Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thorium - The Real Hope For E-books?

The Real Hope For E-books
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Green's the thing.

This blog entry originally published in December 2009, is still valid in 2019.  Much work has been done with Thorium, and in 2018, the BBC did a story on India mining beaches for Thorium.  And, in 2018, I'm seeing comments by owners of all-electric cars (LEAF in particular) saying they pay less per mile than with gasoline.

Notice the black background on this blog?  Black with white letters takes less electricity to render on your monitor than white with black letters. Read green!

The problem of e-books vs traditional publishing isn't just a green issue -- it's a writer's worldbuilding paradise!

Devon Monk, the author I raved about last week got me thinking about electricity, magic, technology and worldbuilding.


And before that I pointed you to a twitter-based worldbuilding exercise by a group of writers and a publisher creating an anthology.


Then I ran into an article I will point you to at the end here. It crystalized a vision of "the" future for me, and I think you can use this to build backgrounds for your own fiction.

My blog entries on aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com give glimpses into the mechanism of a writer's mind, so let's retrace my reasoning a step at a time to look at the whole seething, bursting phenomenon of the e-book infrastructure and its ecological sense.

This applies to all the information available via the internet and to it's "green" component and a thousand questions SF/Romance has not yet addressed that I know of (please drop references to great SF/Romance on the comments here!).

It's still very problematic whether the budding trend toward e-books, e-music downloads, feature film downloads, the indie film makers distributing free downloads on the internet ( http://news.yahoo.com/s/time/20091226/wl_time/08599195000500 is a Yahoo news story about this phenomenon) the whole web 2.0, cloud computing direction and the changing business model of writers which I've written about here ...


...along with the "paperless office" writers and publishers are adopting, is actually greener than the old fashioned method of hauling paper around the world.

On Cloud Computing, see this page (in an article on failing to succeed) which shows graphically how the business decision making process can go awry (look at the table under the picture of the black box):


And remember as I indict government decision making below, I'm NOT advocating the decision making system used by bussiness either. Focus your mind on the decision making processes used in our world, and how any little change in those processes might change the world you set stories within. This is basic sociological science fiction using futurology.

In the Worldbuilding By Committee article linked above, the Twitter group kept coming back to the idea of replacing government with a corporation, i.e. a Company Town for the venue for these stories. That has been done, and well done, so here, I'm trying to get writers to think outside the box we normally don't even know we're inside of.

Ask the next question. That was Theodore Sturgeon's motto when it came to SF writing (he wrote the Star Trek episode Amok Time that started the whole Spock phenomenon). He was a good friend of mine and an influence on my SF writing. Here's where I discussed that.


So when doing futurology, you need to "ask the next question" not just find an answer and stop thinking. E-books and green tech are fraught with next questions to ask because both are driven by government decision making (e-books and copyright; green tech and our power supply).

If not government as we know it, or corporations as we know them, then what? To find "then what" take a close look at what has gone on in this world since 1950 and the rise of the buzzword ecology (yes, the SF magazines of the 1950's obssessed on "ecology").

The problem with all "green" tech is electricity and what it takes to get enough of it to make the products that are supposed to be greener. E-book reader screens are very dirty to make. Batteries are worse! (you gotta read Devon Monk's novels)

The carbon footprint of say a KWH of electricity produced by a solar panel has to include what it took to make the solar panel array, transport and install it and maintain it (every time the service guys come out, it costs gas for their truck, etc) PLUS how fast the panel wears out (like lightbulbs, a solar panel only lasts the time the manufacturer builds into it on purpose).

I found out a shocking thing when shopping for additional attic insulation.

The solar panels they sell in the USA (as of 2009) are (by Fed law) not allowed to be as efficient and long-lasting as the ones sold in Europe.

The ones sold in the USA lose (I think it was) 20% of their ability to produce electricty in (I think) 10 years but are rated to last a longer than 10 years. Whatever the figures were, they're different in 2010. The exact figures are unimportant. The point here is that government makes these decisions and shapes our world in ways that most people don't know about. (that insulation salesman wasn't supposed to tell me that fact because he also sells solar panels).

