The Other N-word

Nuclear.

The US public is split nearly 50/50 between those who favor nuclear power and those who don’t. Because of this, nuclear is often a dirty word in the political arena. Nobody wants to lose half their constituency over a marginal issue like nuclear power. Before 1979, the political climate was ripe for the rapid expansion of nuclear power. However, the Three Mile Island accident resulted in the cancellation of most new nuclear plant projects. 30 years later, the public was just starting to warm up to the idea of nuclear as part of the so-called “nuclear renaissance.” Then, in a case of incredibly poor timing, the Fukushima disaster struck.

There is a lot of weird cultural weight attached to the “N-word”, not the least due to an entire generation being psychologically scarred by the perceived overhanging threat of nuclear war. Unfortunately, this snubs one of humanity’s greatest hopes for survival.

Nuclear might not be cost-effective as geothermal, wind, or hydro power. It also isn’t as clean as solar. However, I would argue that neither cost-effectiveness nor cleanliness displaces nuclear from being the best “clean” energy source available. And not only would widespread adoption of nuclear energy entirely solve the climate crisis, it would save humanity from eventual extinction by hastening our spread through the universe.

As I see it, the only other power source that is as scalable as nuclear is solar. Solar, however, loses out on two counts. First, it is really expensive compared to, like, any other power source. Second, the energy density of solar is really, really low. We would need to cover 496,805 square kilometers of area with solar panels to satisfy the world’s projected energy consumption in 2030. While the price of solar power has really come down, that’s also in part due to subsidized research. On the other hand, nuclear has a much higher power density, and despite years of marginalization, is still competitive with current cutting-edge solar power. It is also extremely reliable, with fluctuations in power output virtually non-existent. This is something other forms of renewable energy lack.

If we started investing in nuclear research, we could dramatically lower the costs of nuclear power and satisfy a huge portion of the world’s energy demands. Cheap electricity would hasten the wide-spread use of electric cars (okay, this would probably happen anyways). With combustion cars and both natural gas and coal plants replaced, the influx of greenhouse gases into the environment would be greatly reduced. Cheap, portable reactors would allow developing countries to get on their feet in terms of manufacturing capability. Cheap energy would allow us to implement energy-intensive climate engineering schemes. Advanced nuclear technology would lead to the development of closed-core nuclear rockets, allowing safe, clean, and cheap access to space. Portable reactors would jump-start unmanned planetary exploration, interstellar exploration, human colonization, and asteroid mining.

Of course, none of this will happen. Nuclear is still a dirty word, burdened by the historical and cultural baggage it must drag around. The first step to a better, cleaner future is to get the public to accept nuclear power. As long as we are afraid to say the word, we are holding ourselves back from achieving our full potential.

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Tekkit Sucks

There is a set of Minecraft mod packs that includes Tekkit and Technic. You may have seen these showcased in a number of venues, including a popular Yogscast series. Let me just get this straight. Tekkit is stupid. It was obviously designed by someone who looked at Minecraft and said, “I’m going to make this the best game ever.” Unfortunately, they merely succeeded in creating a hodge-podge of mods which take away from the core of Minecraft.

The gluttony of blocks in Tekkit.

The gluttony of blocks in Tekkit.



But what is the core of Minecraft, really? Ultimately, Minecraft is what you make it. I say that unironically, even though I’m about to tell you how it should be. Minecraft has always been a great source of surprise. Legions of Youtube videos outline hundreds of crazy contraptions and structures that use the basic mechanics of the Minecraft universe to form impressive and surprising constructions.

Nearly every feature in Minecraft has a way of being exploited to perform tasks that the creators never even fathomed. Beyond the basic mechanics such as crafting and smelting, the use of a feature is mostly left up to the user. Fluids, redstone, minecarts, TNT, signs- must I go on? But really that was the appeal to begin with. You can create completely new contraptions within a very simple set of game rules.

