Wren, Medieval Indulgence and YOUR Carbon Footprint

So, there’s this startup called Wren, they are effectively a subscriptions service where you pay them a monthly fee (which they immediately pocket 20% of per their FAQ) and then attempt to offset your carbon footprint. most people will immediately think “hey that’s awesome, sign me up” but woah woah woah, pump the brakes there.

I saw someone liken this to the Catholic Indulgence of the Middle Ages, you would commit sin and the Catholic Church would tell you how many coins to toss in the coffers to make everyone good with God to avoid temporal punishment. This is how I see Wren.

As I told two of their champions recently when they tweeted/retweeted the company to try and drive awareness to it for the 3 founders

"Planting trees isn't even a bandaid, it's like cutting your arm off and then gently blowing in the gaping wound. To offset our current CO2 production you need to add more than 31 million square miles, nearly 16% of the earth's land, of new forest assuming a healthy density of 40-60 trees per acre."

That figure above is actually really conservative. Add to that the fact we're losing forest at an estimated 28,125 square miles annually... do you realize how many customers you'll have to get to even combat 28,125 square miles annually? The best trees can manage about 48lbs of CO2 per year, and healthy forest is 40-60 trees per acre, that means you're going to need to plant a billion plus trees a year to even hope to combat current forest loss, a BILLION trees... and I'm not talking twigs, I'm talking 10ft+ trees, in healthy soil, with healthy fungal networks (the fungi that work in symbiosis with trees aid considerably in the carbon sequestration and overall tree health).

Seriously, do the math. Don’t take my word for it.

I honestly have no idea whatsoever why YC selected their company and chose to fund it, other than the 20% off the top of every subscription and perhaps banking on the fact that people will feel guilty about climate change and happily fork over money on a subscription model.

In an exchange on the website Hacker News, a site owned and run by the tech accelerator that invested in Wren, some future methods for lowering carbon foot print where mentioned… specifically one of the founders pointed me to the Project Drawdown (not related to Wren) webstie.

Well, let’s take a look at some of Project Drawdown’s ideas (although why would I pay Wren to pocket 20% when I could just give Project Drawdown 100%…):

  • Electric bikes (going to largely be powered by, fossil fuels)

  • - Electric cars (going to largely be powered by, fossil fuels, and will remain cost prohibitive for 95% of the world's population, if not more)

  • Mass transit takes years or decades to roll out, when funding can even be secured and all zoning challenges can be met

  • Alternative cement, this will be great if someone can make a breakthrough but there has been next to zero progress made on anything that is remotely feasible or even scalable

  • Bioplastic, while this takes petrochemicals out of the equation it is still pretty energy demanding and is still not good for the environment, biodegradable does not inherently mean safe.

  • Recycled paper, or how about doing away with paper. Instead of making recycled paper (which requires obscene amounts of toxic chemicals) why not get legislation passed to outlaw mass mailing, do you know how much mail I throw away each week that is advertisements and solicitations that I never even look at?

  • Industrial recycling, aside from aluminium and CLEANED glass recycling is mostly a farce. Don't believe me, do your homework, planet money even had an episode on this recently. Plastic is largely just taken to landfills, even if sent to recycling, because unless it is cleaned it is considered contaminated and China will no longer buy it to recycle it because of a loss of cheap labor and the pollution recycling it causes.

  • Autonomous vehicles, multinational companies are having trouble with this and even if they do pass it you likely have years of legal hurdles to get them legal and a decade or more to get people to even begin to accept and adopt them in numbers sufficient enough to make them more efficient than human driving as you'll have to remove the bulk of human drivers from the road.

  • Building with wood is already happening, but it adds considerable cost and still has considerable height limits which still require more land to be turned from green spaces to tarmac and building. Not to mention this wood isn't always sustainably farmed.

  • Direct air capture, this is almost certainly never going to happen barring multiple miraculous inventions. The closest person to doing this is Dr. Klaus Lackner and even his research has it not being viable, even if you capture in a method like his (a polymer that you then 'wash' it you still have to sequester it somehow).

  • Hyperloop, pure fantasy. Never going to happen for travelling large distances. Travelling large distances is one of the problems anyway. Commercial aviation fuel usage has gone up 33% in 9 years.

