Thursday, February 18, 2010


My Travels

It is 11:10 AM in London Heathrow Airport. My plane from JFK landed at 7:30 AM, but my next flight to Johannesburg, South Africa takes off at 5:40 PM. I will have yet another (2.5 hour) lay-over in Johannesburg before taking off to Maputo, Mozambique. I will be traveling in Mozambique and South Africa until March 11, when I will head to Israel on an open-ended stay.

With all this lay-over time, I am reading travel guides and warnings about potential dangers in Mozambique. In addition to the risk of Malaria, some 2 to 3 million landmines were left in the ground after the civil war ended in 1992. This has been a major impediment to the development of the country's economy, since much of the arable land was covered in mines. According to a UN report (which seems to be from around 1997) about 20 people were victims of landmines in Mozambique every month. De-mining operations are slow and costly, but it seems that after many years of removal efforts there were still several hundred thousand landmines left in the ground as of 2000. A recent report indicates that the Mozambique government hopes to have the country landmine-free by 2014.

Last week in Israel, two children were injured by a landmine while hiking in the Golan heights: an 11 year old boy had his leg amputated and his 12 year old sister was injured by shrapnel from the explosion. Apparently, Benjamin Netanyahu called the boy to wish him well. During a Birthright trip to the Golan Heights in Israel, I remember taking a Jeep ride along a road on a hill spotted with what were formerly Syrian bunkers overlooking the Galilee. Along the sides of the road was a wire fence with a sign warning of landmines in the poppy fields beside the road (a twisted joke goes: the Arabic text reads "picnic area").

In other news (on the TV here in Heathrow), the BBC shows the Israeli Ambassador in London, Ron Prosor summoned to the Foreign Office over the recent assassination of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. The Dubai police recently revealed that the assassins used forged British passports with the names of six British ex-pats.

Israel, of course, does not confirm or deny anything, but this wouldn't be the first time Israeli spies used forged passports in an assassination. In 1997, two Mossad agents with orders from Netanyahu, entered Jordan with forged Canadian passports and were caught after injecting a neuro-toxin into the ear of Khaled Mashal. After the botched attack, Canada recalled its Israeli ambassador.

In order to secure the release of the two captured Mossad Agents, Israel released Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin from prison. In 2003, after Yassin survived a F-16 bombing he made a statement: "Days will prove that the assassination policy will not finish the Hamas. Hamas leaders wish to be martyrs and are not scared of death. Jihad will continue and the resistance will continue until we have victory, or we will be martyrs."

Yassin was assassinated by a helicopter attack in 2004.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Moon-Base (A Poem for the Escalation of War)

they throw rocks, and hurl rockets
they take the money from our pockets;
and pay for war.
they make bombs, and then explode them;
they shoot guns, and then reload them;
and they shoot more.

they build walls, and they destroy them;
they train men, and then deploy them
to bleed in war.
they will fight, and they will kill;
and they will die as they fulfill
the creed of war.

the human race
is running out of space
let's go to outer-space
and build a moon-base.

turn our missiles into spaceships;
we must start leaving soon.
turn our battlefields into gardens;
we will be hungry on the moon!

we can build cannons on the moon-ground
when we lose our moral high-ground;
we will have strategic high-ground,
to launch projectiles earth-bound.

ready, aim, fire!
leave it to gravity
to provide the energy
for sweet victory.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


There is No State Solution; There is a No-State Solution

Hi, I am Amir. I am 24 years old and I am a designer of electronic systems that control uranium fission reactions. I think there are controversial people in Iran who can copy these first two sentences, but I am not an Amir of Iran. I am Amir of the Desert, Negev, and I am an American: Ben Franklin is my homeboy. Happenstance allows this Amir to work on nuclear fission reactors without much fear of politically inspired death from above.

I'm going to Israel in two months. This year, I hope that I will not be attacked by rockets as I visit my grandparents.

This is a nearly universal human sentiment. Nearly, for I do not doubt the existence of those who yearn for their chance to explode. And despite the persistence of those exceptions, all humans should protest the notion that it is acceptable to cause violence for other humans. The rational voice must also contradict the voice of those who equivocate for violence. It is unacceptable to transform people into meat, numbers or rhetorical devices like "collateral damage," "human shields," "friendly fire," and especially "intended targets" for it is the intent of violence we should seek to subvert with utmost urgency.

When empathy is lost, we divide ourselves into us and them and ignore justice. I read about "us versus them" and how that plays out: those who do not study the Bible are doomed to repeat it.

