Sunday, April 30, 2023

Platinum: It doesn't have to run out to become unavailable

Whenever there is an argument about the sufficiency of resources to meet the demands of our voracious industrial economy, those defending the cornucopian view say, "But, we are not running out of that resource." Of course, that is not the point. It is more likely that the first phase of resource depletion will be that not everyone who was previously able to afford a particular resource will continue to have access to it at affordable prices.

Enter platinum, which may soon be in short supply since the country that produces 75 percent of it, South Africa, is running low on power to mine and refine it. There are two things to notice here: First, the geographic concentration of the source of supply, and second, that energy is the critical resource without which all the other resources we take for granted would become unavailable to us.

Why should we care? Platinum is a precious metal, but mostly it is an industrial metal used as a catalyst in catalytic converters for motor vehicles (to reduce noxious tailpipe emissions), in the production of hydrogenated of vegetable oils (not good for the health, but it keeps them from spoiling too quickly), and in the refining of petroleum to obtain high octane elements. Platinum is also found in electrodes, in human body implants because of its high degree of compatibility with human tissue, and, of course, in jewelry and high-end watches.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Dangers from future technologies? It's the current ones that are killing us

Certainly, there a plenty of horror stories about possible disasters awaiting us from emerging technologies. I've written about two of them: 1) the possibility of small cheap, AI-guided drones used to commit mass slaughter (or targeted assassinations) and 2) lethal synthetic viruses for warfare or released by an apocalyptic cult trying to bring the apocalypse forward on the calendar. More recently, some have predicted that advances in artificial intelligence will ultimately lead to the destruction of humanity.

As bad as these sound, it's possible that doomscrolling our way through the breathless coverage of dangerous new technologies is distracting us from what is already happening in right front of us: Existing technologies are already pushing humans quickly down the path to extinction (along with many plants and animals). Pretending that dangers to the survival of the human species come ONLY from the future is a perilous diversion.

In fact, the combination of climate change; the increasingly toxic pollution of the soil, water and air; depletion of arable soil, water, energy and critical metals; galloping development of wild and farm lands; and second order effects such as habitat and biodiversity loss, acidification of the oceans and dramatic loss of Greenland's ice that may lead to a breakdown in the Gulf Stream ocean current that keeps much of Europe temperate—all this has gathered so much momentum that, frankly, we don't need any help from the future to kill ourselves as a species. (Oh, I almost forgot; we could obliterate ourselves with a nuclear winter without any new nuclear technology or warheads needed.)

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Another offering from our tech overlords: A climate change solution without sacrifice

My expectations are never disappointed when I read the news each day and find out that the solutions to the problems created by our modern technology are to be found in more technology. We do not need to restructure our society, reduce our consumption, moderate our desires or change our habits. Technology will solve our problems without us having to make any substantial change in our way of life.

The breathless coverage of a university-based startup company that will draw carbon dioxide out of the ocean—thereby making room for more carbon dioxide from the air to be absorbed—may convince you that we can all sit back and let our tech overlords solve climate change. But if you read to the very bottom of the article, you will find out that there is one important sticking point. It's an energy-intensive process and the energy must come from somewhere.

The company says its process will produce hydrogen as a by-product which will cover about half of the energy needs. What about the other half? Well, I suppose they could just use renewable sources. But that would seriously limit the scale of this technology because of the lack of available renewable energy in many locales and its low market penetration to date. According to the "Our World in Energy" site (using data from the BP's Statistical Review of World Energy), less than 3 percent of the world’s energy comes from wind. Only 1.65 percent is solar. Only seven-tenths of one percent is biofuels. Even if you add nuclear which is nonrenewable, nuclear makes up only 4.3 percent of world energy. And, this is not to mention other demands on these sources of energy.

Sunday, April 09, 2023

Hazards of a connected world - Should you forgo the Internet of Things?

One of the wonders of our age is that we can have real-time communication with people anywhere in the world there is access to the internet. Wait a minute! Actually, we had similar access a century ago after the first transatlantic telephone call was placed in 1927. The feat was accomplished using radio signals to transmit the call over the waters of the Atlantic from New York to London.

Today, of course, we can transmit images and text in volumes that early teletypes could not achieve. And, we can even see and hear one or more people in a videoconference.

All the convenience and speed, however, has led to great vulnerability. It used to be moderately difficult, but not impossible for a person outside the telephone company to spy on someone's telephone calls. And, in the age of manual switching (think: operators plugging and unplugging jacks) and even the following age of electromechanical switching (the operators are no longer needed to do the switching), it would almost certainly have been impossible logistically to spy on all of the telephone calls in, for instance, the entire United States at once.

Today, new technologies make it relatively easy for a hacker to invade your email and other accounts if you are not scrupulously careful to observe security precautions. And, your telephone calls, emails and browsing habits are all monitored by governments—though occasionally they get caught and have to modify what they are doing.

Sunday, April 02, 2023

Chinese imagine genetically engineered radioactivity-resistant soldiers

A story about the possibility of creating genetically engineered radioactivity-resistant soldiers last week made it seem that life was imitating art. I am currently rewatching "The Expanse," a popular science fiction television series based on a book series of the same name. I recommended it in 2018 as an entertaining and disturbing tale illustrating the concept of systemic ruin, a possibility that our civilization faces on a number of fronts.

In "The Expanse," far in the future as war between Earth and Mars nears, evil men (and women) create an army of soldiers who live on radioactivity and who require no spacesuits. These evil scientists do this by transforming human captives using something dubbed the "proto-molecule." These so-called "hybrid soldiers" are remorseless killing machines and can also infect humans with the "proto-molecule" by merely spreading it around. The general advice is not to get near these soldiers or touch the blue goo that they seem to be able to generate.

Back on Earth in the 21st century—beyond the morally repugnant idea of genetically engineering babies to later become radioactivity-resistant soldiers—we have bioengineers who seem to forget the first rule of ecology: You can never do merely one thing.