Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Domain-specific and Domain-general adaptations and the heuristics of development

(Photo: Jad Nasrullah works on T.H. Culhane's "soda bottle solar collector", using the Zabaleen domain-general heuristic "(almost) everything we discard can be gainfully repurposed for something else". Here the idea was to continue to think of the soda bottles as liquid storage containers (their original intended use) but at the same time re conceive them as "large plastic pipes" that could replace the copper pipes in a traditional flat plate solar collector. The heuristic was a "matching heuristic" that states "look at objects in terms of their essential design and function, forgetting how they have been labeled so that you can find substitutes." In solar hot water systems copper pipes, which are expensive, are essentially cylinders with thin heat transfer surfaces that transport liquids by convection to an elevated storage tank. What other, but cheaper, thin-walled cylinders can we use that would serve an equivalent function? In the case of soda bottles painted black, the bottle, which has a large surface area, acts both as the cylinder and as the absorber, obviating the need for aluminum absorber plates and cutting costs even further!)

(Photo: The "soda bottle solar collector " on the roof of the American University of Cairo Science Building, thermsiphoning 20 liters of water from Culhane's custom-made open observation tank (a re-welded, re-purposed water tank from a Muslim Charity street cooler) that demonstrates the thermosiphon effect to students.)

(Photo: The temperature gauge on the "soda-bottle solar collector" after two hours of thermosiphoning 20 liters of 15 degree tap water on a sunny spring day -- system temperature has reached 47 degrees Celsisus. Note that the quantity of water heated is not merely the 20 liters in the tank, but the 54 liters contained in the soda bottles themselves - - 36 1.5 liter bottles. Thus the system acts as both a solar absorber to heat tank water through convection and a batch heating system at the same time.)

(Photo: T.H. Culhane and his "soda bottle insulated plastic pipe solar collector". Here the idea was to use the transparency property of plastic bottles to conceive of them as substitutes for glass plates. The bottles contain air, and surround black plastic PVC pipes which are cheaper substitutes for copper pipes. The curved surface of the plastic bottle, mimicking the curved surface of popular vacuum tube collectors, ensures that the incident rays of the sun are always normal (perpendicular) to the pipe we want to heat as the sun moves across the sky, avoiding the reflection losses that occur with flat plate collectors. In addition, the shiny inside of potato chip bags is glued to the underside of the bottles, replacing the absorber plates in a traditional system by helping reflect and concentrate sunlight on the back side of the pipes, compensating for the small surface area of the pipes themselves. In this first test the pipes were run down the center of the bottle, taking advantage of the existing bottle opening. As shown in the picture below, thermal gain wasn't great (34 degrees after 2 hours).

(Photo: The soda bottle/PVC pipe system shows a temperature of 34 degrees Celsius when connected to the 20 liter tank after the first two hours with the PVC pipes inserted in the center of the bottles. At the end of the day it reached 40 degrees, certainly hot enough to bathe with, but not as efficient as the soda-bottle solar batch collector. Obviously surface area of captured sunlight is the largest factor here. Using Dr. Kurt Lund's ideas of pipe placement (shown below), using the curved undersurface of the bottle with its potato chip bag reflector as a parabolic concentrator may give this system advantages. The point of the exercise is to rethink what objects are and the purposes they can serve, and move beyond the prejudice that "a soda bottle is a soda bottle" or "copper pipes are the only good heat transfer materials for solar hot water systems" or any of a number of narrow notions that "the way things are" or "what things are" defines what they should or could be. Empirical testing after stubborn application of the simple "everything has another use than its intended use) is the way we want to blend domain-specific and domain general adaptive thinking -- let the cultural heuristics of recycling and re-use stretch the imagination and suggest innovations and then let the scientific heuristics of controlled experimentation fit the innovation to a given environment and its needs.)

(Photos: In the next version (not yet completed) the pipes themselves will be inserted not in the center of the bottles, but closer to the back of the bottles, where the concentration ratio is higher. This development was thanks to Dr. Kurt Lund from San Diego, CA, who did experiments in his workshop and ran computer models to figure out the best placement for the pipes. Dr. Lund, a thermodynamics engineer whom the Culhane's met when they presented their Solar CITIES work at the AIAA (American Institute for Aviation and Aeronautics Conference in 2006, has been helping Solar CITIES develop low cost technologies for sustainable development. It is hoped that this will double or triple the amount of sunlight striking the pipes and create higher temperatures.)

