Why Blog?

Why do I blog? I mostly dislike social media, so you’d think I wouldn’t. I was briefly on Facebook, but they kept imposing deal-breakers until I quit. I adopted G+ early and rather liked it – asocial networking, perhaps. I even became micro-famous there, attracting around 100,000 (mostly bot?) followers, about 100 who would +1 some of my screenshots of rocket launches, and maybe a few dozen who would +1 my photos of (mostly) sporophytes. We would sometimes engage in multi-blurb post-inspired conversations. This was all I needed: a few +1s and a bit of blather.

Unfortunately, Google Plus kind of wished it was Facebook, and kept damaging the user experience, simultaneously committing fewer resources and hoping for a miracle. Finally, by leaving some security holes open and awaiting exploits, they attracted the attack they had been hoping for, giving them pseudo-reasons to shut down the public side of the service (this paranoid just-so story is pure speculation). Since then, I haven’t really participated in social media for the purpose of being social. I’ve maintained my LinkedIn existence, wondering if I will ever figure out what to do there. I do read some blogs, but don’t comment any more. When I did comment, I found it not worth the time and emotional energy to engage in the inevitable dispute, what with needing to utilize factual information and logical reasoning rather than simply responding in-kind to emotional reactions. If I am going to opine responsibly, I will do it on my own terms and in my own context. A point in favor of, or anti-against, me blogging.

If my desultory internet research is worth anything, blogs are on the decline, so blogging may be somewhat self-defeating. Nevertheless, I do have an agenda, and I do feel the need to express myself and receive feedback for that expression. Additionally, writing is a way to “find out what I really think”. Feedback or not, capable self-expression seems to require that the expressor have an audience in mind while they are expressing. For me, this means you. Other than a few friends whom I know have read at least some of my posts, my audience is unknown to me, thus I call you my “’imaginary real” audience. I do love seeing the occasional comment, but my analytics plug-in supplies about half of what I socially “need” to feel that I am participating, in the sense that I am at least motivated to complete a page a week of honed prose (with occasional poem). So, at worst, blogging is simply a tool, and you, my imaginary real audience, mere “prop(s) to occupy my time” (that really would be the worst, so I hope it doesn’t come to that! Objectifying persons is abhorrent!). Another point, definitely in favor of, me blogging.

If I keep it up for a year, I will have 52 pages of material, much of it containing sub-topics that could themselves be expanded into posts. At first, I was planning to blog once a month, thinking “I don’t really have the time”, but that seems insufficient, so I began posting my four-months’-worth of drafts weekly. I find that as I hone a post, I get ideas for new ones and sometimes quickly save just a title plus a sentence or two. Almost every day I refine existing drafts and/or create new ones. I try to keep 3 or 4 drafts scheduled in advance, and am trying to push that number upwards while adding to the draft pool. I’m thinking of going bi-weekly, not by just doubling my output but somehow incorporating additional cyberstuff. This blogging thing sort of feeds on itself. If I can keep my time investment low – daily practice makes me feel more efficient – I’ll be doing a lot of satisfying writing, a third point in favor of switching to a new phase in my life: me blogging.

Rare Treat

In general I try to minimize (to the extent that I can stand it) the amount of meat I consume, mostly poultry and fish (often duck and salmon, the other red meats!). However, from late December through late January, I let myself go. Dining out (well, back in the day; we have been doing takeout from, say, Clark Burger, Fortunato Brothers, or Villagio and we are trying out a weekly CSR, Larder) or cooking in.

I am an experienced enough cook that a recipe for something I’ve cooked already a few times is more a reminder of ingredients, proportions and temperatures, rather than an algorithm. I have adopted my own versions of various techniques that suit how I work and think. For example, if a recipe wants me to render some bacon for its fat, optionally leaving the meat in to flavor the sauce/stew/whatever, instead I slow-cook the bacon, separating the toothsome solid recreation sticks from the unctuous glycerine mouth liner. I then use some of the fat for the frying, and dice some of the bacon into tiny bits if I was supposed to leave it in along with the rendered grease. There is plenty of bacon and its grease left for other purposes, often involving pancakes, potatoes, and/or eggs. If you are concerned about heart disease at this point, please re-read the title of this post, and know that I also follow a somewhat strenuous workout regimen.