In other words, you'll be thrilled the year you install a solar panel and probably won't notice the gradual fall-off of production of electricty you can sell back to your utility (if your local utility is set up to buy it back) over time. But the good deal you got on install turns into a real bad deal with time, and you never know that if you lived elsewhere you could have gotten a better deal.

You never see the carbon footprint (or any of the other exotic and seriously toxic pollutants) generated when the panel and its components are created, assembled, transported to a warehouse, sent to another distribution point, etc etc until it's installed on your property. Then of course there's the gasoline needed to tote it away when it dies. Then landfill problems. Recycle doesn't always recover as much as is expended doing the recycle; it depends what you include when you calculate.

The whole idea of plug-in commuter cars depends on CHEAP electricity that's cleaner to produce than what we have now.

At the moment it costs more for enough electricity to commute to work than it costs for enough gasoline to commute to work, and running cars by plug-in electricity is dirtier than gasoline.

The Obama initiative to create the "smart grid" and replace our electrical distribution system is really great, and I'm all for it no matter what it costs (frankly been irked that it wasn't done 20 years ago, but we have better computer controllers now).

That smart grid will reduce the cost of electricity, but Big Brother will be able to deny you electricity if you misbehave (brown-out a single house that's over-using, and nevermind that they have someone on hospice life-support equipment).

But we do need to rebuild the grid, and smart-grid is the way to go.

If you read Devon Monk's novels, you see why I'm thinking about the grid! You have no idea how romantic this grid-tech stuff can be if you don't read novels like Monk's!

But which way to build a "smart grid" is a decision that will be made by the same government process that gave us the decision to disallow U.S. residents from having the same high efficiency solar panels Europeans can buy. Will our grid be as smart as other countries? (build that world, don't argue for or against my assuptions here. Don't get distracted by your opinions. Ask The Next Question and build a fictional world from those questions.)

Yet smart grid is not enough. We need to be able to feed that grid with a lower pollution footprint. (Yay, Magic!)

Next Question: Do we really need a cleaner power source? What if we don't find one?

Well, 2010 is (in the USA) a census year, but population actually grows every year.

And that's what's been happening. Population has out-grown our energy production capacity, not just because each individual pulls more from the grid but because there are more of us. Substantially more! (some undocumented; some with pirating taps into the grid too -- smart grid will find them and cut them off).

The 2010 census may find 330 million of us in the USA. In 1960, there were just over 179 million in the USA.

I haven't tried to hunt down the stat on how many KWH/year each USA person used in 1960, but just looking at my own life, it was a LOT less than today, however frugal I attempt to be. I use an electric toothbrush that's got a rechargable battery. An unthinkable concept (even in SF novels) in the 1960's. And back then, I had a manual typewriter.

I have seen stats bandied about that indicate how our gasoline and electricity use per person has risen over these decades. The USA is really shamefully profligate in usage.

But what do we use, and what do we get for it? Is our usage worth it? Do we produce a profit from all this convenience? And how do we reduce our total footprint in absolute terms while still increasing our population at this rate? Because the world can't support this current world population (nevermind the growth) if we all use power the way the USA folks currently do.

I saw a TV feature retrospective last week showing that the world population will reach a full 7 billion by 2012 and rise to 8 billion only 16 years later. That's a 1 Billion population increase in 16 years. Population increase is geometric, you know. The interval it takes to produce a billion more people will get shorter and shorter.

In the 1950's collapse of the entire world ecology was predicted by 2050, due to overpopulation and that was without the intense rise in usage of gasoline and electricity.

Today the boogey man is Global Warming. Tomorrow it will be something else, food crop fungus, the extinction of the bees, -- remember acid rain?

With more people, "human activity" will have greater and greater effect on ecology.

It doesn't matter (for a worldbuilding writer) what aspect of global resources maxes out first - collapse is collapse and our population growth and increasing technology has us headed right for total collapse because of our primate-based habit of tossing our trash (pollution from energy use, non-biodegredable packaging, or even just sewage) aside and expecting it not to come back to haunt us (like dropping a bananna peel from a tree and forgetting about it).