(Photo: The Solar CITIES team, led by Dr. Sybille Culhane (left of Zabaleen coordinator Hana Fathy), meets with Dr. Moshira Hassan (right of Hana) and her Environmental Science class at American University in Cairo to discuss better ways to introduce and sustain solar energy to Egypt. Dr. Moshira Hassan funded the construction of the Solar CITIES soda bottle solar collector now housed on the roof of the AUC science building, and, along with former colleague Dr. Jeff Miller, who funded the initial Solar CITIES experimental systems, has been a key figure in integrating AUC and its students and facilities with the poor communities of Cairo, bringing community representatives to AUC to attend seminars, lectures and brain-storming sessions, and bringing privileged AUC students to communities in need.)

(Photo: The "Haves" visit the "Have Nots" -- except this time it is the "have nots" who have Urban Cairo's first affordable domestic solar hot water systems, which the "haves" don't have! Picture shows Dr. Moshira Hassan's Environmental Science class on a field trip to Solar CITIES field coordinator's solar roof in Manshiyat Nasser, learning how to see the world through the eyes of the Zabaleen, and to incorporate the "recycling heuristic" into their studies of development. Behind the students are the blue plastic recycled surfactant barrels that constitute the solar systems cold and hot water storage tanks)

Philosophy behind the Solar CITIES sustainable development training workshops:

The more I read "outside my domain" the more I realize that my simple heuristic of "looking through the eyes of the zabaleen" (i.e. perceiving all objects as having possible use-value and exchange value outside of their "designed", "intended" or "stated" purpose -- the survival perspective of those who must earn a living by scavenging other's "garbage") has the potential to help us overcome development paralysis (see my blog from yesterday on this topic for the background on this).

There was a time when I was made to feel guilty for being "eclectic" and for trying to embrace as wide a literature as possible, and the supposed incompatibilities of having enthusiasm for both the sciences and the arts, for empiricism and for flights of fancy, for historical realism and for speculative fiction were said to reduce me to a mere dilettante. I preferred the term "renaissance man", but epicureanism was out of fashion when I was in the school system. "Specialization" was in. It guaranteed an income. Or so we were told.

There were notions, however, that "many of the jobs for which you are training do not yet exist", and a few sympathetic souls (my parents among them) did encourage us to cast our nets as far afield as possible, and suffered no embarrassment advising those of us who were not from "wealthy" families to pursue a "liberal arts" education. Such a luxury was usually reserved for the "upper class", the elites of the world who didn't depend on the technicalities of their education for a job but were free to roam the esoteric universe, often believing they could invent the very jobs on which their reputation (if not their income) would depend.

The poor have usually been denied such a luxury, because they have no safety net. So the poor are normally educated in "domain-specific adaptations". In evolutionary thinking, the poor are forced by their history and environment to occupy very narrow niche spaces, and they must become "specialists" in exploiting that niche or perish. Risk taking in the form of venturing out of one's domain can end in tragedy, so there is rarely an incentive to innovate. The "bricolage" that constitutes the bourgeous artist's or scientist's attempts to fashion some new "hopeful monster" out of the scavenged parts and rejects - "the production residuals" -- of the surplus in which the well-to-do swim is an anathema to most of the "have-nots" on this planet who have little margin in which to operate. Think of Micky Mouse in "Micky and the Beanstalk" squandering the family cow on an "experiment" with "magic beans". In both the traditional fairy tale and the Disney version, the lesson that such a gamble might pay off in the form of an entrance ticket to magical unseen worlds and castles in the sky, (i.e., access to the world of the rich), is only appropriate for the wealthy children who can afford the leisure time to go to the cinema or read fantasy books. For the rest, the loss of the cow in such a risky venture would mean certain starvation -- something that the Donald Duck character knows very well.

