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Solar Power: Take Two

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: solar energy and efficient use could solve all our energy problems. Nothing else can. And nuclear energy is worse than useless.

The intervening three years since the earlier posts have brought new technologies that make solar cheaper, faster, and better (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11). They’ve brought more tragic proof that nukes can never be the answer (12, 13, 14, 15, 16). They’ve brought more data showing the worsening of climate change (17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23), the mushrooming of oil wars, and the hideous hidden price of fossil fuels.

Just a couple of examples:

Rooftop solar could supply around 780 GWh of energy every day, over 280TWh per year. That estimate does not include advances that allow window surfaces (11 above), roadways and parking lots (6 above), to be turned into photovoltaic generators. It uses restrictive assumptions for solar: only 4 hours useful sunlight per day, 15% efficiency of panels, and a very narrow definition of usable space. The whole southern half of the US, from California to Virginia, gets more like 6 usable hours of sunlight per day, and in the desert Southwest, it’s closer to 9 hours.

And then there’s the image below, showing that 55% of energy produced is lost before use. (“Rejected” energy in the graph.) That’s mainly heat loss during production and transmission losses, both of which are much, much, much, much lower in distributed sources close to the end-use point. (End use suffers from its own inefficiencies. Their elimination would reduce the need for power even more, but that’s a different topic.)
chart showing proportion of fuel coming from mainly fossil sources, and 55% loss before use

The years have also brought new calculations of transition costs and feasibility. The Stanford study by Jacobson and Delucchi (2011) shows just how straightforward it would be, technically and financially, to switch to a rational energy policy.

The only real hangup is that Big Oil and Big Nuke own the government.

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Fools and their money

Fools and their money are said to be soon parted, so Google must think that if they make fools of their customers, they’ll get the money.

How else to explain their new Chrome OS laptop?

If you buy the thing straight up, as a consumer, the cheapest one will be $349. That’s for a machine whose hardware equivalent can be had for around $170.

It runs only Google applications on Google servers. That’s something you can do on any computer any time. Except that on a normal computer you can also run other software if you want.

The “chromebooks” have wifi. The high end Samsung model, for $499, also has 3G (i.e. cellphone) connectivity. With a two year contract with Verizon, Slashdot says 100MB of data per month is included. That some 3.3 megabytes per day.

The proud boast about the chromebooks is that they don’t access the Web, they are the Web. They’re cool and cloud-based and everything that’s done on them uses connection bandwidth — wifi at home, work, or the cafe hotspot, 3G otherwise. If all you did was use the machine for a while when away from wifi, if you worked on some photos, or played a game, or worked on a newsletter, or checked a news site with a few flash ads, you’d reach the limit pretty fast. So there’s yet another hole to pour money into.

You could, of course, use some of those Google apps in offline mode. But, um, you can use any computer in “offline” mode, and you can do it cheaper, faster, and better.

Google, after making a big deal out of using open source, is moving toward totally locking its chromebooks down. It’s working on tying the OS to the firmware. That prevents installation of another Linux-based OS on the chromebook. Depending how Google restricts the operating system, it could prevent you from installing anything at all on the computer.

Note that Chrome is a (somewhat crippled) Linux operating system. If one Linux OS runs on a netbook, many other flavors will too. Something like Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and some others, are no scarier these days than Windows (or Chrome). Plus they let you run whatever software you want. To Google, that is obviously a bug, not a feature.

Google is also offering a special for business and education. For low monthly payments — the cheapest is $20 per month for three years — you have a wonderful $170 netbook for $720. Such a deal! Assuming a $349 price, that’s only an effective annual interest rate of 27%. Hurry, before this never to be repeated offer ends! The only catch is that they’re selling in lots of ten or more, so individuals can’t get the deal.

What’s supposed to make it attractive to institutions is that Google will provide support. Really? Has anyone ever seen Google support any of their products? Anyone? Nexus customers? Google is also making a big point of how you’ll have no viruses. That has nothing to do with Google. That’s (currently) a feature of Linux. Once it’s a bigger target, more crackers may try to attack it, but for now viruses are not a problem for Linux users.

What makes me want to scream is that it is easy as pie to have all of the benefits with none of Google’s red, blue, or yellow zip-tie handcuffs. If you’re able to pay $350 for a laptop, there are some quite good ones out there. If you’re willing to pay $500 — the price of the Samsung chromebook with wifi and 3G — there are some very good ones. My personal favorites at the low end are the Lenovo S-series Ideapads, both for build quality and hardware specs, but there are plenty of others too. (No, I have no relationship with Lenovo except owning three of their laptops.)

If you want a fast, virus-free Linux operating system on the machine, it’s as simple as downloading a desktop “live CD” file from Linux Mint or Ubuntu. (For Ubuntu choose the second option in the dropdown menu, the Long Term Release, version 10.04 Lucid. More stability and less upgrading.)

To make a LiveUSB (=bootable USB) use Unetbootin (Windows or Linux) or Startup Disk Creator (under the System, Administration menu in Ubuntu Linux). You’ll need a USB with at least 2GB of space. Downloading the file and installing it on a USB are as hard as the process gets.

After that, plug the USB into the netbook, start up the machine, and test drive the new operating system. There’s a desktop icon if you want to install, which lets you follow on-screen instructions. You can put the new OS next to the old one (“dual boot”) or replace it. It takes about fifteen or twenty minutes. That’s it. You’re done.

More software is available for free with one-click installs from repositories. They work like app stores, except that the idea is a free community to which everyone contributes what they can. Some people program, some answer questions on the support forums, and some do nothing at all. It’s up to you. The quality of the established software, like Firefox or LibreOffice, is often better than the equivalent commercial products. (There are tens of thousands of people contributing to the open source projects, most in small ways, but it adds up.)

So don’t be suckered just because Google uses bright primary colors. They stopped being a bunch of nice guys who don’t wear ties long ago. Now they’re just guys who don’t wear ties. They’re after your money. Spend it on yourself instead of them.

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We’re living in hell

I think this is the saddest story I’ve read. Amy Ernst writes about the rare Congolese men who stand by their wives, despite rape.

My mind’s eye sees these headlines, too: “Man’s family says he’s not a loser, even though his son was murdered.” “Grandparents adopt child, even though parents abused him.” “Sister gives brother a place to stay, even though his house was destroyed by war.”

And people are glad to hear about such generosity and kindness.




I’m not wondering about the rare men. They’re taking steps away from horror. But in what universe does the most basic smidgen of humanity sound like an accomplishment?

We live in hell.


(Go read all of Amy Ernst’s writing, also on her own blog. There’s one story in particular about one of the planet’s most amazing fighters and heroes, Maman Marie.)

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Taking the bin Laden Way

Is it good that he’s dead? I don’t see what difference it makes.

Is it good that the US killed him?


Civilized people live by laws. Bin Laden was the one who thought he could kill at will.

He has now officially won.

It’s time for sackcloth and ashes. Anyone celebrating a victory is on his side.

Update, May 23rd. The following news has been out for a while, but real life prevented me from updating. It’s too relevant not to add, though. The Cost of Bin Laden: $3 Trillion over 15 years. When the US did its best to bankrupt the old Soviet Union by forcing them to spend too much on weapons, that was hailed as a victory. I wonder how Al-Qaeda views the achievement of getting the US to squander $1,000,000 for every measly $1 they spent.

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