Rick Shory

Offering a little something you might not otherwise have


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Gibbs economics

I was asked to review the book “Solar Hydrogen Generation: Transition Metal Oxides in Water Photoelectrolysis” in regards to alternative energy production. I loved the geeky chapters because I’m a sucker for any sort of super technical chemistry gossip. But I want to offer my perspective on the gap between such information vs. practical systems. Most people realize there are “complications”, but I would like to share my ideas on how to think of these complications in a systematic way.

I will use an economics analogy to explain a thermodynamic term called “Gibbs energy” (in older publications “Gibbs free energy”). Gibbs energy is the deal-breaker (or -maker) in a physical system, to tell whether it will “go”. It’s like a bookkeeping analysis to see if a business model is viable.

This is of course way oversimplified, but: You have raw profit, and you have organization costs. If you have enough profit, you can gloss over management. If you have a slim profit margin, your system may still work if carefully managed. There are even cases where an otherwise unprofitable system will work if you “add” enough of the right kind of organization.

Gibbs energy has two terms, which I’ll simplify to “energy” and “entropy”. Energy is the basic “bang” of the system, sometimes obvious sometimes not. Entropy is the “organization” of the system. More organized means lower entropy. In the technical thermodynamics of the Gibbs equation, the energy and entropy terms are of opposite sign. This means, conceptually, “buying” organization using energy, or vice versa.

For a simple system, like an electrochemical cell, the terms are fairly straightforward to quantify. However, any system of real relevance, such as biological life or renewable energy, is much more complex, partly because it is less definite just where the boundaries of the system are. Though harder to quantify, it can be easier to conceptualize.

For example, a pure substance is more “organized” than a mixture, thus lower entropy. Picture a gold ingot sitting beside a heap of mine tailings. The gold is more “organized” than the original state, the mountain of ore. You can see that you have to “pay” energy, effort, management to get the gold. Incidentally, the whole scene, gold plus waste rock, is now less organized, higher entropy; but that’s another story.

Back to the case of the semiconductor hydrogen reactions. At the scale of the titanium dioxide (or whatever) particles, the system “goes”. Ultraviolet light hits the slurry and activates it, splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. (This is not technically correct. It’s actually “electrons” and “holes”, and the chemical reactions may bypass hydrogen and oxygen. But it will serve for analogy.) So far, the practical use of such systems is to get rid of some undesirable organic pollutant. The oxygen produced “burns up” the pollutant, and a little hydrogen may bubble out.

But say you want to adapt these reactions to actually get a flow of hydrogen. Now you are faced with providing a feedstock of the organic material, as well as getting rid of the “burnt” carbon dioxide. Alternatively, you could let the slurry bubble out a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen — extremely explosive. Either way, your management costs have shot up. The larger system has to be much more “organized”. Is there still enough overall energy, enough “profit”?

Say you could magically get clean hydrogen. Hydrogen is a gas, and gases are inherently high entropy, relative to liquids and solids. The atoms are flying around more freely. To bring it to a more organized, manageable state, you can see you would have to expend effort. You could compress it into high-pressure tanks. You could liquefy it at extremely low temperature. This management “costs” energy, and cuts your overall profit.

Maybe you could chemically combine hydrogen with carbon to make a fuel that would be liquid at room temperature. That’s what gasoline is, and is why such fuels are so popular. But there is yet no practical way to do that. It would take extremely organized chemical reactions. Again, the management costs.

The closest that exists so far is the work of George Olah, which has come to fruition here. At first glance, this seems like the answer. You take carbon dioxide and water and you end up with the liquid fuel methanol. Methanol is a fair substitute for gasoline, not quite as high energy density because it contains some oxygen (it’s already part “burnt”). Poisonous, to be sure, if we drink it, and will readily kill anything it’s spilled on in any quantity. In this regard, similar to gasoline. But methanol is more readily biodegraded, once dilute enough.

But peek behind the curtain, using Gibbs energy, and you see how the Iceland plant is “cheating”. The energy is geothermal, essentially free. The carbon dioxide feedstock is volcanic gases, already concentrated; that is, lower entropy. To collect the same carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere would take enormous “organization” costs of energy. Maybe someday it’ll be feasible, but not now.