But the truth is that unseen worlds do exist, and there are ways into the castles of capital accumulation, and there are ways of confidently assessing the probability that "magic beans" are indeed real tickets to prosperity and knowing when to increase your willingness to pay or trade in the family cow to increase the chances of a favorable outcome and a way out of poverty.

As a struggling graduate student, between getting my Master's Degree and starting my Ph.D., in an attempt to understand where I might have gone wrong, despite my education and opportunities, I took a chance on a "best seller" (I'm usually suspicious of books so labeled) and read "Rich Dad, Poor Dad: What The Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That The Poor And Middle Class Do Not!". While I believe that there are many "class secrets" or fast and frugal heuristics that the rich use which poor families simply haven't been clued in on, I largely agree with John T. Reed's analysis of the book: it is disappointing and misleading (besides being poorly written). Many of the skills it suggests to the poor are what I would describe as "domain specific". They work in the context of a society which offers you access to formal property rights, labor rights and protections, but don't offer a lot of hope to people marginalized from the formal economy. But the broader idea still emerges from books like this that I find incontravertible: There are some domain-general lessons that successful people can impart to people who are struggling, which, if coupled to site-specific realities, can help people out of poverty.

One of them is what I call "the zabaleen heuristic" -- the ability to find hidden value in that which has been discarded. It is a scavenger ethic that undergirds the adage "necessity is the mother of invention." I believe it is the missing bridge between development efforts (from people in the realm of the "haves") and on the ground sustainability (in the realm of the "have-nots".) It is a bridge between what evolutionary theorists call "domain general" adaptations (those with unconditional probabilities of success) and "domain-specific" adaptations (those with conditional prospects for success).

Susanna B. Hecht, one of my influential professors at UCLA, used the terms "techne" and "metis" to describe the same phenomena. Techne was usually something development agencies tried to bring to a given developing country -- the immutable universal; Metis was usually something development agencies tried to supplant -- the endlessly variable, mutable, local specific. Techne was "one size fits all" -- easy to replicate and ship around the world. Metis was intensely place oriented -- custom solutions for custom problems.

The poor of most developing countries, at least before they get herded into Le Corbusian apartment blocks of uniform sterility and ugliness, are usually masters of metis. They have to develop domain-specific adaptations to their problems because every domain is different. So their heuristics are usually non-transferable. The middle class and the managerial class usually thrive on what they believe are domain general solutions but which, because of the uniformity of their simplified (James Scott, 1998, would call them "dummified") utopian environments are really domain specific adaptations, universalized through power.

In other words, the majority of both the haves and the have-nots are operating using heuristics that only apply to very specific environments.

It doesn't matter if we build McDonalds in every country in the world -- the decision making protocol of walking to the counter and ordering a Big Mac employs the same heuristic whether one is in Brazil or Beijing. It is a unique solution set whether one applies it to KFC, Hardees, or Burger King. While the technique would work equally well for ordering a Filet-O-Fish, it would not work at all for, say, catching a real fish.

This is an ontological problem.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his excellent book "Fooled by Randomness" (p. 287) informs us that "our lungs are a domain-specific adaptation meant to extract oxygen from the air and deposit it into our blood; they are not meant to circulate blood. For evolutionary psychologists the same applies to psychological adaptations."

Taleb speaks about the linguist Elizabeth Bates' (skeptical) presentation of Fodor's nine criteria of modularity, and reminds us that the information-processing criteria underlying human psychology are "encapsulation (we cannot interfere with the functioning of a module), unconsciousness, speed (that's the point of the module), shallow outputs (we have no idea of the intermediate steps), and obligatory firing (a module generates predetermined outputs for predetermined inputs.) The biological criteria that distinguish them from learned habits are : ontogenetic universals (they develop in characteristic sequence), localization (they use dedicated neural systems), and pathological universals (modules have characteristic pathologies across populations). Finally, modularity's most important property is its domain specificity." (p. 286).

Now here is my point about reading across discliplines and putting one's hands and feet simultaneously into different domains: while I may not claim any expertise into the fields of linguistics or neurology or cognitive science (Bates and Fodors domains) or any expertise in financial markets and randomness (Taleb's domain), I recognize certain similarities in what human mind's are discovering in these disparate fields that can help us solve our development problems, and I would never have these insights if I didn't cast my net wide and "mine" the mountains of information that cluster into these various domains. Much of it to me is no better than garbage (not becaus it is worthless but because I can't understand it).

