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Link Nexus for April

Link Nexus for April
By antirobust • Issue #11 • View online

some links & scattered longer takes for April
exciting look at next-gen ambient solar pv, to replace or complement battery-powered small electronics
Amazon seems to be moving forward on satellite internet. although none of its launch providers currently have functioning rockets. i periodically see very strong claims about Starlink becoming an unstoppable money machine for SpaceX. but i think at this point a clearer understanding of the limitations of satellite internet, combined with the healthy amount of competition out there makes it pretty unlikely
speaking of, Astranis is pursuing a geosynchronous satellite internet system, designed to cover just specific locations (e.g a rural Alaska village)
Argentina is now steadily producing the world’s first GMO wheat (drought-tolerant). seems good
NASA threw some cash to SpinLaunch for a suborbital test. godspeed you crazy bastards
The Economist did a good report about Florida— its amazing growth, its challenges, etc. you can read the first article unpaywalled here, mostly summarizing everything
i enjoyed this Tablet profile of Curtis Yarvin
Oak Ridge, TN seems to be the place for USA’s first HALEU nuclear fuel production, a requirement for the coming wave of advanced reactors. more federal subsidy money is needed to get all the way, but probably it will happen. a nuclear lobby group also released a report on the topic
Adam Thierer reviews the work of Samuel Florman, a key critic of anti-technology ideology. quite good, although long & not super fresh if you already know Thierer’s work. it feels like a pro-technology, pro-progress response to LM Sacassas
fedgov Defense Production Act’d a set of clean energy minerals, which i guess unlocks some money for mining activities. but this article points out that it doesn’t change any permitting rules or regulations, so it probably won’t actually speed up domestic production. oh well
Helium decentralized wifi did some reorganization, with its nonprofit entity taking the brand assets & open-sourcing them, & the for-profit corp renaming as Nova Labs (oh and it just raised $200M). this project is so awesome
judged solely by his twitter account, David Roberts is in end-stage politics brain disease & will soon be dead by ideology poisoning. but much of his actual energy stuff is still pretty good. he had two great podcast interviews recently
first, a creative new business model for commercial building energy efficiency. instead of the typical “subsidize the building owner to pay for upgrades”, you have an efficiency company come in and do it as a “tenant” that can persist across ownership changes. they pay a stream of income to the building owner for the privilege (becoming an asset to the owner rather than a liability), & sell metered energy reduction to the utility via long-term PPA. the utility then bills the real tenants at the same level as before, now with a portion of customer bills going to pay for the upgrades. the tenants benefit in the form of free upgraded physical amenities (less drafty, better air quality, etc). each party has now captured some of the positive-sum value of efficiency, solving the fractured-incentive problem that has hindered this market. similar things have been out there forever, but part of the innovation here seems to be just a fairly technical change in the contract structures, which makes longer-term investments more viable.
second, geothermal heating networks as an evolutionary pathway for gas utilities to survive decarbonization. this is slightly different from district heating, which is highly centralized. in the GeoGrid concept, each home has their own ground-source heat pump, & they are connected through a network of pipes that can share heat & coolth. this has benefits for efficiency, resilience, modularity, load predictability, & all the standard advantages of eliminating gas (safer, less air pollution). the catch is that it’s currently pretty expensive up-front. but part of the idea is that utilities can incrementally build out these networks in places where doing equivalent gas infrastructure is very expensive or difficult. a nice property of this system is that it reduces peak electricity load at times of high heating & cooling demand, relative to air-source heat pumps (ground temp is less variable than air temp). extreme peak load events are a nontrivial problem for the vision of mass all-electric buildings, so doing more geothermal seems wise
interesting, but wrong, critique of liberalism from Liam Bright (@lastpositivist). his three main points (italicized) are:
  1. liberalism’s distinction between (& dynamic combination of) “public reason + private realm” isn’t real & doesn’t work. the state can never be “neutral”. societies should just drop the pretext of neutrality & admit that the state is & needs to be “thick” & endorse a specific vision of the good life. i don’t agree, and think the empirical track record of liberal institutions & ethos successfully creating stability in culturally diverse countries is pretty good. but maximum liberalism probably isn’t optimal in every single place— if you have a really culturally homogenous nation, it can be okay to have a govt reflecting that
  2. private property & markets inevitably produce inequality that leads to concentrated power & an undermining of social stability. it’s true to some degree. but this is just an argument for govt doing a welfare state & regulation & public goods provision, & more generally for democratic control over society. you don’t have to throw out all of liberalism & go full totalitarian socialism, which seems to be his implication
  3. liberalism is actually more zero-sum extractive than it seems, globally. it’s neocolonialism. lol. lmao
in general i find leftwing anti-market critiques of liberalism to be extremely weak. the better move is something like Patrick Deneen’s rightwing anti-market degrowth environmentalist localist Catholic communitarian argument in Why Liberalism Failed. it focuses more on how liberalism/individualism/markets tear apart traditional culture. i really disagree with that book also, but basically concede the core point & choose to bite the bullet. we need hypergrowth & advanced technology & markets & disruptive change in order to colonize the galaxy & achieve humanity’s long-run survival. yes this destroys cultural value and creates tremendous pain & loss. but it also creates new cultural value. and ultimately it’s just worth the cost. technology or death