Before I was a teenager (before the Second Intifada and before Oslo) there were Palestinians from Gaza working among Jews in the Negev Kibbutzim, but now the Arabs are not let out of Gaza. A Thai woman now milks the cows on my grandfather's kibbutz. When you hear about traumatized workers after a Qassam attack turns a cow into hamburger, there is a 60% chance those workers were from Thailand.

There is nothing quite like sitting in your grandmother's kitchen and hearing explosions in the background. When you hear the boom, everyone's eyes look somewhere else. It's a somewhere that is not a place in the room, but a place in your head where you are calculating how far away that was.

I am usually in America, and I cannot hear the explosions.

When I am in the Negev, I hear the booms and I realize that I am an intended target of the TNT. I start thinking about how to mix enough sugar and potassium nitrate to send the pieces of the rocket back. Trebuchet is the sport of engineers, after all. And I recycle. At MIT, I met people who build guidance systems, fly remote control aircraft, fabricate semiconductors, set off large redox reactions (for entertainment value), and program robots that visually approximate Terminator. I could be a much more prolific terrorist than the people attacking me.

And then I remember Isaiah. Lo Yisa Goy. Rockets don't have a good plough-share-esque poetic substitute and we should probably research the use of scramjets to reach orbital velocity with higher specific impulse, but I digress. If the fates conspire for me to die in a rocket explosion, let it be in pursuit of the lunar surface, and not from the lunacy of my neighbours.

In America, Arabs and Israelis celebrate together the "weirdness" of their ethnic names. I love that America has a president named Barrack Hussein Obama (though I wrote in Ron Paul). Perhaps our new King will comprehend that drawing lines for Israel and Palestine will not solve the racial divide between Jews and Arabs. There is folly in forging state solutions to racism problems. The Western powers that toot the horns of a two-state solution are like the Chinese observing the 1992 riots in LA and suggesting to segregate California so that the Black people and the White people have their own separate (but equal) states. There is no state solution to racism.

There is a no-state solution: we have to stop segregating our populations as though the separation will breed peace and not resentment. We need to form joint-ventures to establish our interconnectedness and courts to provide equality before common law. We are sojourners of the ground on which we stand. We must muzzle the dogs of war that claim to own the dirt upon which they leave their droppings. A righteous man once built a raft to survive the wrath of the Creator, indeed we need to build much bigger rockets if we are to become as numerous as the stars.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Access Control to Scholarly Articles

I get really annoyed when I search Google for something and find abstracts and titles of articles in scientific journals and then find that the actual document sits behind access controls.

Since I'm an MITer, I can usually access these documents by pushing a few extra buttons. Certainly, I always know someone who has access to the document and can probably explain it to me.

It occurs to me that anyone interested in reading these types of articles can probably access it anyway.

Why are we so obnoxious about putting passwords and payments in the way? Won't it just be more productive for everyone if we removed these access controls?

And what about the people who can't access these articles for lack of money? Why should we deprive those without means something which would cost nothing to give freely?

There is something greatly broken in modern culture.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


compile python 2.5 cjson 1.0.5 in Windows XP

If you're trying to build cjson in Windows XP you might have seen this bug (in addition to the usual setuptools package, you'll need the mingw compiler):

C:\Python25\python-cjson-1.0.5>python build
running build
running build_ext
building 'cjson' extension
creating build\temp.win32-2.5
creating build\temp.win32-2.5\Release
c:\mingw\bin\gcc.exe -mno-cygwin -mdll -O -Wall -DMODULE_VERSION="1.0.5" -IC:\Py
thon25\include -IC:\Python25\PC -c cjson.c -o build\temp.win32-2.5\Release\cjson
cjson.c:1153:50: too many decimal points in number
error: command 'gcc' failed with exit status 1

I worked around this bug by changing the MODULE_VERSION token on line 1153 of cjson.c to "1.0.5" (in quotes). Now "python install" works and the resulting modules passes the

Friday, September 12, 2008


X-Prize Alternative Energy Forum at MIT

On Wednesday, I went to the X Prize Alternative Energy Forum at MIT to hear Ray Kurzweil, George Church, and Saul Griffith present on "What I Would Advise the Next President" with respect to alternative energy policy. After the discussion, a $25,000 X-Prize was announced for making a 2 minute YouTube video with your "Crazy Green Idea."

Videos and slides of the presentation will be posted on the X-Prize blog-site soon.

