The Unexpected Perspective
The Implications of Darwin and the Big Bang for Christians ... and Everyone Else

Perspectives

Geneticists Have Provided Unexpected News About What Northern Europeans May Have Looked Like

            We all make assumptions about how things are, and why they are as they are.  We also sometimes have to eat our words. 

            A great example of that occurred this past week with the announcement that the DNA of "Cheddar Man" had been sequenced.  "Cheddar Man" is a 10,000 year old near complete skeleton of a man, found in a cave in 1903 in Somerset County in England.  He was about 166 centimeters tall (5 foot 5 and ½ inches) and likely was in his 20's at the time of death.  Cheddar Man lived during what's called the Mesolithic Era, often referred to as the middle stone age. 

            What drew most everyone's attention wasn't the fact that the skeleton's DNA had been sequenced, an absolutely amazing feat in itself.  Instead, it was the announcement that the DNA showed he was dark skinned and likely had blue eyes!  That will upend a whole lot of things we've assumed about people who lived in Europe in the Stone Age.

            Other evidence suggests that humans first appeared in Europe about 45,000 years ago.  If Cheddar Man was dark skinned, that means humans lived in northern Europe with dark skin for more than 35,000 years before their skin pigment changed. 

            That in itself likely upends the long held assumption that the reason northern Europeans had lighter skin and eye color was as an adaptation to higher latitudes and the lack of sunlight.  Less sunlight meant that humans were less able to absorb Vitamin D, so skin color adapted over the generations.  But the latest evidence now suggests that skin color didn't really change until about 6,000 years ago.

            Which means those of us who are Caucasian really are "the new kids on the block"; and we managed to survive quite nicely in Europe for an awfully long time with dark skins.

            So just how did the scientists manage to do an entire genetic sequence on a 10,000 year old skeleton, and how did they reach the conclusion about dark skin and blue eyes? 

            Upon death, DNA begins to break down.  You'd think it would have been entirely broken down after 10,000 years.  The big break for the geneticists is the fact that Cheddar Man was preserved in a cave.  Caves tend to provide the right conditions that could help preserve DNA.

            But as previously noted, the skeleton was discovered in 1903, so those advantageous cave conditions ended 115 years ago, more than enough time to cause the DNA to degrade, erasing 10,000 years of preservation.  Obviously, the British scientists at the Natural History Museum of London who have been caring for the skeleton over the past century deserve a lot of credit for the fact the DNA survived since 1903.

            Cheddar Man's mitochondrial DNA was first tested in 1996 by Dr. Brian Sykes.  Mitochondrial DNA is inherited from one's mother.  While that was just over 20 years ago, it's a veritable millennium ago in terms of knowledge about DNA.  In between, the entire human genome was first sequenced.  Sykes, a professor at Oxford University, reportedly obtained the mitochondrial DNA from a molar in Cheddar Man's mouth.  His data suggested that Cheddar Man's maternal DNA came from Haplogroup U5.   Those with such DNA share it with other ancient humans who lived in Europe.

            The latest DNA on Cheddar Man was far more sophisticated than what Sykes did in 1996.  The basic technology used is called shotgun sequencing.   One of the researchers involved with Cheddar Man was Dr. Selina Brace, a postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum of London.  Dr. Brace explained  the process used to obtain Cheddar Man's DNA for the full sequencing: "To extract ancient DNA from a human or animal what you're looking for is a dense bone which might have protected the DNA inside it as much as possible.

"We used to use leg bones or teeth as the thick bones and enamel keep DNA quite intact, but in the last two years we've shifted to using the petrous, or inner ear bone, which is the densest bone in the human body ... However it isn't a golden egg. You can still fail to retrieve useful DNA. But if the body was deposited in a good environment, where there was a cool and constant temperature then the petrous bone is a good place to find useful ancient DNA."

            A lot of useful DNA.  But let's get the main question: just how do the researchers know that Cheddar Man had blue eyes and dark skin?  After all, all they have is a skeleton.  No flesh.  No cave paintings.  Certainly no family photos. 

            Let's first consider Cheddar Man's eye color.  You may remember Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian monk from the 19th century who conducted a bunch of experiments with peas.  He's the guy who first developed the concept of genetics, including the concept of dominant and recessive genes. 

            Like me, you probably learned that brown eyes are dominant and blue eyes recessive.  It's an idea based upon the assumption that eye color is controlled by a single gene.

            Well, it's another idea that has gone out the window.  In fact, geneticists have determined that eye color is "polygenic", meaning that it is determined not by a single gene but by multiple genes.  Among the genes controlling eye color are OCA2 and HERC2, both located on chromosome 15 (note: humans have 23 pairs of genes); SLC24A4, TYR, and IRF4, all located on chromosome 7; and SLC45A2, located on chromosome 5. 

            So if there isn't a single gene that causes one to have brown, blue, green or grey eye colors, what causes it?  Eye color is actually a function of melanin at the back of the retina.  It's composed of a number of different shades.  The combination of shades for each person creates distinctive colors for each of us.  We simply tend to lump those shades into a handful of colors. 

            If you know what the different SNP's (single nucleotide polymorphisms) are you can infer the person's actual eye color.  In fact, what geneticists have done is to take the actual data for a lot of people, compare it to each person's actual eye color, then figure out a way to predict color based upon the genetic data.  They did this using a multinomial regression model.

            What the geneticists have determined is that with the six sets of SNP's mentioned above, they can predict eye color to the following level of accuracy:

            Brown eyes:                            93%

            Blue eyes:                               91%

            Intermediate eye colors:          72%

So based upon the SNP's they found in Cheddar Man's genetic profile, they are about 91% certain that he had blue eyes.  Not guaranteed, but very likely.

            But why would blue eyes have become a fairly common trait in places like northern Europe?  An intriguing theory relates to "the winter blues".  Several studies have linked lighter eye color to the ability to overcome seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a major depressive illness. As Dr. Richard Sturm suggested "perhaps those with blue eyes may have been able to withstand the dark, depressing days of the Neolithic European winters better than those with brown eye color?"

            So being able to determine Cheddar Man's eye color is interesting, but not many people think the fact that he likely had blue eyes is a big deal.  After all, Cheddar Man lived in northern Europe.

            Having dark skin in northern Europe is a big deal!  So let's consider how the geneticists figured that one out.

            Like eye color, skin color is a polygenic trait, meaning there isn't a single gene controlling skin color.  In fact, according to the GB Healthwatch, there are a total of 378 genetic loci involved in determining skin color in humans and mice.  

            So based upon the latest research, humans lived in northern Europe for over 35,000 years with dark skin.  Why then would skin have changed color? 

            It's well known that lighter skin absorbs Vitamin D better than dark skin.  It's all been determined that Cheddar Man and his contemporaries were likely lactose intolerant, so they weren't getting needed Vitamin D from the family cow.  An alternative theory is that they were getting it from sources such as oily fish. 

            If Cheddar Man and his contemporaries were getting adequate Vitamin D from a food source, it could explain why they survived at least 35,000 years in a high latitude, low sunlight environment and not have a Vitamin D deficiency.

            So if that's the case, why do people like me, a descendent of northern Europeans, have light skin today?  What changed?  Certainly not the angle of the sun?   Not only that, if sunlight was the underlying factor, then why don't Inuit people in Canada and Alaska look like Norweigians?

            There are a number of theories.  One possible theory is the switch to farming.  Remember, Cheddar Man was a hunter gatherer, not a farmer.  Once his descendants settled down and started farming, people may have relied less on sources of Vitamin D such as oily fish.  And Vitamin D deficiencies probably began appearing, as well as the associated genetic response.

            Not proven, but there's the suggestion that a lifestyle change actually was the cause for fair skin to emerge.

            So once again, Cheddar Man has changed our understanding of who we humans are, and from where we came, in a very unexpected way.  And the story continues to unfold.

 

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A new initiative seeks to sequence the genomes of some 1.5 million species within the next 10 years. It's an audacious goal, but increasingly realistic given three technologies, including blockchain.

            My wife likes to say that the cure for cancer is buried somewhere in the Amazon rainforest.  Scientists just have to locate it and develop it.

            I don't know about the cure for cancer, but I do know that from the venom of certain snakes in the Amazon has come the key ingredients for ACE inhibitors, a life-saving cardiac drug used around the world.  At the same time, Amazonian rainforest trees have given us rubber, something that's benefitted people worldwide.  Unfortunately, the people of the Amazon have received precious little benefit from either discovery.  It's all accrued to others.

            Hoping to prevent the misappropriation of Amazonian biological assets in the future is Juan Carlos Castilla Rubio, a Brazilian entrepreneur.  Rubio is personally try to reverse the long term destruction of the Amazonian rainforest by getting everyone refocused away from logging and moving towards seeking innovation.  He's confident that drawing upon the past experience of ACE inhibitors and rubber – making sure that Brazilians benefit from any innovation that comes from the rainforest – is key.  The question, how?

            Doubtless, you've heard of the Human Genome Project, initially completed about 12 years ago.  For the first time, the 23 pairs of chromosomes of a human were catalogued.  Since then, millions of humans have had their DNA analyzed, and scientists have decoded the genomes of about 2,500 other species. 

            Several months ago scientists launched what's called the Earth Biogenome Project, the goal of which is to sequence all of the genomes of the 1.5 million Eukaryotic animals/organisms known.  Eukaryotes are organisms whose cells have nuclei.  Organizers announced the audacious goal of analyzing the genomes of about 1.5 million species within 10 years!

            At the recent World Economic Forum, there were announcements about trying to link both the Amazonian effort with the Earth Biogenome Project.  No question, there's some very BIG THINKING going on!  The question is, could it really happen, or is this just another case of creating a gigantic "wish list"? 

            The good news: I think it could really happen.  A confluence of technologies may make things like ACE inhibitors from snake venom in the Amazon an everyday occurrence, and catapult technology in a dramatic fashion.  Three technologies are likely to make this audacious goal possible: genome sequencing; open source data warehouses; and blockchain smart contracts.  Let's take a look at how all three might be brought together to propel technological change.

