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Link Nexus for February

Link Nexus for February
By antirobust • Issue #7 • View online
some links for February

Caleb Watney & Alec Stapp launched Institute For Progress, their new progress studies-influenced policy think tank. very exciting. three initial focus areas will be metascience, immigration and biosecurity
one of their first proposals is for NSF grant lotteries. the idea is to devote a small percentage of the science budget to a lottery that randomly awards grants to some high-quality but rejected applicants. then you compare outcomes between lottery grant recipients & normal grant recipients, to evaluate the existing process’ value-add. this is a paradigmatic example of metascience, applying the scientific method to the science funding bureaucracy itself
Radian, startup pursuing a single-stage orbital space plane. i.e it just takes off normally and flies into space, like in a scifi movie
BNEF 10 predictions for solar in 2022. number go up
nuclear plant in Sweden is set to be the first to produce clean hydrogen from water. quickly ramping electricity generation up & down is a quality that is especially valuable with lots of variable wind & solar on the grid, but which nuclear isn’t so great at. many solutions have been proposed to allow nuclear to survive economically in this environment. more grid-level storage & transmission would help. but on-site solutions are appealing too, & less dependent on policy & grid management. many advanced nuclear designs are pursuing local energy storage, such as Copenhagen Atomics which is using a molten salt thermal reservoir to give some output flexibility. another option is pairing your baseload nuclear with flexible demand. this could mean opportunistically producing desalinated water, or mining crypto, or making hydrogen, or any other random energy-using task that is flexible enough to start and stop as needed given wholesale prices, grid demand & wind/solar output
amusing urban planning video case study of a stroad in Las Vegas
Petra, a startup pursuing robotic thermal drilling for small utility tunnels. seems like potentially a huge advance
Zero HP Lovecraft review of The Last Psychiatrist’s long-awaited book, nominally about porn. i never read TLP when he was blogging, but was considering checking this out. but it sounds horrible & tedious
Adam Thierer critiques the House version of the innovation & industrial policy bill that previously passed the Senate with some Republican votes. i think there’s a lot to like in the bill (particularly on immigration) and on net hope it passes. but Thierer is correct on many points, the libertarian critique of industrial policy is very powerful and should be respected and understood
Alex Gilbert on nuclear liability law. it’s a dry topic, but underscores how a certain kind of crude nuclear maximalist take of “stupid evil govt makes nuclear illegal with regulation and if we simply deReGUlaTe we’d have an energy utopia” is just unserious. not that every nuclear advocacy meme has to be technocratically rigorous. but it’s good to understand that nuclear can’t realistically exist commercially without heavy govt involvement & specific regulatory & legal structures. so it’s a question of regulating better, which isn’t always the same as simplifying or reducing the scope of regulation
if you want to max out on nuclear content, his other recent post on the economics of nuclear retirements is also great
update on US pumped hydro energy storage
short Alon Levy post on subway platform barriers (in response to a woman being being pushed onto the tracks & killed in NYC)
Mapping Police Violence released its 2021 report, compiled from various sources. 1,134 ppl were killed by police, roughly the same as in recent years. 78 were unarmed. black ppl are the most overrepresented racial group overall, & even more so in the unarmed subset. as Xenocrypt observed on twitter, there’s something surprising about how little variation the topline numbers have from year to year
update on open-ocean wave power demo projects. wave power is one of those gloriously bizarre niche energy technologies that is probably never going to scale into a meaningful cost-competitive contribution to overall energy, but still might be useful in certain contexts. especially as floating offshore wind turbines come online, it’s easy to envision hybrid platforms that combine wave power, solar, & even hydrothermal to smooth intermittency & increase capital efficiency/utilization of fixed costs (transmission wires, maintenance, management etc)
interesting Niskanen post on effective gang-focused policing strategy in NYC. always hard to firmly establish causation in these things, but i pretty much believe this one
good overview post on green ammonia. you mostly hear about this for decarbonization of fertilizer. but ppl are looking at it for shipping & grid electricity supply too. like most liquid fuels, ammonia has nice storage & transport properties vs batteries & electricity transmission wires. cheap solar & wind are often located far away from load centers, & creating ammonia or hydrogen locally then moving it via pipeline is likely way cheaper & politically easier than building new electricity transmission. another related news item is that the US DoE loans office just made a $1B loan to Monolith, a Nebraska firm that’s scaling up clean ammonia produced from natural gas. it splits natural gas into hydrogen then converts it to ammonia. solid ‘carbon black’ is also produced as a byproduct, which has a market in tyres & rubber etc. we love chemistry don’t we folks?
