More Less Abundance

OK, every once in a while you get a TIRADE from this website.  But hopefully it is one that teaches you not to believe everything you read on the web or in books.

Today, we take to task the book “Abundance” which was discussed in the previous column.

Here are the claims –

“… imaging toilets that require no infrastructure.  No pipes under the floor, no leach field under the lawn, no sewage system … these high tech toilets powder and burn the feces and flash evaporate the urine … Rather than wasting anything, these toilets give back: packets of urea (for fertilizer), table salt, volumes of fresh water, and enough power that you can charge your cell phone while taking a c**p …

Toilets account for 31% of all water use in America …”

And here are the facts from a US Geological Services report –

USA Water Use - Click to Enlarge

USA Water Use – Click to Enlarge

Different, right?

The fact is that the major uses of water are for power generation cooling and irrigation.  These comprise 80%.  So it is unlikely that “toilets account for “31% of all water use in America”.  Moreover, domestic water use accounts for 1% of the water use and it is quite likely that toilets account for 31% of that use so in actuality toilets account for 0.31% of all water use in America.  Wow!  A 100x mistake!

Moreover if you were really going to make a difference, where would you put your efforts in have more fresh water in circulation?  Clearly into better forms of irrigation and thermoelectric power generation.

And there are efforts well underway for both.  Israel has been developing drip irrigation and its improvements for many years.  Power plants with out using fresh water for cooling is now part of most generating plant proposals in California; there policy change is diving technology innovation.

It has a biblical ring to it … but by knowing the truth, you can set your self free to work on solutions for the real problems in the world.

Got a fact that seems wrong?  Send us your questions and we will fact check!

Posted in Essays, Green Perspectives, Investing, Singapore Incubator, StartUp Ideas

Abundance and Exponential Growth

I am reading a book entitled Abundance.    Here is a synopsis of the book –

“We will soon be able to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman and child on the planet. Abundance for all is within our grasp. This bold, contrarian view, backed up by exhaustive research, introduces our near-term future, where exponentially growing technologies and three other powerful forces are conspiring to better the lives of billions. An antidote to pessimism by tech entrepreneur turned philanthropist, Peter H. Diamandis and award-winning science writer Steven Kotler.”

This is clearly a vision worth understanding.

And it is a vision supported by many different elements of our technologically based society.

But the foundational argument for the book is that technology and the progress it brings is essentially growing at exponential rates.  This compounding is manifest in many areas –

  • computing power grows along with Moore’s law so that every 18 months or so computers get 2x as fast or capable and you pay the same price
  • disk drive storage expands at rates also aligned with Moore’s law
  • shipped fiber optic bandwidth has been expanding at a rate of 10x every 5 years for more than 25 years

There are many more examples.

Similar facts helped NASA in the early 1950s feel it was possible to land a man on the moon in ~15 years even though no human had ever left the earth beyond flying in an airplane!

Perhaps the leading futurist today is Ray Kurzweil.  He published a series of books that have proven uncannily accurate – The Age of Intelligent Machines, The Age of Spiritual Machines, The Singularity is Near.

Clearly if you look around you there have been inventions or products introduced in each of the last 4 decades that never existed and before the end of the decade they were pervasively owned by many people throughout the first world – microwave ovens, VCRs, CD players, DVD movies, Video Games, Internet, Google, FaceBook.

Clearly some things that looked impossible in the past now are possible due to exponential growth in technology.

But …

Such growth does not apply everywhere.  It was predicted in the early 1960s that you would be soon flying on supersonic aircraft for intercontinental travel.  However as Boeing has introduced the 707, 727, 737, 747, 757, 767, 777 and now the 787.  The speed of the aircraft has not increased exponentially as earlier predicted or hoped.  In general it has not grown at all.  Why?  Because it was not practical to operate aircraft at such speeds economically.

Are there other such examples that are today not generally recognized?  Sure!

Optical fiber cable today carries about 1 Tb/s typically using individual channels of 10 or 40 Gb/s and then using multiple wavelengths or different colors of light on the same fiber.  But it is not clear at all that the growth of the last 25 years can be sustained.  Why?  Because optical fiber has bandwidth that is limited by Shannon’s law and other electrical and optical physics.  And in that technology and physics we are reaching the limits of what is possible.  So the growth will slow now over the next decade.  There can still be an enriching of the technology platform and clearly many more fibers can be put into a cable but the actual information carried on a single fiber is reaching its limit just at the amount of information carried on copper wires reached its limit about 20 years ago as modem technology matured.

Other examples are around as well –

  • automobiles are essentially the same as there were in the 1940s: same top speed, same basic construction
  • shipping is essentially the same
  • building size and construction technology has not changed much: we have today only slightly taller buildings than the empire state building where the design was complete and construction started in 1930!

Just to name a few.

It is easy to get caught up in this fervor but in reality exponential expansion in capability never lasts very long before running into limitations imposed by physics or economics.

So be careful when you read how these trends of the past 20 – 40 years are going to solve the problems of the next 40.


Posted in Essays, Green Perspectives, Investing, Optical Technology, Spiritual Threads