Russell's Blog

New. Improved. Stays crunchy in milk.

The Road Ahead

Posted by Russell on January 19, 2009 at 7:59 p.m.
Today is that last day of George Bush's presidency. I have waited eight years to write those words, and oh how sweet they are!

A good friend of mine remarked recently that while he liked reading my blog, it was depressing him. So I went back over the archives, and I realized that a lot of it has been pretty depressing. But then again, it's been a pretty depressing time for America, and I think a lot about national issues. There have also been some rough patches in my own life; my advisor at UCLA closed down his group and moved to the UK, and I had to figure out what to do with myself. That has colored my writing.

Tomorrow, two things are happening that believe will administer a stiff dose of optimism around here. First, America will be under new management. Second, I am scrapping my plans to work in physics, and joining Jonathan Eisen's lab. These are not wholly unrelated events, and so I decided to address them together.

First up, the big picture stuff.

On the evening of November 7th, 2000, I discovered rather to my surprise that I do, in fact, love my country. My recollection of the evening and the time that followed has an amusing resemblance to a romantic comedy; I played the insensitive jerk who doesn't appreciate his wonderful girlfriend until she is suddenly gone. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that she is carried away by baboons. Or perhaps Richard Gere. Or maybe Richard Gere playing a baboon.

Then, for the first excruciating half of the movie, I slowly begin to understand how much I needed her. I discover, to the merriment of all, that I cannot cook, that I don't understand money, and so on. The movie trailer features a memorable scene in which I am eating molding Chinese takeout in my underpants as my life comes crashing down around me.

Then, and epiphany! I should win back the girl from the baboons, or Richard Gere, or whatever. Some amusing side characters are introduced who help me on my hilarious and humiliating quest of self-discovery and girl-retrieving.

That's kind of how it went. Instantly, as soon as the results started to come in, I felt an icy lump in my stomach. When it became clear that George Bush was going to win, I started to recognize the feeling. It was familiar. The last time I had experienced it, I was a fifteen-year-old at the bottom of a drainage ditch, looking at how my right hand was twisted around backwards and resting backwards against my forearm, the radius snapped and the ulna cracked lengthwise and telescoped into itself.

The most lucid memory I have about breaking my arm was that it did not hurt. The pain came much later, after everything was nicely set and wrapped up, and the doctors had explained that it would heal nicely. But at the bottom of the drainage ditch, there was this very singular feeling. Not fear, or pain, or surprise, but cold, icy dread, like the firmware of my brain had suddenly broadcast the message, CRITICAL ERROR! and terminated everything else in my head. Emotions, ideas, thoughts, memories, all were gone. There was nothing but a paralyzing tsunami of Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

That's what I felt on November 8th, 2000. Something terrible had happened. I had lost something really, really important, but I was too dumb to understand what it was. My country, which I had loved all along but never appreciated, had been carried away by baboons.

As the months and years unfolded, I got to know what I had lost from the shape of the hole it left. I discovered the first ragged edge of that hole during the Hainan Island incident. America suddenly seemed bumbling and weak, thundering with indignation and then groveling pathetically. The State Department evidently couldn't even be bothered to write the official letter of condolence for Wang Wei's death in Chinese, and so the CCP naturally translated it to sound like an admission of guilt. The Bush presidency was pretty much downhill from there.

But this is a romantic comedy, after all. I spent the summer of 2006 in Oxford, mostly apologizing for the idiot in the White House to all the nice people I met from the rest of the planet. I came home determined to get my country back. So I started researching candidates for the midterm elections. There were some really great people running, and so I sent in my tiny little donations over the internet. I signed petitions, sent grumpy letters to newspapers and did a little phone banking. Six months later, a nice lady from San Francisco became the first woman to wield the Speaker's gavel.

So, you get the idea. Struggles, setbacks, successes; lots of painful, cringe-worthy scenes that screenplay authors think are funny. I've got my country back, and I've learned my lesson. I'm never going to take her for granted again. Today, the credits roll. The movie is over.

The prognosis for the next couple of years is dismal. The economy sucks, our financial system has utterly collapsed. Wall Street is a financial Chernobyl; we've gone through the blackout, the meltdown, a series of ruinous detonations as various subsystems superheat and explode, and we are now watching it belch radioactive smoke into the Jet Stream as the whole thing slowly burns. We are also hurtling towards a point-of-no-return in the great phase diagram of atmospheric carbon. Oh, and we're fighting two wars.

Nevertheless, I'm pretty happy. Our problems have solutions. We've just elected a guy who has a very clear view of this colossal mess we're in, and doesn't flinch.

Now, I'll take a step down in scale a bit, and talk about why I'm leaving physics.

I decided to study physics for a very simple reason; our planet's atmosphere is filling up with carbon, and if we don't stop digging shit out of the ground and lighting it on fire, we're going to wreck the place. Like most people, I figured that we need a big source of energy that doesn't involve burning black stuff from the ground.

But the more I learned about the energy economy, the more I came to understand how wrong I was. Yes, we use a lot of energy. Most of it is from burning black shit we dig out of the ground. But for the most part, we fritter it away. We spend gigawatts lighting empty rooms, running idle computers and refrigerating nonperishable food. We blow a big fraction of our electricity into the night sky, benefiting no one, except perhaps future generations of alien astronomers. We blow billions of gallons of fuel driving to places we don't want to go, flying to places we don't want to see, and moving products we don't enjoy.

In the very near future, we're going to have less fuel and less electricity. And you know what? It's going to be fine. Little by little, prices will go up, and the waste will go away. In retrospect, we will see that most of the energy we use today was utterly and completely wasted. We will learn to waste less of it, and everything will be fine. People will wonder what the big deal was.

