Rain forest repair and the moral hazard of hope

The rain forest is shrinking.

Right, you knew that. But did you know this? Google Earth lets you research the topic on your own. Like Superman, you can spin the globe forward and backward in time to see what the yesterworld looked like.

I zoomed in on a region around Ariquemes in Rondônia, Brazil. Once there, I used the “time slider” to change the year in which the pictures were acquired. For this particular part of the world, Google has satellite imagery reaching back to 1975, at which time Ariquemes scarcely existed, and none of the nearby forest had been cleared. Paging forward in time, I saw this.

[This is an animated GIF image with four frames. If you want to see it animate again, click on it or reload the page.]

The forest, there she goes, eh? I resisted the urge to play sad music in the background.

But something big is happening in Brazil right now. Despite our economic troubles up north, Brazil is in the middle of a tremendous boom. That’s more bad news for the forest, right? Not at all. It’s the best possible news. Because what’s happening is people are leaving the impoverished countryside and heading to the city. In many places, subsistence farms are being abandoned.

So there’s this interesting question: if left alone, can the rain forest repair itself? For a long time, we had a ready answer: no. The rain forest is a fiddly machine perched atop poor soil. Smash that machine and you’ve got a parched wasteland that will never bloom again. This is a good story if you like sad-face dystopias, but when you gather real data, a different story emerges. The forest wants to come back if we can just leave it alone (or perhaps help it a little). Here are two encouraging articles.

Some people see a moral hazard in calling out good news like this. Does being hopeful mean we are perforce denying the severity of the problem? That we are abetting the enemies of the earth? The answer must be an emphatic no. The point is not that the situation is good, but that it is not hopeless. Ignoring the problems of deforestation and global warming is harmful, but giving up in despair is worse.

It doesn’t help anyone to make a scary story scarier than it is.

What does a border sound like?

What do borders look like? We know that they are lines on maps and checkpoints on roads and sometimes walls and fences. But can they be seen from the sky? In The Sword in the Stone, T.H. White tells the story of young Arthur and his mentor Merlin flying as birds across the countryside. Arthur comes to the realization that there are no borders at all, that they are social constructs, illusory excuses for warmongering.

Borders are indeed hard to see from on high, but what do they sound like? The Strange Maps blog is featuring a marvelous language map created by Eric Fischer with help from Mike McCandless. It’s based on the languages that people are using when they tweet and the result will make your eyes bulge. Here’s a big version, and here’s a HUGE version.

So many stories here: you can see the French and Dutch oceans splashing together in mid-Belgium. Portugal and Spain are more clearly differentiated than I would have expected, and what’s that country on the Mediterranean coast of Spain? Why that’s no country, that’s the Catalan-speaking region of Spain centered on Barcelona. Francophone Corsica, birthplace of Napoleon, is a stone’s throw from Italian Sardinia. The Greek and Turkish sides of Cyprus are obvious. And wowie-zowie, the division between North and South Korea is even more stark than the Earth at Night photo.

Cruise around that big old map. There’s hours of fun in there.

Makani Power: the windmill that isn’t

I once saw a documentary about skyscrapers where the architect says, “It’s not that hard to make a 100 story building. You just need to make a one story building 1500 feet up in the air, and the rest is easy.”

Sometimes it’s easy to miss where the real work is.

Makani Power is a windmill company that builds only the business end of the windmill. The rest of it, overpaid and redundant, gets chucked. Think about it this way. A windmill (or turbine) is a great big propeller blade that’s being pushed by the wind. You want to build an efficient wind turbine, here’s what you need to do: Make it big (large diameter blade) and stick it in the wind (duh). Now look at the problem we’ve got. The best winds are way up high, and large diameter blades are heavy. So you’ve got to build a massive tower to carry the load of a giant spinning blade.

But wait: we went to all that trouble to put the spinning tips of the turbine far apart and up in the wind. Can’t we just leave out everything else? Then we would only need a tiny fraction of the materials to achieve the same result.

THAT is the thing that Makani Power did. They made the spinning tip of a turbine and almost nothing else. More kite than windmill, it’s actually a tethered airplane with reverse motors. By “reverse motors” I mean they look like regular airplane propellers, but they generate power instead of using it up. Clever, eh?

A clever concept is a small part of the battle. That and a ton of engineering might just add up to something useful. They seem to be making good progress, and I wish them luck.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work commercially, and here’s what it looks like now.

Ned Ludd vs. Watson

The Eleonora Maersk is one of the very biggest ships in the world. At 1300 feet long (the Titanic was a mere 880), it can carry 15000 twenty foot trailers. And how big is the crew for the Eleonora? As explained in this Economist post, the answer is 19.

Shortly after reading this, I happened across another Economist piece called the Luddite Legacy. Here’s the short version: in terms of jobs, automation has always been tough in the short run (obsolete factories shed jobs) but beneficial in the long run (growing economy creates even more new jobs). But this happy story is being called into question, and here’s why: the robots and their concomitant robot brains are getting really good. It sounds like heresy to read such a thing on the Economist website, but there you have it. The piece starts off with this delightful, if apocryphal, story about Henry Ford II.

Henry Ford II [is] showing Walter Reuther, the veteran leader of the United Automobile Workers, around a newly automated car plant. “Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues,” gibed the boss of Ford Motor Company. Without skipping a beat, Reuther replied, “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?”

There you have it in a nutshell. You can fill the stores up with stuff, but somebody has to be making enough money to buy it.

Have we reached a tipping point where whole chunks of the economy can be vaporized by automation? Clearly it’s a theme that’s touching a collective nerve. Many people were creeped out by IBM’s Jeopardy-winning computer Watson.

Megan McArdle over at The Atlantic observes that the New New New Economy may well create exciting new jobs, but lots of people really prefer their crappy old boring jobs. But any job that’s predictable enough to be clearly spelled out is going to go away. It will either be outsourced or automated. As one tech blogger put it, “Unless you are awesome, you will be outsourced.”

But that’s not a problem for you, because you’re awesome, right?

So totally awesome.

Behold the Hexadecacopter

Quadcopters are the hottest thing going in radio-controlled aircraft. Everybody wants one, partly because they’re new and crazy-looking, but mostly because of the insane stuff they can do. Until very recently, our mental image of a helicopter has been a thing with a single great rotor on top. But as it turns out, quadcopters have been around for a long time. Etienne Oemichen’s eponymous No. 2 goes back to 1923, while George de Bothezat in the US made the fabulous “Flying Octopus” in 1922.

I bet the most unlikely quadcopter you’ll see is the impractical but inspiring human-powered helicopter from the University of Maryland. Earlier this year it flew for a total of… wait for it… four seconds. Still! Human-powered quadcopter!

It was Igor Sikorsky who, in 1940, decided to stop the multi-rotor madness. His VS-300 was simple (relative to his competition) and practical. From that day to this, we’ve been accustomed to a large lifting rotor and small vertical tail rotor to counteract the twisting from the big blade. I love looking at those old videos of him flying because his test pilot helmet is always a black fedora. Classy!

But now, with the small robot copters leading the way, people are starting to get back into multi-rotor copters. Check out this video of a man going for a ride in a 16 blade hexadecacopter. It’s a real flying abattoir: ladies and gentlemen, please keep your hands inside the van at all times.

If you went back in time and showed this video to George de Bothezat, he’d say “I told you that’s what helicopters would look like in the future!” Back to the future indeed.

(from Gizmodo via my brother Tad)