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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Some of you may recall my post Organic Farming Harms the Environment. As I wrote, one of the things that bugs me about organic proponents is that they act as if there are no tradeoffs.  I don’t understand much about farming, but I do understand something about how economic activity works.  I presume that modern farming has responded to market pressure and evolved to optimize along many different dimensions.  I’m pretty sure you can’t magically improve along one dimension without sacrificing along another dimension.

Thus, I was not surprised to read this article (hat tip to Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution) on modern farming by an honest to goodness family farmer.   It is full of good examples of the tradeoffs I suspected were lurking.  For instance, by using herbicides, farmers reduce the need to till, which is a major source of soil erosion.  Hog crates and turkey cages may seem inhumane, but they prevent sows from killing piglets and turkeys dying from drowning. Crop rotations that decrease the need for synthetic fertilizer increase the amount of water needed to produce the desired crop.

Read the whole thing.  It reinforced my confidence in the general rule of trying to avoid legislating solutions.  Send pricing signals by allocating resource rights and taxing negative externalities.  Then let the market do its optimization.

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Stephen Salter wants to build a fleet of ships that will churn up seawater to create whiter, fluffier clouds that will reflect more sunlight away from the sea surface. The cost for the first 300 ships that should turn the clock back: $600 million.

Other ideas include spraying sulfur dioxide 65,000 feet up through a fleet of Zeppelins and firing 840 billion ceramic frisbees into orbit to block the sun’s rays. But this article also suggests that a rich “Greenfinger” could unilaterally do some Geo-Engineering without world consent and with disasterous consequences.

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Cool Solar Power

On a recent trip to the CalExpo site I was impressed to see rows and rows of solar panels supported over the parking lot. Instead of taking up valuable real estate it shades your car and generates 540kW.

Check out this even more interesting way of generating solar power at Cool Earth Solar. It is massively scalable and can compete on price with traditional sources.

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Everyone seems to have an opinion on the future prospects of Facebook and Twitter. Some of us even feel strongly enough to want to bet on it. Unfortunately, the companies are privately held, and unavailable to be bet on in the traditional way, via the stock market. It is not just household names like Facebook and Twitter that people might want to bet on, but also smaller companies like Weebly, or the Universal Record Database (URDB.)

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If, like Aubrey de Grey, you believe that immortality is achievable, or you are just intrigued by the possibility, you should check out this news story on The Methuselah Foundation.

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In “Game Theory: Can a Round of Poker Solve Afghanistan’s Problems?” Major Richard J.H. Gash creates a simple two player game to show how game theory can be used to influence military planning. Gash’s game involves two villages in Afghanistan with the choice to either support the “Coalition” or support the “Taliban.” The scoring of the game generates a payoff matrix that is similar to that of the Prisoner’s Dilemma with a non Pareto-optimal Nash equilibrium. Unfortunately, Gash oversimplifies the game to just one round. In reality, Afghan villages participate in multiple rounds of decision making, with the actual number of rounds unknown, leading to differing strategies and outcomes than those proposed by Gash.

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[EDITED 05/08/2009: see here] The majority of people I’ve talked to like the idea of revolutionizing angel funding. Among the skeptical minority, there are several common objections. Perhaps the weakest is that individual angels can pick winners at the seed stage.

Now, those who make this objection usually don’t state it that bluntly. They might say that investors need technical expertise to evaluate the feasibility of a technology, or industry expertise to evaluate the likelihood of demand materializing, or business expertise to evaluate the evaluate the plausibility of the revenue model. But whatever the detailed form of the assertion, it is predicated upon angels possessing specialized knowledge that allows them to reliably predict the future success of seed-stage companies in which they invest.

It should be no surprise to readers that I find this assertion hard to defend. Given the difficulty in principle of predicting the future state of a complex system given its initial state, one should produce very strong evidence to make such a claim and I haven’t seen any from proponents of angels’ abilities. Moreover, the general evidence of human’s ability to predict these sorts of outcomes makes it unlikely for a person to have a significant degree of forecasting skill in this area.

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