Tuesday, April 17, 2007

News Flash... well, maybe not...

In fact... PROBABLY not...

Interrupting our present topic, this just came in from the Arlington Institute:

The Irish company Steorn, (www.steorn.com), in a brilliant strategic move, took out a full page ad in The Economist to tout their new energy technology – now called Orbo – which they say uses no input energy and produces usable output. They were soliciting for candidates for a jury of scientists to publically evaluate their claims. They got 4000 responses, 1000 of which were from scientists. Although initially looking for 12 jury members, they settled on 22 who are in the process of evaluating the technology and will issue a report in the fall.

As a physicist I must warn folks to be careful and skeptical.

Moreover, it is vital that the appraisal jury include not only physicists and engineers, but at least a couple of professional magicians.

Yes, you read that right. In past cases, physicists -- who are used to honest experiements -- proved to be quite susceptible to illusions that professional illusionists, like the Great Randi, were able to uncover.

Having said that, let me turn around and offer an unusual perspective... that people should watch out what they wish for.

It is one thing to vastly improve efficiency and sustainability... our cities should be covered with solar rooftops, for example. And the dogmatic-radical monsters who have undermined American science and energy research are bona fide traitors to humanity...

... On the other hand, a completely free energy source has dozens of implications that aren't likely to be pondered at first... implications that -- well -- it may take sci fi folk to conjure up.

Implications that may turn out to be very worrisome and disturbing.

All in all, I'd prefer ten million solar roofs.


Anonymous said...

The steorn explanatory video screams "scam," but one never knows.

SF of note:

In Sturgeon's "Microcosmic God," a scientist uses the efforts of a miniature, fast-living race to create miracle inventions, including a cheap energy source. He also has them invent weapons to blackmail the earth into peace.

Kornbluth & Pohl's "The Midas Plague" stories. Cheap fusion leads to hideous overproduction of goods and environmental disaster.

Nancy Kress, in Beggars in Spain, posits another cheap energy source. Coupled with synthesizer technology, a new age of liesure begins. Society divides into "Donkeys" -- the educated minority who still does meaningful work -- and coddled, unsophisticated, ambitousless "aristos" whose liesure amounts to rough sports and consumption. A "purple wage" situation.

Anonymous said...

Isn't that the Amazing Randi? I don't think that he's the Great Randi. Pretty Good, certainly, especially when you consider his efforts to import a professional prestidigitator's perspective into physical demonstrations of fringe science claims and parapsychological phenomena. Dr. Brin makes a good point - people such as Randi have a great deal to contribute to such investigations. Scientists are just too gullible. Nature may misdirect, but it doesn't lie.

- Lars

BloggaKhan said...

Penn Jillette would be my vote for Illusionist in Chief - which could then be fodder for a new episode of Bullsh*t! if it turned out to be a scam.

If somebody could turn the wild mustard growing crazy all over east San Diego County into a cheap source of energy, I'd be grateful.

learner said...

I still think you should have been on that jury, David. However it could be hazardous to the health if it goes either way. Great conspiracy plot here.

Anonymous said...

Some effects of a free energy system:
1.) Free energy means more energy which ends up being more heat.
2.) Free energy will enable the Brute Force method of design. (Follows the notion that if Brute Force is not working for you, you are not using enough of it.)
3.) A free energy system would spread like wildfire around the world.
4.) The world wide resulting flood of high powered bad design destroys almost all of the worlds natural ecosystems.
5.) A free energy system would allow life to thrive in the vast spaces in between stars.

David Brin said...

And free energy might extrapolate into unlimited weaponry... which would explain why there seems NOT to be any - or much - civilization between the stars.

It is called the Fermi Paradox. I coined "The Great Silence". And it is the ghost at our banquet, even when what appears to be great news erupts from some lab, somewhere.

"Is this it?" we should ask. We must, though it hurts. "Is this the mistake that everybody makes? That leave's the universe so void of voices?"

Unknown said...

I hung out on the Steorn discussion forms for a while.