There will be some fancy technologies, like solar panels and wind turbines. I learned a bit about that by designing a solar array for my mother's house this summer. It generates more than she uses, cost about as much as a small car, and took three days to install. It will pay for itself in about sixteen years, or maybe sooner if rates keep climbing, and it will last for about 40 years. It was almost disappointing how straight-forward it was (though it was a lot of fun). Cutting her energy use from almost 40 kilowatt hours a day to less than 10 was totally painless. When it's time to replace the washing machine and the refrigerator, her house will draw less than 7 kilowatt-hours a day. The panels generate about 13 to 17 kilowatt hours a day; her last electric bill was negative $102.

In a nutshell, here is the solution to the energy crisis : Stop being a pussy.

We don't need to be "saved" from this. Not by fusion reactors. Not by advanced nuclear whatever. Not by magical carbon sequestration. The human race will have fewer gigawatts to play around with, and so we'll use them more carefully. The reality of the energy crisis is this: Our sense of entitlement and its associated low inclination to innovate is coming face to face with the laws of physics. Physics will win. Exit crisis, pursued by a bear.

Energy is neither cheap nor abundant. It never has been, and it never will be. If you don't believe me, get on a stationary bike and do 860 calories of work (you'll burn about 2400 calories, or three good meals). That's one kilowatt-hour. You will be tired as hell. Right now, you pay about a dime for that much work. No matter how you generate it, it's crazy to pay so little for so much. It should come as no surprise that there are hidden fees in the fine print, like "may destroy the Earth." Cheap energy was always a Faustian pact.

There are lots of good reasons to build reactor tokamaks, but cheap energy isn't one of them. Fusion would be a great power source for space exploration; the fuel is everywhere, you don't have to worry as much about radiation, and you get your vacuum pumping for free. Sometime soon, I think we'll do just that. But for now, I simply refuse to grind through all that horrible mathematics just so Cody McFuckhead can leave his X-Box running while he goes on spring break.

This is actually a delightful discovery. As long as I was getting my understanding of the energy situation from media sources, it looked very very grim. Things look totally different once you become conversant in the ways we make, transport and use energy. Climate change is a real crisis and a real problem, but the solution is anything but rocket science : Bulldoze all coal-fired power plants, and forbid the construction of new ones. Do it on a nice predictable schedule, and let utility prices rise just at a pace that allows people to keep up with the adjustments they have to make. Provide targeted aid where it's needed, like weatherizing and insulating houses for low income families. Space it out over ten years, and start with the utility markets that can adjust the fastest.

Bulldozing our coal fired plants would cut America's carbon emissions in half, an only sacrifice about 27% of our generating capacity. If organized carefully, utility prices would rise to less than $0.40 a kilowatt hour, and then fall to near previous levels as conservation measures come on line. Why is that so scary? We don't suffer from a lack of alternative energy, we suffer from a lack of balls.

I thought about this a lot over the summer. Obama's victory finally gave me the clear concience to change direction. The newspwpers are filled with hand-wringing about the budget deficit, but I'm more concerned about America's chutzpah deficit. Obama might not be able to fix the budget anytime soon, but he's already recapitalizing our country with a desperately needed infusion of guts.

I was always interested in the computational side of physics, and so a shift to computational biology is not as big a shift as I'd feared, especially since I am only just starting. It's a different world, and I'm already starting to feel that it's a better fit for me.

Energy has always fascinated me. "Follow the money" was Mark Felt's advise to Bob Woodward during Watergate. If you want to understand politics, economics and history, money is the skeleton that gives shape to events. The currency of the universe is energy. It is the specie of all things from galaxies to microbes. If you want to understand the physical world, you follow the energy.

The energy balance sheets seem to contradict the idea that we have a crisis of power generation. Quite the contrary; they indicate a massive glut. That in itself raises other questions. For example, how has this glut of cheap energy distorted our economy? How will the end of this glut change our economy?

I'm not an economist, and I don't want to be one. In any event, following the energy leads to other more interesting questions. How has the flow of energy shaped us? A photon strays into the waiting chloroplast, ultimately making a sugar molecule. The molecule becomes part of the meal of a gazelle. The gazelle and a hunter sprint together through a blazing sunset over the Rift Valley a hundred millennia ago. We owe our existence to a wrinkle in the ledger books of the planetary energy accountancy. How does that work?

Things are looking up.

Warm spell

Posted by Russell on January 13, 2009 at 8:52 p.m.
I was biking to the gym yesterday, and it occured to me that since it was so beautiful outside, I may as well just keep biking. So, instead of sitting on the stationary bike, I did a three and a half hour ride down some random county road. It was awesome, even with my funny little commuter bike.

Along the way I passed this pathway planted with olive trees through the middle of one of the UC Davis research farms.

Note to self: Plant more olive trees.

Second quarter at Davis

Posted by Russell on January 09, 2009 at 2:41 a.m.
This quarter, I'm taking :
  • Mathematical Methods : Laplace transforms, Fourier transforms, Greens functions, and their applications to partial differential equations.
  • Quantum Mechanics: Again. For the heck of it.
  • Numerical Methods: Analysis of the performance, stability and error propagation of numerical algorithms in finite precision systems.
So far, it's way more fun than last quarter. Still, I'm disappointed that the molecular structures course I wanted to take conflicts with numerical methods. Hopefully I can take it next quarter.

The preliminary exam for mathematical methods is in the middle of finals week at the end of this quarter. That is going to suck.