The Dork Web Roundup

Tales From The Dork Web #21

If you’re new to Tales From The Dork Web you might not know that I write a longform issue once a month and a follow up post two weeks later. As TFTDW is a newsletter first, email constraints mean things get cut, left out and sometimes missed. In this issue I look at technologies that can help us while we build our own Solarpunk futures.

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There are a lot of links in Tales From The Dork Web. If it gets a bit too much, put it down and come back later. I wrote a guide to help you get the most from it.

This issue’s photos come from a trip I took to the Culham Centre For Fusion Energy. Music comes from Aphex Twin’s wonderful Avril 14th. Press play and read on.

More Solarpunk

I wrote and rewrote the Solarpunk issue so many times over the past few months and I have so much more to show you. One thing I wanted to show you was Jay Springett’s work but unfortunately I had to pull it for space at the last minute. Jay is one of the editors at Solarpunks.net, which was a major influence on the piece (amongst other things introducing me to Alex Le Guillou’s glorious art).

Jay Springett’s Life in the Future Beyond the Rusted Chrome of Yestermorrow is a brilliant talk on Solarpunk, the media and memetic engines. Jay talks about cultural fracking, the commoditization of media, and how Solarpunk can be used to craft a future through memetic engineering. I expanded upon Jay’s examples of real-world Solarpunk activity, but if you only watch one of his talks, this isn’t the one.

Solarpunk: A Grand Dress Rehearsal is the talk you should watch. It builds on the Rusted Chrome and presents Solarpunk as a practice run for a very different world. Jay’s writeup is also worth reading. My favourite concept from the talk is the idea of natural personhood. If corporations can be people, so can rivers.

Jay’s talk introduces the concept of land as platform, in which he asks what might be needed to keep the Netherlands sustainable if it shifts to a mediterranean climate or an icy tundra? Also worth reading is his your attention is sovereign zine.

If Jay’s work is a bit mind blowing, Ilja Panić’s Cyberbiomes project will really bend your head. Ilja’s work explores mycellium as an inter-species communication medium between animals and plants. Trees warn each other through the Wood Wide Web. There’s no reason why a we couldn’t communicate with a humungus fungus among us.

Near Horizon Technologies That Excite Me

Tech hype journalism churns out crap like, “10 Startups Changing the World And What We Can Learn From Them”.

Bruh, your shoe shop startup won’t change the world. It can barely change my feet.

But there are technologies that will bring about global change for good. I wanted to look at 3 near horizon technologies that:

  1. Have a clear path to common use

  2. Some proof-of-concept work towards realisation is happening now

  3. Will have a positive global environmental impact

I’m not saying these technologies will solve all our problems, that’s our job. Nor am I saying they’re perfect. They are cool, interesting and will deliver major positive change. That’s good enough for me.

Asteroid Mining

Currently we pull things out of the ground, refine them with dangerous chemicals, or just burn them to drive turbines. We use the results of these processes in products that are deliberately designed to be replaced with new products within a certain timeframe. The old products are then shipped off to be put in landfill. It’s a magpie-oriented economy based on seeking shiny shiny trinkets to fill the holes in our lives.

What if there was a near-infinite supply of materials and we could do all the dangerous stuff somewhere away from where it could harm the planet? Turns out we can.

Asteroid mining isn’t sci-fi. It’s actually happening now on a small scale. Nasa’s OSIRIS-REx probe recently went to the B-Type near-Earth asteroid 101955 Bennu to extract and return material to Earth.

As Kurzgezagt’s video mentions, off-world mining projects will be initially very expensive. The sheer volume of material produced will have price-changing impacts on Earth. If we move extraction off-world there’s no point doing it here. Once normalised, refining and production would also move to space. Within decades our planet could be changed forever. The scars from mining will remain but the pollution from it will end.

16 Psyche is a 200km wide asteroid composed mostly of nickel and iron. If mined it could meet global iron and nickel demand for millions of years. As Scott Manley mentions in his video above, 16 Psyche is simply too far to be a viable mining target right now and there are still problems to solve before asteroid mining becomes fully viable. Near Earth asteroids like Bennu may be easier targets, but we have to pick the right ones.

How far away are we from Asteroid mining? Well, the technology to do it pretty much exists now and we could see mining start before the end of this decade. In fact, Daniel Suarez wrote extensive notes on asteroid mining with currently available technology. I haven’t yet read his Delta-V novel but it’s on the reading list.

Clean Nuclear Power

If we want clean nuclear power, all we need to do is bottle a small star and harvest the energy from it. Thanks for coming to my Ted talk.

Its easy to poke fun at fusion being decades away but there’s been huge progress made across fields from advanced materials science to supercomputing and even AI (I’m not even joking). Matt Ferrell talks about recent fusion developments and the near future.

10 Years ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Joint European Torus at the Culham Centre For Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, England. JET holds the cuurent Q factor record. Q is the measure of output power relative to input. A Q of 1 would be breakeven, and above 1, more power out than in. JET reached 0.67.

We could see practical Q>1 fusion before this decade ends. Even when Q>1 sustained nuclear fusion is achieved, it’ll be a long time before we fully migrate. We’re still using reliant on coal-fired power stations today. That means that we can’t rely on fusion alone to end fossil fuel use. Renewables won’t plug the gap. There’s only one energy source that exists now, can meet current needs, works regardless of weather conditions and is completely safe. I am of course referring to nuclear fission.