As best I could figure, they claim to be able to create (with little energy) discontinuities in magnetic fields, using a special "shield." They use phrases like "cutting the field lines." Right.


If somebody could turn the wild mustard growing crazy all over east San Diego County into a cheap source of energy, I'd be grateful.

My grandmother has a recipe for this. We can't digest cellulose, though, so it's tasty but not terribly efficient. :)

Tom Dennen said...

I like solar panels. I like Skepticism. But, like most judges, I reserve judgment until the panel makes its'.

Anonymous said...

See Algis Budrys' story "The Burning World" for a wise look at the double edges of this. To paraphrase an old libertarian saw, a power that is great enough to keep anyone from asserting unjust dominance over you is also great enough to prevent or overthrow *any* legitimacy...

gmknobl said...
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gmknobl said...

Something from nothing. Well, if you subscribe to some theories of universe creation or just creationism, maybe. But here, nope. I don't believe God would allow that type of sloppy science, whatever God is.

But since there isn't a flood of people banging on our doors claiming to be able to do this stuff, like perpetual motion machines, then, yes, put scientists on the panel, put Penn AND Teller, put the Amazing Randi, several other pro. magicians and maybe yourself too, Mr. Brin.

As any scientist should know, be skeptical and test everything! Then make your statements about what you know with great care and exactitude.

Lastly, after Monday's shootings, I have a soft spot when anyone claims free, abundant energy. The results of which are too horrible to imagine.

Unknown said...

Fortunately the mastermind Ken Ham has discerned the true cause of Monday's tragic shootings: science.

"We live in an era when public high schools and colleges have all but banned God from science classes. In these classrooms, students are taught that the whole universe, including plants and animals — and humans — arose by natural processes. Naturalism (in essence, atheism) has become the religion of the day and has become the foundation of the education system (and Western culture as a whole). The more such a philosophy permeates the culture, the more we would expect to see a sense of purposelessness and hopelessness that pervades people’s thinking. In fact, the more a culture allows the killing of the unborn, the more we will see people treating life in general as ‘cheap.’”

If we only get rid of that filthy horrible science in the classrooms, voila! No more Columbine shootings (which, as Tom Delay and newt Gingrich assured us, was due to the teaching of evolution in public schools) and no more Virginia Tech massacres.

As Tom DeLay wisely pointed out, "Our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who are evolutionized out of some primordial soup,” and that's the reason behind these school shootings.

You have to stare at these people in disbelief and repeat the words of counsel for the Army Joseph Welch in the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954:
"Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

Anonymous said...

Of course "Science" is not "THE" cause for school shootings, neither is the removal of religion from government schools. However, the lack of a moral baseline often provided by religion may have had some influence.

Of course each case must be looked at individually, but in my opinion for someone to do this sort of crime there is something missing in them, the something that tells most people that lining up a room full of students and shooting them is just wrong, don't do it.

Hank Fox said...

I’m seeing a possible parallel here with rampant obesity in the U.S. Given unlimited food, too many of us become hugely overweight, and die fat, sick and early. Some of us, many of us, just can’t say no to that next sweet morsel NOW, no matter what it costs LATER.

Add in unlimited free energy and ... what?

We predicted that computers would give us a paperless office, but the opposite happened. We now use vastly more paper.

A free energy source right now, at our stage of social evolution, would be the equivalent of saying, “Supersize Me!” – to a ecosystem that can’t afford that next big scoop of fries for 6 billion customers.

Some of us will use it wisely. Most of us will use it to all the more quickly suck the life out of the world.

I hope it’s true. I hope it’s not.

Anonymous said...

This is old news... It doesn't seem to be an outright scam, but they're probably fooling themselves. Steorn itself chose the appraisal jury and they rejected Randi's offer to investigate, so I don't have much confidence in the jury's ability to detect outright fraud if it exists.

At least a free energy source won't emit greenhouse gases...

Anonymous said...

"However, the lack of a moral baseline often provided by religion may have had some influence."

The shooter came from a devout Christian family.

But that doesn't mean anything either.

