle blue marble suspended in a black, hostile, nothing.

Yet, while in the first space age most of us ‘soared’ vicariously –a few guys in a ticker tape parade, or Hollywood’s masked and caped foes and pointy-eared warp-speeders- the next stage will be different. Most people born today will at some point in their lives fly in space, or know someone who has. Without resorting to misty-eyed exaltation, a new Copernican shift in human thinking awaits. The parallel is not so much the discovery of America, or even the invention of fire. It’s a change of habitat akin to climbing, or falling down from the trees. Again. Only now we’re going up, and staying there. Floating.

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Technology and Civilization.

Technology and Civilization.

Humankind has become a technological civilization, however qualified arguably the “civilization” bit by Ghandi’s reply to a journalist’s inquiry about his thoughts on the Western variety in particular. “It would be a good idea,” he said. Whatever the case, and whichever this bipedal species’ shortcomings on the not-fucking-up-both-each-other-and-the-very-flowerpot-on-which-we-thrive-and-multiply front, technology has become an indelible part of the human story. Hence, in addition to the odd consumer-guidish caveat emptors and whatnot, your correspondent would like to continue to wed the practical to the ethereal, exploring broader issues of machine and man (both sexes), and what either term might mean as the 21st century wears on. The end of email An issue straddling the office worker, machine, and what can broadly be labeled as the ‘economic imperative’ is email. Email, of course, is not an issue as such.

It’s a means of communicating, a conduit through which ideas of people, indeed issues, are funneled. As such it is a vacuum, meaningless like weed-covered tracks without a train. As an agent of transmission however email by far exceeds the train in speed, just as the train once betokened a revolutionary acceleration next to earlier horse-drawn contraptions. In short, speed matters. Email, as an issue, matters. Written exchanges, thanks to the invention of the electronic missive, have today become instantaneous. Of most office workers, especially in competitive businesses, they require immediate action. Telephone conversations are often limited to the grossly annoying “Did you receive my email”, meaning, “Why haven’t you replied yet?” As a result, over the past decade productivity growth for deskbound personnel has equaled reading, treating, and responding to ever more emails. Oodles of the stuff.

They “ping!” or “pop!”, and if left unattended for too long, multiply like rabbits. Wither hence? How much is too much? Many people, yours included, will confirm that a certain limit has been reached. Surely there is no such thing as faster than immediate. Electrons, as well as the human mind, are bound by the speed of light. Time travel as a means of digesting all your bosses’, peers’ and underlings’ delightful written insights within the span of a normal-ish working day can be called impractical at best. Bye bye then to economic growth, that other seemingly unbreakable covenant of nature? Obviously, something’s gotta give. First of all, the terrific reign of email must, and probably will come to an end. At some point. However, if at times you feel inspired to a Bastille-like stampede, an icy swoosh of the guillotine to end your cerebral woes, you’re set for disappointment.

The enemy lurks within. Email itself has already begun to morph into a new, more intuitive arena of exchange. A new Wave. With a bit of luck you might have already obtained an invitation to scrutinize a test-version of Google’s innovative communication scheme. Other providers of email software are expected to follow in their food steps. What does it mean? In brief, the wave aims to stop your letter from boating around at all. A sea change indeed. In stead you’ll be creating a tableau, away from your own computer and up in the cloud, containing text, video, pictures, and sundry documents. Rather than ‘sending’ your brilliant idea, you’ll merely ‘invite’ your insignificant others to come and have a look at what you done did. Once more than two people are involved, the advantages become clear. The endless carousel of CC’ing, forwarding, replying, and jumbled re-forwarding comes to a blissful stop. Attachments will hover near your original message, to be edited by all at once. No more working on “the wrong version”.

A coworker taking over while you’re out skiing in Dubai for a week? Simply, invite him or her to the virtual, shared desk and let them replay the unfolding of events, revisions, amendments of alterations, and sundry tweaks. Dissolving locus. Aside from providing companies with a means of squeezing yet a little more juice from hired brains, the wider significance of the wave is an additional step toward the irrelevance of place. For a while now most of modern enterprises have been paying lip service to the notion that brainworkers are able to perform their job wherever they are.

