Green fields by the Red Sea

Paul Raven @ 24-01-2011

Via BigThink, Discovery reports on an ambitious plan to bring life to the arid deserts of Jordan by using seawater and solar greenhouses:

A structure, called a seawater greenhouse, will capitalize on the abundance of sun in Jordan and use it to evaporate seawater and condense it into fresh water. While this happens, a naturally cool and humid environment will be created — perfect for growing crops.

Energy to run the facility will come from a concentrated solar power plant, which will use mirrors to focus sunlight onto pipes of fluid. The super-heated fluid boils and the steam is captured to drive a turbine generator, which produces electricity.

Though arid coastal locations are ideal, a forest project could still be used further inland. Several arid areas in the Sarhara are below sea level, making it relatively inexpensive to deliver water to the facility without costly pumping fees. The Qattara Depression in Egypt, for example, is about 435 feet below sea level — a drop that could be exploited for hydro-electric power, too.

The open question is always going to be cost, but the ambitiously-named Sahara Forest Project apparently already has approval from Jordan’s government, and reckon they could be operating at commercial levels by 2015. That’d be a sight to see, no?

What the Future Needs

Brenda Cooper @ 12-01-2011

I just finished doing my predictions for 2011 over on my website. I find them a little depressing because even though some of them are good, we are not giving the future the things it needs most from us. For example, I’m not predicting great strides in alternative energy or kindness to the climate in the next year. Nor am I predicting great strides forward in government, at least not here in the US. Maybe the shooting of Rep. Giffords will calm down our nasty rhetoric. I suspect that time will erase the horror and we will keep on talking entrenched sound bites instead of actually listening. I hope not; see Paul’s excellent post. If anything, the tragedy illustrates why I decided to devote this month’s columns to a few of the things the future needs us to focus on now:

Continue reading “What the Future Needs”

Bacterial bail-out for Deepwater methane

Paul Raven @ 07-01-2011

Well, that’s one less thing to worry about. The Deepwater Horizon oil-well crisis released a whole lot of hydrocarbons into the environment, the most obvious (and destructive) of which was the oil itself. A whole lot of methane got out too, which was something of a worry; we’ve more than enough greenhouse gases to be going on with as it is. But the bulk of the methane released – assuming the estimates of volume were right, anyway – appears to have been eaten up by ocean-going microbes:

Methane is thought to account for 30% by weight of the output from BP’s blown-out well, and was a major component of a vast plume of oil and gas that formed about 1,000 metres deep.

However, contrary to the expectations of the lead researcher in the new study, John Kessler, an oceanographer at Texas A&M University, that the methane would linger for years, nearly all of the gas was consumed by microbes within 120 days of the blow-out.

By the time Kessler and his team returned for the second of their three research missions to the Gulf on 18 August, the methane had been scrubbed.

“All of that evidence had pointed to a much longer lifetime of methane in deepwater plumes with a lifespan possibly as long as years,” he said. “It was quite surprising.”

Readings on methane and oxygen levels at 207 stations indicated a massive “bloom” of methane-eating underwater bacteria sometime between the end of June and the beginning of August. “It likely occurred after affected waters had flowed away from the wellhead,” the study said.

A silver lining to a decidedly dark cloud, there. Someone should get to researching those little beasties quickly; it’d be nice to have some sort of tool to deal with the potential planetary-scale farting that melting permafrost might produce. And who knows – with a bit of bioengineering, perhaps they could be made to convert that methane into something useful.

Technology as brain peripherals

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2010

Via George Dvorsky, a philosophical push-back against that persistent “teh-intarwebz-be-makin-uz-stoopid” riff, as espoused by professional curmudgeon Nick Carr (among others)… and I’m awarding extra points to Professor Andy Clark at the New York Times not just for arguing that technological extension or enhancement of the mind is no different to repair or support of it, but for mentioning the lyrics to an old Pixies tune. Yes, I really am that easily swayed*.

There is no more reason, from the perspective of evolution or learning, to favor the use of a brain-only cognitive strategy than there is to favor the use of canny (but messy, complex, hard-to-understand) combinations of brain, body and world. Brains play a major role, of course. They are the locus of great plasticity and processing power, and will be the key to almost any form of cognitive success. But spare a thought for the many resources whose task-related bursts of activity take place elsewhere, not just in the physical motions of our hands and arms while reasoning, or in the muscles of the dancer or the sports star, but even outside the biological body — in the iPhones, BlackBerrys, laptops and organizers which transform and extend the reach of bare biological processing in so many ways. These blobs of less-celebrated activity may sometimes be best seen, myself and others have argued, as bio-external elements in an extended cognitive process: one that now criss-crosses the conventional boundaries of skin and skull.