I want to make a nod to the supposedly “poor” efficiency of biological life, as photosynthesis. The number is usually quoted as a sad one or two percent, compared to our even crude solar cells at 10%. But look at the outputs.

Solar cells make electricity, which must be used at the same moment it is produced. By some reckoning, it has infinite entropy. The “management” term is our huge electrical infrastructure, with all its controls, including any storage. Yes, we have made it work, but it works best for steady inputs like hydropower or fuels we can burn at will. For “higher entropy” inputs that fluctuate, like solar and wind, we have to provide ever more organization.

As an aside, I saw a blurb about future cities harvesting their own energy, the skyscrapers coated in “quantum dots”. I love it! Those would presumably be molecule-sized solar cells, each feeding into the grid. What a wonderful futuristic image, compared to the clunky ones we have now: Blocky three-by-six foot panels, weighing some forty pounds, holding arrays of hand-sized solar cells. Most people don’t realize that if even one cell in the array gets shaded, the efficiency of the whole thing plummets. (This is why solar installations look so stark. There can be no shading anywhere.) This problem could be solved, but again at an “organization” cost of more complex electronics. The management of a cityscape of quantum dots would be, well, futuristic.

But, organization is clearly the way to go. Looking again at photosynthesis, the final output is a chemically stable solid, say wood or grain. It just sits there until you’re ready to use it. This is accomplished by the extreme organization of biological life. Life just “does” it for you.

Unlike transition metal oxide systems that need scarce, high-energy ultraviolet photons, plants can get by on abundant, low-energy red photons. Plants deal with the high entropy (extreme dilution) of their feedstocks without you even noticing. They scrape together enough carbon out of the fraction-of-a-percent carbon dioxide in ambient air. From this smidgen, they build huge forest trees, continents of waving grass, fields of corn. They quietly eke out their soil mineral feedstocks in a similar way. They don’t have to go halfway around the globe for strategic metals.

Each chlorophyll molecule is essentially your quantum dot. The highly organized biochemical machinery is in place to bring that energy out into a stable carbon-based compound, such as glucose, even at the cellular level. This is done with no extreme pH sulfuric acid or potassium hydroxide electrolytes, no nightmarishly high temperatures. This energy stock can be stored locally in the cell as starch, or transported. No batteries. No spinning flywheels. No explosive pressures or high voltages. When the energy stock is to be transported, the transport system is part of the package too, in the form of the plant’s vascular system, which runs on water.

We haven’t even talked about repair, recycling and replacement of defunct equipment. For built technology, these issues are routinely swept under the rug when looking at product lifecycles. Heavy metals from electronics leach into groundwater. Plastics spiral into the oceans. Even innocuous materials have be dumped and buried in landfills.

For biological life, the recycling was all worked out millions of years ago. Dead plants just rot. Before they die and rot, they live with dust, dirt, grime, muck, random weather conditions, scarcity, breakage, etc. All the things anybody who has ever tended machinery knows can be a full time job.

Again, for real-world systems, the “management” (entropy) costs are easier to conceptualize than to quantify. But when you look at all the entropy terms that living things routinely play ball with, a one or two percent overall “efficiency” is phenomenal. Biological life is the benchmark to beat.

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The gay bully

My cousin sent me a link to this. I started reading. I was about to click away with a yawn before I noticed the writer was Armistead Maupin.

How things change. I first saw Maupin’s “Tales of the City” series in the late 1980s. Each book, I couldn’t put it down! I was living on a boat, scraping by. I lived aboard friend’s small craft, parked in the marina. Rent was free, in exchange for keeping an eye on things. The tiny cabin wasn’t even big enough to stand up, so night after night, I sat long hours on the mooring slips, reading those books under the dock lights.

The couldn’t-put-it-down wasn’t from adventure, but from the steady subtext, “Gay life can be normal!” Here were these functional gay characters, in richly integrated lives. The message to me, trying to figure out this new weird gay thing, was, “You, too, can have a fun, normal life!”

