One of the people in my neighborhood built this solar car. Sometimes I see it parked in front of his house, other times I see it parked in front of an office building downtown (Only on sunny days... gee, I wonder why). So I guess he made it street legal and uses it for short-range commuting.
I know he built it because he's got the newspaper article about himself laminated and stuck to the outside of his garage. I guess he's kind of proud of it. I would be, too.
I complain about the Silicon Valley / San Francisco bay area a lot, but there are some cool things about having a lot of rich, eco-conscious people who like to build things, all living in one place.
Solar engergy link roundup
I've seen a lot of news lately about technological advancements that could make solar cels a lot cheaper - either by decreasing the cost of materials, the cost of production, or the cost of installation. I'm hoping to see the price of electricity from solar become truly competitive (i.e. without government subsidies) against electricity from fossil fuels in the near future. There are inspiring signs of progress!
UC Berkeley scientists figured out a way to make solar panels out of any semiconductor, allowing them to potentially be made out of cheaper materials than the high-quality silicon currently required. For example: Copper oxide.
Some German companies are developing robots that can install solar panels, reducing the labor costs of installation.
A startup company called Twin Creeks, in San Jose, has invented a way to create solar cells one tenth the thickness of current cells by bombarding them with a hydrogen ion cannon (!). At scale, this could lead to enormous savings in raw materials.
Even more science-fictiony than the ion cannon: Vanderbilt University scientists have made a bio-hybrid solar cell by combining silicon with a photosynthetic protein. The protein, called PS1, is extracted from spinach leaves and continues to function outside of the plant, converting sunlight into electrical energy with nearly 100% efficiency (compared to ~40% for manmade devices). The bio-hybrid solar cell is still a long way from practical mass production, though.
It takes energy to make solar panels, and that energy has to come from somewhere, so this has to be factored into their lifetime cost (and environmental impact). The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has found a way to potentially cut the energy used to produce panels in half using an optical furanace to heat up the silicon substrate.
Finally, some innovations are low-tech: standardized mounting brackets that don't require specialized tools can make panel installation faster and easier, reducing labor costs. A Chinese company called Trina solar and a German company called Solon Energy have both invented designs to do just that.
My new job sadly did not work out
I started a job on Monday with a startup company in the East Bay that does clean-energy financing. The commute was unreasonably long (2 hours by public transit, 1:20 by carpool). For the job to work out at all, I would have had to move. I was willing to do that, if the job was awesome.
The job turned out to be not the job I imagined when I signed up. I was hoping it would be an opportunity to learn about clean energy tech. But in practice the job was all about the finance side and not really about the technology side at all; it was a great opportunity to learn about investments, not so much to learn about solar power. Which is fine, it's just not what I was looking for.
I've got no hard feelings against the company. They're working for a good cause, they're pretty cool people, and I wish them lots of success. (And they're hiring web developers -- if that sounds interesting to you, contact me and I'll put you in touch!)
On Wednesday, I told them that I wasn't a good fit for the position. They told me that it was unprofessional of me to start a job and then quit immediately, and they were right. I wasted their time, and I'm sorry for that. It would have been better of me not to have accepted the job in the first place. But it's like dating: sometimes you go on two dates with somebody and then realize you're not looking for the same thing out of a relationship, and even though it hurts everybody's feelings it's better to cut it off immediately than to drag out the suffering, you know?
Somehow I got an unrealistic idea of what the job involved. They pitched me quite a glowing vision of the green-energy future, and I got excited. It's not their fault that I misunderstood, though; they never said anything misleading. It was a case of me hearing what I wanted to hear and disregarding the rest. Only after I started doing the work did I realize that my imagination of the job was unrealistic.
Live and learn. I realize now the questions that I should have asked during the interviews that I didn't ask. I'm quite good at aceing a job interview (especially the programming questions) but evidently I'm not good at using the interview to find out whether I really want the job or not.
I felt lost and discouraged for a couple of days. I wondered what was wrong with me. I'm in my 30s; by now I should know who I am and what I want. I thought I would be accomplishing things by now, not still trying to figure out what field I want to be in. I felt like a failure.
But today, my mood is better. I tried an experiment and it didn't work out; because of that, I've got more information now than I had last week. I've narrowed down my search. That's progress.
Guess who's applying to grad school again
Ever since my falling out with the software industry, I've been talking about maybe going back to grad school to learn some new skills. Like either getting back into the hard sciences (which I regret abandoning) or learning some engineering skills (real engineering, not this slipshod circus we call software "engineering").
Especially if I want to go into green energy tech, since my most recent attempt to break into that field left me feeling that my current skillset is just pigeonholing me in the role of web-monkey.
Stanford and Berkeley both have graduate programs in green energy (i.e. in the weird intersection of policy, engineering, science, and business that it will take to make a dent in humanity's fossil fuel addiction). They are both top-tier schools. Stanford is practically across the street; Berkeley is up north, but not so far that Sushu would have to leave her school. We could find a compromise address that allows us both to commute.
All autumn long I'd been running my mouth off about applying to grad school but not actually doing anything about it, because I procrastinate like a champ, especially when it comes to fractally tedious tasks like setting up applications.
Then Saturday morning Sushu finally got sick of my procrastination and kicked my ass into gear. We looked at application deadlines and discovered that I had less than a week to apply to the Energy Resources Group at Berkeley. There's a Dec. 7 deadline to apply for Fall 2013.
After a mad scramble for transcripts and recommendation letters it looks like I might actually make the deadline.
I have to take the GRE again. Last time I took it was like 1998 and they only keep your scores for five years, so I need to do it over. I've got an appointment for Thursday.
Feels weird to be preparing for a test again after so many years away from academia. I'm not worried, though. In 1998 I was nervous because I thought the GRE would, I dunno, measure my worth as a human being or something. Now I see it as just a bureaucratic obstacle that doesn't really mean anything. Don't sweat it, just get it over with and score whatever I score.
I looked at some sample GRE questions this morning and most of them are insultingly easy. Like, 6th graders should be able to answer most of these math questions, no offense to 6th graders.
Many of the grammar questions, meanwhile, are total bullshit. They're not looking for whether you can communicate clearly in the English language, they're looking for class markers, i.e. "prove you write in the dialect of an educated upper-class white American and not any other English dialect". I could rant about prescriptivist grammar but that would be a whole other blog post.
Even if I get accepted, that doesn't mean for sure I'm going back to school. I'll have to weigh it against whatever other opportunities I have before me in fall of 2013. But applying can't hurt.
"I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist"
Mark Lynas, who was a leader in the British anti-GM (genetically modified) food movement, has changed his mind and is now renouncing his former position. (Video is about an hour long including Q&A session, but there's a transcript if you wanna skim.)
He says that arguing with global-warming denialists taught him the importance of reading the original scientific research on a topic, and when he applied that method to the GM debate, he found that the fears he'd been propogating had little evidence to suppor them. He now says that GM crops, by feeding more people from the same area of land, and thereby preserving wilderness from agriculture, have been a net positive for the environment, and that trying to ban them is counterproductive.
The whole thing is worth reading, both for his description of his personal journey and for the details of the argument he presents. I respect somebody who is willing to change his mind based on the evidence. Far too many people, when faced with evidence that they're wrong, look for excuses and double-down on their challenged beliefs.
I think this is pretty important for anyone who wants to call themselves an environmentalist. Not just the facts about GM, but the philosophy of applying intellectual rigor to your pet issues. Good intentions are not enough.