torsdag 18 november 2010

My stance on GHG taxes

Updated and expanded on 2011-04-18

Emitting fossil fuels is generally recognized to cause a net external cost, a large part of which occurs in the future. In a perfect world the costs and benefits of greenhouse gas emissions could be objectively determinable at no cost with great accuracy and precision; money would then change hands to account for these costs and benefits in order to cancel them out.

The real world is not at all like that. As best we are able to determine it appears that adaption is misery and triage and it will be a great; some countries will benefit, but most won't and its expected to be a great net cost to the world. Many of the costs are subjective; what's the cost of the loss of some species? If the maldives shrink and eventually disappear, there's an objective cost of moving people around, but there's also a subjective cost to the inhabitants.

The purpose of a greenhouse gas tax is to do a half-assed job of internalizing future external costs into the current price of a good or service, under the theory that doing a half-assed job is better than doing none at all.

Fossil fuels, meat production and biofuels are provided with quite enormous subsidies in many places; before bothering to do something rather more difficult, stop that. This is an easy to rectify harm.

Whether government needs to be bigger or smaller is an issue entirely separate from GHG taxes. In order to offset the additional taxes collected on GHGs it would be necessary to ramp down VAT, sales tax, employment taxes, income tax or other taxes to cancel it out. If you don't do this the battle becomes over whether government should grow or shrink rather than whether GHGs should be taxed or not.

It does not make sense to only tax carbon dioxide and not the other major greenhouse gases. On the one hand you want to be fair and not give an undue advantage to some technology like biofuels(N2O) or natural gas(if ~2-3% of natural gas leaks out it is no better than coal over the next 100 year period); on the other hand you don't want the unnescessary complexity of worrying about unimportant greenhouse gases.

The cost of regulation should be insignificant compared to the tax collected; otherwise you are introducing a huge dead-weight loss.

If you introduced a tax only on domestic GHG emissions, this would give domestic companies a competitive disadvantage compared to foreign companies not burdened by such a tax. You make a lot of politically powerful enemies this way. This isn't likely to ever be implemented anywhere.

If you try to establish some type of world government body that applies a uniform tax on GHG everywhere you would solve this problem but you would create several problems which are even harder to solve. This extraordinary degree of political cooperation would be hugely unpopular, incredibly difficult to achieve, it would undermine national sovereignty, the political body that administers it would be remote and unaccountable. You're opening yourself up to all kinds of mischief. It may be used as a political club by the powerful nations to beat up the less powerful ones. It may, as in the case of the EU, suffer from galloping mission creep. The EU was was sold as a free-trade and currency union; the currency union was designed to fail, forcing a crisis that can be used as a stepping stone towards a political union. Unwanted by almost everyone, it is fast becomming a united states of Europe. World government is a plain awful idea on every level and neither can, will or should happen. Trying to create world government will waste a lot of time and effort; it will give the paranoiacs who believe GHGs to be some kind of socialist or government conspiracy a huge shot in the arm.

From the above, the solution I would like to see is a GHG tax that is not applied to any exports; nor is it applied at any stage in the production. My GHG tax would be applied as a sales tax, at the point of consumption for finished consumer goods and services. This would replace the arbitrary sales tax we have today and would possibly have to eat into VAT and other taxes to remain revenue neutral.

This has several advantages. It does not disadvantage domestic producers; you don't piss them off so much as to create new political enemies. Implemented properly, if two regions adopt this policy it should not cause double taxation or loop holes that allow evasion of the taxation on goods that flow between them; the tax occurs only at the end point.

The beauty of this is that you can adopt such a carbon tax unilaterally; you can have different rates in different countries without introducing too many new opportunities for arbitrage(the only one I can think of is end consumers who live near a border to a low carbon tax country, who may choose to cross that border to buy a particularly carbon intensive item).

As usual, the devil is in the details. You don't want undue invasion of privacy and obstruction of business activity. For business who refuse to properly account for GHGs or cannot account for the GHG emissions of an imported good, you can give the option of simply assume the worst-in-class GHG emissions for the offending item. It must be worst-in-class, otherwise businesses would choose not to disclose GHG emissions whenever they exceed the standard rate. This is simplification and cost-reduction measure; for low volume production boutique items and minor ingredients the worst-in-class GHG tax would be much smaller than the cost of figuring out the actual GHG emissions when not explicitly given by the manufacturer.