            There's a good reason the genomes of only about 2,500 species have been sequenced so far: cost.  But the cost is dropping at Moore's Law rates.  Anyone who has had companies such as 23andme sequence their personal genome know how much less it costs today than just a few years ago.

            Besides cost reduction, the sequencers are becoming portable.  Various companies are developing handheld gene sequencers to take into the field.  Oxford Nanopore, a British company, currently sells its MinIon handheld device and promises that sequencing can be done for under $1,000.  The goal is to get it down to $ 100.  So it may soon be possible to deploy armies of field researchers armed with $ 100 handheld sequencers.

            Getting the cost down is certainly important, but making the sequencers portable is probably the more significant development.  That's because one of the big challenges to gene sequencing is transporting samples.  In many cases, countries are loathe to let samples be taken from natural habitats.  After all, everybody already knows that most countries take a very dim view of eco-tourists taking samples home.  With handheld devices, however, there's the possibility that fieldworkers can take handheld sequencing devices out and take genetic samples without disturbing the habitat.  It will still be a huge challenge to sequence the genomes of every Eukaryotic species, but much more feasible if samples can be taken in the field.

            The second key element is open source data warehouses.  Increasingly, open source data warehouses are being developed to encourage collaboration amongst different parties.  I have my own experience with this in a different domain- I'm an investor in a company called ServingLynk, which develops open source software and operates a data warehouse to track homelessness, and other human service issues, around the USA.  Open source is especially beneficial in this field because it encourages different parties to collaborate.  The key is to have one party host the data warehouse and ensure data integrity and security.  Open source data tools are made available to all, giving everyone the opportunity to contribute additional code that will increase functionality and useability.  If that's done, the solution can be far better than the traditional approach.  Government entities with incompatible databases and systems can still share data fairly easily given open source databases and good API's.

            So how do you apply that in this case?  For users of the ServingLynk software, mobile apps are available that permit most anyone to gather data on a homeless person, then upload the data securely into the data warehouse.  Because the databases include highly personal data, each entity that contributes data to the warehouse is free to keep data as private or open as desired.  Highly sensitive data are kept confidential, but other data are made available to increase functionality.

            So envision a giant open source data warehouse of genetic genomic sequences?  Users can utilize products such as Nanopore's handheld device, gather genetic data in the field, then upload the data into the database.  This solves a huge problem of countries keeping control of their biological heritage.  They don't want experts coming and taking species from the field.  Instead, data can be gathered unobtrusively in the field and entered into the database.

            The other key problem is keeping control of the genetic patrimony.  So let's go back to the Amazon rainforest case.  Recall that two great technological innovations that came of out the Amazon rainforest were rubber trees and ACE inhibitors.  The problem with these two innovations is that the local economy never fully benefitted from this.  Instead, scientists came into the Amazon, made discoveries that made companies lots of money, but very little of that money was ever shared with the local economy.

            The third element provides a potential solution to the problem.  That is to utilized blockchain "smart contracts".    Doubtless, you're aware of Bitcoin and Ethereum, two implementations of blockchain technology.  Bitcoin certainly has a checkered reputation as a currency. 

            So just what is a "smart contract"?  Here's one definition: Smart contracts are self-executing contracts with the terms of the agreement between buyer and seller being directly written into lines of code. The code and the agreements contained therein exist across a distributed, decentralized blockchain network. Smart contracts permit trusted transactions and agreements to be carried out among disparate, anonymous parties without the need for a central authority, legal system, or external enforcement mechanism. They render transactions traceable, transparent, and irreversible.

           In this case, blockchain will be implemented for a non-financial purpose.  Here's the idea.  Each time someone wants to utilize the genetic sequence of a particular eukaryote, a blockchain smart contract could be created.  Given the way blockchain works, it would not be very easy to take genetic information from a particular country and exploit it without everyone else knowing.  Thus, the blockchain would record how a particular researcher, or company, wishes to utilize the genetic information.  If it is fortunate enough to develop something every useful, everyone will know.  The truth can't easily be hidden.

            A majority countries in the world – 104 at last count, but not including the United States – have entered into what's called the Nagoya Protocol.  The purpose of this is to protect the biological patrimony of signatory countries from being exploited.  This should prevent large companies from repeating the exploitation of snake venom from the Amazon to create ACE inhibitors.  At least if there is a technological innovation, the Nagoya Protocol provides a way for the host country to benefit.

            Applying blockchain smart contracts will make this much easier to do.   Here's a possible way.  If a Nanopore genetic sequencer is used on a previously un-catalogued species, there could be a requirement to add the genetic sequence to the open source database.  Moreover, a smart contract could be appended to this, providing what limits are placed on the use of the genetic data.  The blockchain will ensure everyone knows about this.  Thus, any time a party wants to exploit the genetic data, the smart contract provisions will come into play.

Will this be a panacea?  Absolutely not!  The lions are not going to lie down with lambs on this one.  However, it will be easier to manage this with the three components of handheld sequencers, open source databases, and blockchain smart contracts.

            As previously mentioned, the goal is to complete sequencing on all 1.5 million Eukaryotic organisms within 10 years.  The estimated cost is at least $ 4.7 billion dollars to sequence all of the estimated 1.5 million non-human Eukaryotes.  A huge amount of money, but remember that when the Human Genome Project was undertaken, the cost and timeline were projected to be far greater than what turned out to be the case.  Technological innovation certainly explains a lot of that. 

            Making the entire process more transparent should also help.  Just creating the database should help spur research and create unexpected opportunities.  Making it open source, creating low cost tools to sequence data, and enabling blockchain smart contracts should make it just that much more powerful.

            Sequencing the entire human genome has already yielded incredible scientific benefits.  Doing the same for all 1.5 million Eukaryotic organisms will likely produce almost unimaginable benefits.  Getting there will be a challenge, but potentially a very manageable one with open source software and data warehouse, handheld genetic sequencers, and "smart contract" blockchains.   And we may find ourselves just that much closer to finding the cure to cancer in some plant in the Amazon ... and realizing the dream of Juan Carlos Castilla Rubio: the local people benefitting in a way they never have before.

 

 

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What Could the Immigration Debate and Groundhog Day Have in Common? A lot!

            If you're like me, you're getting REALLY tired of the endless immigration debate.  Given that Groundhog Day (February 2nd) occurs this week, I couldn't help but think of Bill Murray's classic "Groundhog Day" movie which, incidentally, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

            The more I thought about it, the more I realized, "Groundhog Day" has some relevance to the immigration debate.  In the movie Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a cynical TV weatherman from Pittsburgh, asked by his station to cover Groundhog Day – AGAIN.  It's the fourth time!  He covers the event in a very half-hearted manner for his TV station.  A big snowstorm occurs and Murray, along with his TV producer and cameraman, get stuck in Punxsatawney, PA, home of the groundhog.  Then Groundhog Day repeats itself, over and over again.  No matter what Murray's character does, the day repeats itself.

            While it's a movie, it almost sounds like Congress and the President with the immigration debate.  Instead of waking up every morning to find it's still February 2nd, we wake up every few weeks to find the government on the verge of a shutdown; endless accusations and finger-pointing; and STILL ZERO RESOLUTION OF EITHER THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE OR THE BUDGET!

            Finally, Murray's character wakes up and it's February 3rd – no longer Groundhog Day.  He's a changed man: his behavior, his way of treating others, and his outlook on life, all have changed – for the better.

            So what lessons of "Groundhog Day" the movie might be applied to the immigration debate?  A key thing Phil Connors – Murray's character – does is to change his attitude about the people of the town.  The message in this for Republicans and Democrats?  How about, let's reframe the immigration debate?  Maybe drop the following narratives?

Democrats: all the Republicans want to do is build a stupid wall; and deport a bunch of innocent kids brought illegally by their parents to the USA (the Dreamers)

Republicans: all the Democrats want to do is reward a bunch of illegal aliens who broke the law.

            In the course of the movie, Phil Connors changes his mind about the townspeople, going from thinking of them as a bunch of hicks to realizing they're good people … and people he'd like to be his friends.  As the movie unwinds, he learns new things – such as how to speak French and play jazz piano – and how to become a friendly, likeable guy.

            A classic way that entrepreneurs try to solve tough problems is to re-frame them.  Maybe by changing the questions.  That's the general approach of my blog, "The Unexpected Perspective".  The idea is to take thorny, intractable problems and re-frame them.            

            One has been to reframe the debate about global warming and climate change.  Instead of berating conservatives for being skeptical about climate change, "The Unexpected Perspective" says, liberals should encourage conservatives to invest in climate changing technology because of the money-making potential.  Instead of calling conservatives stupid, show them how they could benefit by re-thinking the issue.  Conservatives can still say that climate change isn't real, but do the things that liberals believe will produce desired change.

            So how can the same thinking be applied to the immigration debate?  By having everyone – Republicans and Democrats - asking the following "re-framing" question:

Could there be something in the other side's position on immigration that would benefit my side?

            Let's try this out.  If you're a Democrat, here's a possible answer:

            The Republicans say they want a wall, but if you cut through the rhetoric, what they really want is a secure border.  A wall is a means to an end.  Which then leads to a follow-on question: is there a way to create a secure border without spending a huge amount of money building an ugly physical wall?

            Now for the Republicans.  They might re-frame the problem as follows.  The Democrats seem to want to reward illegal behavior and flood the country with illegal aliens.  Could we as a country actually benefit by keeping most of these illegal entrantsWhat would have to happen for it to be a blessing that we have eleven million illegal immigrants in the country?

            The average reader already has a decided "position" on this, one way or the other, so reading these questions might be a little jarring.  But remember Phil Connors, the TV weatherman, on the first couple of "Groundhog Days" he spent in the movie?  Pretty angry, pretty cynical, pretty stuck in his "position".