The past several months, I have been leisurely going through the same series again, as audiobooks. They are delightful in how they bring back that time and place. But after all these decades, I now have my own richly integrated gay life. Literature is no longer so riveting.

I was about to click away from the current excerpt because it came across as the same-old gay story. That we are gay because of a clinging mother and a distant father. If that were true, the whole boomer generation would be gay.

That’s oversimplified. Here’s the theme in broader terms: The feminine energy is friendly, accommodating, understanding. The females themselves may be sisters, aunties, grandmothers, schoolmates; not just mothers. They are angels. The male energy is bluff, brutal, rigid. At best, it finds us baffling. The male figures, in addition to fathers, may be coaches, jocks, and especially bullies. They are demons. In its million variations, this is the sissy-victim gay story.

So, what’s this? Armistead Maupin squashing his early life into the trope of sissy-victim? It’s hard to swallow. He didn’t have it nearly bad enough. He was famous in San Francisco by his early thirties, and his work is so wonderful because it tells stories other than sissy-victim.

My personal story didn’t fit either. Both my parents were distant, my dad from his career, and my mom from four kids born within five years. I was a middle child, low expectations from the get-go.

When I was maybe 3 for 4, I got to stay up late while my mom iced my birthday cake for the next day. She looked down, tousled my head, and remarked how thick my hair was getting to be. I said no, I saw one of my hairs, and it was very thin.

From this, I might have built a whole narrative of maternal closeness. But really, besides injury-care, that is the only incident of personal attention I can remember. In adult life, my dad and I did develop a fond relationship. But from mom, as she faded into deafness and senility, that was never there.

In school, sure I was picked on, but what kid wasn’t? I had it easy. I was tallest in my class, always at the end of the picture line. When I was in first grade, there was a triad of third-graders who tormented me. Only years later did I realize. What?! One kid, age six, holding his own against three nine-year-olds? All they could ever manage was shove me, and tug at my clothes. Not much to complain about.

I was precocious. The standardized test scores are there to prove it, though it didn’t make my life a dream. It’s obvious now. The picking-on in my case was from those who always want to pull things down.

In maybe 3rd or 4th grade, a teacher took me aside and told me to stop bullying. I was taken aback. From my perspective now, I can see. I big boy, with a touch of Asperger’s. His intense, nerdy interests don’t attract many friends. He’s not much good at social cues, so it does not even occur to him he might be scaring the other kids. And, a little bit, he’s starting to like the boys. The way other boys may start pulling the girls’ pigtails.

I was shocked when the teacher scolded me. I took myself in hand and I don’t think I did it much any more. But there’s your window into the opposite gay archetype, the gay bully.

The gay bully shows up in the shadows of gay tales. He’s there as Maupin’s mean trigonometry teacher. He’s there as the thundering, in-denial, anti-gay preacher. He’s there as the snooty klatch of high-society A-gays. He’s there all too often as sissy-victim’s first sexual encounter. In the tales, he usually gets his come-uppance with poetic justice, mostly offstage. But he seldom gets a literary voice.

The gay bully is in real life. Say, J. Edgar Hoover. What kind of come-uppance is it, if he gets away with it for his whole lifetime? The usual dismissal is an arch tut-tut. But that’s like forgiving Hitler as a frustrated art student. To keep Hitler from happening again, you’ve got to understand Hitler. There’s a book in this, maybe a genre.

It reminds me of a theme from the vampire literature, something like “The law of the masquerade”. Vampires have survived by convincing general society that there is no such thing as vampires. Gay survival has had a lot do with letting general society believe that gays are all wimpy poofs, no threat. A man who wants men, and learns how to manipulate power, can stay invisible. Compared to other down trodden minorities, it’s easy. An angry young black man is obviously black, an outsider. A gay bully can stay an insider.

Gore Vidal wrote a remarkable novel “The City and the Pillar”. The first remarkable thing about it was it treated gay reality — clear back in the 1940s! The next remarkable thing was, even that far back, it broke right out of the sissy-victim party line. The sissy-victims are there, but in the corners, rather than the spotlight.

