What Was Henry Ford Nostalgic For?

In 1924, Henry Ford bought a patch of land in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford is often credited as a being far-seeing businessman, but in this case he was looking backward, not forward. On this corner of Dearborn, he started Greenfield Village, an homage to, in his words, the “saner and sweeter time” he remembered as a boy. For this village-as-museum, he collected old buildings along with the artifacts that would have been used in them: a carriage barn, a cider mill, a blacksmith’s shed. But the prize dwelling on the site, at least from Ford’s point of view, was his boyhood home. He had had it moved and re-fashioned to be exactly as it had been when he was thirteen. That was 1876, the year his mother died.

To realize this vision, to make this old house rise from the ashes, he had agents scour the countryside for all the items he recalled from youth: the rugs, the dinner plates, the silverware, the wood stove, the pump organ, and on and on. We all get nostalgic for our younger days, but Ford’s obsession is noteworthy for a few reasons. First, he had the money to pursue this nostalgia with an unmatchable intensity. Next, it turns out that he had never cared for farm life as a boy. He hated the work, dreamed of using automation to make it go away, and escaped from it as quickly as he could. Finally, and most significantly, he did more than anyone else on the planet to destroy the “simple” agrarian world of his youth and bring about the greasy, smoky mechanical age.

To sum up: at great expense, Henry Ford built a museum to commemorate a time he hadn’t liked, and which he subsequently bulldozed over a cliff.

This question fascinates me: What, exactly, was Henry Ford nostalgic for? Did he feel guilty? Did he experience dreams of something real that had been, or were they instead the lopsided projections of memory theater? I think of the “real” Greenfield Village as a girl he broke up with in high school. Imagine we track her down today. Life has been hard for her, and it shows. She says “Ha! So old Henry Ford says he loved me, huh? Well he sure had a funny way of showing it. He did everything he could to drive me away. And now he’s built this shrine to what? To me? To something that never existed. I don’t know who that is, but it isn’t me.”

What does nostalgia enable, and what does it block? Memory can be a wonderful celebration, but it can also be a loaded gun. It can carry an implied curse at the present, a maudlin memorialization of a golden past that never was, a rejection of the Now that was already immanent in the Then. Whenever you toast the past, be sure to tip your hat to the present.

(And by the way, I learned about Greenfield Village in Richard Snow’s excellent book I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford. I recommend it.)

Cute Force, Not Brute Force: The Gnomes Are Coming!

Mosquitoes are a problem, but what can you do about it?

If you can’t just screen them off, then you’ll need poison: insecticide. Insecticide is a dumb technology in the sense that it can’t discriminate between different types of insects, and also in the sense that you have to put it everywhere the mosquitoes might be, since you don’t know where they are. In other words, you need too much to have enough. But dumping loads of poison mostly in the wrong place kills lots of beneficial insects too. And because poisons build up in the environment, you end killing much larger animals too. You’re whacking the ecosystem with a baseball bat. Brute force.

But suppose you could hire some clever gnomes whose job was to listen for mosquitoes, and then shoot them dead with tiny crossbows whenever they came near? Assuming these gnomes are good at their job, you wouldn’t need too many of them to make a big difference. Instead of ladling gallons of neurotoxin indiscriminately across everything in the neighborhood (children, pets, garden vegetables, honeybees), you just deploy a few mosquito-sniping gnomes in strategic locations. Instead of brute force, call it cute force.

What I want to tell you today is that the gnomes are coming. The Photonic Fence, though still in early development, is a real thing. It promises to bring you a sharp-shooting cohort of pesticidal gnome-bots. Cameras can spot the mosquitoes, and low-powered lasers can then shoot them from the sky like tiny anti-aircraft cannons.

The big idea behind cute force is simple: smart, cheap devices that can identify and eliminate whatever is undesired (like killing bugs) or retrieve whatever is desired (like picking fruit). And it’s all being enabled by cheap AI and robotics. Compared to what they can replace, gnomes are (or soon enough will be) cheap. Doing things cleverly and one-at-a-time scales better than you think. You’re going to start seeing gnomes everywhere.