Boom Supersonic got an Air Force contract. good
interesting Quanta piece on the faint-sun problem, which asks how life evolved on earth in the period when the sun was dimmer & thus ‘should’ have totally frozen the planet. there are various theories, including one where higher concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere offset the dimmer sun
Culdesac, VC-funded startup pursuing traditional urbanism real estate development. it’s good to see skin in the game wrt the urbanist claim that housing in traditional-design (usually old/legacy) neighborhoods is heavily demanded & desirable (but massively undersupplied bc of regulation)
Titans of Nuclear podcast interview with NuScale’s supply chain head. high-level energy takes are fun, but it’s also fascinating to delve into the details of manufacturing & business strategy from the perspective of an actual company just trying to grind out success given the existing economic & policy landscape. NuScale is probably the farthest along among US advanced & SMR nuclear firms (although as the guest describes, they’re not really using any incredibly novel technology, mostly it’s just an upgraded design & business model). first demo reactor will hopefully be online in Idaho in 2029/2030
new issue of Works in Progress. i particularly enjoyed the piece on artificial wombs
Daniel Herriges of Strong Towns makes a useful point about the hypothetical effect of mass land-use upzoning. nearly every city in the US severely restricts high-density development, so the few places where it’s allowed receive the entire share of new supply. this understandably makes conservative-minded ppl wary of opening up new patches to denser development, bc it can result in very rapid change where density levels jump up multiple increments. but if moderate upzoning happened everywhere, new supply would be less concentrated & more diffuse, resulting in slower & less-scary physical change. the core point is that the observed developer response to an upzoning under current tight regulation won’t necessarily be the same under looser regulation. of course it’s a simplification to say there’s some fixed lump of demand that just moves around hydraulically according to land use regulation. but at most geographic scales it’s probably more true than most people think!
Nuclear Barbarians is rebranding as Grid Brief. i felt this newsletter was quite focused on angrily critiquing wind & solar and less on pragmatic nuclear advocacy, so formally shifting to a broader agenda seems logical. i disagree with lots of what he puts out, but it’s important to grok the very real downsides of wind & solar; i enjoy the diversity of perspective
unrelated, this new Grid news site launched and just seems shockingly boring and generic. it’s like a Vox clone but more boring. i can barely get through a headline before my eyes start glazing over. seems like it’ll crash and burn unless they can change it up
Ford’s Lightning EV home backup integration is actually pretty fucking cool. being able to run your entire house for three days off your pickup truck (& much longer / indefinitely if paired with rooftop solar) is quite impressive. & cheaper than an equivalent set of home batteries
books
Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy by Richard Hanania. Hanania is goofy on twitter but i enjoyed this book. i mean it was alright. kind of boring & follows the hyper-repetitive polisci writing convention of explicitly summarizing everything constantly. but fundamentally the point he’s making is simple and obviously correct, to a large degree: states don’t literally act as singular agents with coherent long-term geostrategic & economic plans, & are rather heavily guided by internal political stuff like interest groups. moreover, international relations models using this assumption aren’t that useful. i’m a bit less convinced of that last point, but basically i’m on board, at least for the US. a country like China is maybe better able to hold together something approximating a grand strategy. but definitely a realist like John Mearsheimer is completely insane & psychotic in thinking his beautiful map is actually the territory. Hanania doesn’t really bring any novel data or statistical analysis to his argument; it’s largely just theory & logic with somewhat mushy cherrypicked historical examples. not a hyper-rigorous testing of a precise model. but it’s a good corrective to some of the crazier IR stuff out there
Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change by Thane Gustafson. a good overview of energy economics, business & politics in Russia (there are chapters on metals & agriculture too). i assume there is much to critique about the book, it’s not really super deep in any one area. and the author is a little cringe on climate change stuff in the normal way. but in general it’s quite good & very readable. the basic point is that Russia faces serious longer-run challenges from climate change (starting ~2030, definitely by 2050), largely because of lower demand for its fossil fuel exports bc of the energy transition. especially in Europe. solutions like pivoting to Asia, or offsetting demand decline with other exports like metals, ag, higher-value products etc are fraught with risks & problems & require huge difficult capital investments. nuclear is maybe the brightest spot, Russia has done what USA & France failed to do & built a successful nuclear export industry. but even here the long-term path is tricky, as Russia will eventually need to upgrade to newer advanced reactors & also faces potentially fatal competition from China (and just maybe SMRs from USA!). there are also internal challenges, such as rising costs for hydrocarbon production, and infrastructure issues wrt melting permafrost. climate change is also going to cause some problems in agriculture, although there will be benefits too.
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