But the Zabaleen hueristic that says "look at the piles of garbage and sort through them until you find something that might be of value, then try to combine it with something else that seemed value-less to see if you can add additional value" encourages me to mine the different literatures for possible answers to the intractable problems of poverty and environmental degradation.

The Zabaleen are modern day "hunter-gatherers" operating in a wilderness of trash. When their ethic of recycling is combined with a quest for truly "domain general" heuristics and we find a fit, we may find a real solution to the problem emerging.

When Taleb says, "the lungs are not meant to circulate blood" a person using the Zabaleen heuristic would not construe that the lungs are therefore only useful for extracting oxygen from the air. He or she would look for additonal uses for the lungs. What about using the lungs as a flotation or buouncy correction device? All of us who scuba dive do so unconsciously to achieve neutral buoncy (in preference to overusing the BC vest which, if improperly filled, can lead to nasty consequences with rapid density changes). A Zabaleen trained thinker might think of inflating discarded sheep or cow lungs as a way to survive a flood.

The idea that things can have multiple purposes is the essence of the Zabaleen heuristic and the essence of the biases that lead to innovation in the wealthier economies. A naive application of Fodor's modules (which refer to the brain having "separate systems with their own properties) to development leads to the mistake of conceiving of objects and technologies as being "modular" in the sense that they are "separate systems with unique properties." In such a world view there is hardly any way to integrate technis and metis. You either have to change the environment so that the new technology fits (as the Egyptian government tried to do when it tried to widen streets to bring in massive hi-tech European and American garbage trucks and tried to forbid the locally appropriate Zabaleen donky carts that could navigate the narrow unpaved roads of the congested city) or endlessly manufacture custom solutions to every problem within its own domain and defeat any economies of scale.

There is a different kind of modularity that one can use, however, wherein the modules are not entire systems, complete in and of themselves, but merely "plug-ins" to an amorphous and evolving system. In this ecological approach there are no "ontogenic universals" -- the development of a city or country is not analogized to the development of a fetus that proceeds in characteristic sequences! Instead the outcome is a flexible and ever-changing meta-structure defined and redefined by the mini-modules (or plug-ins) that it is composed of. Development is reconceived as a shifting mosaic of desirable outcomes that are merely themselves pathways to other desirable outcomes. There is no static vision of a final utopia, no terminus for the development project.

Development would be seen as a kind of felicitous bricolage, and cities in development would appear much more organic, as they did before development got straight-jacketed by a misapplied Bauhaus ethic of "cheap, efficient, parsimonious and minimal are best" The guiding aesthetic and functionalist principles would be "the built environment should be pleasing, pleasing to the body and mind, pleasing to the health of the lungs and liver and ears and skin and other organs as well as pleasing to the eyes". What it was built of, and how, would be of less concern than that it provided adequate shelter with light and ventilation and homestatic temperature regulation, that it facilitated working and living and the reproduction of the household, that it was safe and healthy and, yes, beautiful to the beholder. And it would have to be "self-sustainable" -- able to provide the basic amenities without threat of service interruptions or price hikes.

You may call this vision a "utopia", but I think it is acheivable by applying the Zabaleen heuristic as a domain-general adaptation and applying sophisticated environmental engineering heuristics as domain-specific adaptations. In other words, we flip the usual techne-metis problem on its head: we let the local people contribute the techne (in this case the universal idea of bricolage and the ability to repurpose locally available inputs) and let the development agencies help with the metis (in this case the site specific idea of custom solutions to narrowly defined problem sets.) Everybody comes away feeling dignified in their contributions and nobody complains "oh you westerners/northerners/foreigners/richfolk are trying to impose your ideas or technologies on us with no appreciation for our circumstances" or "oh you poorfolk are just backwards and resistant to the fruits of globalization ."

The beauty of such a hybrid of east/west/north/south when we collectively help turn one man's garbage into another's gold, regardless of who is seen as the garbage man or the source of the garbage, is that we stop talkin' trash, and start talkin' real development.

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