No Tech Reader #28

How Google quietly funds Europe’s leading tech policy institutes. [New Statesman] “A recent scientific paper proposed that, like Big Tobacco in the Seventies, Big Tech thrives on creating uncertainty around the impacts of its products and business model. One of the ways it does this is by cultivating pockets of friendly academics who can be relied on to echo Big Tech talking points, giving them added gravitas in the eyes of lawmakers.”

Long term infrastructure. [Wrath of Gnon] “Like the stone lined canals in Kyoto, the terraced rice fields of Java allowing for millennia of continuous rice growing, the sandstone aqueducts of Italy still able to transport water after two millennia, the ancient Greek amphitheater still in use for plays and concerts, the cobblestone streets of Copenhagen that haven’t been resurfaced in five hundred years, we need to go back to thinking about our infrastructure not in terms of five year plans and technical efficiency, but in long term sustainability. If a bridge cannot be built that will last a thousand years, why build it? Why not build one that will last, even if it will be a less efficient or more expensive in the short run?”

COVID-19: false dichotomies. [BMC Infectious Diseases] “The COVID-19 pandemic has been riddled with false dichotomies, which have been used to shut down or polarize debates while oversimplifying complex issues and obfuscating the accompanying nuances. In this review, we aimed to deconstruct six common COVID-19-related false dichotomies by reviewing the evidence thoughtfully and thoroughly: 1) Health and lives vs. economy and livelihoods, 2) Indefinite lockdown vs. unlimited reopening, 3) Symptomatic vs. asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection, 4) Droplet vs. aerosol transmission of SARS-CoV-2, 5) Masks for all vs. no masking, and 6) SARS-CoV-2 reinfection vs. no reinfection.”

This clothesline goes around the corner

Low-tech Magazine featured Jonas Görgen’s mist shower in an earlier article. He did a second graduation project at the Design Academy Eindhoven that is worth mentioning: the clothesline that goes around the corner:

Revive the ol’ clothesline! This pulley system can move objects around the corner of a building. Following (or avoiding) the sun can help with making the most of the momentary weather conditions.

Modern buildings often trap the inhabitants into unsustainable practices such as using a tumble dryer or a large refrigerator. Making practical use of outside spaces of buildings is commonplace around the globe, from clotheslines spanning across streets in Italy to roofs crowded with jugs full of fermenting Kimchi in Korea.

It is not merely about resourcefulness, as these practices become part of the identity of a place.

In a reaction, he writes that “I wanted to think of a possibility to break out of the lifestyle that is dictated by the building in which you live”.

Source: Jonas Görgen.

Technologically utopian solutions rest on narrowly defined system boundaries

Quoted from: Cederlof, Gustav, and Alf Hornborg. “System boundaries as epistemological and ethnographic problems: Assessing energy technology and socio-environmental impact.” Journal of Political Ecology 28.1 (2021): 111-123.

What are the social and environmental impacts of carbon and low-carbon energy technologies in different places and at different times? To answer this question, we are faced with an epistemological dilemma. Before measurement takes place, we need to define where and when the phenomenon we are measuring begins and ends—to define its “system boundaries.” For instance, one liter of semi-skimmed milk, bought in a British supermarket, has an energy content of 380 kcal. However, to think of the milk in terms of energy also evokes the far-reaching social and environmental contexts that bring milk to the market.

Beyond the energy content declared on the milk carton, we can undertake a life cycle assessment (LCA)—expanding the system boundaries—to account for the energy (or the carbon, water, labor, or land) “embodied” in the milk via its production and distribution. We might include the energy content of processed cattle feed, electricity used to run milking machines, cooling tanks, water boilers, and lighting, energy inputs in alkaline and acid detergents, diesel for tractors, and a wide range of other energy technologies used in production.

We might expand the system boundaries further to account for the fuels needed to generate the electricity, run the chemical plant, fuel the milk tanker, power the dairy plant, and so on. Arguably, we should also account for the energy expended in the production of the electricity generator, the milking machine, the milk tanker and the tractor, fencing and the batteries storing energy to electrify it. But if an electricity generator and a battery are somehow embodied in a liter of milk, we have culturally come far away from what we normally understand milk to be. Where, then, should we draw the system boundaries around an object in order to gauge its social and environmental impact?

[Read more…]

Does covid cause brain damage?

“The latest in the long succession of attempts at maximizing people’s fear of covid is the claim that it causes brain damage. And not just in those who have spent time in the ICU, in everyone, even if all they had was a mild cold. The claim is currently doing the rounds on social media (apparently alarmist propaganda only counts as misinformation if it’s going against the dominant narrative). The assertion comes from a paper that’s recently been published in EClinicalMedicine (a daughter journal of The Lancet). The paper is actually quite illuminating about the current state of medical research, so I thought it would be interesting to go through it in some detail…”

“To me, the main lesson here is that we currently live in a world where junk science goes unquestioned and gets published in peer-reviewed journals as long as it feeds in to the dominant narrative. If this study had been claiming, say, that face masks didn’t work, then it would remain stuck at the pre-print stage forever, or, if it ever did get published, it would immediately have been retracted. It has become blatantly obvious over the past year and a half that it is not primarily the quality of studies that determines where and whether they get published, but rather their acceptability to the powers that be.”

Read more: Does covid cause brain damage?, Sebastian Rushworth, July 26, 2021.

Flying Only with the Heat of the Sun

If you picture a flying machine, you probably imagine a craft which is heavier than air, somehow kept aloft with wings or propellers. Heavier-than-air flight dominates discourses about aviation. “Sustainable” crafts are designed to be as light as possible (whilst remaining heavier than air), so that they require less energy from whatever renewable source they use for lift. These machines include human-powered planes such as those using pedals to rotate a propeller. Lighter still are kites and gliders, which remain heavier than air, but rely on air resistance and lighter air around them to fly.

Less discussed are flying machines which are lighter than the air they fly through because the weight of their materials and passengers is counterbalanced by the hot air or light gases they contain. [1] Perhaps this is because most of us experience flight in passenger airliners, not Zeppelins. In theory, making lighter-than-air flight sustainable is simple: heat a container full of air with sunlight so that it rises. In January 2020, Leticia Noemi Marqués flew freely in the Aerocene Pacha solar balloon, the first Fédération Aéronautique Internationale certified fully-solar, untethered, manned flight. Previous flights of this kind went uncertified or relied on propane burners or inflation generators [2]. Aerocene Pacha flies on solar energy not from solar panels or batteries but absorbed directly in the envelope (the fabric of the balloon). [Read more…]

Remaking Suburbia

Quoted from: Trainer, Ted. “Remaking settlements for sustainability: the Simpler Way.” Journal of Political Ecology 26.1 (2019): 202-223.

In view of the global resource and ecological situation, per-capita resource consumption rates in the rich world probably need to be reduced by 90%. This can only be done if there is a “de-growth” transition to some kind of Simpler Way centered on mostly small, highly self-sufficient and self-governing communities in control of local economies within a culture that is not focused on material wealth.

It is not surprising that the viability of such a vision is typically regarded as implausible. The aim of this study is to show that normal outer city suburbs could be restructured along the lines required to cut global impacts by the necessary amount, while improving the quality of life. Data on typical Australian consumption rates, food production yields, suburban geographies, etc. is used to estimate the achievable reductions.

The theoretical conclusion that such reductions could be made aligns with a study of the Dancing Rabbit Eco-village in northeast Missouri. Heavy cuts in resource consumption cannot be made without extreme change in economic, political, settlement and cultural systems.