There are some ugly corner cases that would need to be sorted out. E.g. grocery stores take in more perishable goods than they need because it costs them more to leave a customer's needs unfulfilled than it does to throw away significant volumes of expired goods.

It's clear that it would be a significant expense to switch over; but the switch is a one-time cost and it is not unprecedented(e.g. the introduction of VAT or sales tax were also expensive one-time costs).

fredag 5 november 2010

The curve of binding energy.

Credit: User fastfission on wikipedia, image is in public domain.

Now, what is so remarkable about this graph that tells you how tightly bound different elements are? It makes sense of a great many interesting things about the Universe that we live in.

The strong nuclear force that binds nuclei together is very strong, but it is also very short range. In small nuclei every additional nucleon you add is attracted with the strong force to every other nucleon, but in big nuclei it only interacts strongly with the nucleons in its vicinity at any given moment. In contrast, the electric force is a much longer range force, it falls off only as the inverse square of distance between the charges. Each additional proton you add repels all other protons in the nucleus. This is a gross simplification, but it gives an intuitive feel for why there is an optimum size of nuclei that is most tightly bound.

Amongst other things you can see that merging toghether light elements is energetically favourable all the way up to iron and nickel. This process is known as fusion and is what powers stars.

It is apparent that helium-4 is a remarkably stable nuclei for such a light element. Elements with electrons arranged into complete shells are very unreactive; they're known as noble gases. Like the shell model that you learned about in chemistry class, there is a corresponding model for nuclides. Nuclides with a certain number of either protons or neutrons are especially stable because they have a complete outer shell. The numbers 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82 or 126 are called "magic numbers"; atoms with this many neutrons or protons are called "magic" and they are extra stable. Helium-4 has 2 neutrons and 2 protons; it is "double magic".

The slope of the binding curve gradually flattens before reaching its peak at nickel-62. In less massive stars like the sun the fusion process stops at carbon and oxygen; slightly heavier stars can fuse carbon and the process stops at oxygen, neon and magnesium. Massive stars can fuse everything up to iron.

Harnessing fusion power on Earth is difficult to achieve because it involves smashing toghether two positively charged particles that strongly repel each other. Only if they get very close can the strong nuclear force overpower the coulomb repulsion.

It is also energetically favourable for heavy elements to be split appart into smaller nuclei. The most common way for heavy elements to do this is to eject a helium-4 nucleus, which repelled by the coulomb repulsion will have a very large amount of kinetic energy. This is known as alpha decay. The curious stability of helium-4 is why alpha decay involves the tossing out of a helium-4 nuclei and not a proton, deuteron or lithium-7 nucleus.

The heaviest nuclide that is completely stable as far as anyone is aware is lead-208; a "double magic" nuclide(82 protons, 126 neutrons). Bismuth-209 was believed to be stable until recently, when it was discovered that Bismuth-209 has a half-life of 19 ×1018 years.

The heaviest elements that exist in measurable abundance in nature are actinides(IUPAC: actinoids); named after actinium, the first element in the actinide series. These elements can perform a new trick, they can split apart into bigger chunks than helium-4.

Uranium-235 in particular can be induced to split by pelting it with neutrons. If one of these neutrons get close enough it can be captured by the uranium nucleus, forming an excited nucleus of uranium-236. ~82% of the time this excited nucleus will split apart into two unequal halves, known as fission products. The rest of the ~18% of the time the excited nucleus returns to ground state by emitting a gamma ray. When this nucleus fissions, it releases more neutrons that can be used to continue the process.

However not all of these neutrons are released promptly; a small fraction are released by the decay of fission products, known as delayed neutrons. This is why both nuclear bombs and nuclear reactors are practical. There are enough prompt neutrons to create a very fast, run-away reaction under the right conditions; a bomb.