The spotlight is on Jim. In high school, he has sex with his best friend Bob, just before Bob ships out for the Merchant Marine. They are normal, masculine guys. Jim is in love, though he doesn’t quite understand it. He isn’t weepy about it, more like dogged. As his life opens up he pursues things that might lead him again to Bob. The military. Sports. When he finally does get with Bob again years later, and Bob resists him, Jim takes Bob. In the original, murder. In the 1960s revision, rape. The gay bully prevailed.

I’m not for rape and murder, but these stories need to be told. For all the gloss of gays being wan and ineffectual, and above all “sensitive”, we manage to abuse each other worse than anybody. It’s not going to stop until it gets talked about.

I want to hear more from the gay bully. We’ve heard enough from sissy-victim. The two have a lot of parallels. Sissy-victim doesn’t see himself as actively being a sissy-victim, he just feels like he is the way he is, but the world is so mean. The gay bully doesn’t see himself as bullying. He just is the way he is, and circumstances fall into place before him. For sissy-victim, his personal growth is to see how he’s being complicit with his abuse, and choose to stop it. The gay bully needs to grow out of his bullying, with temperance and enlightenment. Sissy-victim is not, of course, supposed to switch and become a bully. Equally ludicrous would the bully breaking down and “getting in touch with his true sissy feminine side”.

I know all too many gay men who seem satisfied to live their entire lives in the vortex of sissy-victim. On the other hand, I don’t know that I know any gay bullies. Are there really just the few? The public figures we see when they fall? Or are there lots of them, invisible, in plain sight?


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Yes, free will

The arguments that claim “there is no free will” use experiments like this: Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the brain causes involuntary movements, such as twitching of a finger. Now, I enjoy a good non-sequitur as much as anybody:

 I took my friend Elmer out to the airport. I showed him how, by hacking into a certain relay on an airplane, I could get one of the wing flaps to lower.

 “Woah!” he said, “This makes it impossible to believe there was ever a pilot in control!”

 “Yes,” I replied, “That’s the only logical conclusion.”

 “And,” as he thought further, “There’s no such thing as flight!”

 “Quite correct,” I agreed.

 “Oh, and…” Now he was holding his head, and swaying, “So my memory. Of my vacation to Brussels, where I traveled by air… Was a complete delusion!”

 “The obvious truth,” I admitted.

 

Sorry. Yes, I know it was a failure. It falls short of funny. It’s stupid. Sorry.

But that is evidently the chain of conclusions that leads from these trivial neurological demonstrations to the sweeping philosophy “There is No Such Thing as Free Will.”

 

We find ourselves in a world built from ideas, created by decisions. Yet, there is no mechanism that turns those decisions into reality?

We find ourselves in a world where all sorts of things fly (bugs, birds, airplanes). It’s obvious they do. There are ways to stop them flying, like a flyswatter. Sometimes the wind is too strong for birds. Yes, terrorists crash planes. But it’s obvious, things fly.

The fact that a system can be sabotaged, hobbled, and hacked does not prove there’s no such thing as the system. Instead, it’s good evidence the system is the main event. The fact that flight can be thwarted doesn’t prove there’s no flight. The fact that free will has limitations is no proof it doesn’t exist.

By the Theory of Relativity, you can hold the perspective that an airplane did not fly from New York to Seattle. Rather, the craft remained stationary while the rest of the universe shifted around it. All the physics works out. But the stationary-airplane reference is useless, except for demonstrating the Theory of Relativity. For aeronautical engineering, you use a frame of reference where the plane flies.

Maybe there is another possible reference system than individual free will, such as that All That Occurs is the will of All. But still, intent creates reality.


 

We have a number of built in — I won’t call them “delusions”, rather “conveniences”. Cases where what we think our brain is processing, is different from what it actually is.

In vision, for example, our impression of smooth continuous motion. Certain people have a neurological breakdown, called “akinetopsia”, such that they lose this impression of continuity, and see only a series of snapshots. If you think about it, between normal blinking, eye-shifts, and perspective changes, that’s about all that’s coming in. So, we think our brain is processing motion, but it’s actually synthesizing it for us.