For further insight into how I work and think, let me tell you that I recently made an excellent lentil soup. If you were to ask me for the recipe I would tell you: First make a bunch of barbecued chicken, and have some bacon and bacon grease on hand (the remainder of the recipe is left as an exercise for the student).

Here is a slow-cooked bacon photoessay that I imagine speaks for itself (er, except note that temperature is in Liberian units).

Experimentum Periculosum

Life is short, but art endures; opportunity is fleeting, experimentation perilous, and judgement difficult.

—The Ancients

I am a privileged individual. A straight white male US citizen, I “play the game” on the easiest possible setting. I own a house in Baltimore, half of another house in the small Oregon town that friendliness built, and have spent a couple of years renting an apartment in Germany while working at a research institute. I barely consider prices when I shop, although if the grocery bill is more than sixty or seventy euros/dollars I will study the receipt. I mostly buy only necessities such as food, clothing, and dwelling needs, being easily amused by simple entertainments. My luxuries are essentially reading material, streaming, a few beers, caffeinated beverages, pastries (Nusskrantz! süss Nusskranz!), hiking and biking. Every few years my wife and I splurge on travel. I like to cook and to dine out.

Being a scientist is a privilege itself (although I am a very applied one who doesn’t publish enough). My particular application is “algae farming” – to me an obvious application for recycling agriculture nutrients and carbon, when considered from a hard science, hard economics perspective. The upshot from my experience is that 99% of what you may have heard about how algae can save the world is bullshit. The saving-the-world part is actually true, if you go beyond the hype of tennis shoes made from algae plastic! algae walls in skyscrapers! biodiesel from algae! And the like. My concern is not how to make large profits from growing small amounts of algae, but how build tens of millions of hectares of algae farms that happen to produce nonspecific commodity biomass as a byproduct of nutrient recycling. How can we pay for growing all that slime seeing as how there’s no way to make a profit from it in the current so-called free market? I say “so-called” because today’s “free market” only exists as a tissue of market failures when accounting for the environmental costs of production and consumption. We privatize profits but socialize costs, ironic in that so many “anti-environmentalist” “free-marketeers” so “hate” the socialism from which they derive their “wealth” and “liberty”.

Unlike most privileged people I am aware of, I’m actually spending (or perhaps it is investing, or wasting) my privilege trying various things to improve the world situation. Much of my (perilous) experimentation involves simply trying to find an employed position from which I can help guide large scale physical projects. My biggest problem is that administration and project management are not among my core competencies. I’m socially awkward and anxious, although I can hide or endure these failings for a while. I feel something like guilt when I try to manipulate or glad-hand people. Even when I pull off a successful stunt, rather than becoming invigorated from the positive feedback, I recoil, taking weeks or months to recover. Speaking of irony, I actually admire and even envy successful business people and managers. I don’t actually believe manipulating (or is that “guiding” or “helping”?) or gladhanding (“being gregarious”, “socializing”?) is wrong, I just can only barely and briefly do it. While I’ve had successes, I never quite capitalize on my fleeting opportunities, having great difficulty judging what to do next. Not just in my professional choices. I got in on the (failed) Amiga computer, the (failed) Saturn car, and the (failed) G+ social media platform. What I favor, most people don’t. Still, I am sure I am right with algae farming and will in my short life persist in developing it, exploiting occasional opportunities to experiment, overcoming as many difficulties as I can.

How I Blog

Back in the beginning of the pandemic, sitting at my computer with my third or fourth inferior German beer, doing Home Office in our apartment cul-de-sac at the ass-end of the Deutsche Bahn, the world burning down, I finally decided to start a blog. I know, blogs are not much of a thing any more, but G+ is long dead, I dropped Facebook the nth time they added a new privacy violation, and I have no interest in any of the social media sites (I still don’t know what to do on LinkedIn). What I enjoy, social-media-wise, is writing short blurbs for an imagined, though real, audience. For writing practice and for the feeling that I am organizing my thoughts.

I started with elaborate ideas about creating an authoritative document from which I would create the official post and ancillary web-tidbits I could use for promotion. However, my technique quickly evolved from elaborate to quick as I learned just how long it took to create even a single post. Thus: somehow I get a topic idea. I pull up an A4 document with 2 cm margins. The title is centered 18 pt Optima Bold (I want to optimize, and am kind of bold), and the body text is justified 12 pt Lucida Bright (I want to be clear, and technically, I am a “Bright”). After free associating for a while, I save, often just a single crappy paragraph. One recent post was started the same day I decided to start a blog. Others have taken less than a week.

