Solar? I hardly knew her!


I’m sorry about the title. Kinda.

I’m really worried about our planet.
I’m also onboard with the “The Singularity is near” philosophy.
As a result I try to keep tabs on break throughs and emerging trends that may help us … save the world.

Saving the world is tricky business. It’s not even an easy task to define the problem.
The problems are many.
The problems are complex.
The problems compound each other.
The sum usually ends at “We’re fucked.”

But this is not a “We’re fucked” post. This is an optimistic post.
I write it with full knowledge that no one piece of the puzzle, no one technology based solution, will do the job.
But hey, this is a blog post not a text book – so forgive me zooming in a bit.

Solar Power can, and I’m sure will, play a pivotal role as part of the solution.
The number of “breakthroughs” I see every week in my RSS reader is amazing. I couldn’t possibly list them all.
If we could somehow take the blinders off… get past all the patent, grant, and credit CYA nonsense there’s some really great stuff that may work well together.

Consider a few things… all awesome on their own… but potentially world changing together.
(* I concede that I’m a layperson – perhaps some of these things are mutually exclusive for some engineering/physics reason beyond my knowledge. I welcome any people in the know to weigh in. )

Solar Power Efficiency

There seems to be new ways to make solar panels more efficient, heat resistant, or thinner every week.

For example – a team at Princeton University has discovered that making solar panels LESS smooth can make them MORE efficient. Specifically here they were mimicking the veins and groves of leaves. Their prototype cells were 47% more efficient than similar cells that were smooth.

Granted, they were doing this test with plastic solar cells, which aren’t terribly efficient compared to silicon cells.
Hang on though… what if similar gains COULD be achieved on silicon?
What if a few grooves of silicon (or that magic graphene stuff) could help increase other types of cells, just by mimicking nature?
Shouldn’t someone be trying that?

Similar concepts are being explored at Stanford using teeny tiny mirrors.
That’s awesome, but what if it were more simple?

EVEN IF if it didn’t work out – seeing this type of jump in plastic based cells is super important.
Plastic cells are cheap, strong, and flexible. And this bump in efficiency may actually help make this robust type of cell worth while.

Interestingly the grooves efficiency varies by the wavelength of light. It was most pronounced in the red end of the spectrum.
Wouldn’t it be cool if you could route wavelengths of light to sections of the cell MOST efficient for it’s capture/conversion?
That would be incredibly helpful for ALL types of solar cells.

Well as it turns out The University of Utah has done that.

Keep Em Separated:
The fine folks at the University of Utah have created a thin glass film that breaks light into distinct wavelength (like a prism) which can be used to setup solar cells optimally.
They say it COULD lead to solar cells that are 50% more efficient.
(and that’s not considering any gains made by adding leaf like grooves)

Of course it’s worth noting here that Solar is already pretty darn efficient by most practical measures.

I want a new Duck:
Recently a guy named Dave Olsen gave the geo-thermal energy industry a wake up call.
They had been trying to position geo-thermal as a “baseload” power source but as it turns out… baseload power is actually problematic these days because there’s often too MUCH solar energy during the day. Using more “stable” power sources during those times means “curtailing thousands of megawatts of wind and solar”.

California faces severe midday energy over-generation, as evidenced by the famous “duck curve” chart below. In 2013 alone, California was forced to curtail more than 19 GWh of pre-purchased renewable energy in order to run its inflexible baseload sources, and this number will likely rise in the coming years. Adding more of these resources will only make this situation worse, said Olsen.

This “duck curve” shows the increased overgeneration risk and peak ramping needs (potentially 13 GW within three hours) that occur as more solar is added to the grid. Credit: CAISO

All very interesting and starts to bring up the question of energy storage.
Storage has always been one of the big problems with solar and wind. They are only only producing energy when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. If these renewable resources are to become more mainstream we need to find a way to store up what is generated so that it can be used at a steady rate 24 hours a day.

This too is being addressed by lots of smart people.

Solar Power Storage

Power to spare:
Recently I saw a bold headline:
Company Claims It Has Solved Solar Energy Storage Problem

It’s really cool.
In a nut shell – mirrors (not solar cells) use the sun to heat a liquid (not water it boils too quick).
That super hotness makes steam that drives a turbine.
This company says they’ve found a material (they’re being pretty careful about giving away too much info) that allows them to store all that super hotness so they can drive those turbines around the clock.

Even more cool…
There are tiny grass roots entrepreneurs doing very similar things.
Terrajoule has a similar setup but uses a different storage method. (I think they use the steam to generate & store pressure which can be used to drive the engine after the sun goes down.)