  • Refrigerant management, this will help with new appliances but the billion plus refrigeration/freezer units out there already...

    Industrial hemp, will just require more land to be planted as farmland won't be sacrificed it and cotton will be farmed until at least the current generation of farmers dies, farmers don't like change.

  • Living buildings, they look great in concept art but aren't practical and won't have any meaningful impact. They'll likely take decades just to offset the CO2 emissions from manufacturing the concrete that went into the building's foundations.

  • Ocean farming and marine permaculture, coastal waters absolutely need kelp and seaweed 'forests' re-established. There are some women in/around the Bay Area working on this - Tessa Emmer, Catherine O'Hare, and Avery Resor and what they are doing needs to be done up and down every last square mile of water with proper depth in the entire world.

  • Smart grids, if you mean in the United States good luck. This isn't something you are going to be able to have any influence on whatsoever. You'll have to get every single power company in the United States and Canada to voluntarily replace perfectly functioning, very expensive, equipment over a decade or more and even if you did they'll pass the cost on tot eh customer.

  • Solid-state wave energy, at any scale this is likely to have any number of unforeseen consequences for marine life (probably sound-induced stress for starters) and be quite costly due to the corrosive nature of oceans.

I suspect, based on personal experience, that the vast majority of human beings haven't put 1 minute of thought into global warming, in fact it wouldn't surprise me if there were billions of human beings walking around today that have never even heard of global warming or climate change, aside from noticing each year getting hotter and hotter and weather getting a little more extreme.

We don't need startups taking a 20% vig via a subscription service for a feel-good "I did my part by giving money" company. We need to present the facts, as unbiased as possible, to the masses and get people to start questioning the topic. We need people to start going "oh, wow, we did that?" we need them to start thinking "well how can I minimize my impact myself".

More than a third of the world's population lives on less than $2 a day. Do you think that 2.5 billion people can afford to scrape together even $2 a month to offset the CO2 from their cooking?

The median annual household income worldwide is $9,733, do you think that families can afford to pay $10-20 a head worldwide? Do you think that 1/3 of the world's population can realistically afford that? Do you think by the time that Wren backs out 20%, then the non-profits/NGOs/companies they turn around and give the money to backs out their operating costs, that that amount of money (probably 50% or less of the original contribution) will make even a 10% reduction in last year's CO2 emissions and that it will not only be able to keep pace with the increase, but also continue to increase to the point of getting us not just carbon neutral, but removing 10-2 gigatons more than we produce each year to try and restore us to levels of even the 1980s in any reasonable amount of time?

I don't. I think this company is just going to be away for those individuals with a little disposable income, that believe in climate change and feel guilty about driving their car and flying everywhere for vacations, to buy themselves a little 'feel good' or a little peace of mind. Most will probably think they're really making a difference and that all will be fine.

Even if Wren manages to generate 5 billion dollars a month, and ends passing 4.95 billion down the chain (instead of pocket 1 billion as per the 20% in their FAQ), it's unlikely to even result in sequestering 10% of last year's levels annually. Seriously, run the numbers yourself, everyone that's going to downvote this comment like you are my others, RUN THE NUMBERS please. You'll see that this isn't going to be the solution, nor is it likely to lead to one. It is the wrong approach to the problem as is.

This is Silicon Valley being clueless and/or overly optimistic as usual with these sorts of markets/challenges, just like YC wanting to turn half of the Sahara into shallow algal pools (which would result in the rainforest losing massive amounts of fertilization and cause a potentially catastrophic change in global weather patterns, not to mention require more electricity than the plant currently produces).

So, what do we do?

The giving pledge has more than a trillion dollars pledged as of right now, certainly at least one of those individuals or couples has interest in climate change. With an incredibly small amount of that trillion dollars of pledges we could gather data and educate people.

- Ask a healthy sampling of random people if they know what global warming is, do they believe in it, have they seen signs of it, is it affecting their life (talk to farmers, ranchers, amusement park operators and owners of tourist destinations, wildfire firefighters, etc as well as random people).

Then find out what misconceptions there are, what fears there are, what falsehoods people believe.