            So let's explore the questions I've posed, starting with the questions that might make Democrats pretty uneasy.

            Is there a way to give the Republicans what they say they want - a secure border - without spending a huge amount of money creating an ugly physical wall?

            The answer is "YES".  The simplest way is to apply technology to the problem.  Some people have said, Trump's wall is a "14th century answer to a 21st century problem."  I'd turn that around and ask instead, "how do you create a 21st century solution to a 14th century problem?"  The "14th century problem" is how to prevent people from crossing the border you don't want them to cross.  The Chinese produced the perfect 14th century solution to that problem – a 1,000+ mile wall – portions of which you can still walk on today. 

            So what's a "21st century solution"?  How about technology?  Use technology to create a "technological wall" that limits access.  You end up with the barrier to entry you want, just without a wall that is both unsightly and an environmental nightmare.

            Put Silicon Valley to work on the problem.  They'll come up with some great technological solutions.

            The other reason to emphasize technology is because it can pay for itself over and over.  Building a physical wall is a "one off".  Unlike other infrastructure, a physical wall doesn't provide an economic return other than as a result of the initial expenditure.  In contrast, other infrastructure such as highways, bridges, airports, and communications infrastructure produce continuous economic benefits. 

            Developing new security technology that impedes entry across a border can provide ongoing economic benefits, much like traditional infrastructure. 

            Is such technology available?  ABSOLUTELY!  Drones, infrared scanning, license plate readers … all kinds of stuff.  And more technology is created all the time.

            One of the most effective ways that government can encourage economic development is through funding of basic research.  The Internet – and lots of other technology today – is the result of Federal government funding of research for military, space, energy, and other applications.  Why not border security?

            Why not create incentives for Silicon Valley?  How about increasing the number of H1B visas if Silicon Valley can create better border security technology?

            Now let's consider the re-framing question(s) from the Republican side.

            Could we as a country actually benefit by keeping most of these illegal entrantsWhat would have to happen for it to be a blessing that we have eleven million illegal immigrants in the country?

            Again, the answer is "YES".  Here's how it could work.  We could create a pathway to citizenship for most of these people.  Yes, these people broke the law by illegal entry, so there should be some type of penalty for that, but such penalties can be assessed, most likely in the form of fines. We could require these people to do any number of things to earn citizenship, just like others.  One, of course, is to require everyone to try to learn to speak English.  For those who don't want to do those things, or who we deem to be dangerous criminals, we can require them to leave.

            But the key "re-framing" for Republicans is the idea that the eleven million or so illegals in the country actually could be a blessing.  What would that take?

            Turning a lot of people into taxpayers would certainly be a blessing. 

            Lots of illegals are exploited and abused, simply because the abusers and exploiters know the illegals can't easily complain.  Stopping much of that would be a blessing.

            Simply getting the immigration issue "off the table" would be a blessing!  Get on to something else.

            By getting each side to re-frame the problem, a route to a solution becomes readily apparent:

            Republicans can get the border security they want, without wasting a lot of resources on an ugly wall, simply by creating a "21st century solution to a 14th century problem."

            Democrats can get a pathway to citizenship for a huge number of people presently in the country illegally.

            Phil Connors, Bill Murray's TV weatherman character, finally gets what he wants: the sun rising on February 3rd … and the relationship with Rita, the TV producer he's been pursuing throughout the movie. 

            And if Republicans and Democrats pull a few pages out of the "Groundhog Day" script, maybe we too can get to "February 3rd of the immigration debate": a comprehensive solution that provides Republicans the security they want, and Democrats a path to legalization for the vast majority of people living in the shadows.

            Happy Groundhog Day!

           

           

 

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LIthium ion batteries provide a way to provide electricity from solar power at midnight. Now there may be an even better way.

            The price of solar power keeps going down.  Increasingly, it looks like a great solution to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. 

            And thanks to lithium ion battery technology from Tesla, it's even possible to generate electricity from solar power after midnight. Lithium ion battery technology has dramatically increased the potential for solar power.

            But there now may be an even better solution: concentrated solar power (CSP) with molten salt storage.  While not likely, this may even begin to keep Elon Musk awake at night. 

            So just what is CSP with molten salt storage?  The idea is to generate a great deal of heat via a solar farm.  However, instead of converting the solar radiation into electricity, the solar heat is stored in a molten salt solution.  At the appropriate time, the molten salt is converted into electricity.  This is possible through the use of a concentrated solar plant.  What's that?

            In a typical solar farm, arrays of photovoltaic cells capture sunlight and transform the light into electricity.  In a CSP plant, a large array of mirrors track the Sun, then reflect sunlight directly onto a tower.   The concentrated sunlight heats molten salt in a giant insulated tank to 1050 degrees Fahrenheit (566 degrees Celsius).  In one of the plants in Nevada where this technology is in use, the tank can hold up to 3.6 million gallons.  To put that in perspective, that's the equivalent of about 6 Olympic sized swimming pools, each 50 meters length (164 feet).

            The heat in the tank can be stored very efficiently.  In fact, it's reported that there is only 1 degree Fahrenheit loss/day, about 98% thermal efficiency.  At such a high temperature, the molten salt flows like water.  When it's time to generate electricity, the molten salt then can be converted to electricity.  Thus, the power of the Sun generates the heat that is then converted into electricity at night.  It can also be converted to provide power during the day when there is peak demand for electricity.  To give you an idea of how such a system works, click here

            The Crescent Dunes plant utilizes what is called a "power tower".  The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that a power tower will be able to produce electricity at 5.4 cents/KWH, and a parabolic trough, an alternative design, will be able to produce at 6.2 cents/KWH by 2020.  These are clearly highly competitive rates.

            Several such plants have been constructed in Nevada, California, Spain and the United Arab Emirates.  The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Facility, located in Nevada between Reno and Las Vegas, is rated at 110 Megawatts.  It can generate power for 10 hours without recharging, producing 1,100 megawatt hours of power.  That's 10 times what batteries can produce at this time.  And that's what might keep Elon Musk awake at night.

            The technology for concentrated solar power has been around since the 1980's.  The first plant was built in the 1990's.  Construction on Crescent Dunes in Nevada began in 2011 and was completed in 2015.  "All in" cost of the plant is about 1 billion dollars, so it certainly isn't inexpensive.  However, for example, the cost to construct a new nuclear unit is estimated to be $ 9 billion.  The plant will generate more power, but the capital cost/MW of capacity won't be much different. 

            Of course, the solar plant will be far safer.  Accidentally spill some of the molten salt in this system and the cleanup will be minimal.  Do the same at a nuclear facility and it will be a scene reminiscent of Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. 

            Interestingly, the technology was first developed using funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.  It represents an excellent example of how government can play such a critical role.  The best role, however, is to fund basic research.

            SolarReserve, the company that built Crescent Dunes, wants to build ten more comparable plants in the Nevada desert.  These plants will have a combined capacity of  2,000 MW and generate 7 million Mwh/year. 

            Sounds like a very promising technology, especially given the low costs to produce electricity, not to mention the highly favorable environmental impact.  Coal plants can't possibly compete at these prices.  So what could limit the acceptance of such plants?

            Four key factors tend to work against some of these types of plants: 1) capital cost; 2) aesthetics; 3) land use; and 4) high tension power lines.  Capital cost is clearly high, but that's offset by low operating costs.  Aesthetics clearly work in favor of these types of plants. 

            Land use probably also works in favor of these types of plants.  Consider just the deployment of such plants on Federal lands, certainly a hot button topic.  In 2010 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Federal agency that controls a large part of the US West, approved nine large solar projects.  The "footprint" of these nine solar plants was about 40,000 acres.  That represents a square of 8 miles on each side (i.e., about 64 square miles).  By contrast, during the same year, the BLM issued 1,308 oil and gas leases that had a cumulative footprint of 3.2 million acres – 80 times as large a footprint!  In other words, the "footprint" of solar on Federal lands is far, far less than that of oil and gas.  That will likely be the case for CSP plants put on private land.

            High tension lines are another byproduct of such solar projects.  No one considers them particularly attractive - except maybe power engineers and utility executives – but one finds them all over the country.  Such high tension lines are needed for all types of power plants.  

            Thus, the key issue with such plants is their high capital cost of construction.  But as noted above, that's offset by low operating costs.  The question becomes, will capital markets provide companies with the funds to construct such plants?  My expectation is that they will.  As with other technologies, the cost of construction will likely decrease as more plants are built and the construction "knowledge base" increases.

            As such, there are really now two different technologies that can solve the problem of solar power at night – Tesla's battery solution and the CSP with molten salt solution.  Doubtless, other technologies will also emerge.  These two solutions make solar power truly viable on a national scale because they both solve the problem of accessing solar power at midnight. 

            Is molten salt a competitive technology to lithium ion batteries?  Will it keep really keep Elon Musk awake at night?  Most likely it won't.  That's because it's really a complementary technology to battery storage.  It's probably the better choice when it comes to large scale energy storage.  Lithium ion technology, on the other hand, is probably a much better "smaller scale" technology.  After all, is anyone realistically going to have a molten salt storage facility in the garage at home?  No, but they're very likely to have a lithium ion battery system.

            Just one more nail in the coal power coffin … and maybe even other fossil fuel power sources.

            And just that much more evidence that the solution to greenhouse gas emissions is on its way, brought to you not be Big Government and international treaties such as the Paris Climate Accord, but good old fashioned technological innovation.

           

 

 

 

 

 

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The President wants to build a border wall that Democrats and others loathe. The funny thing is, the Democrats actually might want to help the President build biggest wall he can.

            Ever since I first heard the idea of building a wall on the US-Mexico border, I've been disgusted.  I know lots of other people are, too.  I also know people who think a big wall is absolutely essential, and long overdue. 

            It's just another one of the many issues where people find themselves resolutely on one side or the other. 

