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!"

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Deliberate Deliberations with the author of "The Accidental Theorist"

(Sybille and T.H. flank Paul Krugman for a photo after he signs a copy of the European edition of his and his wife Robin Well's basic Economics Text for them. Krugman was on a speaking tour of Germany)

An Accidental Theorist, according to Paul Krugman, (paraphrased by Berkeley reviewer J. Bradford DeLong) is "someone who does not think issues through, but who just looks at surfaces without peering into depths or thinking coherently and whose thought is thus shaped by implicit, unexamined theories of which he is not conscious".

At Solar CITIES, we agree with the ancient Socratic maxim that" an unexamined life is not worth living" and we try to emulate Socrates' "Apologies"
(Apologhma) : Ironic Modesty, Questioning Habit, Devotion to Truth and Dispassionate Reason.

It's hard!

So where do you turn in these troubled times to avoid the fate of becoming an accidental theorist and helping maintain the status quo? Particularly when most of the media is so insidiously spun (by so many $pin doctor$) and so shallow?

Where do you go to peer into the depths and develop your consciousness of the flaws of implicit theories?

Fortunately, Sybille and I had an opportunity tonight to hear and speak with Paul Krugman himself when he came to Essen, Germany to talk about his new book,
"Nach Bush. Das Ende der Neokonservativen und die Stunde der Demokraten", a.k.a. the German edition of "The Conscience of a Liberal".

We thus had the chance to think through some of the deeper issues of our time, contemplating what life will be like "After Bush" ("Nach Bush") and how we can avoid falling back into the neoconservative dogma trap, which Krugman explained, has basically been controlled by about 20 powerful families, and which, for their selfish benefit, has impoverished and hurt billions.

I had my favorite question all prepared on an index card to ask during the question and answer session:

"Hi Dr. Krugman,

I'm a Ph.D. student of Urban Planning at UCLA doing solar energy development work with the urban poor in Cairo at a time when Egypt is undergoing massive privatisation.
In your book, The Accidental Theorist, you talked about a new model for intellectual property in the digital age. You suggested an economy in which we didn't waste money trying to enforce anti-copy protectionism but sought instead to add value through the provision of tangibles that accompany digital products which, themselves, are freely distributed.

"Could the same model apply to the transfer of technology designs? Is there a way we could use your model so that development ideas can get to the poor and to relief agencies faster, without patents delaying the spread of vital technologies, but without destroying incentives for inventors and innovators and companies? If so, how might we go about it?"

Fortunately, Sybille and I got a chance to ask Dr. Krugman the question directly when we caught up with him after the talk.

He was charming. I explained to him that his idea about giving away digital products for free but adding value to them through product placement, embodied hardware, celebrity endorsements etc. had so intrigued me and my cohort of students when I was taking economics at UCLA that it had led to endless and intense debates (particularly among those of us who were also artists and musicians and film-makers). He chuckled and said "I wrote that sort of tongue in cheek and set it in the future to get us to play around with the idea. I didn't know if it would be taken seriously, but glad to hear it had an impact."

It certainly did. As proof, I noticed that I had no qualms about buying another hard copy of his Economics text for 56 Euro (nearly 80 dollars) just so I could have it signed by him. Even if it existed for free on-line, the event, his presence, the ability to create a memento and a memory, and have something to carry around and underline and scrawl notes in, all would make buying the actual book well worth it.

Proof of Krugman's concept for how to handle copyright in a digital globally connected world.

Does he lose if poor Egyptians in the slums of Cairo can download parts of his book for free?

Not at all -- instead he builds a kind of brand loyalty.

This model is, in fact, very robust. It is how the science fiction author David Wellington has become rich and famous. Wellington wrote a book called "Monster Island", a hair raising contemporary zombie survival horror novel about a UN weapons inspector and some Somali child soldiers who come to a zombie infested Manhattan to try and find AIDS medicine at the UN building, since they are dealing with two plagues in Africa -- the Zombie plague and the AIDS plague at the same time. Wellington posted his book chapter by chapter as a blog and it created such a following that he was picked up by Running Press and published in the main stream. Today the book is translated into several languages, is available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon and all the other major outlets in paperback, and he has two sequels (Monster Nation and Monster Planet) and several other best selling novels out.