Tele-commuting was supposed both to have solved gridlock and reconcile family and work life ages ago. One of the reasons for this has been the primitive, highly abstracized manner in which electronic –but still essentially written- means of communication convey thought. The written word, and certainly mass literacy, an overwhelmingly recent skill as opposed to spoken language as such, still presents a sizeable challenge to most people. Rich, three-dimensional, emotion-laden ideas are downgraded, stripped of nuance, and congealed in a series of two-dimensional lines, bits and dots.

Hence we still hop on airplanes, trains, and busses to meet the important client, customer, boss, etc… “You had to have been there,” as they say. Today, technology is finally catching up. A shared document, up in the cloud, is of course a far cry from the kind of representative technology that could make you believe you’re actually somewhere else but combined with augmented reality, another recent development that enables information or holographic images to be layered on both real and wholly imagined environments, is set to leapfrog us there.

Prepare, in other words, to meet remote coworkers in the cloud, their flickering three-dimensional avatars huddled over information waves. A blissful end to email, validity to nagging claims of not being able to “be everywhere at the same time” and the beginning of a delocalized, pan-human era. Still to come: more on the above: from de-localization to post-individual consciousness, DNA-sequencing for the masses, particle accelerators, GPS and mobility automation, the future of manned spaceflight, and closer to home: the scourge of online market fragmentation.

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The greener, the sooner.

The greener, the sooner.

(originally published on

Large quantities of ink have, are, and likely will be spilled on the impact of man’s voracious appetite for energy. So much so that the ink itself, if not properly disposed of, might form an environmental hazard in its own right.

Jokes aside, the debate is heating up, no longer centered on whether climate change due to manmade emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses is real, but on whether and how we can stop or attenuate the danger. While a myriad ideas and technologies abound, pundits disagree on the technical and political feasibility of a timely turnaround or, put differently, whether populations and their elected or anointed policymakers are willing or able to pay for a clear conscience and like skies in time to avert catastrophe.

The obstacles, according to some, seem far to outweigh the opportunities and benefits of changing the way we’ve done things so far. A cursory glance at the annual reports and stockholder presentations of hydrocarbon energy companies might easily hoodwink one into believing coal, oil and gas will necessarily continue to form the lion’s share of the global energy mix for decades to come. However, a closer look at budding and current technologies, markets and policies suggest in the tug-of-war between green and less keen, the perimeter is quickly shifting. Unfulfilled promise.

Alternative energy sources have always been around in one form or another. The first horse-drawn buggies sans-horse were mostly electric for example. People preferred them to the noisy, smelly gasoline-powered cousins that in addition were cumbersome to start up and required such complex hassles as hand-crank start-up and manual gear shifting. The discovery of cheap Texan crude, and the electric starter motor in early 1900’s finally tipped the scale toward the internal combustion engine.

Nuclear fission energy promised abundant, and emissions-free power from the fifties onward, but never quite managed to be cheap, despite lavish government subsidies, loan guarantees, and capital write-offs. Potential-, near-, and actual catastrophes, the cost and lack of societal acceptance of burying nuclear waste, should have sealed the case long ago. Illusive fusion technology has been a few decades away since the idea was first launched a few decades ago.

All the while cheap hydrocarbons such as coal, oil, and gas continued and continue to form the backbone of the developed world’s energy infrastructure. Aware of the geo-political dangers of depending on unstable or unsavory regimes for sustenance, and the growing cost of freak weather occurrences widely believed to be linked to greenhouse gasses have rekindled interest in alternative technologies old and new.

Skeptics will often judge a single technology on its potential merit as a climate-saver, or oil-killer. “Wind will never be able to produce all the power needed currently, let alone a multitude thereof when China begins to watch in stead of merely making plasma televisions sets.”