One way to see this is to ask yourself how you would categorize the same work were it found to occur “in the head” as part of the neural processing of, say, an alien species. If you’d then have no hesitation in counting the activity as genuine (though non-conscious) cognitive activity, then perhaps it is only some kind of bio-envelope prejudice that stops you counting the same work, when reliably performed outside the head, as a genuine element in your own mental processing?


Many people I speak to are perfectly happy with the idea that an implanted piece of non-biological equipment, interfaced to the brain by some kind of directly wired connection, would count (assuming all went well) as providing material support for some of their own cognitive processing. Just as we embrace cochlear implants as genuine but non-biological elements in a sensory circuit, so we might embrace “silicon neurons” performing complex operations as elements in some future form of cognitive repair. But when the emphasis shifts from repair to extension, and from implants with wired interfacing to “explants” with wire-free communication, intuitions sometimes shift. That shift, I want to argue, is unjustified. If we can repair a cognitive function by the use of non-biological circuitry, then we can extend and alter cognitive functions that way too. And if a wired interface is acceptable, then, at least in principle, a wire-free interface (such as links your brain to your notepad, BlackBerry or iPhone) must be acceptable too. What counts is the flow and alteration of information, not the medium through which it moves.

Lots of useful ideas in there for anyone working on a new cyborg manifesto, I reckon… and some interesting implications for the standard suite of human rights, once you start counting outboard hardware as part of the mind. (E.g. depriving someone of their handheld device becomes similar to blindfolding or other forms of sensory deprivation.)

[ * Not really. Well, actually, I dunno; you can try and convince me. Y’know, if you like. Whatever. Ooooh, LOLcats! ]

What could be worse than human extinction?

Paul Raven @ 14-12-2010

From a philosophical perspective, human extinction is just about the worst thing we can imagine… and it’s a fairly recent fear, too, with our conception of existential risk kick-started by the threat of mutually assured destruction. But what about a slow slide back into an animal state from our current civilisational peak? An evolutionary regression triggered by the impoverishment of the environment we mastered momentarily? [via BigThink]

Civilization obscures our similarity to other animals. We tend to hold ourselves to different standards because we see ourselves as above nature.  Many people find the slaughter of food animals objectionable. Yet no one is advocating intervention to save the gazelles from the lions or the rabbits from the foxes. Is the suffering of animals in the wild less important? Should we venture out in search of prey animals to rescue from their predators, and sick or injured animals in need of medical care? No, it would seem. It’s okay when nature imposes suffering on animals, but not when we do it. Similarly, it’s not okay when we are the subjects of nature’s cruelty.

Civilization has bestowed our species with a distorted self-image. Many people seem to have the impression that we operate independently of nature. We are fortunate that we’ve been able to act as though we are independent for as long as we have. If we don’t adjust our way of living so that it becomes sustainable, however, nature will eventually do this for us.

The worst case scenario is not that humans will become extinct, but that we will come to experience the cruel will of nature as other animals do. We can’t rule out the possibility that we will become more similar to our primate cousins in intelligence, behavior, and quality of life. We may be enjoying the peak of human intelligence, morality, and technological advancement.

On the face of it, this is just another finger-waggy “if we don’t sort things out soon… ” warning, but I think you can detach the results from the cause – there are any number of reasons we might find civilisation as we know it receding into the patchwork memories of the past. Indeed, given our tendency to prattle on about “the good old days”, you could probably convince a lot of people it was already happening…

But in recent years that nostalgic view of the-past-as-idyll has become more and more of an irritant to me. Despite the very real problems facing human beings as individuals and as a species, I think conditions and opportunities for the average person have been improving steadily for a long time (even though those improvements, like William Gibson’s future, are – sadly – not evenly distributed). This is perhaps the same myopia that makes us see the decline of the Western economies as a global recession: because things aren’t quite as easy for us in particular as they were a few decades back, then we’re obviously bound for hell in a handbasket, AMIRITES?

Well, I’m not so sure; I think we have it in us a species to survive, prosper and spread beyond the gravity well. But to achieve that, I suspect we’ll need to start thinking of ourselves as a species rather than as individual nations… which may turn out to be the greatest challenge we’ve ever come up against, rooted as it is in the very evolutionary processes that made us what we are.

Still – it’s worth a shot, wouldn’t you say? 🙂

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