The brute-force approach shows up a lot in agriculture. Consider the problem of weeding. To get rid of the bad plants, the current strategy is to kill all plants. On a conventional farm, this is done with a broad-acting plant poison called Roundup (glyphosate). Organic farms can’t use Roundup, but look what they do instead.

It may seem a little medieval, but they literally scorch the earth with propane torches to kill all plants. This meets the guidelines for organic farming, although it’s clearly not great for the atmosphere. Either way, you’re wiping out everything in your path, with significant collateral damage.

Suppose instead you could hire some clever weeding gnomes who knew the difference between good plants and bad plants? There are dozens of companies working on exactly this problem. Some of them use lasers. Some use robotic arms. Some use spinning string-trimmers. Some still use herbicide, but 95% less of it because it gets applied exactly where it’s needed. The breakthrough products haven’t arrived yet, but they will. The tech is getting cheaper every day. Robots never need to sleep, and they can eliminate the need for tons of expensive and dangerous chemicals. Once you start thinking about problems like this, you see them everywhere.

Here’s a Dutch company killing moths with drones. Or why not detect and zap cancerous cells one at a time in the bloodstream to prevent metastasis? Or how about building smart nets that only catch the kind of fish you want? And then there is, of course, the topic of warfare, which is more or less defined by the concept of eliminating undesirable things. Explosives are the ultimate expression of brute force. Why be so wasteful and destructive if you can just land a small killbot drone in exactly the right place? On a less grim note, you wouldn’t need to force all cars to get (easily evaded) emissions inspections every year if you had a reliable network of gnomes who could quickly detect and ticket offending vehicles on the roads.

The gnomes are coming! Some of them are already here. You can even buy this little green garden gnome today to patrol your pepper patch.

Renewable Energy Leverage

California recently hit 95% renewable energy sources for its electrical power generation.

Great news! Enthusiasts will want to bang the drum, but skeptics will observe that this record comes with a number of conditions. “High water marks” like this happen at particular times of day during particular times of year. At this point in the calendar, the daylight hours are abundant and temperatures are still moderate enough to keep demand relatively low. A calm, hot day in the summer will look very different. And the picture changes dramatically as we leave California. The total nationwide contribution of solar to electricity production, for example, is still less than 3%. Wind is less than 10%.

Source: US EIA via Wikipedia

Despite these relatively low percentages, I want to show how much leverage renewables (coupled with batteries) can have on the market even when their relative contributions are quite small. One dramatic example of this is from a hot summer day in Australia back in 2019. In the last few years, Australia has installed some of the world’s largest grid-connected batteries. Nevertheless, in terms of the overall electrical market, they are tiny. And they’re quite expensive. So how can they turn a profit? Watch this.

December 19th of 2019 was extraordinarily hot, so electrical demand for cooling was high. As the sun set, solar power generation dropped away. As luck would have it, winds were calm. This led to a shortfall in power generation as natural gas and diesel assets were ramping up. This, in turn, caused the spot price for electricity to jump briefly to $14,700/MWh. And who was in a position to claim that price? The big batteries at Hornsdale and Lake Bonney. In just two days, these batteries earned $1 million.

Source: Renew Economy

The picture tells the story. You can see that the thin sliver of battery capacity captured most of the attractive profits before the fossil-fuel generators could cough to life. The key is speed. Batteries can instantaneously discharge their power in response to market conditions. They are the nimble mammals dodging between the legs of the lumbering dinosaurs. In the first four months of operation, the Hornsdale battery with 2 per cent of the capacity in South Australia claimed 55 per cent of the revenues in South Australia.