Once I have about a page of material, I start to get serious. More than a page feels like too much, but less than a page is not enough for me to complete my little story. My typographic settings constrain my writing like rhyme scheme and scansion constrain a poem. I easily go beyond a single page, but with judicious cutting I get back down to exactly one, simultaneously improving the text. If you want to “be like” me in this regard, go to extra effort in your writing to cut, cut, cut. It seldom hurts and usually helps. Either you streamline with fewer and more elegant words, or you eliminate the extraneous. I repeatedly re-read my page-or-so, adding and cutting, until it is saying just what I want it to. I put it away, then work on it again a few days or weeks later. Invariably there is a bunch of previously invisible awkwardness, easily (usually) cleaned up by, you guessed it, adding and cutting.

To post, I select all, copy, and paste. I have a collection of potential header images in my Drafts folder, one or more of which may seem post-relevant, or I may go searching through my thousands of photos for one that seems right. I upload the chosen image, then preview my post. Revisions are always needed. My WordPress theme is not typographically identical to my word processing theme, and changing the typography and pagination somehow reveals previously invisible errors. Over the next several days, I preview the post several more times, revising again and again. Here I limit myself to spelling and punctuation errors, and missing or incorrect words. At this point I also add and check any hyperlinks, and then schedule the post. I continue to preview even after scheduling, revising again when necessary. Even after the post has been published, I will still correct typos and missing/wrong words if they are bad enough, although often I simply leave errors alone once published.

That is my blogging method for now. I am sure it will evolve, as I am not completely satisfied with it. Furthermore, I expect to eventually have plans for future changes to my overall blog concept that will likely be incompatible with my current technique. But for now, it works.

Finicky Foodie

I’m a finicky eater. Yogurt, sour cream, vinegar, mustard, mayonnaise: I can barely stand to be in the same room with them. Fortunately, it’s a different story if you cook them to death. Chicken tikka masala (cooked in a yogurt-based sauce), certain moist pastries (dependent on sour cream), Ketchup (vinegar), Mustard-crusted rack of lamb: yum! If there is some dish with fried mayonnaise I would probably like that too. Alas, these horrific ingredients are often not cooked to death. At a restaurant or as a guest I must suffer the indignity and embarrassment of sharing my disgust when salad dressing or various toppings manifest. I don’t even like wine.

What I do enjoy is “meat and potatoes”. Here I am being metaphorical, although the literal interpretation is well and true. Any tasty umami mass in a glistening sauce or gravy with some rib sticking carbs is culinary perfection. Yes, I am aware of various health issues with my preferred diet, and I’ve been adapting. With my various aversions, adaptation is not easy, forcing me to become an able cook in order to transform stuff I don’t crave into stuff that at least doesn’t prompt menu fatigue. I aim to use a small amount of a tasty meat sauce to flavor lots of veggies (I’m still pretty much a fructiphobe, though I do enjoy dried figs). This goal improves my carbon footprint as well. Chicken-fried steak and eggs with home fries is but an occasional indulgence.

Over the decades I’ve managed to add some previously abhorrent foods to my diet, and now I either like or at least don’t reject mushrooms, oranges, and various vegetables. Unfortunately, there’s something in Brussels sprouts that makes them shoot right back up once I’ve tried to swallow them down, but do I try them at least once a year (maybe I’m still evolving). I’m not a “supertaster”, I am fine with broccoli (an unctuous cheese sauce is helpful here, but just steamed is also OK) and other brassicas. There may be some kind of aceto-lacto-malo- something going on with the vinegar and yogurt/sour cream/wine situation.

Anyway, with my need to cook well, I have become, if not a foodie, at least foodie-adjacent. I love cooking, whether simple or elaborate, a single dish or half of Thanksgiving. The renowned “knows everybody” Jon Singer turned me on to “Cook’s Illustrated” magazine in the late 90’s, launching my cooking prowess, although the need to use nearly every pot, pan, and utensil to make their best version of certain dishes is a bit of a hassle. I typically try to follow their recipe (or any recipe) as exactly as possible the first few times. Usually I do additional research, looking at similar recipes, such as in The Joy of Cooking, and reviewing relevant pages of McGee’s On Food and Cooking. Then I adapt the recipe to my personal techniques.