            Neither side wants to give an inch.   There's no middle ground … and there's nothing but stalemate.

            Until you figure out a way to get past the stalemate.  Let me suggest an unusual way to do it.  The main idea behind the "The Unexpected Perspective" blog is to start with the following question: could there be a reason to embrace some or many of the ideas of my opponent?  These days, that sounds very unusual because it is very unusual.  So let's try the idea out on the topic of Donald Trump's border wall.

            Could there be a reason why liberals and progressives would love to build Donald Trump's border wall?  Sounds like a ridiculous question, but the surprising answer is … absolutely, positively, yes!  Now let me explain to you how I've arrived at this highly unusual conclusion.

            Donald Trump prides himself on being a master negotiator.  In real estate, at least, looks as though he is really, really good.  So if the Democrats want to succeed, they probably should spend some time thinking about their negotiating strategy.  Trump is a bit unusual, so maybe it's time for some unusual negotiations. 

           Anyone who has ever taken a negotiating course knows the difference between a "zero sum" negotiation and a "win/win" one.  "Zero sum" means that "I win/you lose".  In the latter form, both parties can win.  I've taken a number of such courses and have never seen anyone advocate for "zero sum", they've all advocated some form of "win/win". 

            "Zero sum" usually doesn't work.  Either there is no agreement reached, or the agreement tends to get sabotaged.

            "Win/win" usually wins.  So how could that idea be applied to Donald Trump's border wall?  Let's go back to my earlier question, why would liberals and progressives ever want to have a border wall?  The answer: if in return they got something they really want. 

            Liberals have said they want the Dreamers – children brought illegally to the USA by their parents - to be able to stay in the USA.  There may be some signs that Trump will give them that in exchange for his wall.  Frankly, if that's the case, they're not bargaining hard enough with him.

            As I'll show you below, ironically, the Democrats would actually be better off not only with a wall, but with a bigger wall!  They can go to the President and offer the following: the more you're willing to work with us, the more we'll support your wall. 

            I've heard that the President really enjoys fast food, so let me describe some possible "deals" they might offer the President.  I'll describe them in terms of the Burger King menu.    After all, the President seems to know something or other about whoppers, so let's talk about the Whopper®.  Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer can offer the President the following three Burger King choices:

            Choice #1: Hamburger, fries and a Coke

The President can build sections of the wall.  In return, the Dreamers will be allowed to stay in the USA and given a pathway to citizenship.  It's the "small meal" solution.

            Choice #2: Bacon & Cheese Whopper, fries and a Coke

The President can build a bigger wall than he can in choice #1.  In return, not only can the Dreamers stay, but so can their families, as well as Haitians, Salvadorans, and certain other illegals.  It's a bigger meal at Burger King, and it's a bigger solution for both the President and the Democrats. 

            Choice #3: Double Whopper, fries and a Coke

The President can build as big a wall as he wants.  In return, with the exception of those convicted of felonies, every illegal immigrant in the USA will be offered not only an opportunity to stay in the USA, but also a clearly defined pathway to citizenship.  This is "the whopper solution."

            You can see the idea.  The more the President wants his wall, the more he needs to concede on the other end.  The funny thing is, both parties would probably gain by heading as close as possible to choice #3: they'd both win more by giving the other side what it wants.

            Choice #3 sounds crazy, but that's not the right question to ask.  Instead, the right question to ask is, is it crazy enough?  Let's consider how both sides could win under choice #3.

            The President wins because he gets his wall.  He can fulfill a giant campaign promise to his base.  In theory, the wall will stop, or greatly reduce, illegal immigration and drug smuggling.  Not only that, he'll be in a position to claim that Mexico paid for the wall.  Now the government of Mexico won't be paying a nickel towards the wall.  Instead, by legalizing the illegals, the USA stands to gain a giant tax windfall.  Millions of workers who have been paid under the table will now be paid properly, and taxes will be withheld in a proper manner.  The President can surely claim the new taxes, collected from Mexican nationals in the process of becoming US citizens, will pay for his wall.

            Democrats win because they can get something they've been wanting for years – comprehensive immigration reform.  Businesses will also benefit hugely by that.  Cities and states can also benefit because people who were previously illegal will now be paying taxes.

            Illegal aliens will win, for the obvious reasons.  As part of a choice #3 deal, it would be important to charge those becoming legalized.  One side can describe that as a fine for illegal entry.  The other can characterize it as the cost of becoming legal – the cost of applying to become a US citizen. 

            Mexico wins because it will put to an end an issue that has created friction between both countries.

            As they already do, each side can go on TV and tell its own version.  The President can trumpet his wall on Fox.  Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer can hail a comprehensive solution to immigration on MSNBC and CNN.  Everybody can win!

            But the win is only possible by re-framing the problem from a "zero sum" to "win/win".  And as I've pointed out, if properly structured, the ironic outcome is that the more the Democrats concede to the President on his wall, the more they can win, too.  Burger King choice #1 is a lousy deal.  Not such a great meal.  Choice #2 is definitely a better deal.  But choice #3 is definitely the best deal! 

            In terms of choice #3, each side can say: hey, 1400 calories plus tons of saturated fat, but look what we got?  

            Is building a wall still a stupid idea?  It all comes down to what you get in exchange for the wall.  Conversely, is legalizing a whole bunch of illegals a bad idea?  It all comes down to what you get in exchange.

            In this context, not only is a wall a good idea, a big wall is a better idea, and the biggest wall is the best ideaAnd the unexpected outcome is that the best way to accomplish what you want is by helping your opponent accomplish what he wants.  It's an old lesson in politics, and negotiation.  Hopefully, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi will each rediscover what they already knew.  And maybe they, along with the man who currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, will all get more of what they want.

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What's the best way to fight untruths and distortions? We'd like to think sharing facts will do it. This post explores the question and comes up with an unexpected answer.

            Don't "alternative facts" and other lies just drive you nuts?  How can so much junk be published every day?  How can so many people fall for all of this?  If we could just show them the facts, they'd see how wrong they are! 

            Sound familiar?  Absolutely!

            The funny thing is, this conversation occurs daily not just in progressive, Democratic households … the very same thing happens in conservative, very Republican ones.

            We're all convinced that the other side is ill-informed, even stupid. 

            Unfortunately, the real truth may be even worse: both sides are ill-informed, maybe even stupid.  But what I find most distressing is it applies to science oriented issues.  We all seem to think we have "science" on our side, and the other side has only "junk science", or "politically motivated science". 

            Sadly, that doesn't appear to be the case at all.

            Not only that, but the public as a whole is repeatedly deceived about science by highly motivated parties.

            That's bad news … and I've got even more bad news below.  Fortunately, I've also got some good news.  Some recent research suggests a possible way out of this.  The answer isn't that we need more and better dissemination of scientific information.  Instead, we need to figure out a way to increase our scientific curiosity, which isn't the same.  More about that below. 

            The good news is that we humans usually are very curious.  After all, "inquiring minds want to know"!   Which, curiously, may suggest that the way to overcome some of our political divides isn't to provide more "scientific facts".  Instead, maybe we just need to tell better stories.  Could we all learn something from the "National Enquirer" and TMZ?

            But before getting to the really good news, let's take a look at some sad history.  A few years ago the term "agnotology" was coined.  That's the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, particularly in the publication of misleading or inaccurate scientific data.  The classic case of this is what Big Tobacco did to counteract scientific information, first appearing in the early 1950's, that smoking was dangerous to health.  The Big Tobacco companies carried on a half century effort against those who sought to point out the health dangers of smoking.  They were masterfully successful.

            Many say that other organizations have been keen students of Big Tobacco.  These include Big Oil (trying to call climate change into question); and the National Rifle Association (trying to defend gun ownership).  I mention these as examples … there are certainly many more, and on both ends of the political spectrum.

            Lots of people get frustrated by these cases.  They're often muttering under their breath, "why can't these people be stopped?"  The same people reasonably believe that the prevarications and mis-representations of any extreme group they happen to disagree with can be exposed with facts, and the battle will be won.  Sadly, not the case. 

            Tim Harford, known as the "Undercover Economist", wrote about the problem several months ago in the Financial Times.  He observed three problems with what I'll call the "fighting lies with facts" strategy.  First, a simple untruth can beat off a complicated set of facts, just by being easier to understand and remember.  Sounds terrible, but it really does make sense.  The truth behind many things is complicated and hard to remember.  Soundbites … even patently patently false ones … are much easier to comprehend and remember.

            Now for what I think is the scary corollary of this.  According to Harford, there's evidence that repeating a false claim, even as part of debunking the false claim, can make the false claim stick.  Politifact, a movement to check the veracity of political pronouncements, may actually be its own worst enemy.  Politifact's term for an egregious untruth spoken by a politician is "Pants on Fire" … you no doubt know where that phrase came from.  Based upon what Harford is saying, every time Politifact attempts to shed the light of truth on a "Pants on Fire" comment, it may inadvertently be cementing the idea in the mind of the public even more. 

            No one understands this concept better than the President of the United States.  In fact, some people have made the argument that "the fact checkers are Trump's poodle".  Ouch!

            The second argument that Harford makes is something all of us learned in school: facts can be boring.  Not only that, the facts may be so boring that an awful lot of people just tune out.  There's some concern that news organizations slant their news to fit a particular viewpoint.  No doubt, there's some truth to that, but even a quick review of newspapers from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries shows that certainly isn't anything new.  After a brief perusal of some old newspapers, you could easily come away thinking that today's reporting actually pretty balanced!