When you think of nuclear power plants you might think of this guy. There are two dirty secrets about nuclear reactors.

Secret 1: Nuclear reactors are based on the Uranium fuel cycle because it produces fuel for nuclear weapons.

Secret 2: Other fuel cycles exist and are far less hazardous.

Thorium is an abundant and stable element with isotopes capable of fission under the right conditions. Current Thorium reactor designs are incapable of a Chernobyl-style pressure-based explosion or Fukushima-style meltdown.

Thorium is usable in water and molten salt reactors (MSRs). In an MSR, a thorium infused salt is heated into liquid form and poured into a reactor. As the salt heats up it expands out and cools down. This stops reactions from running away and causing a meltdown. Molten salt operates at lower pressures than water-based reactors, leaving no chance of a Chernobyl-style explosion. Matt Ferrell tells you everything you need to know about Thorium reactors in the video above.

The Thorium cycle produces Proactinium, which if not separated decays into Uranium 233. Uranium 233 can be used as nuclear fuel or in weapons. If properly managed Uranium 233 won’t be produced.

Thorium reactor research is led by India and China, each with vast reserves. There are still challenges to overcome, such as the materials needed to handle corrosive molten salt. Thorium reactors should be commercially viable this decade.

You might ask where the west is in all this. In the 1960s, the Oak Ridge Molten Salt Reactor Experiment ran for 5 years in the US generating nearly 100GW hours of power output. Humanity could’ve replaced oil and coal power generation with a clean, safe alternative at any point in the past 6 decades but chose not to. Now it’s out of the race.

The technology exists. The research is happening. Reactors are being built as I type. All we need is the will to make this happen.

Vertical Farming

We’re on track for between 3-5 degrees celsius of global warming by 2100. This isn’t good for farming but won’t be a problem as soil erosion will have probably ended agriculture before then.

I don’t like dwelling on bad news but the way food is produced will kill us if we don’t change it. We can change the way we produce food now, or we can wait till we’re forced to change the way we produce food in the future.

Environmental stresses from modern agriculture are unsustainable. Vertical farming changes that. Everything from herbs and leafy greens to strawberries can be grown vertically. Low-power LED and sensor and actuator advances make modern vertical farms possible, but we’ve had outdoor fruit walls since the 1600s.

Vertical farming makes the most of space. 72% Of the UK’s available land is used for conventional agriculture but even that’s not enough to feed the population. Vertical farming is well-suited for cities. Empty office units can be re-purposed, reducing food miles. Vertical farming’s key downside is energy consumption. Conventional agriculture looks less electrically intense but has a much higher carbon cost.

Given probable local objections to backyard rocketry and home tokamak reactor production, my green-fingered partner and I are building a vertical farm. I’ll report back with results as soon as I’ve eaten them.

You don’t have to go all-out (we’re not) but there are great low-cost options from Window to container farming. To think, I once believed containers weren’t even good for software packaging.

A Word From Our Sponsors

Before we get to the link roundup I wanted to show you the Tiddy Bear. I thought the Wonder Boner was as good as it gets but the Tiddy bear is really… something.

Things You May Have Missed

Just as there are amazing things we never see across the radio spectrum, there are equally amazing things above us. Getting started in astronomy is easy and doesn’t need to cost the earth.

Dirk Phillipsen writes about reclaiming the commons from capitalism. Solarpunk Anarchist Solutions to Global Problems has some interesting ideas for 21st (and 22nd) century living.

The video above is all Grimmware’s fault. He introduced me to Clownc0re. And now I pass on my suffering to you. By way of compensation, Cormullion’s deep dive into the Asterisk was a much better read than Clownc0re is a listen.

Daniel Harvey asks “What happens after Facebook falls?”, while Slava Akhmechet writes about Surviving Dissolusionment. Goads and Dark Patterns covers some great examples of how Dark Patterns rely upon the path of least resistance to push people into inaction.

This interview with Philip K. Dick was an interesting listen. I downloaded this with the now DMCA’d Youtube-dl to listen to on Minidisc. Github warned reposting the Youtube-dl repo on Github could get you banned. Someone ought to tell these guys.

Michael Lynch wrote up his painful experiences digitizing home movies, while Blake Patterson reminisces on 35 years as an Amiga user. Andy Baio took a deep dive into the newsgroup alt.binaries.images.underwater.non-violent.moderated. Kevin Lamonte shows off some cool tricks while discussing his journey to terminal mastery.

Like Stories of Old uses the movie Fight Club to discuss fascination and subjugation in the male psyche.

White Castle are expanding their robot burger cooking pilot. Immigrants don’t steal jobs, machines do. This is a good thing. What’s wrong is a society optimised for artificial scarcity-based consumption. In other job automation news, this drone company is planting trees way faster than humans ever could.

After stepping back from twitter I found other social sites sucking up the time I saved. I spent the past week mostly off the web till today, exploring Gopher, Gemini and Secure Scuttlebutt instead. If you can’t wait for a write-up, I reached similar conclusions about Gemini to Drew DeVault.

I really love Cornelius’ Dear Future Person. Cornelius is a huge name in Japan with a back catalogue well worth a listen. I thought I’d end with a quote from that esteemed philosopher, Dr Seuss:

“A person's a person, no matter how small.”

I do hope you’ve enjoyed this issue. If you haven’t I’ll give you a full refund. If you’ve enjoyed it a little, then perhaps you could share it or some of the links with a friend. I’ll be back in 336 hours with more Tales From The Dork Web.