- Talk to experts: climatologists, entomologists, financial market experts, marine and wildlife, biologists, agricultural sciences types. Find out what effects are being seen right now, ge the data from all the fields, get video interviews with them saying who they are - what they do - what they see happening - why it concerns them - if the changes continue what are the probable outcomes in the next 5/10/15 years. Start a campaign, edit this stuff and start putting it on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram as short clips.

You do this to build awareness. You create plenty of resources that people can use to educate themselves and you drive interest by raising awareness. The only way we are EVER going to tackle climate change, other than just struggling to adapt to the changes, is by educating people and getting them personally interested.

Go ask 50 random people you know "So, what do you think about global warming", you're probably going to be surprised when several flat out think it's made up and others are along the lines of "I don't know, it might be true, but I can't do anything about it".

We're not going to make changes by paying to protect Amazon rainforest. We're going to make changes by convincing people they really don't need to take their 4th international vacation in as many years, nor do they need their 3rd iPhone in 5 years, that their year and a half old MacBook is perfectly fine and they don't need the newest model just because it now has ultra hologrpahic flurm instead of super hologrpahic flurm because all they do is watch YouTube and write emails with the damn thing.

People can make small changes that add up to significant changes when you get widespread adoption.

People will illegally harvest lumber as long as there are trees, there are people literally stealing entire BEACHES, lumber (especially exotic hardwoods) sell for way more money than sand. But what if we can convince people to make some small changes:

  • Do you like meat? Eat chicken instead of beef, it's an order of magnitude better per pound of meat as far as greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention land use

  • 71F is a wonderful temperature for that AC but is 72F so bad?

  • So, you want to fly a bunch of founders out to the Bay Area for in-person interviews for your tech accelerator batch? Seriously, can't you just use skype? Sure it's slightly annoying with the delay but it'll save a couple of tons of CO2 per person.

  • You live alone, do you really need 4 lights on in the kitchen and your bedroom when you've been in the living room for the past 6 hours? And why is your tv and soundbar on, you've had headphones on listening to classical music while you stare at your laptop screen playing GorkaMorka 27 or trying to finish some code.

You have to educate the masses if you want to make change. Just because you, or me, or that guy over there recognize climate change at varying levels, does NOT mean that the majority of people do.

And you know what happens when you start to get the masses interested? You actually stand a chance out getting legislation passed that can begin to put pressure on companies. Lobbyists carry a lot of weight, but if you can sway enough voters to acknowledge climate change is an issue, then you stand a much better chance of putting pressure one existing politicians, or removing them during voting cycles and installing politicians that do care and start to create a legal framework to force change. Change in community planning, change in tax incentives, change in legal requirements, make it illegal for HOAs to tell homeowners they can't have PV panels 'because they hurt property values and ruin visual appeal'.

You know encouraging people to eat locally grown food, instead of eating exotic fruit like, bananas and coffee and oranges, year-round that get shipped from halfway around the world will have more impact than giving 20$ a month to 'protect the amazon'. Yes, we should protect rainforests because of the incredible biodiversity, but ehhhh a subscription service to wash the guilt from your conscience (not unlike the Medieval Indulgence system) just is not a realistic solution, at any meaningful level anyway.

Under their current model, for every 1$ you give Wren, they pocket 20 cents and then hand 80 cents off to another organization (of their choosing) with, as far as I can tell from their site, zero information on how your money is being applied, who exactly they are giving it to, if that organization is for or non-profit and how much they are spending on overhead before actually doing something with the money, etc. Right now there are vague mentions of stopping illegal logging, and that's it. Doesn't say what company, what organizations, what countries, how or who.

What they do document well, is their roadmap... how they want to spend your money internally, not directly to some sort of carbon sequestration efforts.

They want to:

  • make it easy to unsubscribe from wren

  • increase site performance internationally

  • add sharing features

  • add how to change your subscription to their FAQ

  • handle declined card errors

Great, but what are you doing with the other 80% of the money someone gives you?


I am an oddball, a tale of the Eloi and Morlocks.

A comment on the Y Combinator website Hacker News made me vent a little steam. I’m going to post my reply here as well, and add to it.

I'm an oddball on Hacker News,

No, I'm an oddball. No degree, no STEM background, no interest whatsoever in CS as a career. Still quite interested in building a better future for humanity though.

However, it seems tech companies/VC firms/think tanks/philanthropic entities forget (or outright ignore) the fact that it requires more than coders and degree holders to make society happen. sigh.

