Saturday, March 3, 2012

Two books argue that the future is brighter than we think

We know that is true just with the tremendous number of opportunities we have. We are in the middle of creating 51 new Market Places where there have been none before. Aivars Lode



Now for some good news

THE lab-on-a-chip (LOC) is a small device with a huge potential. It can run dozens of diagnostic tests on human DNA in a few minutes. Give the device a gob of spit or a drop of blood and it will tell you whether or not you are sick without any need to send your DNA to a laboratory. In poor countries LOCs could offer diagnostics to millions who lack access to expensive laboratories. In the rich world they may curb rising medical costs.
The world has been so dogged by bad news of late that it is almost possible to forget about tiny miracles like the LOC. But two timely new books remind us that boffins continue to make the world a better place even as politicians strive to do the opposite. Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler make a breezy case for optimism in “Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think”. Eric Topol provides a more considered look at why medicine is about to be “Schumpeterised” (his word) by digital technology. These books are a godsend for those who suffer from Armageddon fatigue. They also remind us that technology keeps improving despite economic gloom.
Messrs Diamandis and Kotler argue that the world is on the cusp of a succession of abundance-producing breakthroughs. The technological revolution has gone furthest in the world of smart machines. The smartphone contains a collection of tools—from voice recorders to video cameras to GPS devices—that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars a decade ago. But it is rolling on in lots of other areas too. Carmakers are working on driverless vehicles (see article). Robotics firms are working on friendly bots. Manufacturers are experimenting with 3D printers that can produce everything from musical instruments to blood vessels. Firms of every type are building an “internet of things” that will tell us when our machines are in danger of breaking down or our pipes are leaking water.
They argue that four big forces are speeding these innovations from the drawing board to the supermarket. The first is the rise of a generation of philanthropists who believe that technology can rid the world of ancient evils. Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, is one of them. He sponsors “self-improvement” through schemes for social entrepreneurship and microfinance.
The second is the discovery of the “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” (as C.K. Prahalad, a management guru, called it). Firms have realised that poor people collectively constitute a huge market. The key is to make things cheaper. DataWind, a British company, has produced a $35 tablet computer in partnership with the Indian government. Technology allows poor people to join the global market. For example, KAZI 560, a Kenyan job-placement service, connects job-seekers with potential employers via mobile phones.
The third is the proliferation of do-it-yourself innovators. DIY-ers helped to power the automobile and aviation revolutions. Now they are at work on every technological frontier: Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired (and a former Economist hack) and a group of fellow enthusiasts have produced a civilian drone for $300—about 1% of the cost of a military equivalent—that might be used to ferry supplies to places that lack good roads.
The fourth is the clever use of prizes. A combination of cash and glory goads the brainy to compete, and can focus a vast amount of brain power on a specific problem. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offers a $1m prize for progress in producing meat from cells. Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born telecoms tycoon, offers a $5m prize for African leaders who leave office with clean hands. Qualcomm, an American wireless firm, is offering $10m for a mobile app that can diagnose patients better than a group of doctors. Here Mr Diamandis knows whereof he speaks: he is the chairman of the X Prize Foundation, which rewards breakthrough innovations, and the co-founder of Singularity University, which tries to bring innovations to the boil.
Watch and learn
The advances that these authors celebrate are already beginning to affect two areas that have proved almost immune to productivity-improving technology—education and health care. Messrs Diamandis and Kotler rightly celebrate the Kahn Academy. Salman Kahn has put 2,200 video tutorials on YouTube, covering everything from molecular biology to American history, which receive more than 2m visitors a month.
Eric Topol, one of America’s leading heart surgeons, argues that digital technology is giving people much more power over their health care. People can keep a constant watch on their vital organs thanks to sensors that can be worn on the wrist or injected into the blood stream. A flashing light on your smartphone will tell you when you need to see your doctor, just as a light on your dashboard tells you when your car needs a service. People can also get highly personalised treatment, thanks to rapidly advancing knowledge of their genomes. And they can find ready-made support systems thanks to the proliferation of health-related websites (more than 20% of American adults have posted on an online forum related to health care).
This sort of yes-we-can optimism poses obvious problems. Surely the power of technology can be used for evil as well as good? DIY bio-terrorists can unleash viruses. Cyber-attackers can bring down the computer systems that keep the world going round. And surely abundance sometimes brings trouble? The internet is a source of time-wasting distraction and mind-fogging misinformation as well as instructional videos. The prospect of spending one’s old age rigged up to sensors that document one’s ebbing life force is not edifying. But our authors are certainly right about one thing. Knowledge is cumulative. And that is a good reason for supposing that things will get better.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The death of peak oil

All I can say is remember the price fluctuations of the past, they have nothing to do with supply just manipulation. Thanks Sam for the article. Aivars Lode

Alan Kohler
Published 7:17 AM, 29 Feb 2012

Here’s another structural transformation to add to all the others that you have to get your head around: it’s the transformation of global energy markets as a result of shale oil and gas.