much of energy twitter discussed this Duncan Campbell post. to summarize: the electric utility rate-base system is dysfunctional & drives excessively high grid costs & inefficient spending (transmission, distribution etc). therefore load defection via behind-the-meter distributed generation (solar etc) is an increasingly rational escape valve. cost-shift concerns are overblown & a function of near-term grid inelasticity— over the longer-run distributed energy resource (DER) load defection efficiently reduces grid investment needs, reducing costs overall. this works in part because of the coming boom in electrification, which will add lots of demand spread broadly across consumers & counterfactually requiring tons more grid capacity
i certainly agree with most of the piece. US utilities are riddled with perverse incentives. DERs do reduce grid costs, though ppl argue with duelling models about the exact magnitudes. but it took me an extra moment to really grok the last part of the argument, which seems somewhat speculative. for example, the idea that a factory opting to meet some of its demand via on-site solar won’t cause a cost-shift inequality only really works if you assume it won’t utilize the grid in unplanned (i.e daytime) periods of low solar output. this is certainly possible with things like storage & demand flexibility. but it seems significantly more challenging both financially & operationally than a simple 1:1 swap from “demand met by grid” to “demand met by DER”. now, i don’t think cost-shift is as big a problem as some anti-DER ppl claim. it can in principle be solved through better design of rates, markets & subsidies. but unless DER users are fully off-grid (as opposed to just behind-the-meter), my sense is that these issues will remain a big point of controversy
Conor Sen proposes a strategic reserve for clean energy materials. i can see the logic, but also have some reservations. i’ve discussed previously how the coupling between clean energy material flows & economic activity is different & much looser compared to fossil fuels. once you build wind & solar, it mostly keeps producing for years without much added input. it’s more fixed cost, less variable cost. whereas fuel-using energy production is the opposite. if China suddenly cuts off solar panel exports to a highly electrified clean energy economy, it won’t immediately cause price spikes. this is quite different from how current fossil fuel dependent economies react when fuel supply is disrupted. there’s just inherently less need to create artificial slack via govt stockpiles
relatedly, an economy built around clean electricity should be more flexible & adaptable wrt materials, compared to one that’s heavily reliant on direct fossil fuel use. yes, some materials are hard to avoid at the moment, like steel or lithium. but relatively speaking there’s much more diversity & substitutability. and new technologies with different material requirements are being developed & tested all the time. a building or car that runs on a specific fossil fuel needs that specific fossil fuel. but a building or car that runs on electricity can source that in any number of different ways. one risk of a govt reserve is that it could lock-in specific materials or technology, killing the market incentive to innovate in close substitutes & paradoxically increase system fragility
books
Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism by Richard Rorty. i was previously familiar with the general idea of philosophical pragmatism & basically agreed with it, but had never read any actual writings. this is a collection of essays compiled after Rorty’s death, rather than a polished systematic argument. but it’s quite a good introduction, even though parts get bogged down in obscure philosophy minutiae. amusingly, i think Tyler Cowen didn’t really read the whole book when he posted about it, since it is not at all about political philosophy proper. “authoritarianism” here refers to epistemology & ethics, & means something like, “objective unconditional truth”. summarizing the book would be impossible, but i really liked it despite the slog. pragmatism is great, & just seems incredibly powerful at slicing through bullshit. anyone who is familiar with LessWrong or internet rationalism knows what pragmatism is. “making beliefs pay rent (in anticipated experiences)” is classic pragmatist mindset (lest you quibble, the book does get into the relationship between pragmatism & empiricism). bottom-line: language & concepts are tools for coordination & decisionmaking, not windows into heaven.
China’s Gilded Age: The Paradox of Economic Boom and Vast Corruption by Yuen Yuen Ang. good short polisci book. the main idea is to unbundle different forms of corruption, & make the point that China’s is disproportionately of a type that is compatible with growth (although it does cause distortions that are indirectly harmful). it makes an analogy to the US gilded age, which also saw high corruption & high growth. “access money” corruption is essentially a form of profit-sharing for govt officials, allowing them to capture some of the benefit of growth & thus incentivizing growth-friendly policies (vs say pure extraction/theft). the book feels a bit propagandistic; most chapters have an over-arching theme of something like, “yeah sure corruption is bad obv. but actually in China it is somewhat good & even based”. i can’t tell if the author is pushing an ideological message (she is ethnically Chinese but from Singapore & a longtime US academic), or if it’s just a standard political science love of being contrarian. either way it’s fine, i definitely enjoyed it. although i wouldn’t say the theory or data analysis is the final word on the topic by any means
On the Future: Prospects for Humanity by Martin Rees. a money-grab mediocre airport popsci book that you can skim in a few hours. it walks through several different topics in technology & science, never really going deep on anything. lots of predictions casually tossed off. Rees is in that older group of “scientist public intellectual” who were among the first to seriously discuss x-risk & advanced technology (think people like Freeman Dyson). so i respect his thoughts, even if he doesn’t really contribute anything new here. he’s generally pro-growth & tech-optimist, but i was surprised at how captured he is by certain degrowth environmentalism & overpopulation memes. the best part was a section on meta-science, where he discusses the importance of youth & generational turnover in producing new ideas, & critiques the ageing lab bureaucracy & funding system
A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin. i really don’t know why i’m listening to these audiobooks. the narration is mediocre & highly dissonant wrt the tv show
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