There are also enough delayed neutrons that it is possible to create a reactor that is not self-sustaining on prompt neutrons alone('prompt critical'). The delayed neutrons are thereby necessary to sustain the reaction, and since it takes time for them to emerge the power output of the reactor can be made to increase very slowly and controlably; slowly enough for self-regulation to occur. There are many mechanisms that can do this kind of self-regulation as the reactor heats up, such as thermal expansion and resonance broadening of the neutron capture resonance in U-238. Therefor, if the reactor operator injects only a little bit of positive reactivity into a properly designed reactor, the power level will rise a bit, the temperature will increase and then stabilize at a new, higher level.

Some reactors can handle even a huge insertion of reactivity with ease. Below is an example of such a reactor; a small research reactor at Penn State. What you see here is a control rod being rapidly ejected from a TRIGA core using compressed gas. The power-outout increase rapidly and peaks at about a gigawatt thermal. As the core heats up the reactivity drops to such an extent that it becomes negative and the reaction slows; the power goes down and eventually homes in towards some level where reactivity approaches 0(i.e. no change in power output).

Essentially all elements except hydrogen, helium and lithium that we see around us were once made in a star. But if stars can't fuse iron, why are there heavier elements than iron around? While there is some argument about the relative importances of the different processes, it is generally agreed that they are produced by the s-process, p-process and r-process. The s-process is the slow process of successive capture of neutrons that may occur in some heavy stars(believed to be mostly occuring in asymptotic giant branch). The r-process is the rapid process of neutron capture that occurs during a super nova. The p-process is photodisintegration, which can strip a neutron or an alpha particle from a heavy nuclide; this is responsible for producing some heavy, proton rich elements.

To a romantic, we are made of star-dust; risen from the ashes of a dying star. A cynic would point out that another word for "star-dust" is nuclear waste from a giant reactor exploded so violently that it surely must have killed everything within light-years, if there was anything there to kill.

The mole

Apparently it is difficult for some school children to comprehend what a mole is. I don't see why this should be the case, since a mole is just a numerical amount of atoms, molecules or formula units of a substance. That number, avogadros constant, is chosen in a way that makes the numbers involved easier to work with. Perhaps it is because teachers are too clever by half in explaining the concept?

Avogadros number is chosen to be the number of atoms which has a mass in grams with the same numerical value as the molecular mass of it's constituent molecules in atomic mass units. If the molecular mass of a molecule is 18.02 u, it's molar mass is 18.02 g/mole.

It would have been eminently possible to never introduce the concept of unified atomic mass units and moles; you could simply have tables that list the mass in kilograms of an average atom of an element, or specific isotopes. You could express the number of molecules as a unitless, numerical value; the actual number of molecules.

The problem with doing things this way is that any amount of substance visible to the naked eye consists of great big thundering hordes of molecules, and the mass of any molecule you're interested in will be incredibly tiny.

The choice of the unified atomic mass unit is also quite clever. It is 1/12th the mass of an atom of carbon-12. There is a slight variation in binding energy per nucleon between different atoms, and neutrons are slightly heavier than protons, but the mass of an isotope in atomic mass units is to within about 1% simply the sum of the number of protons and neutrons.

Thus U-238 should have an isotopic mass of about 238 u(actual: 238.051 u). Fe-56 should have an isotopic mass of about 56 u(actual 55.934 u). Hydrogen-1 should have an isotopic mass around 1(actual 1.0078 u).

lördag 31 juli 2010

Natural-selection map: ns_fomalhaut

Marine start is Matter Transporter.
Hives are Observation deck, Fusion Reactor and Maintenance.

And here's the overview of same. Unfortunately rotated 90-degrees clockwise.

This is the observation deck hive seen from the southern, lower entrance.

Observation deck hive seen from the Northern end of the room.

Observation deck res-node seen from the northern end.

Observation deck res-node.

Alcove with hive in Maintenance. Slope is low enough to walk on.

View of maintenance hive from the elevated area where aliens
can evolve and lerks can use as a platform to spore-spam from.

More maintenance.

Maintenance RT.

North-eastern entrance to Maintenance. RT on the right, behind
the cable/pipe bundles.

Fusion Reactor hive. Hive alcove on the right, southern entrance where the white spotlight is.