This is why I think many of the features Notch added in later updates- wolves, potions, dragons, the End- run contrary to the spirit of the game. It’s OK to add elements to expand the exploratory, adventuring parts of the game. But when that threatens to push the creative, inventive part of the game into the shadows, I think the developers need to re-evaluate their priorities. Minecraft was never prized for its combat, or adventure. It became popular because the game allowed players to invent their own set of rules and develop the world how they liked. When the developer takes the reigns and decides the end-goal FOR the player, something has gone awry.

For the same reasons, I absolutely despise Tekkit. I can see the good intentions behind it, but it completely fails at its mission. A group of people, perhaps, with no sense for the game, were intrigued by how much could be done in Minecraft. But they thirsted for more. So they set out and gathered mods which let them do what they wanted. Pipes let them transport items, tanks let them store fluid, pumps let them suck it up, engines and solar panels gave them electricity, quarries let them automate mining, and energy condensers let them get any material they needed. To make it more “balanced”, they added a larger set of materials needed to build these contraptions, including rubber, and tons of new ores. Furthermore, a control system was needed, so they put a programmable computer in. A computer that ran Lisp scripts. And you loaded the scripts from outside Minecraft. They needed more power, so they added uranium and a nuclear reactor.

Suddenly, it wasn’t Minecraft anymore. It was a horrifying maze of features that was no longer surprising. Sure, people could build fascinating things that were intricate and took enormous amounts of time. But it wasn’t really surprising anymore. A nerd with a computer and a huge set of physical actuators can obviously accomplish a lot, whether the computer is in a videogame or not. The appeal of Minecraft was that nobody thought building a ALU was really possible when it started out. Half the crazy contraptions were for accumulating resources: automated farms ranging from chickens to monsters to reeds to cobblestone to snow. With the energy condenser, nobody needed ice pipelines or chicken friers. Sure, you could still build them. But there was no point. Oh, you built an automated oil refinery? All it takes is pipes, pumps, and refineries. The blocks are all there. That’s the only thing a refinery is used for.

Blocks only have one purpose, even if that is a broad purpose. Engines power pipes and quarries and pumps. Fuel goes into combustion engines. Refineries make fuel. Pumps suck up liquid. Quarries dig. Seriously, you make a single block, which then automatically digs. You can also add a pump to it if you want it to suck up water and lava. But there is no design for you to modify. You can’t make it more efficient, or irregular, or spray water on lava. You can’t build a giant engine room which is twice as efficient due to interlocking designs. You can’t build a computer, since there is already one built. Want to spray some construction foam over everything to make it blast-resistant? Boom, done. Need a nuclear reactor? There’s a block for that. Want to make it bigger? Sorry, you can add on extra chambers, but only up to six. It outputs a high-voltage. You need to make a very specific set of blocks, each of which steps the voltage down one level.

Again, this violates the very essence of Minecraft. That’s why I developed a plan for a comprehensive mod that allows most of the same functionality of Tekkit, but goes much, much further. I will cover this mod in a future post, or probably multiple posts.

The World in 15 Years

It’s been a while since I’ve just written something for fun without justifying myself, so I decided to make a post where I just make shit up. Basically, I’ve been thinking about something I heard a while back, which went along the lines of: science fiction is about personalizing issues in the present day and bringing abstract problems to a level in which the characters deal with it directly. While I disagree with the statement to some extent, I also agree with it the more I think about it. Fallen Angels makes climate change a very tangible force that the characters have to deal with, for instance. Power Nap (a webcomic) expands the sense that corporations take advantage of their employees for productivity beyond reasonable limits, and personalizes it for the protagonist.