In the past few years I've come to be incredibly shocked as I discover more and more how myopic the tech-leaders/teach-wealthy/younger philanthropists are whether intentionally or unintentionally. A significant percentage come from families where education was stressed, where the families were financially comfortable if not wealthy, a lot of them started working when they started their first startup in college or their first job was out of grad school, people that went to k-12 schools in privileged areas or went to varying levels of private schools, went to top-tier colleges to either drop out when they became millionaires or to graduate and go on to become billionaires long before their peers even finished paying off their crippling student loans. The companies, and empires, they run after obtaining a modicum of success almost entirely require a minimum of a 4 year degree for entry-level positions with most wanting to see at least one major accomplishment or project under your belt to even get a Skype interview. They want people of a specific mindset, they want people with a specific background, they want people with specific accomplishments. Even those that go on to help those that are underprivileged via their philanthropic efforts, just look for the cream of the academic crop, they look for those that have somehow defied the odds and are still already exceptionally bright on paper, to help them get their de facto dues card (a degree) so they can have yet another like-mind to join their ranks.

But those of us that have different experiences? We get told things like (these are actual quotes from rejection emails to me in the past year and a half):

"You obviously have many of the skills we're looking for. However, for the Customs Brokerage role we require a BA/BS degrees" at the time I had 12 years of experience doing the job, but no 4-year degree in ANYTHING so wasn't good enough for an interview.

"We know that our process is far from perfect, so please take this primarily as a statement that we have limited interview bandwidth, and must make hard choices. We'd welcome another application in no fewer than 12 months - the best way to stand out is to complete a major project or produce an important result in that time" thank you for comparing me to bits and stripping me of all humanity, also what 'major project' or 'important result' should I produce for an entry level position in a field where I'd literally be assisting in creating the initial framework for AI policy research? I mean, must everyone that helps with AI policy be a CS type? Should the common man not be consulted when deciding how our future robot overlords will rule us and how are personal data may or may not be used by such projects?

I am the oddball. I'm John Q Public, not C. S. Programmer.

I just want to see a better future for myself and our species. I can't write fancy code, nor do I have any desire to. I'm not going to be the guy that creates the first AI or the first cyborg prosthetic indistinguishable from a human limb. I'm not going to crack cold fusion or bring C4 rice to market. I can sit back and go "that's a good idea BUT here's 17 ways I can exploit it in its beta phase, if you get it fully functional and the company scales I can exploit it even more ways and use it for personal gain and to cause great pain and suffering to individuals or the masses, maybe we should stop and think about this, and these 3 features are all but guaranteed to be used more for bad than good" I can go "so explain to me exactly what you are trying to do... oh, hey, yeah so I know your world is only CS but this was done by such and such in 1973 and I know I've read about it in a few books, let me check my Evernote references... ah yes so here's a science fiction story where it was done but here is where some students did something similar, does this give you any ideas for getting past your current roadblock?" and I can go "man, you look burnt out, you need a break, come on let's go walk for a few minutes and talk about something else so you can come back with a new point of reference".

I am the oddball.

I really think that society is rapidly forking. Compare us to the Eloi and the Morlocks from H.G. Wells' 1895 novel The Time Machine.

The Eloi lived a banal life of ease on the surface of the Earth in the year AD 802,701 - the Eloi are the path the tech types are going down. The industry prioritizes grand accomplishments, fancy degrees, snazzy CVs with lots of interesting experience and projects. Many that excel in this industry (but by no means all) had financially comfortable childhoods, had solid k-12 educations with lots of opportunity, many that go on to became worth many millions or billions of dollars also went on to either sell their first company while at a rpestigious college and drop out or obtained multiple degrees from such institutions before jumping into a career with minimal 'mundane' working experience prior.

Then we have the Morlocks, that dwell underground. The Morlocks clothe and feed the rich upper class...er... I mean, the Eloi. My kind are the Morlocks. Many of us have lackluster childhoods, in my instance my father died 12 days before my 13th birthday and we went from a comfortable lower middle class 2-income house to a lower middle class 1-income family and had it not been for the life insurance things would have much rougher than they were, and as someone that had his father die at this age I obviously didn't go "gee golly, I'd better buckle down and start thinking about college now" instead I thought "well this is bullshit, what the hell". Many of us Morlocks are working as soon as we can; in my case around 11 I started delivering papers for 3 cents a paper, cutting lawns, shoveling snow, hitting stores on Main Street asking if they needed any errands run for tips, just to bring some more money in. By 16 as a Morlock I was working the maximum number of hours I could a week by law, by 18 I was working at least 40 hours a week.

