Archive for Random


This is a note about some steps that I and my family have taken to work to reduce our carbon emissions.

According to the EPA, commercial and residential use is the fourth largest source of carbon emissions overall in the U.S., generating about 12% of carbon emissions. Some sizable chunk of that is fossil fuels burned in the home for heating, for hot water, for gas dryers, and for cooking.

This matters because this use of fossil fuels is widely distributed and is controlled by homeowners. The largest source of carbon emissions, transportation, is also widely distributed, but we know how to reduce those emissions: we must switch to zero-emission cars. This is a fairly easy switch for an individual: when you must buy a new car, buy an electric car. There are many good electric cars out there, and, speaking as someone has owned one for some seven years now, electric cars are better for most uses.

The second and third largest sources of carbon emissions, electricity generation and industry, are problems that can’t be tackled by individuals, beyond general efforts like education and voting. These problems require work by the groups that run the plants. Fortunately, this work, while complex and expensive, is mostly a set of discrete large scale projects.

That is not true for home use of fossil fuels. Reducing fossil fuel use in the home requires tens of millions of individual small changes. Government can encourage these changes via the tax system, but it’s implausible for government to actually do it. Each individual home owner must make the changes themselves.

The goal is to remove any use of fossil fuel in the home. In our case, it meant no longer using natural gas. For other homes it may mean getting off oil or, occasionally, coal.

At present the only reasonable alternative is electricity. This may seem counter-productive, as electricity is also often generated by fossil fuels. Fortunately, non-carbon sources of electricity are available and are spreading fast. For example, in California, where we live, less than half of the electricity in the grid is produced by non-renewable sources. Where we live more specifically, in Berkeley, we can pay slightly extra to get only electricity from renewable sources (though of course this is something of a fiction as electrons are fungible). Also, in our case, we have solar panels.

More generally, as mentioned above, reducing carbon emissions from electricity is a set of discrete large projects. By shifting our energy use to electricity, we reduce the scale of the problem from the impossible (tens of millions changes) to the possible (there are fewer than 2500 fossil fuel electrical plants in the U.S.). It becomes possible to either replace the electricity generation with renewables, or to capture the carbon emissions at a set of locations many orders of magnitude smaller than the number of households in the country.

Moving on to what we actually did, we had three uses of natural gas: our furnace (forced hot air), our water heater, and our cooktop. As it happened, we already had an electric dryer and an electric oven.

I am strictly a software person, so the work was going to be done by other people. The first obstacle we had to overcome was explaining what we wanted. I expect that this will become easier over time. In talking to several different companies, we would explain that our goal was to stop using natural gas entirely, and they would respond with ways to reduce our overall energy use. Typical examples of this were installing better windows and improving our insulation, especially in the attic. We were also offered options like an electric water heater with natural gas for backup. We had to go back and forth with explanations of “sure, reducing energy use is great, but what we really want is to stop using natural gas.”

The second obstacle was our electrical panel. While there are many details and I don’t understand all of them, the simple view is that electrical appliances require a certain number of amps. (There are also volts and watts, but when it comes to electrifying your house they don’t actually matter.) Your house has a bunch of circuit breakers, or, in older houses, fuses, that limit the number of amps that will flow at one time. If you turn on too many appliances they will try to pull too many amps and your circuit breaker will flip. A house will have several circuit breakers, and each one is responsible for some set of lights or plugs or specific appliances. There is also a limit on how much the whole house can draw at a time, which is the size of your overall electrical service. All of these circuit breakers are there to prevent the electrical wiring from heating up too much and starting a fire.

This matters because a house that was built for fossil fuels is typically not built to have everything done by electricity. There may not be enough amps coming into the house. And the existing circuit breakers may not be large enough for the requirements of your new electrical appliances.

It turns out that getting more amps is not just a matter of swapping in a larger fuse. Upgrading electrical service is expensive. Replacing the electrical panel to get bigger or more circuit breakers is expensive. In our case we had to spend on the order of $10,000 for all the electrical improvements, though that required an additional subpanel in a different part of the house, which might not be required in every home.

The point is, if you don’t know how all of this works (I certainly didn’t), an early step in the electrification process is going to be to have an electrician come out and take a look at your system and tell you what will have to change.

The third obstacle is choice of systems. For the cooktop, this is easy: use an induction cooktop. For anything that doesn’t require actual flame, an induction cooktop works just as well as a gas cooktop. For some things, like a low simmer, an induction cooktop is actually better. Some kinds of pots and pans don’t work on an induction cooktop, but as it happened all of ours did work. You can get induction cooktops to replace any standard size gas cooktop. Since you aren’t burning gas, the air in the kitchen is cleaner. This is a straightforward change, once you’ve set up the electrical service: our new cooktop can use up to 50 amps, which is a lot.