I've seen bragging statistics about how much manufacturing has increased the efficiency of gadgets and cars so they do the same but use less electricity. Oh we are so good! But, there are so many more of us that the total amount of oil and electricity we use is still growing at a rate that will reach a maximum and not be able to grow any more even though the population still grows.

We either have to drastically reduce population or reduce our standard of living.

SFF/R writers find neither alternative acceptable. Love is. And the less time we spend working, the more time there is for love.

So since Love Conquers All, it better get conquering real fast.

We need a cheap, abundant, non-polluting, non-nuclear waste-to-store-forever, non-weapons grade Uranium producing, non-fetus-mutating, source of POWER.

And the astonishing fact is that we have indeed had that magical source of POWER since the 1950's and have turned away from implementing that magical technology for political reasons (according to the article I found).

Maybe this article nails the causes for that turn-away from the "real" solution, maybe not. Maybe this scientific article is actually pure fantasy. I don't know and for the purposes of this worldbuilding excerise it doesn't matter.

But I do vaguely remember reading probably in the 1970's that the Thorium nuclear power plant technology had failed, and it would be impossible to use.

According to this article that I just found last week, that was not true. According to this article the choice to fuel atomic power plants with Uranium was made because the government wanted to make war not love in the 1960's, and that statement itself could be politically slanted. It doesn't matter. We're thinking SFR here.

Personally, I enjoy love more than war, even in fiction. I do know there are those who don't feel that way, and huge lucrative industries (such as video games) are founded on feeding the lust for destruction. But maybe there's marketing room for another industry based on SFR?

If this article explains what happened in the 1950's to the 1970's correctly, the huge power-crunch we are in right now could have been avoided if government hadn't meddled in the business decisions of the power industry.

Here's the article for you to judge for yourself (there are some other articles you might want to look at linked on that page too), and while you're reading think about the the consequences of allowing government to decide the direction of the health care delivery system by the same mechanism used to decide the direction of the power-delivery-system's development. Remember, conflict is the essence of story.


And a prior ABC News story on the topic of using Thorium instead of Uranium in nuclear power plants:


See? It doesn't matter which party or which politicians are in charge. It's the decision mechanism that needs a "next question," more than politics or ideology.

As a voter, would knowing about the law against you having an efficient solar panel installed on your house, or about forcing you to use nuclear power from Uranium rather than from Thorium to power your house or car, make a difference in what you say to your congressman at town hall meetings? Conflict is the essence of story. Marriages are made and broken by these kinds of conflicts involving larger world-girdling issues (population explosion; pollution; political ascendancy).

The worldbuilding writer can slice and dice that decision mechanism and create whole new political systems. Devon Monk just used the usual, ho-hum corporate structure and barely acknowledged the government structure that supports the corporation's rights to patents and profits.

The only innovative thinking in the Allie Beckstrom universe is the idea of conduits of magic akin to the electrical grid, and the magic grid isn't even "smart."

The SF of the 1960's would not have accepted worldbuilding that was so rudimentary.

I'm still searching for writers of today who will not stop short of asking the next question like that. When you build a "world" you can't just change ONE thing about our current world and call it Fantasy or SF.

Why? You saw how there's a connection between the kind of solar panel you can buy, the health care system, and nuclear war potential connected to power generation. That's our real world. Any fantasy world must have that property too -- connections. If one thing changes (magical conduits beneath certain neighborhoods in the city), that will change everything else a little bit.

Devon Monk hit on a lot of the changes that her magic-technology would bring about, but left out other things that would be impacted. In defense of her work, I have to say that she is less than a generation into the new technology. However, if you think back only 20 years to 1990, and the attitude of publishers toward the field of e-books then as compared to now, the attitude of retailers toward amazon and online merchandising then as compared to now, you see that the changes created by a single technological innovation come faster, and are more pervasive than depicted in the Allie Beckstrom novels.

When you're building your world, don't stop thinking. Ask The Next Question.

Understand the links between apparently disconnected trends and forces in our real world, and create a pattern of links just like our real world pattern among the postulates of your constructed world.

Revealing those hidden connections and patterns of links is what Art is all about. Show don't tell how the real world is connected by building your world to reveal that pattern.