We develop a sense of familiarity about things. This goes so much without saying that we never notice until it glitches. Déjà vu, that sense of familiarity, yet somewhere we’ve never been. Or the opposite, jamais vu, loss of that sense when it should be there. What is “familiarity”? Memory, surely, but with a sense of time, memory-of-memory, a conviction that “this was this way before”. We know full well that most things were there before we saw them. But this fabricated sense-of-familiarity, in its normal working, gives us a convenient comfort that “this was this way before, for me.”

When we are enjoying a conversation, we sense it as a flow, happening in real time. We are not aware of the processing lags, both to decode speech and create it. We are not aware of processing at all, until we stray beyond a language we’re fluent in.

Incidentally, the case of not being able to choose not to understand speech in your native tongue is thrust up as “proof” there is no free will. I’m sorry. Limitations don’t disprove free will. Free will is not the same as godlike (or diabolical) omnipotence. You don’t have the “free will” to levitate a book by telekinesis. You don’t have the “free will” to hold your breath until you die. More’s the pity.

These examples, of visual smoothing, déjà vu, and conversational speech, all bear on how our minds play with time sense, so life works better. The no-free-will pundits make hay the most from some hair-splitting experiments in a similar vein. Supposedly, your impression of when you decided to take some action, like lifting your finger, occurs up to several seconds after the internal brain waves started, which lead to the action. Ok. So? It’s one more example of how our minds masterfully play with time, so the world makes more sense. We “backdate” our impression of when we decided, but still we decide.

Professional baseball players, with the highest batting averages, go up against a women’s softball pitcher — and she strikes them out! How? It turns out, one of the strongest predictors of success in pro baseball is simply — exceptional eyesight. The pro batter, without ever realizing it, has trained himself to read the body language of the pitcher. The batter knows how the ball is going to go before it ever leaves the pitcher’s hand. Indeed, it’s easy to show that, at the speed the baseball flies, there is no time to visually process its trajectory anyway. Yet, the batter swings, and a good percentage of the time connects. At least until he’s facing a pitcher with different body language.

So, because the batter used his well-trained neurophysiology, rather than conscious thought, to hit the ball, he never “willed” to hit it?

Another irrelevancy brought into the no-free-will harangue deals with that pesky time lag. Researchers introduce a time lag between the sound and the motion in a movie. Subjects shown the movie find it very annoying, when the mismatch is even a fraction of a second, much less than the delay between the brain waves that herald a decision and the impression of having made that decision. This is supposed to prove something.

This proves nothing, except we are used to how things work. First of all, it’s unlikely audio and video actually arrive in our brains simultaneously. We conceptually stitch them together, after allowing for processing delays.

You can perform the thought experiment of watching an unsynchronized movie, and easily imaging how irritating it would be. But imagine this. You are spending a relaxing weekend at a cabin on a lake. It’s mid-morning, and you are enjoying coffee, or the libation of your choice, on the porch by the lakeshore. You casually become aware of an interesting person at another cabin across the water. For convenience, I’ll say “he”. He’s splitting firewood. His big shoulders flex, and the axe comes down. The wood splits with a satisfying crack. The knock lightly echoes off the hills. You watch, cycle after cycle, and you do not find it irritating at all.

But wait. The other cabin is 1000 feet across the water. Sound travels about 1000 feet per second. So there is nearly a one-second delay between his muscular exertions and the resultant sound. Why no annoyance? Because you know from a lifetime of experience that’s how sound works, including the echo. In fact, the time delay contributes to the languid sense of space and atmosphere in the scene.

Ok, it’s my turn to fabricate neurological theories on that time lag between brainwaves and the sense of decision. I speculate that, like sound and echo in a tranquil forest, its purpose is to give a sense of light and space in the mind, the hallmark of a comfortable decision.

“Proof” does not consist in mashing together tenuously related concepts. Déjà vu does not prove, or disprove, past lives. Akinetopsia does not prove that existence is a puppet show. Neurological time lags have nothing whatsoever to say about free will.