Fusion reactor RT. Opposite side of the central column to the hive.
Fusion reactor view from northern entrance.
Hive is in the alcove on the right, RT is down the slope on the left.

Matter transporter. CC is pressed right up against the window, to thwart sneaky skulks.
Two plain entrances. Cyan-lit alcove on the right is the RT.

View from Matter Transporter pad; it doesn't actually do anything.

Corridor outside Matter Transporter.

Generator Hall RT. It's loud.

Cooling RT.

View from lower, south end of Cooling.

View from upper, south end of cooling, RT to the north.

View of Cooling RT from weldable vent.

The long, U-shaped corridor at Farpoint. Multiple U-shaped vents to the right.
They allow skulks to go from one side of the corridor to the next without being in the open.

Aux Comm, a tiny little pair of rooms to break up the otherwise
exceedingly long corridor.

Pool test reactor.

View into the reactor. You can swim freely at the surface,
but you take increasing amounts of damage if you swim down..

Reprocessing. RT and short VIS-blocking corridor at the far end.
Elevator in foreground.

Crude-looking remote manipulator arms are func_illusionary.
If there were enough W-polies the hot-cells would contain something.

At the bottom of the elevator in reprocessing.

Central Access. No RTs, but fairly close to everywhere.
The elevated walk way runs east-west, with a VIS-blocker at each end.
There is one entrance to the north, one to the south and a vent.
The big support structures are func_seethroughs.
The glowy thing in the center is slightly annoying for the comm,
but I think I can get away with it.

Central Access, view from the walk-way.

You can go under the elevated walkway, but then the comm won't see you.
The slope is 45 degrees, so you can just walk up it.

A small unnamed room with vents going to up to the south entrance of Fusion Reactor.

The long corridor is compensated for by a sunken area and vents to aid aliens.

Landing pad. One of the emergency escape pods appears to have brought unwelcome visitors.
There is only one full size corridor into the room. The other entrance is a vent system stretching
between Maintenance, Landing pad and Aux Gen.

Don't touch the forcefield above landing pad unless you want to get zapped.

North-eastern entrance to Maintenance hive. As a skulk it is probably better to try and
nab marines here before they get into Maintenance.

Staircase up to pool-test reactor.

Diagonal ramp up to Cooling. To the right, entrance to Observation deck.
To the left, Northern Overlook corridor.

Aux Gen RT.

To the left, Generator Hall. Straight forward, Central Access VIS-blocker.
There is a space beneath the walk-way, where creepy-crawlies can hide.

Stair-case down to Power-junction.

Power-Junction RT. The gap is not wide enough to fall down.

Aux gen, view from elevated walk-way.

Weird corridor between Fusion Reactor and Southern Overlook.

måndag 14 juni 2010

Mini review: PVKII - Three is a crowd?

Pirates vikings & knights II is a free modification for Half-life 2; if you have any source engine games you can get it directly from steam here. You might also want to visit the official homepage:

This is a rather whimsical first-person combat game that pits pirates, vikings and knights against each other in various modes of battle.

There are three major game modes; Booty, Last Team Standing and Holy Grail.

In Last Team Standing the goal is to eliminate all enemy players; when enemies are eliminated or the timer runs out the round is over and everyone respawns as the next round begins.

In Booty there are 6 chests and each team starts with a number of 'tickets'; the goal is to accumulate as many chests as possible in your by stealing them from your enemies. The more chests you have, the faster your 'tickets' count down and first to zero wins.

In Holy Grail the goal is to acquire the grail and kill enemies in vicinity of the grail carrier. Here again there are a number of 'tickets'; counting down towards zero as kills are made.

The most distinguishing feature of PVKII is the fact there are three teams simultaneously competing against each other. With only two teams there is no possibility for "diplomacy", you always know who your enemy is. With three teams there is an incentive for two of the teams to engage in an uneasy, often unspoken, alliance to take on the stronger opponent. There's also an incentive for one of the weaker teams to pretend to ally themselves with the other weak team only to stab them in the back; but doing so risks annoying your opponent so that will attack you repeatedly just for the sake of revenge(sometimes even carrying over into the next round!). There can also be an incentive to minimize your presence; e.g. in Last Team Standing, you might just make yourself a bit more discrete and hope the enemy teams wear each other down before you spring into action.