So, I momentarily abandoned my plans for writing a space opera. Most of all, I just wasn’t ready for a writing project of that magnitude. But more importantly, it didn’t MEAN anything to me. I wanted to write a story that took some problem or idea that affected me and make it very real and tangible. With the latest set of vicious storms in my area knocking out power for days, even disabling emergency services and perhaps water utilities for a time, I began thinking about how reliant our global society is on electronics and the electricity to power them. This coupled with the thoughts that had been stewing about in my head ever since I casually skimmed a National Geographic article. The article was not that interesting, but the subject matter was one that hadn’t really occurred to me before: a freak solar flare, like one that happened in 1859, could essentially fry the entire power grid and all of our electronics. This, to me, proposes a much more interesting and up-to-date apocalyptic scenario than the standard nuclear armageddon.

That got me thinking about the near future, and so I’ve compiled a list of some things I think will be likely to occur in the next 15 years. I tried to not be too optimistic. Yes, I know that some of it is inconsistent, and some of it is much more detailed than other parts.

Geopolitics
Asia
-China becoming more democratic, but increases censorship nonetheless
-Huge number of economically successful high-tech countries in East and Southeast Asia
-Pacific Rim emerges as haven for free data sharing, as well as Eastern Europe

Africa
-Poor countries still poor
-Communication technologies become even more widespread
-Corrupt governments overthrown in continuous cycles of bloody revolution
-Raw material supply becomes unreliable
-Poor corrupt countries may fall into anarchy

America
-Rest of world becoming more socialist in terms of government handling of resources
-USA increasingly resistant to government regulation of resources and thus begins to lag in large societal changes and technological adoption
-More and more unrest as the US government fails to agilely address new problems
-Increased attempts by media-industry-controlled government factions to eradicate un-supervised data sharing on Internet
-USA oversteps some boundaries trying to persecute free data sharing companies in Asia, world becomes weary of US intellectual property pushes

Europe
-Everything goes to shit in Greece with communist election, pulls out of EU
-Spain pulls out of EU because of financial collapse
-Germany pulls out of EU in anticipation of EU and Euro collapse
-Euro goes to hell
-European economy collapses, lots of companies migrate their finances to US or Asia in anticipation
-Several brief civil wars break out in countries hit hard, tourism in Europe goes to shit, causes more economic decay

Technology
Space
-DARPA project kicks off space recycling
-Retired space stations are cannibalized
-Expanded commercial industry, competition with SpaceX
-Asteroid mining just starting, expected influx of resources (Earth mining becomes ridiculously expensive as resources are depleted)
-Plans for mars still just plans (commercial and governmental)
-Commercial space station with sponsors (Red Bull module?)

Computers
-More advances in mobile technology
-Competition in information glasses (see Google Glass)
-Increased presence of laplets (netbook / tablet hybrid, see Microsoft Surface)
-Increases in high-speed Internet availability
-Cloud gaming (processing on external machines, screen streamed)
-Some cities are implementing ubiquitous wifi
-Self-driving cars prevalent
-Resource sharing via private companies becomes more accepted

Medicine
-Cures for blindness, etc
-Advances in prosthetics, mind-controlled apparatus
-More use of robotics, especially in operations
-Cancer research still unable to cure cancer
-Pushback against genetic engineering to solve rampant problems (e.g. anti-sepsis bacteria, clotting-inducers, artificial immune boosters, disease-vector re-engineering)
-Technological advances in molecular synthesis jeopardizes pharmaceutical industry

Transportation
-Niche markets of supersonic flights and new efficient airships are filled
-Ocean drilling for oil becomes extremely common, Gulf spill stigma overcome
-Oil synthesization expanding as a market, more viable as oil is used up and Middle Eastern oil is unavailable
-Price of flights start to increase, flying starts to become less popular

Environment
-Increased reliance on new breed of safe fission power
-Global warming still “on the rise”, even though it has been partially linked to various natural processes
-Carbon emissions significantly reduced in Europe and America, increased in Asia
-Attempts to limit number of chemical rockets used, rejection
-Anti-desertification movement gains momentum, Saharan reduction initiated
-Still huge pushes towards recycling


I might update this post with some short descriptions of why I make some of these predictions, but until then you should leave a comment agreeing or disagreeing. Also follow me on Twitter @mattlevonian if you like my blog.

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