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The human condition

In the three weeks I’ve been on the North Slope, spring has come. When I arrived, this drive south from Deadhorse to the research station was through a wilderness of white. While I was at Toolik, the geese migrated through. They floated in half-thawed tundra ponds, then moved on north. Now they are here, on the vast, flat coastal plain that slopes imperceptibly northward to the Arctic Ocean.

The land is no longer white. There is still snow, in dirty gray patches, and ice on the Sagavanirktok River. The abruptly-revealed brown vegetation has scarcely started its sprint towards summer green. The brushy willows are barely budding, and there are only a few patches of flowers.

yellow tundra flowers, possibly anemone

Anemone?

Overhead, the sky is gray, and the wind is cold, but to the geese it’s the Promised Land.

Tundra swans on a thawing pond

Tundra swans

Wack, who is quite an ornithologist, points out raptors, owls, tundra swans. Occasionally there is a puff of white feathers among the gray twigs, crime scene of where a ptarmigan met its end back during the winter. But everywhere are the geese. They step, in twos and threes, between the tundra bushes. The birds carry shreds of wet vegetation, swinging from their beaks. Nesting material. All across the tundra, the geese are nesting.

Mile after mile, as we traverse the gravel highway, the geese are out there. Thousands, maybe millions. From an aerial perspective, they would seem endless.

Then an ecological perspective overlays. All the geese are doing exactly the same thing. Building nests. Eating grass. The same thing, multiplied a million times. I think of other species. The willows. The caribou. As species, they all do the same thing. Then I think of humans.

As soon as even a few humans get together, like an ice age hunting camp, they start to do different things. One is better at flintknapping. One is better at stitching the hides. So humans join together in groups, which can do more than the individuals alone.

The hide stitcher frees up the flintknapper to become even better at that job. There is a place for broken humans. A clan member who is blind can still chew the hides, to make them soft for mukluks. Thus, can free up the clan.

We admire animals. Each one is whole and complete. It must be. A broken goose is soon no more. But, as other humans are taking up the slack for us, each of us is incomplete. Broken, if you will. As individuals, that’s not very admirable. But together, it makes us more.

Other species specialize a little. When geese are flying in a “V”, the one at the head of the “V” tends to be a more experienced bird. But that’s about as far as it goes. Individual willow bushes are either male or female, so pollen or seeds. But that’s about it.

Social insects organize to a considerable degree, but it’s hardwired. They don’t come up with new things to do, only on evolutionary time scales. Geese fly in the “V”. They never try squares, or pentagrams.

On the other hand, humans are continually coming up with different things to do. Piling rocks on top of each other. Digging in the ground and sowing seeds. By and by, the things that work free up enough time that some humans can get by doing utterly bizarre things, like analyzing  mortgage-backed security derivatives. And, well, running research stations.

I think of how far this can go. This human innovation and specialization. I thought of it one time I went to the Portland bear bar, The Eagle.

That night it was advertised there were “dancers”. Well, they weren’t really dancing. There was a sheet of plywood laid down atop the pool table, and the two guys were up on that. They were standing, stepping sort of back and forth, side to side, keeping rhythm a little with their arms. I guess that’s about all they dared risk, or the plywood might go flying.

The two of them did look fine. They were big and muscular and hairy, just what the clientele liked. I don’t recall patrons coming up and tucking dollar bill tips in the dancers’ jockstraps, but it was that kind of scene.

I thought, how could you explain such a thing to any other species?

I daydream: On the long drive north to the airport in Deadhorse, we stop for a pee-break along the highway. We fan out across the tundra. I shoulder in amongst the taller willow bushes for some privacy.

Up ahead, what’s that? The branches thin, and I see a little clearing. Quietly, I crouch and peer inside. Two fine ganders are standing on a tussock, stepping back and forth on their big webbed feet. Around them, in the shadows of the brush, is an appreciative gaggle of other ganders. As I watch, one in the crowd occasionally tosses a tuft of edible grass towards the first two. These bob their necks in acknowledgement but for now leave the morsels lay. They flutter their wings a bit, as if for balance. They keep on stepping, back and forth, side to side, on their big webbed feet.