This is in some ways more interesting as it elicits a greater range of human behaviours and in some ways less fair to the stronger team. For 'casual' gaming it works great and it's a refreshing mechanic; but I wouldn't recommend it for 'serious' gaming(i.e. competitons, tournaments, leagues...).

While a first person shooter will never be as good online as it is on a LAN; you can correct for most of the problems induced by latency with clever netcode; with a fighting game you can't do that to quite the same extent. If I'm running backwards with a long spear you can be just out of reach; while on your screen I can be just within reach for a short cutlass. This is somewhat more annoying than with bullets with infinite reach and no ability to parry; but it is not annoying enough to be a deal breaker.

They've been slowly adding more player classes and revisiting gameplay decisions over time and I like the way they're going.

Here's some gameplay footage snagged straight from youtube(what do I look like, someone who's not lazy?):

torsdag 10 juni 2010

Speculative: The mobile phone as tricorder

I have very little use for a camera in my mobile phone; yet I have one, why?

It's because it is so cheap to make a low-end digital camera that it makes no sense to make a phone without a camera.

Even though I'm probably never going to bother using it, I might one day see something sufficiently amusing or important that I would regret not having access to even the poor little camera in my mobile phone; if the difference in price is equivalent to something like a bar of chocolate, of course I'm going to get the phone with the camera.

From the manufacturers point of view; a phone without a camera needs its own variant of the OS which makes no mention of the camera, it needs its own variant of the chassis that doesn't incorporate an opening for the camera, it needs its own printed manuals that make no mention of the camera and so on. At some tipping point when enough people want the phone with the camera it's going to be cheaper to just include a camera with every phone.

I believe it will take several decades to realize, but that eventually the same logic will drive phone manufacturers to include all sorts of things with even the most basic mobile phone.

GPS and navigation software.

Real-time translation from any language to any language; a real universal translator(minus the alien languages).

The Ability to quickly digitize text from an arbitrary surface at an arbitrary angle and read it back in an arbitrary language.

An artificial nose that can detect minute traces of chemicals to help trace a leak, detect minute traces of explosives, record a flavour profile for your favorite wine and tell you what that mysterious spice in your dinner is.

A detector for airborne virii that can correctly place them in a broad category like influenza virus, rhinovirus etc.

A smallish solid-state detector for gamma spectroscopy that is passively operating 24/7 looking for interesting signatures like Co-60(probably a radiotherapy source or food irradiation source that got crushed and blended into a large amount of recycled steel; rare, but it has happened, see the famous case of cobolt-60 in the rebar of Taiwan apartments) or natural uranium(if you happen to find a sizeable chunk of pitchblende or other high grade uranium ore while camping or something, it's not going to be worth much for its uranium content but mineral collectors and other enthusiasts may give you a decent chunk of money for it). It will also satisfy the paranoid itch of people who believe terrorists are likely to try and smuggle nuclear weapons or steal weaponsgrade plutonium.

A 3d digitizer that can create a 3d model of a real world object. It could be used to replicate your face or body shape in a video game; it could be used to scan a broken object or an object that is no longer in production, which can then be printed out on a 3d-printer in the local printing shop in a material hopefully not too dissimilar to the original.

A miniature ultrasound with imaging software and medical diagnostic software that can allow an amateur to monitor atherosclerosis, or explore the bones or other features of your body.

A miniature scanning electron microscope; perfect for amateur entomologists, aspiring sleuths, science hobbyists.

Anything that that is physically possible to make small, cheap and low power enough to include.

tisdag 8 juni 2010

About this blog

This blog is a collection of my thoughts, daydreams and opinions on various topics that do not necessarily share a common denominator other than that I take an interest in them; back of the envelope calculations; links to other blogs, videos, ideas and things I like. It's a kind of diary, without the personal stuff; a kind of externalized storage medium for things I might want to remember and arguments I keep having to re-articulate that I'd rather just link people to.