Dr. Kurzweil presented the law of accelerating returns and demonstrated that solar power is a similar technology. He presented an interesting argument that when technologies becoming "information technologies" they switch from a process of linear growth one of geometric growth. Linear technological process is usually the result of trial and error (hypothesize and test) whereas a geometric information technology growth is fueled by simulation and process optimization. He observes that nanotechnology and genetics are pushing medicine into the realm of "information technology" in the same way that advanced material processes and software simulation and optimizations have enabled Moore's law.

Dr. Kurzweil suggested that at current growth rates, solar power technology will cross a critical economic boundary (making it not just feasible, but pragmatic) in 5 years that will trigger massive solar power adoption electricity generation. I think that accelerated returns are largely demand-driven: sale quantities drive down marginal costs and provides capital for research and improved manufacturing infrastructure so that even lower cost items can further increase sale quantities in a feedback loop.

George Church discussed biofuels and that the problem of transporting and storing electricity needs to be considered in addition simply generating it. The benefits of biofuels is the energy per weight capacity of combustible chemical storage an order of magnitde higher than solid state capacitors or chemical electric batteries. Thus despite the lower percentage yield in transforming sunlight into stored power, biofuels make more sense in applications like airplane fuel or automobiles where weight is a primary factor of efficiency.

Dr. Griffith made an important point that "economic practicality" is not the same thing as "technically necessary." His presentation was focused on the technical scale of the problem: In order to practically generate enough electricity to supply humanity we would have to fill an area the size of Wyoming with Solar panels. Transforming the area of Wyoming into a solar farm would require a 1000 square meters a second for 8 years (Google for Wyoming Area to get 97818). He also mentioned that the practical energy plan needs to consider that manufacturing and distributing a solar panel can consume several months of the output that it generates. For example: it is not energetically practical to manufacture small wind turbine.

After the talks X-Prize co-founder Peter Diamandis announced a $25,000 prize for presenting your "Crazy Green Idea" on YouTube. My crazy green idea is to develop a green-power von Neumann machine that is capable of forging a copy of itself and providing power from the sun: a fresnel lens solar forge that is capable of making fresnel lenses for solar forges... A fully green power self-replicator will reduce the environmental impact of developing green power systems and enable low-cost geometric expansion.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


solar energy and tax incentives

As a libertarian I oppose subsidies, tax incentives and economic protectionism in general.

I also live in a reality with oil and coal subsidies, massive credit bailouts, trillion-dollar wars and mathematically disinclined policy-makers in generally. I recognize the fundamental difficulty in achieving returns to scale in a market dominated by monopolized energy providers and I understand the risk model associated with solar investments.

So when the senate votes against extending tax incentives for solar and wind power investments a little piece of me has a moral conflict. I think local policy decisions born from city and state governments will be more effective at spawning a market for solar installations, but the federal government has demonstrated a decided lack of leadership in sane energy policy. I cringe as I hear the call for more drilling. I guess to a screwdriver everything looks like a screw, only it's all of us who are getting screwed. Continuing at a 30% CAGR, solar panel production will generate around $150B between now and 2012. Unless the Senate wants this production capacity to be developed in China, they aught to reconsider the tax incentives on capital investment.

I've done a ton of data analysis on solar output, panel production and energy price data provided by DOE and NREL. I know that solar panels need to have a 1.5x-4x multiplier to make it an attractive investment as a 12 year bond (depending on where you live).

What produces this multiplier? Tax incentives for putting your roof to solar power and for the bank for giving you a mortgage on the panel. Panel production at lower price. Panels with greater efficiency. Grid energy costs rising. The combination of these factors will produce the perfect storm for solar technology. The great thing is that all of these things are happening. It is possible to achieve this multiplier in the short run with policy incentives and in the long run when returns to scale reach the most efficient thin-film technologies.

Lower cost panel production is the big one. This is where returns to scale matter. Nanosolar is investing in prodution plants to produce 1 Giga-watts of panel capacity per year. They recently closed $75M in funding matched by $25M in government incentives. They haven't reported the conversion efficiency and cost per watt at their claimed production capacity, but the ink-jet deposition methods they are promoting will be a major factor behind the solar boom.

According to the DOE. the US consumed 3.3 Terawatt-years last year so it will take 3300 years at 1 GW of panels per year production rate to get to where we need to be. Luckily, low cost solar power is going to be massively profitable, so we should be able to replicate 1 GW production capacity 256 times over in 8 years if we double it every year. It should be possible to achieve a majority solar infrastructure by 2020 if we start going balls out now.

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