One pertinent example is their “Best Vegan Chili” recipe. I make chili powder from dried chiles (being blessed with a local mercado having a great chile selection) rather than laboriously roasting fresh pods, letting them steam, then peeling the skins. I use scissors to cut off the stems, then scrape away the seeds and cut the dried flesh and skin into small bits before toasting them in a cast iron pan. Then I pulverize them in a coffee whacker (not a grinder!). I have had to insist that indeed no animal products were used in the preparation of that chili, it is so tasty and umami-laden.

Mundane Space Opera

My first specific memory of reading science fiction is from one Christmas in Seattle, when we traveled there for the big family gathering that used to happen at my dad’s parents’ (Nanny and Pop) home in rural Oregon. I think this must have been after Pop died. We stayed with Dad’s sister (the aunt who later turned me on to the book Sugar Blues, by William Dufty), whose several children had moved out and started families of their own. I can’t quite remember how old I was, probably between ten and twelve. Evidently at least one of Aunt Mickey’s children, I’d guess Uncle Mike or Uncle Robin (we called them uncles although they were technically cousins; my brother and I were the late offspring of the youngest of three siblings; our cousins on that side were by then grownups with children only slightly younger than we were), had read some science fiction in their youth and left some of their collection behind when leaving home. Somewhere around the house I found a copy of Rocket Jockey by Lester del Ray and loved it. I recall having the feeling that, bored by all the adult stuff and not very gregarious even around children my own age, I had been specifically hunting for the kinds of books that I knew I liked, so I must have already been exposed to the genre. However, I don’t recall specific prior instances. Possibly Narnia or something in a collection of stories for children.

Once we got back home I began frequenting the local bookstore, and started spending some of my allowance and eventually paper route money on the used (and sometimes new) science fiction I found there. In seventh grade a friend turned me on to the Heinlein juveniles, and I discovered Tolkien. I knew already I wanted to be a scientist or technical person, having discovered in fourth or fifth grade a series of books in the library entitled “So you want to be a …”, filling in “Chemist”, “Astronomer”, “Doctor”, etc. I even had a chemistry set (the kind you can’t get any more, supplemented by garage sale purchases of additional components made available when older kids in my town lost interest or moved on to college; thank goodness our parents had no idea!). I can’t decide whether science fiction led me to science, or science led me to science fiction, or I approached both simultaneously. A few years later Uncle Mike gave me a copy of Dune at another Seattle Christmas. It took me a couple of tries to get into it, but when I finally did my mind was blown (I had the same experience many years later with the – non-science fiction – Sometimes A Great Notion).

In high school a new friend hooked me on Dungeons and Dragons (possibly the very first day of my freshman year, in Theatre Arts class); we were joined by many of the other nerds during those four years. My recreational reading then was a tissue of Ursula Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance, Robert Heinlein, Lin Carter, “Doc” Smith, Andre Norton, and many others. I would get home from school and read in “my” easy chair in the front room until called for dinner, at which point I would reluctantly teleport from vivid, rich worlds of heroes, allotropic iron and soul-sucking swords to the dusty, dreary world of chores, succotash and hamburger casserole. On some occasions the transition was palpable and depressing. I was listening to a lot of Pink Floyd and Hawkwind in those years.

In my youth I didn’t find fantasies of magic and faster-than-light travel totally unrealistic, but with maturity, my credulity began to wane. Nowadays, although I can still appreciate fantasy – I mean, check out the work of of China Miéville, Philip Pullman, or Lev Grossman – I prefer it to be overt. Science fiction with conceits of time travel or psionics or other magic has to carefully justify its transgressions, and I now prefer my extrapolations to be highly constrained. The term of art for my favored genre is “mundane space opera”, “mundane” not meaning “boring”, but that any fantasy conceits be convincingly justified. The TV series “The Expanse”, Charlie Stross’s Freyaverse novels, and Kim Stanley Robinsons Mars stories and Aurora are some recent examples of the kind of science fiction I am most fond of these days.

