Sunday, July 31, 2005

eco: solar progress uphill

Harnessing solar energy economically is the great engineering challenge of our time. My partner and I are putting solar thermal and photovoltaic on our new house, but we'll spend US$ tens of thousands of dollars (after tax breaks) just to save $100 a month in in electric and heating bills. It's an emotional and spiritual decision, not a rational economic one. But if someone can drive the cost per watt or BTU so low that putting in solar becomes an easy way to Make Money Fast, the market will take over.

Energy Innovations, founded by Idealab dot-com incubator guy Bill Gross, has thought so hard about this, it's inspiring.
  • They're focused on a great mission: "Our immediate goal is to reduce the payback time for a solar system so that it becomes a sensible and logical investment to electricity users around the world."
  • They're focused on a great market: the billions of square feet of roofs of commercial buildings that just lie there, unused, baking in the sun.
  • They're focused on cost over technology. Read their entire Innovations section, especially the "Lessons Learned". They looked at Stirling cycle engines, servo-controlled "petal" mirrors, big heliostat arrays, Fresnel lens concentrators, ... and abandoned them because they couldn't get them cheap enough in a short timeframe.
Yet even with all that focus, it is still so damn hard. Solar cells with reasonable efficiency cost money, so you concentrate sunlight on them with cheap mirrors, but then you have to track the sun with a mechanism that costs money. The more you concentrate, the more you can spend on exotic solar cells, but then you have more mechanical engineering. And the concentrated sunlight bakes the solar cells: you could try to capture that thermal energy but that raises cost and compexity, so you have to come up with a cooling system. The tradeoffs are everywhere.

There are other companies with big ideas: cheap PV films, PV coatings, nano-scale concentrators, etc. While these efforts that could change the fate of the Earth get a few millions in venture funding, the 2005 US energy bill gives around $6 billion dollars in tax breaks to carbon-spewing global-warming smog-creating oil, ethanol, and coal producers.

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Thursday, July 21, 2005

comedy: Steven Wright at Bob Newhart roast

My favorite comedian Steven Wright was at "The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor 2002" award to Bob Newhart. Here's his speech:

[Announcer: From the state of Massachusetts, please welcome Steven Wright]

Thank you very much
I'm happy to be here in this ceremony acknowledging this great ah humorist of American culture, to be part ot this ceremony honoring Mark Twain with the prestigious Bob Newhart award.
When I first heard about this ceremony I was quite shocked to hear that Mark Twain was actually still alive.

Or so I like to imagine. I like to imagine many things, I like to imagine Pulitzer prize fighting.
Imagine two writers just beating the hell out of each other

I don't remember seeing any of Mark Twain's television programs. Where I live you don't get very good reception. Growing up as a boy in Massachusetts I remember wearing little girls' dresses, and putting on lipstick and running through fields, and gaily skipping and singing to myself... But that has nothing to do with this.

In high school we were required to read some of the classic books that influenced me my whole life, books such as Huckleberry Bob. The story of a pychiatrist floating on a raft down the Mississipi river with 22 patients and a wife.

It's no coincidence that this ceremony is taking place in this theater, the Kennedy Center in Washington, named after the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

A lot of people don't know that Bob Newhart went to college with Neil Armstrong in Chicago, they were college roommates in the late fifties and when they graduated they became a comedy team: Bob and Neil. They played the comedy circuit in the US and parts of Canada. There became some friction between the two and Bob's instincts told him he would be better off going it alone and one night after a gig in Houston, Bob told Neil that it was over,that he wanted to be a solo act, and not only that, that Neil should get as far away from his as possible.

Ladies and gentlemen, I use lithium as a salad dressing.


Congratulations Bob.

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Sunday, July 3, 2005

media: playing not watching is for art, not movies

I might own more DVD's if I played them rather than watch them; as playing music is an addition to other activities rather than listening to music to the exclusion of other activities.

It's fun at bars and parties to have a movie running as visual distraction, but I can't get into it at home. Maybe as a remix of favorite scenes and images, though the DVD format intentionally makes it hard to sample.

However, some fine art installations would transition well to continuous video play. Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle, Bruce Nauman's videos, Bill Viola's slow-moving transitions, etc. I just saw Jeremy Blake's Winchester at SFMOMA and it is great, a fantastic set of painterly images that dissolve and change over time. Video artists obviously care deeply about the presentation of the work in a museum setting, in his case running the three videos "Winchester", "1906", and "Century 21" simultaneously as an enormous tryptich. Maybe artists won't want to give up that control and suffer it turning into mere moving wallpaper or a high-end screen saver. But their work would be the DVD's to play continuously rather than watch.

Looking at SFMOMA store's media catalog, you can buy one Cremaster outright on DVD, but other video artists only have excerpts of their work as part of documentaries.

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media: why own DVD's

Business Week has an article on the softening DVD sales market.

No one questioned the consumer's motivation to own DVD's. I think millions of people have looked at their two shelves full of so-so DVD's and wondered "Why bother adding to this?" You watch the movie within hours of purchase, are you really going to watch it again when there's an avalanche of new DVD's coming? And the three hours of out-takes and commentary and ass-kissing "making of" featurettes are a waste of time in comparison with renting, borrowing, or pirating a new movie.

People will still buy their beloved movies and TV of all time, but buying "Meet the Fockers" just because you can is dead. The industry can still capture huge revenue from people collecting their favorites, but that's a "long tail" effect, not a series of blockbusters.

The other problem is the perceived value of a DVD. By comparison with a music CD it's sensational value, but people are realizing the cost of it is maybe 75 cents. That's what happens when manufacturers put 1's and 0's in the cheapest container possible. A CD at least has tiny pictures and a lyrics sheet, but a DVD has nothing physical that you want to own.