            No, the problem with facts could actually be worse.  It may be that lots of people simply aren't getting any facts at all.  In 2016 researchers Seth Flaxman, Sharad Goel and Justin Roe published a study of how people read news online.  The objective was to study the online news reading habits of 1.2 million people and assess bias in news reporting.  Unfortunately, their sample of 1.2 million people ended up reduced to 50,000.  The sad truth?  Only about 4% of the 1.2 million people in their study read enough serious news to be included in the study!  You may ask, how much serious news did one have to read in order to qualify to be in the 50,000 sample? It was 10 news articles and 2 opinion pieces over 90 days.  That's less than one news story per week!  In citing the study, Harford noted: "Many commentators worry that we're segregating ourselves in ideological bubbles, exposed only to the views of those who think the same way we do. There's something in that concern. But for 96 per cent of these web surfers the bubble that mattered wasn't liberal or conservative, it was: 'Don't bother with the news.'"  Double ouch!

            Harford's third argument is that the truth can be threatening.   He observed: "The problem here is that while we like to think of ourselves as rational beings, our rationality didn't just evolve to solve practical problems, such as building an elephant trap, but to navigate social situations. We need to keep others on our side. Practical reasoning is often less about figuring out what's true, and more about staying in the right tribe."  Harford cites a classic 1954 study called "They Saw a Game".  Researchers from Dartmouth College (my alma mater) and Princeton studied a football game between their respective schools played on November 23, 1951.  The reaction to the game was largely colored by one's school loyalty.  Needless to say, the researchers found the Dartmouth students overlooked fouls committed by the Dartmouth players and complained about how some of the penalties assessed against their team.  Princeton supporters did the exact reverse.  Anyone who watches sports in the early 21st century will say, "that's a flash of the blindingly obvious"!  Needless to say, our tribal affiliations trump our scientific objectivity..

            If Harford and other researchers are correct, we really shouldn't be surprised that "determined obfuscators" (my term) like Big Tobacco on smoking, and Big Oil with climate change, are successful in their efforts.

            Which is all bad, but it actually gets worse before it gets better.  According to Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale University, "groups with opposing values often become more polarized, not less, when exposed to scientifically sound information."  Climate change is a perfect example.  Liberals seem to believe that if conservatives would pay attention to the scientific facts about global warming, they'd "see the light."  Guess what?  When scientifically literate conservatives are presented with the facts liberals want them to see, they actually become even more opposed to arguments about global warming!  So much for "the facts".

            All of which seems to explain a lot of what we observe.  The question is, can anything be done about it?  Can we somehow not be taken in by companies trying to mis-lead us?  Can we show more interest in scientific matters?  Can we overcome our boredom with facts?  Can we place scientific objectivity ahead of our tribal loyalties?  Can we somehow reduce the polarization, especially about matters of science?

            Now for the good news I promised you earlier.  The answer is, yes, there may be a way to overcome this.  Dan Kahan, the Yale professor cited earlier, wrote an interesting article early in 2017 suggesting a way.  Kahan and his fellow researchers concluded that increasing scientific literacy isn't the way to do it: "higher proficiency in science comprehension accentuates identity affirming rather than truth convergent forms of political information processing."  I guess that's a professorial way to say, people who are scientifically literate are just as likely, even more likely, to base their science views on their tribal and political affiliations, not science.   

            So if scientific literacy isn't the solution, what is?  According to Kahan and his associates, the answer has to do with "scientific curiosity."  Scientific curiosity isn't the same thing as scientific literacy.  In fact, one doesn't have to have a lot of science training to be scientifically curious.  Moreover, Kahan also found that people who are scientifically literate aren't necessarily highly scientifically curious.

            Kahan and his team created what they call a "scientific curiosity scale."  People who are "scientifically curious" are more willing to set aside tribal and political affiliations and be more objective.

            Let's assume Kahan and his fellow researchers are correct.  If so, then the key may be to increase scientific curiosity.  How do you do that?  That will likely take more research.  The good news, however, is that humans are naturally curious … and there are some things about which we're probably all very curious.  You probably won't like the answer, but it seems that we're almost uniformly curious when it comes to sex, scandal, and gossip.  Other things, too, but those are the first things that come to mind. 

            You can't explain "The National Enquirer" or the Kardashians any other way.   That doesn't sound like it has anything to do with big science … or any other truly important issues, except it really does … IF you buy into Kahan's argument that the key is to increase curiosity.  Somehow, some way, we don't necessarily need to present more scientific facts, we need to find a way to encourage people to be more curious.  Harford notes, "We journalists and policy wonks can't force anyone to pay attention to the facts. We have to find a way to make people want to seek them out. Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning but it's also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don't pay attention to the news because they find it boring or confusing." 

            So maybe we're all ill informed and stupid, just not for the reasons for which we accuse each other.  And the solution isn't what we think.

            If we really want to persuade our opponents to reconsider their science views, the key may to increase our scientific curiosity.  And to learn about how that might be done, maybe our first step should be to pull a page out of TMZ's playbook, or learn something about how it's done to us in the supermarket checkout line.

 

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As 2017 ends and we welcome 2018, some possibly unexpected thoughts on technology

            Once again we say good bye to one year and hello to a new one.  It's always common at the end of December to see lists of good and bad things that have happened over the year then ending, and a similar list of projections for the upcoming year.  I'd like to do this a slightly different way.  The first difference is that I don't want to talk about the year just ending.  The second difference is that while I'll talk about some technologies with which you're probably already familiar, I want to give more of my attention on upcoming trends that are getting less attention.  My focus will be on technology.  I've given up on making sports predictions … and any ones I might make on entertainment would be laughable at best.

            Since we're entering 2018, let's talk about 18 things to expect in technology this coming year: eight trends that you may well have heard about, and ten more that may be less familiar.  In each case, I'll share with you the thoughts of others who focus on each area.  Let's start with eight more familiar ones:

#1: Non-financial blockchain applications

            Unless you've been vacationing on a remote Pacific island, you've probably heard about Bitcoin, and you may also have heard about some of the related financial products based upon a technology called blockchain.  What you might not have heard is that blockchain is being used to develop a whole range of non-financial applications. 

            There's a very good chance that Bitcoin is going to go the way of tulips in 17th century Holland.  The bubble will burst and the price of Bitcoin will crash, just as tulips did.  It's unclear whether Bitcoin and related financial products based upon blockchain will survive.  On the other hand, it looks as though the non-financial applications have a very bright future.  I suggest you read Elena Mesropyan, who has written about 30 non-financial applications of blockchain technology. 

#2: AI/AR/VR applications

 

            There have been lots of new developments in artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality.  Inventor and product architect George Krasadakis sees some interesting connections between them.  Likewise, the Gartner Group foresees these various technologies coming together to form a digital mesh that will provide new forms of support for digital businesses.

#3 IoT becomes BIot

            Devices and products you use every day, including your TV, thermostat, even refrigerator, now increasingly now include connections to the Internet.  Prognosticators at Fortune magazine now see a link between IoT and non-financial applications of blockchain (trend #1 above) to create BIot (blockchain Internet of things).

#4: Crispr CAS9

            You've very likely heard about Crispr CAS9, the revolutionary new gene editing technology which offers the promise, and peril, of eliminating genetic defects.  Even though the technology is still quite young, real life applications are presently being developed.  One very interesting one, reported in Digital Trends, is the application of Crispr to treat ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), hitherto untreatable.

#5: 3D Printing

            The 3D printing industry continues to move from hobbyist and experimental applications to more mainstream ones.  3D Print magazine suggests some emerging trends in the technology for 2018

#6: Microbiome

            Scientists continue to discover more ways in which the microbiome is critical to health.  At the same time, there is increasing interest personalized diet and medicine.  Tech Crunch magazine sees connections between the two.

#7: Open source software

            Open source software applications continue to proliferate.  Opensource.com forecasts a number of important developments continuing into 2018.

#8: Biofuels

            Biofuels have long been seen as a potential alternative to oil and gas.  Unfortunately, using corn as a feedstock for ethanol hasn't worked out as planned, creating a whole series of problems along the way.  Scientists have gone back to the drawing boards to identify better biofuel feedstocks.  While biofuels reduce the use of oil and gas, they do still create greenhouse gases.  BP, however, believes it has identified a biofuel feedstock in Brazil with a better greenhouse gas profile.

Ten Possibly Less Familiar Technology Trends

            Now let's consider ten tech trends that you might not be familiar with.

#1: Transparent solar

            Solar energy is becoming an increasingly mature industry, and its share of energy production is growing rapidly.  Most everyone has seen a solar panel or a solar farm, but there are some less familiar solar technologies that are emerging.  One of them is called "transparent solar".  Singularityhub sees this as an emerging technology in 2018.

#2: Floating wind farms

            Likewise, most everyone has seen a wind farm.  These farms provide cost effective clean energy.  So why aren't there a lot more of them?  The simple answer: virtually no one wants to have a wind farm in his or her backyard.  One of the solutions to that is to put wind farms out of sight.  Singularityhub reports on a strategy to get your typical wind farm out of sight – floating wind farms.

#3: African technological leap-frogging

            We in the developed world often have mental images of Africa as extremely poor and completely backward in technology.  While Africa is comparatively poor, it isn't as technologically backward as we envision.  In fact, there are signs that Africans are leapfrogging from backwardness to state of the art applications, all in a single bound.  Disruptionhub offers some great examples.

#4: Graphene based batteries

            Tesla and others have ushered in a new world of electric vehicles and battery storage, promising to revolutionize several industries.  The key ingredient in that revolution has been the development of lithium ion battery technology.  But what if there is an even better technology than lithium ion?  An emerging candidate is graphene based batteries.  Disruptionhub offers some interesting insights into this emerging technology.

#5: Technology innovation hubs outside the USA

            Disruptionhub pointed out that there are now some 300 innovation centers spread throughout Africa.  They're likely to spawn some very interesting technologies, and companies, but I doubt many people in Silicon Valley are very worried about them.  But they may be a little concerned about another emerging trend – Silicon Valley style hubs in major developed countries outside the USA.  One example is Station F in Paris.  Expect to see some interesting things coming from these emerging hubs.

#6: Developing world alternative energy projects

            The developed world is making pretty good progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but the developing world is a significant question mark.  The good news is, there are a number of important alternative energy projects underway in the developing world.  Mashable reports on a number of them.  As with most new technology, many of them will probably not be commercialized, but at least a few may produce great results. 