Here’s a write up:
Terrajoule Unstealths Distributed Power via Solar And Energy-Storage

And if you’re interested here’s a rough video they made:


I mean… why aren’t we covering the desert with these things?!

But wait, there’s more!

Batteries Not Included:
Just today I saw this article about a solar cell that IS IT’S OWN BATTERY.

Some dangerously smart people at Ohio State University created a solar cell that stores the energy it creates… it is it’s own battery.

This is important because transferring energy from a solar cell to a battery is where a lot of loss happens. Not here.
The result is a cheap, highly efficient solar cell that needs no bulky battery.

And then there’s this thing…

Nothing’s Perfect, but this is close:
I don’t even know what to make of this yet within the context of the above… but it’s really exciting none the less.
According to the write up:

MIT researchers say they have developed a material that comes very close to the “ideal” for converting solar energy to heat (for conversion to electricity).

It should absorb virtually all wavelengths of light that reach Earth’s surface from the sun

It’s a little different in that it captures the sun’s energy as heat.
That heat makes things glow hot.
And the light from the glowing can be converted to energy.

Of particular note is that it’s being done with existing manufacturing techniques at a reasonable price.
The MIT team is using a very expensive metal because it stands up really well to heat, but in theory any metal with the right heat tolerance would work. With meta materials advancing as fast as they are I imagine there will be more options soon enough.

One more thing:

Having said all that – what if we used the sun, not to create energy, but to avoid needing it in the first place?
The LightCatcher from EcoNation may do just that.

It collects and widely disperses the light of the sun for indoor lighting. Drastically reducing the need for artificial light. It also blocks heat lowering the need for cooling. EcoNation says it can lower a company’s lighting energy costs by 70% (for big buildings)

Just a great idea.

Hey EcoNation – I hope you’re pitching this to Elon Musk for his new Giga Factory!

So yeah maybe there’s cause for optimism after all.

Spiritual Tools #1


The past two weeks have been difficult with regard to my spiritual practice.
I’ve not gotten my daily meditations in with the consistency I had been.
— Insert All the normal excuses here —

It’s interesting/enlightening/terrifying how much difference I notice in my patience level now that the practice has been slipping. Luckily I’m still able to EVENTUALLY catch myself when I’m reacting in an unskilful way, but it’s occurring more often, and I’m catching it later.

I’ve got some ideas on putting some rigor around my “study” – more on that later.
I’m confident I’ll get things turned back around, I’ve got some cool tools that are already calling me back.
Today I thought I’d share some of those tools.

#1) Podcasts.
Having some “like minded” talk to listen to during the commute (instead of tuning into the “who killed who” that substitutes for news these days) has been very helpful.

There are many out there but here are a few:

Hardcore Zen.
Brad Warner is an interesting cat. I put him in the same general arena as Noah Levine, both were (to some degree) on the outskirts of society before mediation found them. Both approach things from a very down to earth place. Both have written several books. Brad’s “Dharma talks” are given in the language of normal humans, and are a pleasant way to spend the drive.

Secular Buddhist Podcast.
This is a good podcast that could be great. But so far for me isn’t.
The early episodes are – they outline the separation that can and does exist between Buddhist teachings and religion/belief, and they do a great job of it.
Where it starts to lose points with me though when the host crosses the line of impartiality. He sadly often goes beyond simply secular into overtly bashing religion/belief. He uses words like “ridiculous” when doing so. At such points the content seems to no longer have a secular agenda, though it seems to have AN agenda. It no longer applies impartial agnosticism. At such points the podcast feels like it would be more appropriately named the “The Atheist Buddhist”.
(“The Atheist Buddhist” may be a great podcast, but it’s mission statement would be different than the “The Secular Buddhist” and that’s what bugs me.)
Having said all that – it’s a thought provoking show worth being added to the queue

#2) Insight Meditation Timer.
This APP is a meditation timer, but has some cool community features, and also applies some gamification to the practice.
The cosmetic design won’t win any awards, but this is a great app with tons of well thought out features.
See hundreds of others around the world that are meditating when you are!
Earn milestone badges, and watch your streak of mediation days.


3) Community
I’m searching for a local community that I gel with, and have visited a few.
While I’m not sure I’ve found my final group, the process has re-enforced with me the value of community.
Find a few people on similar paths and fins a way to hang out.
If it’s a weekly meditation/talk… awesome.
If it’s a weekly coffee/talk… also awesome, but I have found that group meditation was more engaging than I had expected.

4) Books.
It’s hard to find time to sit down and read, but if you can here are some good choices.

Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (Huston Smith and Philip Novak)

Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening (Stephen Batchelor)

The Heart of the Revolution (Noah Levine)

I’ll post more tools (if I deem them valuable)  as I find them.



Spiritual vs. Religious.


I’m spending a lot of time lately working on and thinking about my own spiritual path.
I’m a noob at this, and have lots to learn. Don’t expect soul shattering Oprah moments from me.
But I am enjoying the journey and it’s been top of mind for me for a while.
Thus, It’s likely going to result in more than a few blog posts; So let me get the back story out of the way.

Big disclaimer:
I am but one contributor to this site.
I speak for no one but myself.

For a very long time I’ve been dissatisfied with the most obvious spirituality choices presented to me as a westerner:

  • Pick an organized flavor of the Christian religion
  • Be a new age metaphysical type
  • Give up on any notion of a spiritual practice

Organized religion in general seems, to me, to be more about mankind than any higher power. The dogma, rituals, the very beliefs that one is expected to adopt, have been created by man; Fallible, confused, fearful, and power-hungry man.
Humankind which has no capability of actually conceiving the nature of a higher power, has crafted the vast majority of content we are expected to simply accept. How does that make sense?

New age metaphysical types are, in many ways, at the opposite end of the same spectrum. They have a few nuggets of wisdom to share, but for the most part they’ve co-opted those nuggets from eastern schools of thought and packaged them up in bite sized chunks that feel new to us westerners. Beyond that… I’m not convinced they are any better off than organized religion. They’re simply less organized.

The true and valuable message of spiritual progress has been lost thanks to centuries of politics, fear, and at times simple guess work.

None of the resulting text, ritual, or dogma has seemed to actually do much for me. It perhaps gave me something to read, something to be judged on, something to be guilty of when I fall short, and something to fear if I could somehow mange to offend an infinitely more powerful and eternal higher power.

How does any of THAT help me become a better person? A better husband? A better father?
How does it help me deal with the stresses of life in a more compassionate way?
In my experience – it doesn’t.

Some would say that religion gives plenty of ways to be a better person/husband/father/etc.
I respectfully disagree. It may outline the attributes of a better person/husband/father but it doesn’t really help me become one. It usually boils down to outlining end points, not mapping the journey.
Do/don’t do this – or else.
Believe this – or else.
Everyone else in the world is wrong, and perhaps evil.

So… for a long time I’ve been looking for something more focused on the how-to of spiritual betterment.
And my current work with the Buddhist teachings have me very optimistic. It is this path I’ll be talking about for a while.

I hear you saying “Buddhist?? How is that less problematic than anything else in your anti-religion rant above?”
(Seriously I can actually HEAR some of you saying this. – how do you do that?!)

On the face of it… your point would be well made.
Over the thousands of years since the Buddha was alive his teachings have been morphed and co-opted into religions with as much human based dogma and guess work as any.

There’s a reason I used the words “Buddhist teachings” vs. “Buddhism”.
Taking the core teachings OUT of any religious context has been a powerful experience for me. It is this separation of Spirituality and Religion that has finally started to fill the gap for me.

Indeed the original teachings of the Buddha were entirely non-theistic. The Buddha was just a man. He taught TECHNIQUES (actual practicable techniques) that help one become more compassionate. They help one become more selfless, help one deal more elegantly with the stresses of everyday life.

The practice of these “Buddhist teachings” are completely compatible with any belief system – or the lack of one. It’s simply not concerned with God. It’s concerned with dealing with life in the here and now. It’s not designed to explain the universe, or outline a belief system. It neither requires nor shuns any particular faith.

It is showing great promise for me as the how-to guide I’ve been looking for.

So as I explore this, it’s a near certainty that I’m gonna blog about it.
Here’s the deal: We need not agree on all things.
Further; I admit I may not always have all the info – I’m learning after all.
Having said that… I welcome and look forward to any thoughtful comments.

Google’s Awesome AI work.


Whether you are a fan/user of Android, Apple, whatever… I’d bet we’d end up in agreement that, putting aside the merit of phones & devices for a moment, Google is more likely to usher us into an era of Artificial Intelligence than almost anyone else.

I mean honestly the Google Now service (while far from AI) is already so great.
At the time of this writing it beats Siri without even trying.

Here’s an example of coolness that happens all the time through Google Now – that would have seemed like magic not too long ago.

I recently booked a hotel room for a business trip.
I used my company’s travel site to do this.
Days later I got in my car and said “OK, Google. I need directions to my hotel.”
And BAM! – directions to my recently booked hotel popped up on my phone’s navigation app.