This is terrible news for natural gas and diesel peaker plants. One of the reasons peaker plants exist is because they can capture this very profit. Someone needs to pay for all that idle time when they sit around playing cards, waiting for a call from grid manager. From the point of view of fossil fuels, renewable plus battery is a brutal one-two punch. Solar pushes down your prices all day long while the sun is smiling, and then, just when you can taste those delicious sunset profits, a zippy little battery swoops in and gobbles them up. So even in their current diminutive form, renewables cast a long shadow over the future of fossil-fuel power generation. Building a new gas plant is so expensive that you need to count on consistent profits for many years. With the growth of cheap renewables, the capital needed to build a fossil-fuel plant gets more and more expensive. Bankers, it turns out, just hate loaning money that might never get paid back.

The bottom line is that renewables are already having an outsized effect on the overall market. They punch above their weight, and they are continually trending up. I’m looking forward to more “high water mark” days.

Thinking about Nothing: Stuff and Nega-stuff

I once read an article about the phantom traffic jams that seem to crop up at random. So there’s no accident or road closure, just a wicked knot that mysteriously slows you to a crawl, and then just as mysteriously lets you go. It turns out that, once traffic reaches a critical volume, it only takes one person stomping on the brakes to form that knot, and then it might take an hour or more to clear.

If you’re stuck in a jam like this, what can you do about it? The author had a ready answer: feed it space. I understood what he meant. Don’t crowd the car in front of you. But I also like how he put it. Feed nothing into the traffic jam.

Turning nothing into something, or turning inaction into an action, can be an extraordinarily effective brain tool.

In the semiconductor physics that govern things like transistors, scientists find it useful to talk about electrons, which are bona fide things, and “holes”, which are the places where electrons aren’t. Holes are notional particles of non-particle-ness, a convenient shorthand that comes about when we refer to the absence of something as something.

You can see this phenomenon many places. A vacuum is another example. The vacuum isn’t sucking things into it. The vacuum is the absence of pushing. But we find it convenient to talk about a vacuum as a thing that sucks. It’s not a logical flaw so much as a reframing that simplifies our reasoning.

My favorite example of positive negation comes in the energy industry. Imagine you’re running a power grid in Hotsylvania. It’s a scorching day in July and everyone has their air conditioners on. As more demand comes online, you have to switch on more power plants. What else can you do? As it happens, there is an alternative. Let’s further suppose that you’ve set up a demand management program in which customers agree to decrease their demand at your request. Here is the key insight: from your point of view as the system operator, a “negative power plant” that reduces demand is just as useful as a positive power plant that increases supply. They both do the same thing to the energy balance equation. And once you make this conceptual breakthrough, it’s easy to see that not building a new power plant is likely to be much cheaper than building a new power plant.

Amory Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, referred to unrealized energy efficiency as “negawatts”. It’s the amount of power you might NOT use. Negawatts let you reason about loss and inefficiency as a “thing”, such that you might be able to do something about it. He liked to say that the United States is the Saudi Arabia of negawatts. If you can find a way to make money out of inefficiency, then negawatts become a resource that can make you rich. We’ve got heaps of the stuff.

Lovins applied this logic to the U.S. car industry, pointing out that our big petroleum-powered cars represent a huge negawatt reserve. Using the geological terminology of the oil extraction business, he called this the “Detroit Formation.” If you can sell a more efficient vehicle, and these days it’s clear you can, then you can make a fortune by tapping into the negawatts buried deep under Detroit.

Thinking about nothing as something doesn’t really change anything physical. But it makes new thinking possible. I even find it useful in the kitchen. If I want to eat less, instead of moaning that I can’t eat anything, I make a positive message: I can eat all the nothing I want. I’m consuming nega-calories. Or to return to the story about how to fix the traffic jam, instead of saying “Don’t drive fast”, I can say “Feed the jam some lovely space.” Obviously the outcome is the same, but I prefer the second message. It matters because it makes a difference to my brain, and so it makes a difference to my behavior.

We almost always want to solve our problems with more stuff. But often the most effective solution is with nega-stuff.