#7: Electric trucks

The emergence of all electric automobiles is now an old story, but what about

trucks?  Trucks pose some significant challenges not present in automobiles.  Nevertheless, Inside Climate News reports on some important new developments are emerging, pointing towards a future with lots of electric trucks.

#8: Impact investing

            In the past, donors to charities have never expected to see their contributions returned to them.  Increasingly, that is no longer true.  The concept of "impact investing" has emerged.  It's now going from fringe to mainstream.   

            In impact investing, instead of making a financial gift to a charity, the donor invests the money in a company that will provide a product or service that substitutes for the traditional charitable activity.  As an example, the donors might invest in a power plant that will focus on providing power to the underserved in a developing world country.  The company is expected to make money, and the power it produces will provide real benefits to the customers. 

            In many cases, the investor is a traditional charity.  The money it invests will then eventually be returned to the charity, and the charity can then use the money for additional chartiable purposes.

            Why I am including this in the list?  It's because many of the companies receiving impact investments utilize technology to solve social problems.

The Global Impact Investing Network projects dramatic growth in the field during 2018.  Here's a link to their report.

#9: Quantum computing

            Quantum computing is beginning to move from the purely conceptual stage to real life applications.  Technology Review suggests that real life quantum computers will soon be emerging.

#10: Livestreaming

            Video streaming has been around the Internet for several years.  It now appears to be emerging as a serious technology.  Neil Patel offers thoughts on why it's an important technology to watch in 2018

Final Thoughts

            Will all of these things happen in 2018?  Well, if they do, the most surprised person of all will be me.  After all, venture capitalists and angel investors never expect more than a fraction of the companies they invest in to be successful.  But they do expect at least a certain percentage of their investments to provide big payoffs.  Likewise, looking at the list above, I expect at least of few of these be major winners in 2018.

            And I also expect there will be some winning technologies in 2018 that aren't on the list.  You and I may not even know they exist.  They're still under development in someone's lab.  But that's the nature of technology.  There's always an opportunity for surprise and wonder.

            Happy New Year.  May 2018 bring blessings to you, your friends and co-workers, and your loved ones; and may it be filled with surprise and wonder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christians and non-Christians alike are celebrating Christmas. Here are some possibly surprising observations.

            This week people all over the world will celebrate Christmas, the date that Christians believe was the birth of Jesus Christ.  Both Christians and non-Christians celebrate the occasion. 

            I think it points to something very interesting: people have all kinds of different beliefs about Jesus, yet they all seem agree that he was a real person.  Pretty much everyone agrees that he was born near Jerusalem, most likely in a stable, about 2000 years ago, to a teenage girl.  He grew up near Nazareth, became a carpenter, then spent three years as a teacher, prophet and healer.  He was betrayed by one of his followers, crucified on a cross, and died.  Not only that, people of widely different beliefs – even atheists – acknowledge that he had a profound message that possesses great merit to this day.

            What they don't agree upon is whether Jesus was God coming to Earth as a man.  Not only that, lots of people definitely don't think that after being crucified, Jesus rose from the dead and ascended back into Heaven.  There are disagreements about lots of things, such as whether Jesus was born to a virgin, but those are really mere details to the big question about Jesus as Son of God.

            So if pretty much everyone agrees on the basic facts about the life of Jesus, why do Christians believe what I'll call "additional facts" (i.e., that He was the Son of God coming to Earth, dying, and rising again)?

            Christians like me believe these "additional facts" because we believe two other things.  First, that humankind, from the very first humans onward, is sinful.  Second, we believe that humans can't by themselves overcome this inherent sinfulness.  They can only do it through the help of God.  If you don't believe in the "additional facts", there's no reason for you to believe Jesus was the Son of God.  If you do believe them, then you hope and pray that Jesus is in fact the Son of God.

            These ideas are at the core of what Christians believe, so what evidence is there of this?  Historically, the evidence of these beliefs has come from the Christian Bible.  Of course, lots and lots of people don't believe that people are inherently sinful and that humans can't overcome their basic sinfulness on their own.  Thus, the big question: other than what's in the Bible, is there any evidence to support what Christians claim?

            For the past 150 or so years, many people have claimed that modern science has debunked the Christian Bible.   They've told everyone there's an either/or choice: you can either believe what modern science says, or you can believe what the Christian Bible says.  So if you accept modern science, you can't believe the Bible.  For many who believe in modern science, it became time to give up on Christianity. The funny thing is, besides atheists, many evangelical Christians have bought into the same "either/or", just approaching it from the opposite direction: if you're a Christian, you can't believe in "atheistic science". 

            The problem is, it's a false choice, but lots of people have bought into this "false choice", chosen science, and given up their Christian beliefs; or they stuck with the Bible and decided that Darwin must be a "tool of the devil".

            But here's the surprising thing: one can make an argument that that very same science actually supports the Christian ideas that humans are inherently sinful and that they can't overcome it on their own.   Mind you, I'm not talking about "junk science" like Intelligent Design.  I'm talking about taking the exact same science embraced by people like Richard Dawkins.  For years, everyone has been trying to build the case that science proves that religion is bunk, but what if that science actually appears to back up what Christians have said all along?

            What?  How can that be?

            Let me show you how and why.

            It starts with the Big Bang.  The obvious question is, what caused the Big Bang?  Christians, and adherents of other religions, of course say that it was God.  Atheists tend to say, it all just happened by chance, or the universe has always existed.  Neither side can prove the case one way or another.  Ultimately, each side has a set of beliefs about the cause, but absolutely no proof.  In effect, both atheists and religious people make faith claims about the cause of the Big Bang.  So when it comes to the Big Bang, neither side can claim that science is conclusively on their side.  A draw.

            But some interesting things happened soon after the Big Bang: a series of scientific laws quickly emerged to govern the behavior of all matter and energy.  Among other things, these include gravity, electromagnetism, and what's called the "strong nuclear force".  If any of these constants were just slightly different, our universe would be drastically different.  In fact, the universe as we know it may never have formed.  For example, if the strong nuclear force were just a tiny bit different, stars could never have formed.

            The fact that such tiny changes could so drastically change the universe suggests the hand of a Creator God.  Doesn't prove it, just makes it highly suggestive.  The conclusion: science, at least in this case, points towards the reality of a pre-existent God.  Score one point for the religiously inclined.

            But that's still a long way from the claims Christians make about Jesus.  After all, you could easily have God cause the Big Bang, establish the scientific constants, then have God sit back, relax, or "go play a round of cosmic golf".  That's pretty much what Deists believe.  They believe God created the universe, but soon thereafter took a completely hands off attitude about the creation, one that continues to this day.  And it's a long way from what Christians claim about Jesus.

            So what could possibly be the scientific evidence that backs up those core ideas that Christians believe, namely that humans are inherently sinful and that they can't overcome that on their own? 

            The surprising answer is the science that lots of people have been trying to use as a bludgeon against Christianity for 150 years: Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. 

            What?  Are you serious?  How could that be?

            Here's how.  Supporters of Darwin make that argument that all life has emerged as the result of evolution through natural selection.  Homo sapiens – we humans – have emerged in the very same way as every other form of life.  Our nearest genetic cousins are the non-human mammals such as apes, monkeys, and baboons.  We humans share about 98% of our DNA with these non-human mammals.  We're not direct descendants of monkeys, as so many people have feared, but we are actually genetic "cousins". We all share a common ancestor who lived about 100 million years ago.

            Many scientists study monkeys, apes, and similar mammals.  They've made the interesting observation that these animals often steal things and practice deception.  Why do they do these things?  Obviously, they steal and deceive in order to survive.  The better they are at theft and deception, the more likely they are to survive. 

            The argument is that our human ancestors – and their ancestors - did the same kinds of things in order to survive. 

            So you can think about something like deception in terms of a coin.  Every coin has a head and a tail.  The head of the coin represents the positive side of the behavior.  The positive side, of course, is that the behavior let's the animal survive another day, maybe long enough to reproduce.  The tail – the opposite side of the coin – represents the negative side of the behavior.  In this case, we all know what's wrong with theft.

            Though we humans share a lot of DNA with our non-human "cousins", we're obviously different.  What's the real difference?  Of course, humans have much bigger, more sophisticated brains. These brains give us a higher level of consciousness, the ability to know the difference between right and wrong, and most importantly, the ability to do something even when we know it's wrong!

            Thus the theory: what Christians call sin is really just a by-product of evolution.  The behaviors that have helped us to survive are also the very things that we call sin.  In theory, we humans, given our bigger brains, should know when we shouldn't do certain things, but we all still do those wrong things from time to time.  Welcome to "being human".  You can apply the coin analogy to pretty much every human behavior.  Each behavior has a positive side that is evolutionarily beneficial, but each behavior also has a negative, sinful side.

            So Darwin's theory can be used to explain why Christians believe humankind is inherently sinful.  Which leads to the second part: what can we do about it?  Well if human behavior is like a coin, with a head and a tail, then the answer is: nothing!  That's because bad behavior is really just the flip side of the good behavior that helped us to survive and reproduce.  Get rid of one and you get rid of the other!

            Thus, the argument becomes, humans can know that some things are wrong, but we can't stop doing those things.  Oh, on any given day we can know we shouldn't do certain things and actually don't do those bad things.  Unfortunately, on other days, we seem to forget and each of us does bad things.  Nobody's perfect.  Thus, we can each vow to be better, and actually behavior a little bit better, but we never overcome our inherent nature.  We all have the capacity to do and be good, but we also have our bad sides.

            Which is precisely the argument that Christians make: we are this way, and we can never overcome it on our own.  We need the help of God.

            Now that in no way proves that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  It merely suggests that humankind needs someone like Jesus.  Of course, Christians like me say that Jesus did exactly what was needed: died to atone for the sins of humanity, then rose again.  Can't prove it, I, and my fellow Christians, can just believe it.