The guy was mentally ill; a wound-up, angry, narcissistic loner.

The real question is: For our own safety, do we start forcing people with potentially dangerous personality disorders to get treatment, or perhaps start tracking them the way we track sex offenders?

Note that our esteemed host pictured just such a system 27 years ago, in Sundiver!

Anonymous said...

"Cameronvk said...

Of course "Science" is not "THE" cause for school shootings, neither is the removal of religion from government schools. However, the lack of a moral baseline often provided by religion may have had some influence."

Only if you believe that some moral baseline is NOT provided by belief systems other than religious ones. I'm not falling for it, though. Many atheists I know are probably more critically aware and appreciative of their ethical and moral systems because they feel it is grounded solidly in respect for their fellow man, all the better to ensure a truly full and productive life for the short time they believe our consciousness will exist on this earth.

So "morals" is one area I'm hard-pressed to believe has anything to do with these kinds of instances. What we're really talking about are several mental illnesses which rarely have anything to do with religion, or the lack thereof. (Although in some cases extreme religious or moralistic viewpoints seem to have some connections with some forms of psychosis.)

Anonymous said...

Hey David,


I don't know if you knew of research into this before you wrote The Uplift War, but an article was just posted talking about humanity's niche being running down animals. The article was posted on the 16th and I see that Lieberman has done work on this in the past, but I wonder if you can post this as another prediction hit.

David Brin said...

Well, I had talked this theory over with a couple of young anthropologists before writing Uplift War. I don't recally exactly its origins, but I am sure it was simmering somewhere before me.

Still, keepers of predictions wikis are welcome to file it! ;-)

TheRadicalModerate said...

On paving rooftops with photovoltaics, a question--anybody know the amount of energy required to produce and process the materials for one watt of photovoltaic? I couldn't find any data on this, and was interested in how long it took PV to energy-amortize its own production cost.

Secondary question: What's the useful life of PV these days?

Anonymous said...

One data point, from another thread where solar panel costs come up:

Some empirical data - the company where I work puts up solar powered weather station. These are most often 10W or 20W panels (but occasionally up to 60W) and we have stations 10-15 years old working fine. The manufacturer tells us the life of the panels is 20+ years, so they're more likely to fail from random accidents or vandalism than old age.

Assuming operation for 10 years and an average of 2 hours of sunlight a day (both conservative assumptions), that's 7300 hours. A 20W panel produces 72 kJ per sunlight hour, so that's a total of 525 MJ.

As to how much energy the solar panel take to produce, well that's highly variable with how many costs you include. The only data I can give here is we buy the solar panels for around NZ$280, which means we're paying ~0.53 per MJ.


And the panels that Than discusses may well be old technology. The photovoltaics industry is booming. The technology isn't static. Learning economies and economies of scale will make manufacturing the panels cheaper, and advances in photovoltaics will make the panels themselves longer lasting and more effective.

"I couldn't find any data on this"

Have you heard of http://www.google.com? It lets you find web sites of interest by typing in key words or phrases.

Searching for "photovoltaics economics" produces lots of hits, including:


Of course, any discussion of the costs of various sorts of electrical production should take the added costs of health care due to pollution, and the mining and/or extraction of the fuel. Anything less would be a foolish discounting of economic externalities. Does anyone have any data on the health effects of the emissions from solar panels?

Anonymous said...

Two good reasons to fit your house out for solar that have little to do with economics, tree-hugging or pollution:

* Solar houses remain more livable during an extended power outage. A modest solar system costing a thousand bucks could run your refrigerator, a few lights, a radio, and a cell-phone battery charger indefinitely. No need for a noisy, CO-belching generator. No need to line up for FEMA ice. You won't be able to run the A/C or your microwave, but you won't need to evacuate either.

* Solar power systems almost always have some battery storage capacity. Combine this storage capacity with the ability to pass power back into the grid, and the fact that most homes use very little power during the day, and you have a power grid that is more flexible and outage-proof. The local utility may not have to buy power from outside sources during peak daytime hours.