We’ve already got the digital revolution and the switch from consumption to savings after the GFC, not to mention the rise of China and India. Now we have the death of peak oil.

For years we have assumed that fossil fuel reserves were running out, that peak oil production had occurred some time ago and that it was only a matter of time before the oil price rose to such heights that energy-dependent economies would be crushed, starting with the United States.

In a way these assumptions have helped underpin the movement against global warming (that is, we’ll have to give up oil anyway since it’s running out, so we might as well make the best of a bad lot and embrace electric cars and wind farms and save the planet from climate change while we’re at it).

In fact the existence of vast reserves of oil and gas in shale formations, mainly in the United States, combined with the return of the oil price to $US100 a barrel without, so far, causing a global recession, is producing a profound transformation of energy markets.

Forget declining oil, there is a new global oil rush. The US has an estimated 2 trillion barrels of shale oil reserves – about 70 per cent of the world’s total and eight times the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. The gas reserves, in the US, Australia and elsewhere, are vast.

The cost of extracting shale oil ranges from $US95 per barrel down to $US12, although the process of fracking, where water is pumped in to break up the shale and release the oil, is very controversial – as highlighted on the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program last night.

But where there’s oil there’s a way. BHP Billiton has paid $15 billion for shale oil and gas acreage, through its acquisition of Petrohawk, and now owns four large areas in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. The company is spending billions developing the project; its Haynesville project in Arkansas is already the largest shale play in the US, producing 6.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day.

There was an earlier shale energy rush in the 1980s, following the second oil shock, but it quickly collapsed with the oil price.

However, now the price is back to where it was in real terms, making it economic, and extraction technology has advanced enormously as well. It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that the first commercial horizontal wells were successfully drilled and modern 'multi-stage' hydraulic fracturing (fracking) techniques did not emerge until ten years ago.

Production of shale gas in the US began to increase rapidly in 2010 thanks to advances in fracking technology. It has now been used in more than 1 million wells, and operators are currently fracturing about 35,000 wells a year.

It’s a remarkable process: the reserves are usually about five kilometres below the surface (much deeper than coal seam gas); wells are drilled down to them and then horizontally through them for another five or six kilometres; the horizontal part of the well is perforated by explosives and then fluid and sand are pumped down at high pressure to fracture the shale. The hydrocarbons then flow to the surface.

The opposition to this in the US is similar to the growing opposition to coal seam gas developments in Australia; whether any of the opponents get anywhere is a different matter, especially in the US.

The drive for self-sufficiency in oil and gas is very powerful indeed, and in pursuit of that there is a massive boom in shale energy development, leading to big fortunes being made in infrastructure and servicing, not to mention the energy itself.

Australia has relatively small shale oil reserves – here it’s more about coal seam methane. China has more shale energy reserves in total than the US but they're deeper and the geology is more difficult. There are big reserves in Poland and France, as well as Russia and the Congo in Africa.

But so far it’s all about the United States, which has the reserves and the largest market close by.

The importance of this for the world is hard to exaggerate. The distribution of energy on the planet is shifting: the stranglehold that Middle Eastern dictatorships have over the world’s energy supply is loosening and just as the rise of manufacturing in China shifted the world’s economic axis, so will the rise of shale energy in North America.

There will be a rapid substitution of coal by cleaner gas, especially as (or perhaps if) emissions trading schemes and carbon taxes spread.

It means renewable energy and nuclear will become less and less economic as the supply of gas increases, whether it’s from coal seams or shale. Gas is less carbon intensive than coal, but it still produces greenhouse gases, so it may be that the policy response to reduce global warming will actually have to increase if the world moves too far towards gas and away from renewables and nuclear.

If the United States could become self-sufficient in energy, its current account deficit would disappear and the US dollar would start rising again.

In fact, shale energy could be responsible for the resurgence of the United States as an economic superpower, with cheap local energy underpinning the second coming of its manufacturing industry as well as helping to balance its twin deficits – the current account and federal budget.

One thing is for sure: the world isn’t running out of oil and gas any more

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Video on Climate Gate

 Some very interesting messages in here I will let you be the judge. Thanks Mac Aivars Lode