            What it also says is that humans aren't inherently good.  If we were inherently good, we likely wouldn't have survived.  While we have the capacity to be good, the necessity to survive long enough to reproduce has always meant we've each got a bad side.

            Looks like science scores another point for religion.

            Thus, in my mind, there is a supreme irony in all of this.  People of all backgrounds and beliefs have no problem believing and accepting the historical reality of Jesus.  The irony is that non-Christians have claimed science as the backstop for their beliefs that Jesus wasn't who he claimed to be, but science may actually point in the direction that Jesus really was necessary for the world. 

            But remember, Christmas is still a birthday party, not a science lecture.  We should all celebrate in the manner we believe appropriate.  For Christians who are skeptical of the science about evolution, I hope you'll pause long enough to reconsider some of your fears and objections.  Charles Darwin may actually be your new best friend.  For non-Christians who do embrace modern science, I hope you'll pause long enough to consider that modern science isn't showing that humans are basically good and that religion is inherently bad.  For the atheist, faith in Darwin and other modern science might actually point down a different path.

            Whatever your beliefs, I wish you and your loved ones a safe and joyful Christmas.  After all, it's a birthday party.

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The construction of a giant fusion reactor in France is now 50% complete. It may pave the way to a viable new energy source.

            Why are some predictions amazingly accurate but others wildly off the mark?

            In 1783, at the end of the American Revolution, the president of Yale University predicted that the US population would grow to 300 million by 1983.  It reached 300 million within 20 years of the date predicted 200 years earlier.  Likewise, in 1863 Russian Dmitri Mendeleev organized the 60 known elements into the periodic table, predicting what the next 40 elements – then undiscovered – would look like. 

            Mendeleev and Yale's president were amazingly accurate!  

            But most of the time, our prognosticators are way off the mark.  For example, in 1949 Popular Mechanics magazine made the following prediction: "where a calculator like ENIAC today is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and weigh 1.5 tons.

            Likewise, Robert Metcalf, the co-inventor of Ethernet, predicted that the Internet would grow exponentially but then collapse.

            Two amazingly good predictions and two incredibly bad ones.  What's the difference?  In a word: unexpected changes in technology.  In all four cases, extrapolations of known data were made.  The difference was that in two of the cases, technology changed in unexpected ways that rendered the inaccurate predictions wildly wrong.  And it's not because the prognosticators were stupid … they certainly weren't … it's just that new technology emerged that couldn't have been predicted.  In the case of computer technology, it was transistors and Moore's Law. 

            The same is probably true today.  Numerous predictions are being made about catastrophic climate change due to greenhouse gases.  As in the earlier predictions, the technology of the time is being used to project forward.  As with the two successful predictions above, the greenhouse gas models will likely prove out IF there are no technological discontinuities … ones like Moore's Law, integrated circuits, and fiber optics. 

The funny … and potentially very hopeful - thing is there are some technological discontinuities on the horizon.  Some, such as the battery technology that is making electric vehicles feasible … are pretty well known.  Other emerging technology, however, isn't. 

            Let's talk about a new technology that hasn't gotten much attention for a while, but which could be an absolute game changer: nuclear fusion.

            Perhaps the best known example of nuclear fusion is what happens 24 hours/day, 365 days a year with our Sun.  Nuclear particles fuse together, releasing tremendous amounts of energy that provides light and heat to our planet.  In contrast to nuclear fusion is nuclear fission, what happens in nuclear bombs such as those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

           Besides bombs, nuclear fission is an everyday process in nuclear power plants around the world.  Such plants produce lots of energy – about 9% of the US total electric power grid with zero greenhouse gas emissions – but such plants have three very big drawbacks: 1) incredible expense; 2) highly toxic waste products; and 3) catastrophic risks when accidents occur.  Anyone remember Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima?

            Fusion could be to energy generation what the transistor/integrated circuit has been to computer technology – a mind-boggling game changer.  The power source of nuclear fusion is typically hydrogen.  It's estimated that a pineapple size amount of hydrogen could generate as much energy as 10,000 tons of coal – with zero carbon emissions!

            While it doesn't get much press, scientists have been pursuing the fusion "Holy Grail" continuously for more than half a century.  An early fusion device was developed by Philo T. Farnsworth, perhaps best known as the inventor of the cathode ray tube (CRT). Those younger than 30 may never have seen CRT's, except possibly in a museum or at a yard sale, but those of us on the other side of thirty grew up with the greenish glow of CRT's in our TV's.  Farnsworth built a prototype fusion device called a fusor in 1959.  His employer – a company called ITT – cut off his research money before the fusor could be commercialized.

            The field of fusion research unfortunately took a giant step backward in the late 1980's.  Two researchers in Utah – Martin Fleischman and Stanley Pons – excitedly published research showing positive results using what they called "cold fusion".  It wasn't really cold, just a fusion process at temperatures far below those on the Sun.  What got everyone excited was the possibility of generating more energy from cold fusion than was required to create the reaction, meaning that a net positive amount of energy was released by the reaction.  Not only that, but the apparatus the two utilized was really very simple.  Fleischman and Pons created a media sensation at the time. 

            Things sounded incredibly positive, until other scientists reported they couldn't replicate the findings of the Utah researchers.  Cold fusion turned out to be just a chimera in the desert.

            Despite the setback, research on nuclear fusion has continued.  Unfortunately, though there have been some very positive developments, as one commentator put it, "nuclear fusion is always 30 years away."

            But that may finally be changing.  Cold fusion didn't work, but new approaches to hot fusion seem to show real promise.  The new approach pulls a page from our Sun's playbook: heat hydrogen to extreme temperatures such that the hydrogen will fuse and give off energy. 

How much heating?  How about heating the hydrogen to over 100 million degrees Fahrenheit?  Seems incredible, but it has actually been done.  The Max Planck Institute in Germany has constructed the Wendelstein 7-X reactor.  They heated hydrogen in the reactor to about 180 million degrees Fahrenheit and created hydrogen plasma.  Not very long, mind you – just for about a quarter of a second – but that was a milestone.  Their goal is to heat the plasma for up to 30 minutes.

            An even bigger experiment is underway.  The Paris Climate Accord is certainly well known, and nearly every country in the world has signed it.  There's another international cooperative group working in France – ITER.  It's a group of 35 countries, including the USA, which has pledged to work for at least 35 years to create viable nuclear fusion.  In Southern France the cooperative is building a tokamak, a giant device in which to carry out nuclear fusion.  The first tokamak's were developed in the Soviet Union in the 1950's, and the ITER one will be the largest ever.

            ITER is an acronym for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor.  The acronym means "the way" in Latin.  Construction is about 50% complete.  When finished, it will heat hydrogen to about 270 million degrees Fahrenheit.  To put that in perspective, that's about 10 times the temperature at the core of our Sun.  It won't be ordinary hydrogen – the kind that has one proton and one electron.  Instead, it will be composed of deuterium (hydrogen with one proton and one neutron) and tritium (hydrogen with one proton and two neutrons).  The deuterium and tritium will be heated to the target temperature and the resultant gas mixture will pass by giant magnets.  This should cause the tritium and deuterium to fuse, releasing tremendous amounts of energy.

            The goal is to release substantially more energy than is required to make the tokamak work.  Keep in mind, it's going to take a tremendous amount of energy to heat the deuterium and tritium to 270 million degrees Fahrenheit, as well as power all of the equipment in the facility, but if it can produce substantially more energy than is required to start the reaction, it will certainly be adjudged a success.

            That will be energy with zero carbon emissions.  It will be the energy equivalent of the transistor and integrated circuit: a total game-changer.  And if it works, it will render all of the forecasts about carbon emissions completely worthless, much like the Popular Mechanics prediction concerning the number of vacuum tubes in a computer, and the weight of the machine.

            Of course, the nuclear fusion research is highly speculative.  It may not work.  However, as Wayne Gretzky, the famous Canadian hockey player always says, you miss 100% of the shots you don't take.  The ITER fusion "shot" could be wide of the goal, but given the incredible potential payoff, definitely worth taking, and taking seriously.

            The USA and other countries should probably be investigating other radical technologies that, if successful, could be applied to deal with greenhouse gases.  This is potentially the most positive role that governments can play – underwriting basic research.  Venture capitalists and angel investors are willing to take big gambles on promising new companies, but not on very expensive, promising, yet unproven technologies such as this.  This is where government fits perfectly and where inter-governmental cooperation could make a huge difference.

            Venture capitalists and angel investors usually attempt to construct a portfolio of promising investments – usually at least 20.  The expectation is that half of them will be complete failures, but a certain small percentage will be highly successful, making the overall portfolio highly successful.  Governments should apply this type of thinking to research into promising clean energy technologies.

            No, government shouldn't be investing in the companies themselves the way venture capitalists and angel investors do.  Instead, government should focus on underwriting a portfolio of promising technologies.  Yes, likely at least half of the technologies will bomb out. The taxpayers will foot the bill for a giant "goose egg".  But a properly constructed portfolio of basic research investments into clean energy technology should yield at least one huge success.  It might be fusion.  It might just be batteries for electric vehicles.  It could be both, or something else entirely. 

            Will our predictions about the environment in 50 years be accurate?  If we don't invest in basic research, technology won't change much.  Our predictions about greenhouse gases will be more like the USA population prediction made in 1783.  But if we're successful with technological innovation, today's predictions about greenhouse gases will probably sound as humorous as the prediction about the size and weight of the computer at your fingertips. 

            So if we really want to get carbon out of the atmosphere, gambles such as the ITER fusion reactor are definitely worth taking.

 

           

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Countries like France and the United Kingdom will ban petroleum powered vehicles in a few years? Should the USA follow suit?

            The risk of climate change has a lot of people around the world scared.  Scared to the point that some governments are even planning to ban petroleum powered vehicles.  Both the France and the United Kingdom have recently passed legislation that will ban gas and diesel powered vehicles in 2040, a mere 23 years from now.  Norway and India plan to do it even sooner, as early as 2025. 