But all of his works can be found and read FOR FREE on his website,
So if they are free, how does he make a living? Why isn't he in the poor house?

Because Paul Krugman is right.

People want information bundled in a value added product of some kind that they can hunt down, bag and carry home. It's in our genes.

I started reading "Stadt der Untoten" (the German translation of the novel) for free, and then stumbled upon a hard copy on display (beneath a human skull and some false gravestones) at the Mayersche Buchhandler in downtown Essen. For the first three days, when I went jogging, I would then stop off at the book store and grab the book from the display table and catch my breath by sitting in one of the comfy chairs they provide and reading a few chapters -- for free. By the fourth day, I had to have my own copy.

Nobody stopped me from reading at the bookstore. Nobody made me feel uncomfortable. The Krugman theory bears out -- let people have access to free information and they get attached to the embodiments of that information. People don't just want information in their heads, they want to make it "real", to hold it and touch it and interact with it. Homo sapiens greatest gift, as tool making semiotic organisms, is to make ideas tangible.

And, because we are social, political, impressionable, mystical animals, we want the creator to bless the work and to lay hands on it. We want to "personalize" information, and we will pay for that too!

This is why Krugman predicted that free mp3s will not destroy the music industry. Like his signed economic textbook, a signed copy of a CD you can hold in your hand, or a CD with a cool graphic cover and a neat booklet inside with photos and gossip about the creator, is worth the ten or fifteen bucks we shell out.

And, as he told us tonight, "companies like Apple are clever in that they embody the software in really neat hardware, so you want their cool new product." In economics that's alot of what branding is all about.

So what about the idea of making another kind of digital technology -- life saving technology designs for the other 90% -- freely distributable? What would the consequences be if companies holding patents on world saving environmental technologies made the designs and instructions freely available to everyone?

I was disturbed when Utility Consultant Frank Di Massa and I were visiting the Platforma Solar Research Station in Almeria, Spain a few weeks ago and were told we could not take pictures of a great new technology for making concentrated thermal power cheap. It was a German invention being field tested at the site in Tabernas, and it used an array of cheap, table sized flat mirrors, each on its own pivot about a meter from the ground, focussed underneath a suspended tube of fluid about 5 to 10 meters above. By avoiding the cost of expensive curved mirrors, it promises to bring the total cost of solar thermal energy way down.

I'd show you a picture but they wouldn't let us take any because it is still "secret".

Right. Megafauna like the polar bear are going extinct, sadly forced to be the canaries in our coal (and oil) mine, tens of thousands die from erratic weather events, and while we are being told that solar energy is STILL too expensive to replace fossil fuels, an invention that could change that equation and save lives is still "secret".

That is why we need a new economic model for how to make important inventions as easy to replicate as mp3s.

And we need to do it fast, and we need to do it so that there are incentives for people to make even more and better inventions!

Dr. Krugman said nobody has really thought this one through yet. He said he could see a new model evolving for art, but that the problem was that standard economic thinking -- the surface thinking of so many accidental theorists and a few deliberate ones who don't question dogma use-- suggests that if the intellectual property of the Alexander Graham Bells and Thomas Edisons and Walt Disneys and Steve Jobses of the world is not protected by patents and copyrights, there will be no incentive to innovate and invention will grind to a halt.

Even introductory Economics texts like the one I had signed by Krugman, states,

"The justification for patent and copyright law is clear... If inventors were not protected by patents, they would gain little reward from their efforts... and if inventors could not expect to profit from their inventions, they would not incur the costs of invention in the first place... in some industries, patents... are the principal incentive for invention." (Krugman, Wells and Graddy, 2008, p. 540-541)

But could it be that this is just another unexamined shibboleth necessary to be part of the economics in-group? What if its wrong? Totally and irresponsibly wrong?