Going a bit further: Solar homes could be the electrical-infrastructure equivalent of citizen volunteers trained in disaster preparedness.

Anonymous said...

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Francis said...

Of course "Science" is not "THE" cause for school shootings, neither is the removal of religion from government schools. However, the lack of a moral baseline often provided by religion may have had some influence.

Oh, absolutely. The lack of a "moral baseline" as provided by religion means that we don't have an excuse to burn witches, heretics, and Jews. The influence of this lack of a "moral baseline" would appear to be that mass murders are less likely.

Of course each case must be looked at individually, but in my opinion for someone to do this sort of crime there is something missing in them, the something that tells most people that lining up a room full of students and shooting them is just wrong, don't do it.

Indeed. He was mentally ill. Are you claiming that people with a "moral baseline" are less likely to be terrorists or mass murderers? I'm sure e.g. the muslims who think they are going to wake up in paradise with a lot of virgins (ick!) for martyring themselves as suicide bombers have no "moral baseline".

In fact, a "moral baseline" and religion is one of the best ways I know of to convince people to override the voice telling them that this is wrong and that they shouldn't do something. The current century is the least violent on record and the decrease in the violence rate correlates strongly with the fall from dominance of religion.

The next scumbag I see trying to use the actions of this mentally ill man to further their own politics is going to get treated in exactly the same way. Whatever their political perspective (even if it's one I would normally agree with).

Anonymous said...

"Those who can induce you to believe in absurdities can convince you to commit attrocities." - Voltaire

Francis: I concur. I don't know why this kid went on his rampage, but the attempts to tie it to religion (or lack), gun control (or lack), immigration, psychology (or lack), video games, alchohol, drugs (or lack), racism, government programs (or lack), porn, child abuse (or lack), etc. WITHOUT knowing what happened yet...

As for the perpetual motion machine they're trying to sell... TANSTAAFL.

TheRadicalModerate said...


I think you misunderstood my first question. There's plenty of data on cost-per-watt for PV. My question arose out of a casual conversation I had with somebody about carbon offsets. They asserted that the actual energy required to melt, purify, and anneal the silicon, sputter the dopants into it, and package everything up could significantly delay the point at which PV became "carbon-neutral". This didn't sound right to me, but I had no data. I still don't.

So, here's my SWAG, assuming that 35% of the cost of PV is indirect energy cost:

Current PV cost per watt: ~$8.00
Energy cost per watt @ 35%: $2.80.
Approx electricy cost/kWh: $0.087
So energy/W for PV: 32kWh/W

In other words, you have to expose your PV to sunlight for 3.7 years (32000Wh/(24*365)) before you become carbon-neutral.

So, say 8-10 years real time? Given your figure of a 20 year life, I'd say that does indeed constitute a significant delay.

Now, the 35% energy number was derived completely by rectal extraction. If that number turns out to 5%, then you're looking at only a 1-2 year delay, which isn't bad. So, I'm still looking for data.

gmknobl said...
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gmknobl said...

Waaaay off topic -

The shootings again. Yes, he was mentally ill. Yes, he had guns. A thousand "ifs" could have prevented this. You've got to stick to the ones you can control reasonably in a free society and still not overly restrict people's basic rights.

That's always what the argument will come down to. I know what I would prefer to occur after this - stricter gun control among other actions - but also we should look at the societal background that allows such frequent violent acts... and surely gun control alone won't solve these problems (I'm not suggesting it was the sole culprit or the only solution). And seriously, someone who wants to do harm will always find a way to do harm, even in the most restrictive of societies. The best we can do is minimize the effects and find a balance between what is allowed in a "free" society and what isn't.

As a friend in Sweden pointed out, there aren't many acts of gun violence there but the most recent act of violence was committed by a person with a large metal bar who killed three before being caught.

Each society must decide that for itself through careful introspection. I'm afraid though that we've lost that ability to a large extent in America (and others but I'm restricting my comments here) due to the yellow journalistic tendencies of the mass media companies, who runs them, who they work with and how they work with them - see definition of fascist and our current government - to control what happens. In short, shocking the audience for attention sells.