As Morlocks we have a wide variety of jobs under our belts. In my case I delivered papers, worked fast food, buried people for a living as well as cut grass, also cut grass and did other odd jobs for a realtor, worked multiple retail jobs, finally got a 'good' job doing data entry as a contractor for a whopping 10$ an hour before ending up at my current job which after 13 years on the job last week pays me a little over 1$ more than San Francisco's minimum wage, ha!

I've spent the better part of 3 years trying to get a job at a company that is actively trying to improve the lives of humans now, and striving to make a better future for our species. Every single person I've talked to, or cold machine-like email I've received, has said the same things. 'Get a degree' - 'We want a degree' - 'Minimum requirement is a degree' - 'We didn't see where you listed your degrees' - 'What major project have you complete' - 'what projects have you worked on' - 'what major breakthroughs have you made' - 'Looking at your CV I'm not sure why so and so wanted me to talk to you' basically - go away Morlock, we only hire Eloi.

The world needs people with different backgrounds, different experiences, differet abilities to work optimally. Tech companies, philanthopic endeavors, think tanks, even venture capital firms need to stop trying to hire people with Master's and Doctorate degrees for every single position and start seriously considering looking at people that might have a wholly different perspective from a wholly different life experience that can not only add racial or cultura diversity but go "hey, that thing you're trying to invent, it's stupid" or "hey, that thing you're stuck on, it's kinda like this thing that I know about/do let me explain it to you and maybe it'll give you an idea" or even "hey, uh, folks, what you're creating is called a wheel and, um, it already exists" or even "ha, I cant hink of 17 ways to rip someone off with that without even putting some thought into it, and that feature right there ohhhh boy people are going to have a fun time using that to social engineer customer service and then users".

But hey, what do I know, I don’t make the big bucks. I’m not a CEO, CIO, CTO, CFO, COO. I’m not a billionaire looking to shape the world after my own designs. I’m just one of the 7.5 billion Murlocks that makes the world run for the Eloi.

A table of principal aloys

A combination of zinc and copper makes bell metal.

A combination of copper and tin makes bronze metal.

A combination of antimony, tin, copper and bismuth makes britannia metal.

A combination of copper and tin makes cannon metal.

A combination of copper and zinc makes Dutch gold.

A combination of copper, nickel and zinc, with sometimes a little iron and tin, makes German silver.

A combination of gold and copper makes standard gold.

A combination of gold, copper and silver, makes old standard gold.

A combination of tin and copper makes gun metal.

A combination of copper and zinc makes mosaic gold.

A combination of tin and lead makes pewter.

A combination of lead and a little arsenic, makes sheet metal.

A combination of silver and copper makes standard silver.

A combination of tin and lead makes solder.

A combination of lead and antimony makes type metal.

A combination of copper and arsenic makes white copper.

Where is God in this?

Someone asked yesterday “Where is God in all of this?”, stating that everywhere they look they see struggle and suffering, that everywhere they look they do NOT see the divine. My off-the-cuff reply was

Go outside, look up. Day or night:

  • See the atmosphere? It's the only breathable one in our solar system and the only breathable one we know of in the universe which likely contains 2 trillion or more galaxies, each galaxy containing tens to hundreds of billions of stars. Most of those stars likely harboring planets.

  • See stars? The nearest one is Proxima Centauri at 4.24 light years away. Voyager 1 is traveling at a rate of 17.3 km/s, it's the fastest spacecraft to date. If it were pointed at an intercept with Proxima Centauri it would take over 73,000 years to arrive. That's the closest star, 4.24 light years. The farthest star we've directly imaged (MACS J1149+2223 Lensed Star 1) is 5 billion light-years away. You exist, I exist, on this tiny blue marble in an effectively infinite space. That's where God is.