Fractals, Chaos, and All That

During the Baloney years we did a lot of cool cerebral stuff that I’m still hooked on, including Mandelbrot zooming, Conway’s Game of Life in 3D, iterated function systems, etc. Recently I helped crowdfund the Mandelmap Poster. However, despite their beauty (dare I call it stark?), there always seems to be something harsh and sterile in fractal images, with anything soft or biological missing or contrived. I have the feeling that to represent physical reality with this kind of math, each point in space and time should dictate not only the seed value for the iteration, but the formula as well. At any given scale and location I imagine you’d have a richer, smoother, looser landscape of possibilities, while as you zoomed in or out, particular self-similar shapes would persist for only a few orders of magnitude, giving prominence to different emergent ontologies (e.g. “Seahorse Valley”, “Main Cardioid”, “Spleenwort Fern”) at different scales. In my grandiose fantasies, an alternative scheme for representing physical reality could be developed from this kind of perspective.

Take iterated affine transforms sensu Barnsley. The idea would be that there might be hundreds or thousands (perhaps an infinity!) of transforms in a given mapping, but rather than apply them all according to a fixed set of probabilities, you’d vary the probabilities as a function of coordinate location or iteration count or something, with some transforms dropping out entirely and new ones coming in to replace them. Perhaps emotionally satisfying images could emerge from this kind of conceptual expansion of fractal algorithms. But can that kind of art inform science? In a sense, the universe is already an iterated function system or cellular automaton, with the next state of each Plank-voxel being computed by some mapping that we currently understand as obeying the Standard Model and/or Relativity. Perhaps some kind of deep computing project could identify patterns in images or datasets generated by my approach that resemble patterns in physics, thus revealing some kind of basis settings for further exploration.

It turns out that just as I was beginning to draft this post, Wolfram and colleagues released work that supplants his A New Kind of Science, purporting to potentially contain the seeds to a unification of relativity and quantum mechanics. I read ANKoS when it came out, and I would say I have (actually, already had, having been familiar with some of Wolfram’s published work in the area and done my own computational experiments) a pretty good understanding of the material, but this new work definitely supersedes it. ANKoS wrings out just about everything that could be interesting about one specific class of ultra-simple cellular automaton, including the tantalizing notion that, because Turing-complete computation can emerge from such simple abstract constructs, simple physical systems could potentially accidentally implement them, leading to an inevitable evolution of complex algorithms (e.g. life itself) from utterly basic substrates and inputs. The new work recapitulates much of ANKoS, but starts with even simpler constructs – so simple that to model even his simple cellular automata, a rather complex arrangement needs to be implemented using the new parts list. Wolfram et al. invite us to help, SETI-at-home style, by buying a copy of Mathematica and running his group’s free notebooks. I’m darned busy right now, so I am meticulously avoiding this sort of distraction. “Know thyself”: I am quite easily addicted to or distracted by dopamine micro-reward providers like certain kinds of computer games and puzzle-like recreations. “Nothing to excess”: best for me to simply not dip my toes in that stream, as the slightest exposure could well be too much, and I have Responsibilities.

My aim, were I to venture into this realm once again, would be to seek parallels to the Taylor-Couette flow demonstration that inspired some of David Bohm’s work, (skip to 13:25 if you’d rather not watch the entire video) and which he begins algebraic development of with Basil Hiley in The Undivided Universe. I would be unable to resist attempting to cast everything I did into some kind of coordinate system based on n-dimensional aperiodic tilings (essentially, derivatives of Penrose Tilings), and attempting to link philosophy (is it pointless to consider determinism vs. non-determinism?) to basic physics. A fool’s errand, perhaps, but a grandiose one. I am nothing if not grandiose. I won’t claim to not be a fool.

House of Baloney

Early in my first attempt at college (at the UW in Seattle), I moved from my too-expensive studio apartment on Capitol Hill into a shared house in Wallingford. The new place was within easy walking distance of campus and right across the street from Dick’s Drive-in (which I think I patronized exactly once – I don’t hate fast food per se, but I’m finicky and I don’t think they did custom orders. I am not one for special sauce). One of my new housemates was part of a community of environmentalists, and I started hanging out with them, partly as a fellow traveler, partly as a socially reticent person presented with a ready-made in-group, but mostly because of the general partying. Note that although I am an environmentalist, this is not from a spiritual orientation, but from a hard science orientation: physics, biology, and systems theory.