For the furnace and hot water heater, the best choice at least in California is a heat pump system. These are two part systems: the heat pump, which goes outside, and the tank or air handler, which goes inside. The heat pump is basically a large fan, and is something like the external part of a whole house air conditioner. It is not terribly noisy, but it’s not silent. And you have to find some place to put it. One nice feature about a heat pump furnace is that you can run the heat pump backward and get air conditioning; no need for a separate unit.

You can get combined water heater/furnace systems that use a single heat pump, but for our house configuration it was simpler to get two different systems. For us each heat pump takes 20 amps, and then the air handler takes 40 amps (the water heater doesn’t need any electricity beyond the heat pump). So you can see how the amps add up pretty quickly.

Specifically our cooktop is a Gaggenau CI 292-601, our water heater is a Sanden SanCO2, and our furnace is a Carrier Performance Series heat pump and air handler. We’ve had them for over a year now, with no problems at all.

While we did all of this at about the same time, I expect that most people would do it as needed. When your water heater breaks, replace it with an electrical one. The main thing is to make sure your electrical service is ready.

Of course it’s also worth asking how much you have to pay beyond the price of installation. In our case, since we replaced the systems at about the same time, it’s an easy comparison. The year before installing them, we spent $250 per month for combined electricity and gas charges. The year after installing them, we spent $270 per month, just for electricity (with no gas charges). (These prices include charging our electric car, by the way.) So the electrical appliances are a bit more expensive, but it’s in the same ballpark.

And, of course, no more natural gas. Our local gas company, PG&E, removed our gas line entirely, cutting it off at the street, for no charge. This may make our house slightly safer in case of an earthquake: no danger of a spark from a gas leak.

If you’ve read this far, remember: check your electrical service, and the next time you have to replace any fossil fuel powered appliance, make sure to replace with an electrical one. The planet will thank you, and it’s the right thing to do.


Nuclear Irrationality

I was recently thinking about my college studies of nuclear warfare. At the time it seemed like a relevant topic, and I took two courses on it. Like everything, the more you look into it the more complex it gets. The depth of the thinking in nuclear warfare planning was both impressive and appalling.

One of the more interesting cases was driven by the fear of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. In retrospect we know there was never a danger of that, but at the time it was a real concern. The western strategists feared that in a conventional war, the Soviet tanks would rapidly rout the smaller European armies. The use of nuclear weapons, or at least their potential use, was an obvious way to counter this threat.

However, most of the nuclear weapons were in the U.S. It was clear that no U.S. president would launch nuclear weapons at the Soviet Union in order to forestall an invasion of Europe. The U.S. promised to support Europe, but if the war actually started, a nuclear attack on the U.S.S.R. could only end in a nuclear counter-attack on the U.S. That would never happen. England and France had a few nuclear weapons, but would their leaders really launch them, knowing that they would face certain death in the overwhelming nuclear counter-attack? A bold and calculating leader of the Soviet Union might be willing to risk that nobody would take the nuclear option, and be willing to gamble that they would win a conventional war (again, this was the fear of the U.S. and Europe, the Soviet Union knew perfectly well that they could not win such a war). How could the U.S. and Europe use nuclear weapons as a credible deterrent to a conventional invasion?

The answer was, as I said, both impressive and appalling. NATO distributed low-yield nuclear weapons throughout Europe (they even had nuclear landmines). In the event of an invasion, complete control over the weapons was handed over to local commanders. The decision to use nuclear weapons would not be in the hands of an elected leader far from the war zone. It would be in the hands of a local colonel facing the immediate loss of his command. The Soviet Union might gamble (so the thinking went) on the reactions of a few political leaders they could study closely. They would never gamble on the reactions of several hundred local military commanders. Although the weapons were relatively low-yield, the expectation was that once a war went nuclear, the only thing that would stop it from escalating would be a quick complete cessation of hostilities.

This is a nice example of achieving your goal by explicitly giving up your ability to act rationally.

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I’ve interviewed a lot of people looking for jobs at places where I work. I don’t think I’m a particularly good interviewer, but I have developed a few rules of thumb. The purpose of an interview is to see whether somebody can do the job. In my case, the job is programming.

Past experience by itself is not a good guide, as many people can slide through a company without accomplishing very much. Academic experience is also not a good guide, as the experience and goals of programming in an academic setting are very different from working in industry. The ideal way to find out whether somebody can program is to ask them to write a program. Unfortunately, writing a real program takes time, and the interview is time-limited. it would in any case be unfair to candidates to ask them to undertake a serious piece of work in order to get a job. Since most programming is tweaking, maintaining and debugging large existing pieces of software, it would also be good if one could ask a candidate to debug some large program. Unfortunately that too takes time, and it doesn’t allow for the knowledge about a program one would naturally gain on the job. Despite these drawbacks, I do usually ask people to write a short program, simply to verify that they are able to write some kind of code. But I don’t put too much weight on it, unless of course they can’t do it. I’ll add that when writing a program in the stressful interview situation, whether they make any mistakes when writing it is not important, but not being able to see mistakes is a concern.