            Should the USA be doing the same?  Some people emphatically say we should, especially liberals and progressives.  Conservatives are equally emphatic that it shouldn't happen. 

            Like others, I want us to get as quickly as possible to a world in which petroleum powered vehicles are a distant memory, but placing governmental bans isn't the best way to get there.  Rather than imposing bans, governments would do much better if they instead focused their efforts on helping Silicon Valley create an electric powered future.  Let me explain why.

            The question of the best way to get to an all electric vehicle future actually is a great example of a bigger question: what is the proper role of government in fostering technological change?

            Let me begin by noting the two ends of the spectrum.  At one end are those who believe that governments should be leading the effort.  Those leaning towards that end of the spectrum tend to believe that the Federal government needs to be heavily involved in addressing climate change, coordinating efforts with other governments.  At the other extreme are those who believe that governmental efforts don't tend to be particularly effective.  Unfortunately, I believe many have mis-characterized the debate about the Paris Climate Treaty, claiming that if one believes in climate change, then one must believe in the Paris Climate Treaty, and if one doesn't believe in the Paris Climate Treaty, then one must be a climate change denier.

            That's a false dichotomy.  One can be 100% committed to fighting climate change without necessarily believing in the Paris Climate Treaty.  I'm one of those people.  It's not that I don't like the Paris Accord, it's just that I think it isn't going to solve the problem the way so many people think it will.

            Let me be clear, we absolutely need to solve the problem of climate change, so what's the best way to do it?  Instead of relying upon governmental mandates to abolish petroleum powered vehicles, I think we should our efforts on helping Silicon Valley solve the problem.  They have the means to get the job done.

            What I mean by this is that we should do everything we can to help Silicon Valley – and other entrepreneurial hubs both around the USA and around the world – to come up with solutions.  As part of that effort, governments at all levels should help to create the conditions that will help entrepreneurs in places like Silicon Valley succeed.

            So just what has made Silicon Valley, and other entrepreneurial hubs, successful?  It's a combination of the following factors: 1) strong, research based universities such as Stanford; 2) a community that encourages entrepreneurship; 3) a strong group of venture capital and angel investors; 4) a welcoming environment for well educated foreigners; and 5) an environment that encourages experimentation and rapid recovery from failure.  Silicon Valley has all of these things, in spades, but other such communities have emerged.  Interestingly, a strong one is now emerging in, of all places, Paris, France.

            How has government helped Silicon Valley and its counterparts?  Surprisingly, it's role has been both positive and negative.  On the positive side, the government has provided basic research funding to major universities such as Stanford.  It's also provided funding to help the Departments of Defense and Energy, as well as NASA.  These have provided positive spillover effects.  The other positive thing government has done is to encourage foreign students to attend US universities, then permit them to stay after graduation.

            But government has also had a negative effect on Silicon Valley.  It's a ridiculously expensive place to live, in part because zoning regulations have constricted the housing supply and driven up prices; and taxes in California are absurdly high.  Now, the government is going a step further by trying to restrict immigration, having the unintended effect of driving promising foreign students away from US universities. 

            What is Silicon Valley's role in creating the electric vehicle industry?  In a word, it's Tesla, founded by Elon Musk.  Musk is, himself, an immigrant to the USA who attended Stanford.  The company has revolutionized the industry by developing amazing new battery technology.  Of course, Tesla isn't the only company involved in this.  In fact, now that Tesla has taken the lead in the industry, the traditional auto industry is responding in kind.  All you need to do is look at the offerings of the major auto companies today to realize the landscape has dramatically changed, in just a few years.

            All electric and hybrid vehicles are growing rapidly, but they're still a pretty small portion of the overall market.  What assurance do we have that they'll become the dominant form of transport?  Don't we still need governments to ban petroleum powered vehicles?

            The reason I don't think governmental bans are the appropriate path to take is because they smack of "industrial policy" – the idea that government bureaucrats can sit in an office and determine what the economy should look like, and who the winners and losers should be.  The argument in favor of industrial policy is that government actions can help direct where the economy can and should be going.  Unfortunately, it doesn't work.  In fact, the Brookings Institution, a liberal leaning think tank, has done a study suggesting three key reasons why it doesn't work.   Unfortunately, as Brookings notes, industrial policy often has lots of unintended consequences. 

            One unintended consequence could be that government backs the wrong technology and/or the wrong company.  So we could end up eliminating petroleum powered vehicles, but then be stuck with lousy, underpowered electric vehicles that nobody likes: America's version of the Lada, the auto of the old Soviet Union (see photo above).  Bet you'd really be excited to have that vehicle in your driveway!  Governments have an awful record of picking winning technology for the marketplace.

            Better to have Silicon Valley get us to the electric-powered future, with government lending a hand. 

            But if government doesn't mandate the change, how do we know it will happen?  Moreover, if we don't mandate it, what might prevent it from happening?  In the case of electric vehicle adoption, there are four potential impediments: 1) range anxiety; 2) cost; 3) convenience; and 4) resale anxiety.  Let's consider each.

            "Range anxiety" is the fear that you'll run out of power while driving and won't have easy access to a recharging station.  Up until recently, all electric vehicles had a range of under 100 miles.  That's changing rapidly with newer models getting over 200 miles.  The related problem is a lack of charging stations, as well as the speed of recharging.  Mobile phone apps are beginning to appear that show a driver where the nearest recharging station is.  That should certainly help.  High speed recharging stations are also starting to appear.  New, home-based charging systems are also appearing.

            The second big problem is the cost of all electric and hybrid vehicles.  Up until now, they've simply cost too much, and adoption has been limited.  Yes, Tesla has a very high powered all-electric roadster, but you have to live in a fairly exclusive zip code to afford it.  Newer models, however, are appearing that will solve that problem. 

            While purchase cost has been an impediment, it's becoming very clear that the cost to power an electric vehicle is a good deal less than one with an internal combustion engine.  The US Department of Energy cost calculator compares the costs of gasoline versus electric.  At the time of writing, the US average cost of gas was $ 2.50/gallon.  The cost to drive an electric vehicle the same distance, however, was $ 1.21, less than half.  Maintenance costs on an electric motor are a good deal less than a gas powered engine. 

            Here's a quick analysis to compare costs.  The average American driver travels 12,000 miles/year.  According to the American Automobile Association, it costs the average auto owner 59.2 cents/mile, $ 7,104/year.  So for an electric vehicle to be competitive, it must cost less than that.  Using the cost calculator from the Department of Energy, the average cost to power an all electric vehicle the same average 12,000 miles/year would be $ 484.  The average automobile in the USA is 11.5 years old.  Assuming the average person owns a vehicle just 10 years, and the average electric vehicle cost $ 35,000 to buy, then the cost of owning and operating an all electric vehicle should be substantially less than the gas powered equivalent.

            The operating cost differential may create interesting new opportunities for electric vehicle leasing.  Instead of selling electric vehicles, entrepreneurs might take a page out of the Uber or Lyft playbook and lease vehicles by the mile.  In other words, rather than buying a vehicle, one might agree to purchase 12,000 miles of vehicle usage in a given time period, electric costs included.   With the upcoming advent of self-driving vehicles, that's probably just what Uber and Lyft will offer.  The lower per mile operating cost of the electric vehicle should pretty well assure adoption.

            Convenience is the third issue.  Unquestionably, it's still easier to pull your automobile up to a gasoline pump to refill it.  Recharging your electric vehicle is a little harder.  Hybrids provide an excellent interim solution to that problem.  Creating a broad network of high speed charging stations will take time, but appears on the horizon.  Tesla already has a network in place.  But the Uber or Lyft alternative could easily solve the convenience issue.  Why bother owning your car when you can call up any type of all electric vehicle from Uber or Lyft, have the vehicle at your home or place of business within five minutes, then simply pay by the mile?  What could be more convenient than that? 

            Not only that, but let's go back to the average cost of owning your gas powered auto - $ 7,104/year.  Let's assume you want to get that down to $ 6,000/year, a 15.5% reduction.  If you could contract with Uber or Lyft to provide you transport at 50 cents/mile, you'd get your cost reduction, as well as eliminate all the other hassles of auto ownership.  The question is, could Uber or Lyft make money?  If the power to go 12,000 miles only costs $ 484, and there's a robot driving the car, they should make a bundle if the all in cost is 50 cents/mile driven.

            The fourth concern is an interesting one.  Researchers several years ago found that resale value might inhibit the growth of electric vehicles.  This shouldn't be surprising for a very small market.  However, as the size of the electric market grows, it should be less and less of a problem.       

            The numbers cited above should make it abundantly clear that all electric vehicles make compelling sense.  We really don't need governments to ban gasoline and diesel powered vehicles.  Savvy consumers will produce the same result.   

            So I'm confident we can look forward to an electric vehicle powered future.  What is, however, a little less certain, is the power source of all that energy.  It won't be petroleum, but will it instead be coal and natural gas from the power plant?   Many people are very concerned that it will be the former.  I don't think so, and the reason I don't think so follows the same reasoning presented above.

            We really don't need governments to ban coal plants.  That's because the economics of renewal energy are far more compelling than coal.  We can ensure that if we focus on encouraging Silicon Valley to make ongoing innovations in renewable energy.  They've been doing it, and more won't hurt.

            At the end of the day, the solution to greenhouse gases is better technology, not more government.  The best role government can play is to help ensure the success of places like Silicon Valley, not by mandating what vehicles we'll drive, or what power sources we'll use.  If we focus on that, other things will take care of themselves.  Let the French and the Brits ban the internal combustion engine.  We'll still beat them.

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Carl Treleaven is an entrepreneur, author, strong supporter of various non-profits, and committed Christian. He is CEO of Westlake Ventures, Inc., a company with diversified investments in printing and software.

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