The ability to do that speaks to the reach google has across multiple systems more than it does some magical bit of AI code. Google Now heard my question and then searched my gmail inbox for the most recent hotel confirmation email.

Simple. Easy.
For it and for me. I didn’t have to do anything extra.
And it was fast.

It was pretty fraking great.
But it wasn’t true AI.

When it comes to winning the race to a truly intelligent system… Google simply has more assets at it’s disposal.

  • They have the knowledge graph.
  • They acquired Metaweb and it’s “database of things”
  • They have countless web queries allowing them to analyze how people think when they’re looking for something
  • They have countless web queries showing what people in certain regions/demographics/etc are interested in at any given moment.
  • They acquired DeepMind, a company devoted to artificial intelligence.
  • They acquired several robotics companies (Boston Dynamics and Schaft Inc. are a couple of the big ones)
  • And they have Ray Kurzweil running the show.

And I recently read an article about a new and potentially powerful asset… the Knowledge Vault.

Whereas the aforementioned  knowledge graph is a large and very valuable database of facts and answers – it’s a database that was curated if not populated entirely by humans. The Knowledge Vault though will not need any human to teach it… it will learn on it’s own.

Knowledge Vault automatically gathers information from across the Internet using bots and interprets the results to build a base of facts. It has already put together over a billion of them, with nearly 300 million considered “confident facts” with over a 90 percent chance of being true.

– source:

It’s important to keep in mind these numbers really don’t add up to anything terribly intelligent. It’s only usually right 30% of the time.

Equally important; We aren’t sure how far off it is the 70% of the time it’s doesn’t even make it to usually right.
Is it close?
Is it  just fundamentally wrong, or is it taking as true all the crazy and wrong stuff it finds out there?
(like roughly half the humans on facebook.)

These are important considerations for sure.
But… we must also remember that it’s learning on it’s own, and it’s doing it with advantage of all the assets Google’s ecosystem can provide.

The folks at consider what a system like this could mean for the Google Now service:

This could result in an improved Google Now experience. Instead of asking the service simple questions – such as, “What is the weather?” – you would theoretically be able to ask it something more complex, like “Why is the weather like this in my area?

Truly cool.
But beyond Google Now it has powerful implications.

Multi-part questions like that are key ways humans like Ray Kurzweil weed out “chat bots” that try to take on the turing test. Here’s a telling exchange between Ray and the chat bot “Eugene Goostman” that claimed to pass the turing test.

Ray Kurzweil: I live in the capital of the country that built the great wall.
Eugene: Tell me more about Capital. I like to learn about different places!

– source:

When we get to a place where multi-part questions like this can be answered by a computer system – on the fly – without having a hard coded, and human built fact matrix in place… things are going to get interesting real fast.

It may start with better search and truly capable digital assistants, but it won’t stop there. Great things will  start to happen. Scary things may also happen.
Best of all… Great Scary things will start to happen.


hello-mattI thought it a good idea to open the site with a quick welcome message.
If you’d like to hear more about WHY the blog exists, and what it’s trying to do… you should check out the “About” page.
Here I’d like to set expectations, and give a quick tutorial how to use the site.

The first thing you should know…
I like the ellipsis… a lot. I don’t use is correctly either.
I’ve tried to care about this, but I just don’t seem able. Enjoy.

But I’m not the only person that will be posting here.
Other contributors may have more respect for the ellipsis… but they surely won’t love it like I do.
If you’re interested in who might be posting here check out the “Who’s Who” page.
The team may grow (or shrink) over time. No one is REQUIRED to post, but listed on that page are the people who may.

We (the contributors to this site) are … people.
We blog about things we are interested in, but that doesn’t make us gurus.
I for example will likely be blogging a lot in the Spirituality category for a while; Something that I’m perhaps not terribly qualified to do when compared to the Pope or Dali Lama. I am in fact a spiritual noob by almost any objective measure. It is however something I’m spending a lot time thinking about, so expect that to translate to my blog topics.
Bottom Line: This is a blog in the grand old tradition of the medium.

Probably the biggest thing you should know…
is that we want this blog to be a joy both to read, and to create.
Lots of posts being pushed out just because it’s 8am isn’t what we’re after. We want our posts to be worth reading, even if that means a less than regular cadence. Also, we are all humans; with friends, families, jobs, pet projects, etc.
We will not allow this blog to become a chore. If we can’t enjoy it neither will you.
I created a venn digram to help illustrate this, but was told that perhaps I needed a vacation.

So welcome.
If you’re reading this – I am very pleased to have you here. Please enjoy, and let us know you’re here.
Comment, share, or visit us in our dreams.
(seriously – that would be cool.)