However true, the argument, left to its own devices, fails to take into account important evolutions taking place beyond the seemingly exponential increase in global energy demand. Diversification. No single alternative energy source can be a panacea. Current trends point to an ever-widening array of fast-maturing technologies currently being rolled out, or already available. The line-up of existing or just-round-the-corner technologies to char your toast, or heat baths and living rooms is nigh infinite. From giant wind farms to rooftop micro-turbines, from large-scale solar plants to palm-sized photovoltaic panels, heat or methane-extraction from biomass, tidal and wave energy, utility-scale or villa-sized geo-thermal, etc… The list goes on. Not metaphorically, it really does.

The intermittent nature of some of these new energy sources makes storage and supply management an integral part of the story. Here too, a wide array of solutions are already being applied. Large solar plants have started using molten salts such as saltpeter (a non-flammable, nontoxic material consisting mostly of fertilizer) to preserve day-time heat to run turbines at night. On blustery days excess wind energy is used to pump water uphill creating hydro-energetic potential for calmer times. On moments of low demand, surplus electricity might compress air to spin turbines when millions of families prepare their evening meals. Pessimists claim green energy proponents and investors misguidedly expect information technology’s Moore’s law, to apply equally to green energy technology.

Unlike the cost of processing power, the price of green power cannot be expected to halve over every 18-month period. However, the two are inextricably linked. Cheap computing power forms the linchpin of for instance automating management of decentralized energy production and consumption. Your electric or hybrid car might for example, on moments of peak demand, feed electricity back to your house or your neighbor’s stove. Cheap information technology is further proving a boon for designing better-shaped, better-positioned wind turbines.

The high-octane prediction modeling needed to line up demand and supply in a seamless fashion has fast become more dependable and affordable. Tipping point. Prices of photovoltaic panels, the wafers that turn sunlight directly into juice for your iPod or washing machine, are coming down at Moore-like speeds. Smart government policies, such as Germany’s subsidies and feed-in tariffs have spawned both a market and an industry thriving on economies of scale they wouldn’t have enjoyed otherwise. Recently reduced government largesse on the other hand are hurting western producers, now forced to cede ground to cheap Chinese panels.

Very quietly the subsidies have done what they were designed for: To break the chicken-and-egg situation where high prices meant low demand meant high prices. The industry is gearing up for a perfect storm, according to some analysts 3 to 5 years away, of photovoltaic energy reaching grid-parity, i.e. a unit-price comparable to or lower than gas or coal. In a true Copernican shift, our lives will start to veritably revolve around the sun. The next thing. Western producers, outgunned by Chinese mass production will be relegated to researching higher-value products such as super-efficient panels for portable applications, flexible and lighter materials enabling integration of photovoltaics into a widening array of objects.

Gradually, as logic dictates, the energy that one consumes will increasingly be produced locally, if not by the device using the power itself, then by nearby sources like your building’s solar panels, micro wind turbine, or organic waste-processing equipment. Obstacles. The Malthusian increase in energy consumption that the Western world has seen in past centuries, is not a natural law. However, governments’ identification of certain energy sources as strategic, and the resulting favorable treatment of coal, petrol, gas, and nuclear power has created artificially low prices, biasing markets against efficiency. Many of these advantages are still in place.

Cash-strapped governments wishing to reexamine these handouts to what are essentially outdated industries will have to reckon, as they have, unsuccessfully until recently, with these powerful ingrained interests. Postponed for too long, the transition will be a painful one for many working in these old industries. Despite solar’s amazing promise, governments should not be tempted to do what they did before: to pick a specific “winner” among competing technologies. The energy specifications and prescriptions to industry and consumers should remain as broad as possible.

Eventually, cheaper, more efficient technologies will come to the fore. In the end, today’s champion is tomorrow’s dinosaur. From transitional to transformational. A global “renewables” industry is slowly taking the place of traditional so-called anti-industry advocates. In a world inhabited, and inhabitable by 7 to 8 billion people, classical resource extraction will never be cheap again. The economics of energy production based on abundant, free resources with no external cost born by all, are already developing their own inexorable momentum. Government or inter-government accords such as the follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol need merely to agree on fazing out support to coal, oil, and nuclear.

A global zero-carbon economy by 2050 is no pipe-dream. On a level playing field there’s just no competing with the sun.

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