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.

Ecotopia

When I was a teen, my parents’ church (I guess it was “my” church as well, but religion never really “took” with me, except extremely briefly) held summer youth camps, and I attended one at Loon Lake in southern Oregon. We slept in tipis and went on hikes and swam, and I learned that there was at least one other person my age as nerdy as myself. Actually he was more nerdy, though we never stayed in touch (I’m terrible at that). There wasn’t a huge amount of overt biblical stuff, which was a blessing (yes, I see what I’ve done there). Southern Oregon has a characteristic resinous aroma that I have always found intoxicating, so whenever I visit there I am infused with reminders of my church camp trip (and other trips: Oregon Caves, Crater Lake, the sequoia country of southern Oregon and northern California).

On the drive there to drop me off, we stopped for a break in some town that boasted a new-agey (this was at least a decade before I myself was conversant with the term “new-age”) store that also carried comics (I was really into Marvel comics at the time; I’m even related to Jack Kirby’s favorite inker!). In there I stumbled upon a volume of the magazine Seriatim – The Journal of Ecotopia. I was pretty much already an environmentalist by then and the magazine sort of looked like like it was of that genre (I thought maybe they were alluding to “environmental utopia” but that’s not quite it). As I flipped through I slowly realized that their conceit was the idea of the Pacific Northwest seceding from the US and Canada.

Now, growing up in rural Oregon, my first reaction was to wonder if I was about to be arrested for treason. Boy was my heart beating as I squinted furtively around looking for Federal agents. Ultimately, though, as with most of my first half-century, I succumbed without much resistance to my desire for forbidden pleasures, and bought it, hiding it from my parents among some Thor, Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, or Tomb of Dracula. Soon thereafter I found and read Callenbach’s novel. I may even have ordered it from my local Odyssey Books, perhaps 2.5% of whose used fantasy/science fiction mass market paperback traffic ended up in my bedroom. Eventually I subscribed to the magazine after buying a few issues retail from another new-agey bookstore in a nearby somewhat larger town than my own. Seriatim was sincere (if somewhat vapid), but didn’t get enough subscribers or article submissions, or so I infer, as they failed soon after I subscribed.

Anyway, my confirmation bias towards anything remotely Ecotopian has been hyperactive ever since, for example the notion of the “bioregion” called Cascadia (which encompasses a much larger area than depicted in the novel). I love David McCloskey’s Cascadia map and although I kind of abhor the whole flag thing, I find “the Doug” attractive, even if its symbolism seems to ignore much of the intended region, with an over-limiting tricolor background. If you hope to secede (a pointless goal, I think, but ripe for fantasy-fictional thoughts) you might want to present as more unified. I often write a bit of doggerel when I have vague thoughts about vague notions, and the Doug is no exception:

The Green Goodbye

(blue: sky/water) (green: growth) (snow/cloud white)
if we’re to leave together let’s not fight
desert dryland lava shrub-steppe scrub
I want to be a member of your club

two greens? there’s space, that bottom ribbon band,
to tell the world how varied is our land
the color-combo “blue-white-green”’s a drug:
brown’s the color missing from the Doug