Could it not be that Homo sapiens simply has an URGE to invent, to make new things, just as we have innate urges to eat, to explore, to make love? Is it not possible that people would simply continue inventing because they can? The same way we climb Mount Improbable because we can, and the same way we invented the wheel and the mousetrap, long before there were any legally protected copy rights?

And given that the time and materials do have high financial and opportunity costs (and I know that only too well, trying to innovate better, cheaper solar collectors in the slums of Cairo) isn't there a way to make making things profitable even if we give away all the know-how for free?

In our all too brief discussion Dr. Krugman and Sybille and I touched on a conversation Sybille and I had at a trade show recently with the inventor of a solar hot water system that uses silicone tubes instead of copper:

Given the incredible inflation of copper prices recently our entire Solar CITIES project is threatened, we explained -- copper has tripled in cost since we started the project and with the fall in the US dollar and our fixed US AID budget we are struggling to build the number of systems we promised the community and budgeted for.

We have reduced our use of copper by using smaller tubes and by redesigning our systems, and we have cut costs by using recycled plastic for the boxes and the water tanks, and by innovating a way to use recycled polypropylene pipes that we get from a Zabaleen neighbor of Hanna's. But it isn't going to cut it if copper keeps going up.

So we discussed a way to replace the copper with silicone as specified in an invention from a professor in Freiburg. This German professor is the patent holder and he is a very kind man, but of course he can't just let us start producing his invention in Cairo after all the money, time and effort he put into his invention if there is no way for him to get a return on his investment. So how do we make this a win-win?

One way I suggested we might do it is to apply Krugman's model for artists to inventors -- make them celebrities, and embody their designs in products that people with money want to buy after "advertising" them in the slums and ghettoes of the world. This is what the book "Design for the other 90%" suggests anyway -- that products that can help the poor be made with the same effort and attention as those advertised in GQ. And then they can be made as desirable and sleek and sexy as the products targeted to the rich 10% of the planet, with the poor providing the endorsement and credibility.

In an era of carbon credits and climate change, inventors could make their money not so much by maintaining the temporary monopoly that guarantees producer surplus from ALL the uses of their idea, but by producing the upmarket tangibles that are complementary goods to the basic life saving inventions whose designs and techniques they give away for free. And they would get paid to endorse big-ticket development projects, going on speaker tours, and "invention signing tours". They would give away ideas to the poorest in society, help the poor prove that their technologies work in the toughest conditions and then go on the road adding value and tangible product as things get mass produced for the more lucrative middle and upper class markets.

Very few of us on this planet have thought all this through enough, certainly not well enough to put anything into practice. But Dr. Krugman was kind enough to entertain these unorthodox, mostly unexamined ideas and let them percolate a bit tonight , and said he would cogitate over it.

That was enough to encourage me and keep me going. It only takes a little for those of us who can't help inventing, even without financial incentives.

As Krugman said tonight about how overt conspiracies work that keep good things from happening (like the neocon takeover of the US government), "all you need is a bunch of interlocking institutions pushing a coordinated agenda... fulfilling the purpose of the machine... you can win elections by changing the subject ... by creating weapons of mass distraction... by engaging in dogwhistle journalism that puts out messages that only the select can hear...".

Paul Krugman, however, held out the hope that we could actually use the same techniques for making sure good things start to happen and continue happening in the days "Nach Bush", because, he told the German audience, "America has changed for the better" even if the politics are still lagging. The benefits of higher productivity that have accompanied the technological revolutions of computerized globalization and freight containers (to name just a few of the innovations he pointed out in the post 1973 world) can now be shared with the rest of humanity.

But we will need to be very deliberate in how we go about getting those technologies and benefits to the people.

We can't afford to be "accidental theorists" anymore!

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