In any case, I find it more important to know whether they understand the complex layers of software which comprise modern systems. A good programmer understands all the layers of the machine from the processor up to the application. Knowing all the details is not important. But knowing how it fits together is. Here the challenge is distinguishing people who just know the terminology from people who really know how it works. One of the things to look for with these questions is a quick ability to see that they don’t know something, coupled with knowledge of how to find out.

Unfortunately, all the knowledge in the world combined with great programming skills does not mean that the candidate can actually do the job. This gets into much fuzzier areas like whether they can take direction when necessary, whether they can work on their own when appropriate, whether they will make forward progress or get stuck. I don’t know how to figure these things out. The best I can do is ask about their past experiences, and listen closely to the way they talk about things. Are problems ever their own fault, or always the fault of someone else? How long does it take them to accomplish tasks? Have they finished things in the past or always moved on before completion?

A final lesson I’ve learned is that as an interviewer, I don’t have to be fair. Good candidates will find a job somewhere even if they had an off-day when I spoke with them. Hiring the wrong person will be costly every day until they leave. If somebody seems intuitively wrong somehow, then it’s better to trust that intuition than to hire somebody who won’t work out.


Monetization of Public Space

The current rumors say that Facebook has a paper valuation of $50 billion and Twitter has one of $10 billion. Those numbers are certainly part of a mini-bubble today, but they may be supportable tomorrow. It’s interesting to note that the only service these companies do is provide a space for people to do things, a space for people to provide their own information. This is not nothing, as it involves paying for the space to host photographs and videos and for network costs. But Facebook and Twitter are not being valued for being hosting providers. They are being valued for creating a shared public space which many people choose to enter. (WordPress and LiveJournal are other examples of online companies that simply create a shared space; Google and Bing are examples of online companies which provide a service, providing real information beyond what people do on their sites.)

Is there anything comparable in the real world? The real world is full of shared public spaces, but they are not generally money making operations. I think of places like parks or shared urban spaces like Times Square. These are typically built by the government or by some public cooperative at a cost, rather than being built by a private corporation as a source of revenue.

What’s the key difference? It’s that it is much cheaper to create an online space which can hold several million people than it is to create a physical space that large. It’s cheap enough that even the relatively small returns you get from billboards may be enough to pay for creating that space. And, since it is online, you can have targeted billboards, which may pay somewhat more.

I think this becomes an interesting difference between the online world and the real world. In the online world, the shared public spaces are not paid for by society, they are paid for private companies. There is no notion of a right of public access on the Internet. There is no equivalent of the homeless person on the corner or the busker singing for change. I don’t know if these differences are good or bad.

People are already working on goggles which bring the online world into the real world, adding annotations for the objects that we look at. It will be a simple further step for these goggles to edit out the things we don’t want to see, and to add targeted billboards in their place. As the goggles would be sold by private corporations, that will bring the monetization of public spaces in the online world into the real world as well. This is obviously a very speculative idea, but it would in some ways be the logical culmination of people’s withdrawal from cities and shared society into an increasingly private life. Again, I don’t know if this would be good or bad, but if it happens it has the potential to be truly different.

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Apologies for the long gap between postings. It’s been a busy month.

Like everybody else, a look back at some things worth noting in 2010.

The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway. A surrealistic quasi-comedy masquerading as an SF novel. The writing style often reminded me of Neal Stephenson. Taking apocalyptic SF one step further, most of the world literally goes away. The novel goes into how and why and what happens after, but it’s mostly an examination of a person rather than of an idea. Plus there is lots of kung-fu.

Surface Detail, by Iain M. Banks. Banks get back to form with another Culture novel, building on what can happen when societies can simulate reality. Not ground breaking but I thought it was his best novel since The Algebraist.

Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold. Basically a mildly entertaining Miles Vorkosigan novel, I thought the last few pages, which don’t have anything to do with the rest of the novel but have a lot to do with the ongoing story of Vorkosigan, were truly excellent writing.

John C. Wright has been around for a while but I first started reading him in 2010. His novels are slow-moving but packed with ideas and I would recommend them highly for the SF or fantasy fan. He wrote a sequel to Van Vogt’s Null-A novels which replicates the style of the originals precisely while being both more coherent and more strange.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Another book I first read in 2010. A truly excellent fantasy, writing at the level of Gene Wolfe. Unfortunately it’s written as the first of a trilogy, and the next book has been postponed several times.

Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik. An incredible movie about poor families in the Ozarks. The teenage heroine faces a believable threat of violence from every male character, but interestingly all the actual violence is committed by women. Jennifer Lawrence gives an incredible performance.

The Town and The Fighter. Both good movies in general, but also both good Massachusetts movies. There is a strange small surge in Massachusetts movies these days.

Love and Other Drugs. Not a good movie, but interesting because it was almost soft-core pornography attached to a movie that was little better than disease-of-the-week with good actors. It seems like the easy access to pornography on the web is pushing movies toward being more explicit when it comes to showing sex.

On to 2011!


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