Saturday, March 19, 2016


There are transparent solar cells now. I don't know how expensive they are now or how far they are from the market, but this could mean, among many other things, smartphones that charge themselves, one skyscraper being able to power a medium-sized city...

Fossil fuels are dinosaurs in more ways than one. Engineers keep coming up with more and more reasons to limit petroleum use to lubrication and plastic. If that. The time when more than all the energy we need will be simple and cheap to get is rushing toward us.

The problem, of course, is that oil companies know all of this, and are Standing. In. The. Way. Of. Progress. With the help of their bought-and-paid-for Republican Party. Oh, won't it be great if this, these days right now, if this is it for the Republican Party, if they're about to explode under the weight of their own stupidity and wretchedness?

Go ahead and dream about things like that. Because dreaming, daydreaming, wondering, speculating, figuring, calculating -- that's how we got things like solar cells, and now transparent solar cells. That's how we got from living in trees to living in houses and apartments (and back to living in trees in a few cases). Engineering involves nuts and bolts and wires and clips and chips and motherboards, but it also involves a certain amount of sitting around and allowing the mind to go to new places. Without the sitting around and just imagining things, the hardware wouldn't exist.

I'm old enough to remember the time before pocket calculators ran on light. Maybe some of you are too young to know what a pocket calculator is. If you need a calculator, it's right there on your phone. In the 1980's, things were sold which are about as big as smart phones, and all they were were calculators. There still are a few of them for sale in dollar discounts stores and places like Walgreen's, and some with a lot of functions for advanced math are sold at places like Office Max. Starting in the 1980's they would run just on the light in a room with the lights on. In the 1970's there had been calculators called solar-powered calculators, because you might have to have them outside on a sunny day in order too get them charged up, the lights inside generally weren't strong enough. Before that, calculator ran on batteries like the ones that power TV remotes today. But as early as 1970, they didn't run on batteries, you had to plug them into a wall outlet and keep them plugged in, so they weren't very portable, and they were too big to fit inside anybody's pocket, they were more like the size of toasters, and heavier than toasters. And all they could do was add, subtract, multiply and divide, and only up to 8-digit numbers. And they were very expensive.

The prices plummeted through the decades as the calculators got smaller and smaller and could do more and more and required less and less power, and today you can get some pretty fancy ones for under $10. But still, even back in 1970, they were amazing. Back in 1970 most people didn't have any machines to help them with math, other than the occasional slide rule or abacus (I never figured out how to use a slide rule), and an 8-digit calculator smaller than a washing machine, with a glowing red LED display, was an amazing thing. And the engineers who were talking about how calculators were going to get much more powerful, and much smaller, and run on much less electricity, they sounded exciting. But I also wondered, at age 9 in 1970, whether they knew what they were talking about, or if they were just pleasantly optimistic nuts.

46 years later, computers owned by hundreds of millions or billions of people outstrip the wildest predictions of most of those excited engineers back in 1970, excited by computers that fit on desktops and could add, subtract, multiply and divide up to 8 digits and only cost a few thousand dollars.

It's time to dream a way out of killing ourselves with all that dinosaur bullshit. Time to dream about the technology and also about the politics of getting past the oil companies and their hired politicians. We're going to need to do both.

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