Murrow would be having a tizzy fit were he alive. It's not about the content anymore, it's simply about the $$ and power.

So, I hope that what happened here (on campus) causes some good people in positions of power form a panel that can make intelligent decisions based on reasoning. The panel must take their time to collect all available evidence on what happened and to help gain perspective. Then those suggestions, if objectively viewed as reasonable by other good people in power, should be implemented.

I have my doubts this will occur. Gov. Kaine is supposedly taking the first proper step at the suggestion of President Steger.

I don't know if you'd like to put your thoughts about this matter on this blog, Dr. Brin, but I'd like reading them.

Rob Perkins said...

"time variant magneto-mechanical interactions"???

OK, I was trained casually as a scientist, and I took my physics classes in college.

I have no idea what any of that means.

TheRadicalModerate said...


...but also we should look at the societal background that allows such frequent violent acts...

It might be useful to perform a little exercise. Let's try graphing deaths and injuries occurring in schools as a result of violence from, say, 1850 to the present. But let's normalize it for the population actually attending schools (kindergarten through college).

I'm going to assert (without the data) that this graph would be flat or trending slightly down, indicating that society is actually producing less violence per capita over time.



"time variant magneto-mechanical interactions"???

I think this is what happens to the stator in a generator when a rotor arm brushes by it. Clearly a revolutionary new source of power.

Blake Stacey said...

I was actually interviewed by a TV crew on my way to work this morning (a local CBS affiliate, I think). I guess a guy in a black trenchcoat and fedora is just the one you want to see talk about school shootings. Actually, the readers here might be amused to learn the first words out of my mouth when they told me about the Cho Seung-Hui footage (I hadn't heard about it until their camera was pointed at my face).

David Brin said...

Wow, Blake. Stylish blog. And thanks for the plug.

I suppose I should make a longer comment up at top level, about recent events. perhaps I will, though I am both swamped and pained... (Sci fi author Michael Bishop lost his son in the shooting.)

The crux? We can have nearly all of what the NRA et al claim they want to defend... our ability as citizens to carry "equalizer" devices to defend ourselves... if we simply accept that the weapons at our hips ought to be cameras, instead of guns.

With cameras, if you shoot first, out of mistaken outrage, and find out you were wrong, it is POSSIBLE to say "I'm sorry."

With cameras, the quickest draw does not always win. Instead, the one who was right (in later retrospect) has a very real advantage.

With cameras, you automatically can call for help from a psse that - while potentially intimidating - won't string anybody up.

I am a MODERATE on guns! See:

But clearly I become a radical in comparison to the radical views that are standard dogma, nowadays.


Re declining violence in schools, yes. The average level has dropped steeply. I know this not only from stats but personally. Not one of my three kids has ever been in a fist-fight or schoolyard scrap. Not once. Not even close. "Bullying" is a nasty remark.

Huh? What happened? When I was a boy, momentary flashes of terror and violence happened almost monthly... in a pretty good neighborhood. I'm not nostalgic (and I am sure it's bad in ghettos, still). But why has no one commented?

It is as if we packed all that horror into brief, terrible events.

Though in fairness, we have exported far more of our violence than we retain for domestic consumption.

Anonymous said...

I think RM hit the nail on the head. The pervasive media coverage makes things seem far worse than they are.

And, yuck, we'll probably get a Ripped from the Headlines episode of LAW & ORDER about this.

* * *

And that's a good point about transparency, Blake! It is utterly clear from those videos that Cho had, as Teresa Neilson Hayden put it, "Snakes in His Head . . . a neurochemical looney." This wasn't about Cho being an immigrant, or a Christian or not a Christian.

I'd be very interested in whether Blake's commenta are used.

sociotard said...

The crux? We can have nearly all of what the NRA et al claim they want to defend... our ability as citizens to carry "equalizer" devices to defend ourselves... if we simply accept that the weapons at our hips ought to be cameras, instead of guns.