The downside of my hanging out with these folks is that they were mostly not fully informed about, shall we say, the more factual aspects of various situations. After some egregious (and probably drunken and/or stoned) pontification by one of these unwitting yet self-righteous folks, I felt that I must Do Something, although not necessarily in the context of that particular group. I owned a collection of most of the Omni magazines at that time, which I had transported to Seattle when I moved for college. I recalled a letter to the editor inviting readers to check out something called the “L5 Society”, a kind of club of spaceflight fanatics, and after some digging, found it and wrote to the advertised address. Shortly thereafter I received contact information and found myself attending monthly meetings of one of their Seattle chapters (there were actually two at the time) at the board room of the Pacific Science Center. Non-characteristically, I then took action to form a third chapter, “Husky L5”. There are many stories to be told about those times, but the main one is that I moved again, to different shared housing closer to campus, and attracted a group of friends more like myself in many ways, many of whom were members of something called the “Telecommunication Users Group”, or TUG. These folks were participants in a nascent computer networking hobby, made possible by the availability of personal computers and modems, and I fit right in. After yet another move I and several others were living in a house (this time in Maple Leaf, near the “Safeway is Death” house) with four phone lines and no phone (well, there was a handset that could be plugged in if a voice caller shouted over a carrier signal and actually got noticed).

The several years of this era were characterized by regular weekend parties, differing in attendance mainly by whether actual announcements were distributed. One of our frequent visitors, let us call him “The Agent”, actually moved in a few houses up from us. Notorious! The Agent was kind of a shadowy figure, so we didn’t really notice, when it happened, that he had disappeared, but one day his wife stomped through the back door of the house screaming for us, clearly upset about something. It’s hard to think of her as not embodying a stereotype (of what, I don’t know – short, plump, fond of high heels, an immigrant with a strong accent; perhaps the defining instance of a later stereotype). Anyway, once she had our attention she made it clear that The Agent hadn’t been seen for several weeks, and that we must somehow be to blame. As it turns out, we weren’t. Rather, he had been, to our surprise and as we learned later, AWOL from the military, and was being held in the brig. Notorious! Eventually The Agent’s wife stomped away in her heels, furious, denigrating us with shrill cries of “Full of Drugs! Full of Baloney!”.

One of our other frequent weekend guests soon learned of the brig situation and sprung The Agent via an open window and a drive-by pick-up. While partying with him afterwards, perhaps that very night (prior to his continued evasion; he did ultimately reconcile), we related the tale of his wife’s visit. The Agent then revealed one of his many gifts, that of naming things, and we became known thereafter as the “House of Baloney”. We eventually moved to larger quarters much closer to the University, maintaining our momentum for another couple of years, but the second House of Baloney was the last, as relationships and careers finally carried each of us into independent trajectories. Nevertheless, we are, decades later, still known as The Baloneys.

Space 2.0

I’ve been accused of inventing the term “Space 2.0”, but I know I stole it. Anyway, adding “2.0” to a concept is a thing, so at best I co-invented it. What I mean by the term is the advent of space infrastructure affordances such as reusable rocket stages and space capsules. As of this post, only SpaceX is doing Space 2.0, but Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, and Electron are approaching it. Higher version numbers I reserve for additional major advances, such as Starship/New Glenn, anti-Kessler Syndrome cleanup bots (getting rid of orbital debris that threatens the whole space enterprise), use of solar/magnetic sails, and nuclear thermal propulsion. My big space hope is to witness the development of an exponentially growing space economy utilizing in situ material and energy resources, working towards Space 3.0 in which the vast majority of material usage in space comes not from Earth but from extraterrestrial resources. “Vitamins” (again, a term not of my invention) such as microelectronics and specialty chemicals could still come from Earth in my Space 3.0. Once that economy exists, anything futuristic like terraforming, space colonies, or interstellar travel will be able to happen organically, if it happens at all. I myself played a small role in bringing about Space 2.x by helping crowdfund The Planetary Society’s Lightsail 2, currently still in orbit and raising its apogee with solar photon pressure (alas, its perigee is essentially in the upper atmosphere so it is doomed).

Back when G+ was a thing, one of my regular habits was to post photoessays of cropped and captioned screenshots taken during rocket launches or other space activities, usually Falcon 9 launches/landings but sometimes Bigelow module operations, resupply berthings, space walks, or whatever. Somehow The Algorithm decided I was a notable personality on G+ and promoted one of my posts. I suddenly got hundreds of thousands of followers. Probably >99% bots, but with about 100-200 folks who could be counted on to +1 my little collections. As it turns out, getting the equivalent of +1s is all I “need” from social media, from the dopamine-rush micro-reward perspective. Shortly after so becoming micro-famous, I was contacted by a flattery G+ person or bot who “thought” I might like to do free software testing work for them in exchange for having access to new G+ features early. Heh. If I ever do software testing again, I would need a salary commensurate with my experience, abilities, and desire to not work in the software industry. I brushed them off with the (true) “I want less social media, not more” excuse, but really I didn’t trust myself to write a polite version of “that’s kind of an asshat move, asking me to do hundred dollar an hour work for zero dollars”. I now suspect the whole thing was a desperate G+ scam to try to somehow save the platform by recruiting volunteers.

