Tag Archives: energy

How to Power Modern Economies: Read Your Meter

Read you meter at home. This fun-filled advice was given by Sir David MacKay in a wonderful TEDx talk about how we heat our homes, get to work, run our computers, and how it all scales across countries and continents. The idea is really about how we run our lives while also trying to pass on a livable planet to our grand-children without the politically correct “greenwash” and self-righteous “claptraps”. Read your meter, do some algebra, and embrace the adventure to explore your home, your life, and the energy it all takes. If you read this far, watch the movie

David MacKay taught physics and information theory at the University of Cambridge in England. I learnt of him via Ruth Mottram in one of her many tweets. Dr. Mottram studies climate impacts of Greenland glaciers and works at the Danish Meteorological Institute. The tweet made me buy the book “Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithm’s” that David MacKay wrote a few years back. It arrived today.

What piqued my interest was the advanced math that goes into designing networks that send and transform information such telephone calls via wireless, computer networks, and how to deal with imperfect channels of communication. My marriage comes to mind, too, because what I say is not always what I mean which is not always what my wife hears and vice versa, but I digress. Imperfect communication channels are one challenge we will face in an experiment to explore acoustic underwater data transmissions that hopefully will take place next year out of Thule Air Force Base, Greenland. Water and ice are imperfect communication channels that we need to use wisely to make our whispers carry far. Try to talk to a person across a busy street in Manhattan with all its hustle and bustle; you need to find something smarter and more effective than just simple shouting.

David MacKay wrote a second book that is close to his TEDx talk and is called “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air.” Experimenting at home like any good physicist does, he discovers that “… the more often I read my meter, the less gas I use!”

There is so much more to this man, his work, and ideas as a physicist with a keen interest in the big picture without skipping the details. Sadly, he died yesterday of cancer too early only 48 years of age.

Winners and Losers of Climate Change

People with computers live long, prosperous lives, those without die early. Does this correlation mean that computers make us live longer? Of course not, but on average computer users live longer the same way that global temperatures increase as more people use computers. Does this now mean that warmer temperatures are good for you? Absolutely, if you have a computer …

Sum of undepleted CO2 emissions (top) 1950-200 and expected death by malaria, hunger, diarrhea, and flooding (bottom) as adapted from Patz et al. (2007)

I came across a report sponsored by the medical journal “The Lancet” and the University College of London entitled “ Managing the health effects of climate change.” There are pictures of glaciers, volcanos, floods, and many dazzling graphs. The most stunning is a distorted and bulging earth (Patz et al., 2007).

On top it shows the total undepleted CO2 put into the air from 1950-2000. The larger a region on the map, the more CO2 a region puts into the air. On the bottom, it shows how many people will likely die as a result of calamities that are larger in a warming climate for the 2000-2030 period. The larger the region on the map, the more people will be wiped out.

Enjoying a high standard of living fueled by burning coal, oil, and gas, we Europeans and North-Americans use energy to keep our computers, cars, and industries running. In the process we released about 10-30 pounds of CO2 per person per day averaged of the last 50 years. We are immune to malaria, a disease fostered by warmer climates; we got a strong economy to feed and cloth us so we do not starve; and except for the poor of New Orleans who drowned in hurricane Katrina, we rarely die of floods.

The situation is different in Africa and Asia. The average CO2 released is well below 2 pounds per person per day. There just are not as many computers, cars, and industries there. Instead, malaria is the main killer as it reproduces fast. Rising sea levels caused by a warming climate will cause more flooding of poorly protected areas where more poor people will drown.

No single flood, malaria, or drought will ever be caused by global warming alone. Global warming is an abstract and statistical concept that varies by region and over time. It is always present and poses an ethical dilemma: those with computers cause most of the global warming, but we do not pay the full price, while those without computers who contribute the least to the warming, they will pay more than full price. Hardly seems fair, but such is life … and we need our computers.