Well, I'm sure some of the students present did have mobile phones with cameras. I'm not sure how it would have helped things. Cameras are great for reminding people that they are seen and known, which makes them useful for gang violence. They hold people accountable. Still, I can't see how they would have stopped any students present from being shot, and the shooter killed himself, so accountability isn't an issue here.

How would cameras have helped here? Don't get me wrong, I think your transparency ideas are generally great, but I don't see how they apply to this situation.

Then again, the School President didn't email everybody about the first two shootings until 9:30 or so, when the second and much larger spree had started. The email telling people that the second spree had started didn't get out until it was almost over. Maybe if communication had been better he would have been more quickly apprehended.

I guess that answers my own question.

RandomSequence said...

Energy is a measure of probability. From the partition theorem:
P(E_k) = exp(-BE_k)/sum_j(exp(-BE_j)

So, free energy makes the impossible possible. Reality breaks down - the principle of least action can be overturned (The principle of least action is the source of Newtonian mechanics).

As the the sacred "Ghostbusters" said:
Dr. Peter Venkman: This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.
Mayor: What do you mean, "biblical"?
Dr Ray Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath-of-God type stuff.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.
Dr Ray Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies. Rivers and seas boiling.
Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness. Earthquakes, volcanoes...
Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together - mass hysteria.

RandomSequence said...


The interesting thing about violence today is the alienation evinced by it. I remember reading years ago a research paper into bar fights. Until the fifties, the number of guys killed at bars in drunken brawls was very large (don't remember the paper's name or journal, unfortunately). It was normal for their to be a killing ever weekend at the bars in the bad part of every town.

I'm sure the same has happened with lover's quarrels, intra and inter family killings, even gang violence compared with what would have been normal in any large city before WWII.

Today, we don't have that. What we have instead are serial killers (probably much more common than what appear in the stats), mass murderers, terror attacks and sports killings (teenage kids going on rampages against homeless people, gays, etc). Instead of personal killings (that guy that was always annoying at the bar, your spouse when you find them in bed with another...) we get stranger killings.

They are less in number: it takes a real whacko to kill a complete stranger. But they are much more terrifying. We seem to produce more and more people who are functionally autistic, who are socially and morally unconnected to other human beings. Fortunately, that kills much of the cooperativity - we get riots that are basically looting sprees instead of planned massacres of the neighboring folks (deplorably common in the US until WWII).

Something deep has changed in us. Good or bad overall? I guess our grandchildren will see more clearly than we can.

It reminds me of Sitting Bull's response to Western Civilization on his tour with Buffalo Bill Cody's Western show. Sitting Bull was a man who had no problem cracking the skull of another man face to face, watching his enemies and allies die in massacre and war. But the sight of a drunk passed out in the gutter disturbed him deeply. In his mind, what kind of disturbed society, what kind of complete alienation from each other, could lead people to abandon each other that way? He'd rather live in a society where his neighbor might crack his skull open, than one where they would simply ignore him and abandon him to die.

gmknobl said...

Someone responded to me by saying that gun violence per capita has gone down since (insert year here).

Guess what? I consider it likely that gun violence would decline even more if hand guns were more strictly controlled.

To put the argument in terms of logic, to say that gun violence is decreasing does not imply that a) it's decreasing fast enough nor that b) it would not decrease more if certain logical steps were taken to curb it.

I don't want to outlaw guns, nope not at all. But it is clear the second amendment was never intended to safeguard a right to arm yourself as the NRA, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich and the other neocons would have you believe. One could argue that the right to bear arms in a militia is already being met by the National Guard (not that I'd fully agree).

Clearly, that ability to purchase handguns here in Virginia as safeguarded by the NRA crowd is the wrong approach to safeguarding the populace and has nothing to do with safeguarding liberty as the constitution tried to do.

Restrict handgun ownership more. That's all I'm saying; that's what is needed now.

Stuart said...

In The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov, a scientist discovers a free energy source that turns out to be powered by a slow equalization of naural laws between this and another universe. The main characters must stop the widespread use of the devices before the laws of their respective universes change enough to break the mechanics of life.