Here's an exercise, just for fun.

Delve into the issues of human nature that produce the kinds of people who end up in charge of those government and business decisions, and the kinds of motivations that drive people into politics. Create a character with 6 problems to solve.

Now postulate an alternate universe where the Thorium - Uranium choice was made by a different mechanism toward a different objective from different motives than the articles I've mentioned show in our everyday world.

Postulate a world where there's no pollution, and no real difference in energy usage and convenience gadgets between USA and the poorest tribal regions of Afghanistan. What happens when everyone in China can freely access the internet and all the opinions rampant around the world?

Would we have a drug and slave trade grossing enough cash to buy governments if thorium power plants were the standard around the world?

Would human population have exploded even faster and be at just as great a risk of destroying the world as we are now? What resource would we max out instead of energy? Space to live? Oxygen? A lot of people today are worried about the drinking water supply. Do we drink enough water to keep our kidneys healthy or grow plants to ward off vitamin deficiency?

Do this exercise a few times. You have plenty of time. You can do it in the shower.

I think there's a feature film script here for a political historian writer, tracing the decision making process that went on between 1950 and 1970 (McCarthy Hearings; Korean War; Viet Nam War; Feminism (talk about genies and bottles, but your constructed world needs a set of macro-issues and trends like that).)

In that atmosphere of the '50's to '70's, the road of human history forked in a sharp V, and we went down the Uranium branch of that V.

Remember the fabulous film about Madam Curie, a woman physicist with a real, original discovery, and how politics buried that discovery for so long? How could it be that Weinberg's life so focused on the technology of thorium use hasn't been made into a similar movie?

Why did Al Gore win the Nobel prize for An Inconvenient Truth? Shouldn't that inconvenient truth be that this global warming issue could have been avoided had the Thorium - Uranium decision gone for Thorium?
Wouldn't a movie about Weinberg's life have been a Nobel type subject? Who better than a politician to implement the creation of such a deep expose of the political decision making process?

How did that Uranium - Thorium engineering decision happen in the political arena?

And of course the real burning question: Is It Too Late?

Can we rescue the world by going Thorium now?

Can love conquer political decision making?

Is it enough to "win" on the thorium issue? Don't we need to win on the issue of the kind of decision making process we rely on?

Just look what happened this past weekend with an attempt to bring down another passenger plane. After the attempt nearly succeeded, then (and only then) the authorities "decide" to increase security for the homebound holiday travelers. Talk about locking the barn door!

The terrorist objective is to wear the larger enemy down by luring them into wasting resources. One lone person making a single bold move, with the effluvium of an organization behind him, costs him a few hundred dollars and his life -- but costs the larger enemy millions of dollars. That's a successful terrorist move.

There's a 1950's novel with the same title that Marion Zimmer Bradley used, TWO TO CONQUER. It was by Eric Frank Russell and postulated an imaginary terrorist organization that cost a planetary government (of aliens who didn't know much about humans) enough to almost bankrupt it. In actuality it was only one human man cleverly planting "evidence" of a "movement" by spreading slogans around. When caught and imprisoned he invented whole cloth out of pure imagination a non-material partner with nearly magical powers, and sold himself to his jailers as a powerful threat. It bought him enough time to get rescued.

The novel (written by an author with real world experience in these matters) explained the tactics of the terrorist as clearly as several currently popular (and old classic) TV shows explain the confidence rackets so you can armor yourself against being taken as a mark. (Mission: Impossible, Remmington Steele, and today White Collar).

Why is it that government's decision making mechanism leads us to increase security after a terrorist feint, rather than before an actual move?

Here is a quote from a comment posted on a Newsweek article about the US Terrorist Databases at
http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/declassified/archive/2009/12/28/what-u-s-intelligence-knew-about-the-underpants-bomber.aspxHere's the comment:
I invented a holistic semantic system that is far superior to what the U.S. Government is using -- in the words of many of their own specialists, and leading scientists in CS, but to date we have had no luck in overcoming the adoption barriers facing small and emerging technology companies attempting to resolve serious problems. One recent blog post of mine might be of interest:
How to prevent the Fort Hood tragedy, by design.
Another paper written in laymen's language is a use case scenario developed specifically for the DHS:
We've invented the solution, but it has yet to be adopted, despite a significant amount of direct communications at decision levels in the past three admins.
Mark Montgomery
Founder - Kyield

See what I mean about worldbuilding from the patterns available in our real world?  Keep asking the next question.