Anyway, back to Space 2.0. Space operations are going to become ridiculously cheap compared to Space 1.0, making existing human space travel more economical and reifying some science fictional concepts. This has led to some rather hyperbolic chatter. My personal feeling is that ambitious projects for creating a so-called independent extraterrestrial branch of civilization from scratch are misguided in the sense that they are premature. To be sure, I love reading and conceptualizing about various project proposals, but simple continuous expansion of space activities (I advocate an “orbit all the things” approach) will lead to this sort of project naturally. They are so large-scale and complex that they won’t happen until we have the needed assets in space anyway. We should simply foster the exponentially growing economy I hope for and allow the magic of that kind of math to do the work of emplacing those assets, without diverting resources into premature grandiosity. When it is time to go railroading, one or more larger-than life personalities will emerge to conduct the operations.

Algae Farming

We’ve all seen algae: pond scum in ditches, seaweed at the shore, green slime in aquariums. Perhaps you already know that the word algae doesn’t refer to closely related organisms descended from a recent common ancestor (like mammals or fungi). Rather, it refers to the organism’s appearance and behavior (phenotype, not genotype). Essentially any aquatic organism that produces oxygen using sunlight and isn’t a green plant (which are closely related to each other) is an alga. They are ubiquitous wherever there is light and water; indeed algae are hard to eradicate. Consequently, if you actually want algae, it is easy to help them proliferate – simply make them feel at home. The only caveat is that if what you want is a specific strain of algae in a pure form, that can be rather labor and capital intensive.

Pedantry conservation notice: alga is singular, algae is plural. As with datum/data, some folks will insist that you say “the alga is” and “the algae are”. I instinctively align with this sort of prescriptivity, but stylistically I usually find it awkward. Know that I am aware of and am willing to live with that. I use algae as both plural and mass noun, depending on how it scans in my sentences.

But back to our topic: why would anybody want to farm, say, hectares of algae open to the environment rather than square meters of it in transparent containers (here I ignore seaweed farming)? Except as a source of some foods, lab products, and specialty chemicals, there’s not much of a market for it. Algae itself, at least as a bulk nonspecific biomass, the kind you get when you can’t be bothered to go to the effort to cultivate specific strains, isn’t worth much: more expensive than dirt, but only slightly more useful.

The value of growing algae arises from the cultivation process itself. Because algae grows so rapidly, it can be utilized to recapture the nitrogen and phosphorus, from agriculture and municipal wastewater, that pollute our aquifers and surface waters. Where this polluted water is otherwise unpolluted, the biomass can be used as a fertilizer and soil amendment. Phosphorus, a finite mineral resource, is especially important as it is the basis of our high-performance agriculture. Nitrogen fertilizer consumes something like one percent of global energy, or about four percent of global natural gas production. Algae growth also fixes carbon. Returning this carbon to the soil can help revive its fertility.

Working to expand algae cultivation is my chosen humanitarian effort (do you have one? What is it?). I favor a practice called algal turf scrubbing (ATS, invented by my former boss Walter Adey, emeritus algae curator at the Smithsonian), which basically creates an artificial stream ideally suited for algae growth. Push practically any surface water (fresh or marine), through one of these channels, and the algae simply proliferate without extra help. The stream can be as wide as you want; it might better be called an aquatic field. Frequently removing the biomass allows more algae to take its place, maintaining rapid growth and thus rapid nutrient uptake. The only problem (if that’s the right word) is handling the biomass. Even though ATS algae is pretty cheap, it still costs about $500 per ton to grow, costlier than the fertilizer it recycles. This situation is a failure of the so-called “free market”, ironically a form of socialism as it ignores or even denies the externalities of pollution and unsustainability in order to present as net beneficial. Governments and other authorities should compare the costs and effectiveness of all functional solutions to the nutrient pollution problem and implement regulations or simply pay bounties to implement the best choices. Obviously I think ATS will be a player in any such competition.