Why is it that government's decision making mechanism leads us to focus and expend resources on a failed attempt to bring an aircraft down rather than watching for a real thrust coming from the other direction? (haven't they ever read any classic romances where the pretty girl or a thrown stone distracts the castle guards and the miscreant sneaks right into the castle past the distracted guard? I loved the TV show, Zorro!)

The worldbuilder needs to look at the pattern of these breaking-news Events and analyze the forces causing the behavior of large institutions (government, corporations, or non-profits) just as the writers of those old TV shows make the behavior of individual guards clear.

So ask the next question. What does it take to go greener and accommodate a larger population? What happens if we don't go all-e-book paperless office? Why is there such resistance? What would have to change to melt that resistance? Why doesn't government trick us into going all e-book the way it tricked us into going all-Uranium?  Where is the glitch in government decision making?  Corporate decision making?  Find it. Change it. Change everything in your universe to match.  Write a story in that universe. Win the Nobel Prize for PNR! 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
6 arguably greener e-book titles; 4 on Kindle


  1. I think it really helps to study History when it comes to world-building.

    Take, for example, the Ancient Romans. They built their empire and then sat back to enjoy it. Men didn't want to be burdened with too many children, especially girls, to support. They sent their newborns to die of exposure at the dump. Women didn't want stretch marks or saggy boobs and so tried to avoid pregnancy.

    Meanwhile, the Romans kept importing slaves from conquered countries and those slaves had babies. Abandoned Roman infants were rescued and raised by peasants and such.

    Before long, the wealthy and powerful Romans were outnumbered. Slaves revolted. Rome was sacked by foreigners.

    Europe fell into the Dark Ages when most babies died for lack of proper care and nutrition and the Plague wiped out millions of the grown-up and children alike. Out with good hygiene and in with the rats.

    Lesson I Learned: It's not so much overpopulation, but what that population does which impacts the world.

    Having looked around, I've noticed many large families are more eco-friendly than childless families simply because they've had to be out of financial necessity. For example, they might grow much of their own food, rather than buy expensive prepackaged food, the packages of which would end up in the landfill.

    This is not politically correct. However, I believe a writer should search things out for herself, instead of just accepting what she is told.

  2. http://www.newsweek.com/id/222792

    Livermore Lab is working on yet another source of very VERY clean energy.

    Don't forget, a writer has to be able to present ALL sides of any argument with real sincerity. That's why you have to read all this dull stuff.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. The paperless office, so far, is a delusion. The oldest veterans in the editing office of the Maryland General Assembly's Department of Legislative Services (where I work part time) told us that when computers were first introduced to the department, they were told there would soon be no need for proofreaders (which is what we used to be called). Well, our staff has grown several times over since then, with new proofreaders-editors hired every year. And we are surrounded by mountains of paper every legislative session and half the summer as well. At home, I certainly don't trust electrons for material I really want to keep -- I print it out -- except for very long files, which I save on disk and e-mail to myself, hoping that will be enough to preserve them. No paperless office for me. :)

  4. Kimber An:

    Yes, I absolutely agree -- the long-range cultural shifting patterns can be seen in History.

    And since SFR aims at a group that is as well educated as the SF reader, you can well expect your reader to be familiar with the rise and fall of civilizations on Earth.

    Now recreate that pattern in a way that reveals something interesting about the current news events while talking about faraway places with strange sounding names.

    My January 5, 2010 post will talk a bit more about the "beat" of history and where we are in that rhythm now.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  5. Anonymous6:23 AM EST

    Experts have talked about this before. How many times have you read about the importance of ‘adding value’ for your audience? How many times have you read about ‘building trust’ with your readers/prospects?
    Many, many times. You know it well. Every marketing guru has spoken about this topic. I’m sick of hearing it. But it STILL bears repeating.