  • See the moon? it has given us the 24 hour day we know so well. It gives us the tides that likely helped make life prosper on Earth. It was likely made from a cataclysmic impact where something likely a twin to the Earth at the time collided with us and ejected it violently from the collision. That moon you see, men have been there, they got there with less computing power than a modern car has. They got there launched on a controlled explosion atop the most complicated machine made to date. They went to a barren, hostile, sterile world and looked back and saw the majesty that is Earth. The local rarity that is Earth. The only known body in the solar system to harbor any form of life, let alone intelligent life. That's where God is.

Now, go look in the mirror. You're seeing reflected radiation that allows you to see you. Through an evolutionary miracle that is the eye, something that modern cameras still can't replicate even a decent approximation of. That reflection you see, you, more than 37 trillion cells make up you. Those cells are made up of 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms that is roughly 2/3 hydrogen, 1/4 oxygen and about 1/10 is carbon in composition. Those seven billion billion billion atoms comprise a living, breathing, sentient entity that can not only live and reproduce but has the capability of creating technology that allows the splitting of atoms, that allows for complicated repair (surgery) of similar organisms, that can contemplate existence, that could build the most complicated machine ever to put man on the moon. That's where God is.

Star Wars and Our Solar System

For many years I’ve known that Iapetus and Mimas (moons of Saturn) have resembled the Death Star. Today we saw images of Ultima Thule as New Horizons went speeding by at something like 8 miles per second.

Mimas resembles the first Death Star

Mimas resembles the first Death Star

Mimas resembles the first Death Star

Iapetus resembling the second Death Star

Iapetus resembles the second Death Star

Iapetus resembles the second Death Star

Here’s an interesting article about why Iapetus might look the way it does by Phil Plait ‘The Bad Astronomer’.

And now Ultima Thule sure does resemble BB-8

BB-8 and Ultima Thule

BB-8 and Ultima Thule

An open letter to YC

I want to preface this by saying I think YC is doing good, that YC has already helped make extremely positive contributions to society by funding numerous companies.

I also currently have an application in for this batch, it’s not a billion dollar idea, I’m not going to make them a 46,666% return on their investment and based on some rejection letters to others suspect incoming. That’s ok, I’m sure this post does not help my odds either.

As people are waiting to hear about the winter 2019 batch, articles keep getting posted to Hacker News giving tips on how to interview, one such as The Ultimate Guide to YCombinator Interview Preparation is currently a top post. This started as a reply to that post but it became more, so I decided to make it something of its own.




I find it amusing that the above article, and most I've seen, are primarily written to app developers.

- “what about building [feature].”

- "What is your DAU as of today?"

- What actions are you taking to grow it? Homepage testing, funnel optimization, doubling down on a marketing channel?

I mean... YC has founded many companies that have nothing to do with applications, or even daily users... nuclear energy, shampoo, growing food, battery technology and manufacturing, energy storage, cancer research...

Then the typical buzzwords/phrases

- demonstration of the great synergy

- on-paper synergy

- What is your DAU

- funnel optimization, doubling down on a marketing channel

- Etc

Which is funny because the article itself says 'Don’t use jargon'.

I often think folks in the Bay Area/Silicon Valley/tech in general have any idea how the vast majority of the country, and world, live and actually do business. From throwing out technical jargon, assuming everyone knows what it means, then advising people NOT use jargon... to wanting everything incredibly brief 'one sentence, one sentence!' to being absolutely cold and inefficiently calculating...

It scares the hell out of me. We have all these 20 to early 40 something people, with millions and billions of dollars, with the bulk of the investment money at their command, deciding what future will be built for the world in cold emails and 10 minute rapid-fire interviews.

*shakes head*

YC and YCR have done amazing things but this machine-like, cold, calculating, no-time-to-waste, wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am approach to life, seeing everything as a potential return, throwing in rejection letters things like "then it would be hard to for this to also be a billion dollar company" (again, that would mean a 46,666% return on investment) is terrifying.

I get it, YC needs to make money. They have investors they have to answer to that expect fantastical returns that beat the market but... for crying out loud... telling companies "you won't make us 70 million dollars in 5 years so hit the bricks" *cringe*

HOWEVER, if you look to YC’s history they “didn’t start it mainly to make money” yet now making MASSIVE returns seems to be the name of the game:

The real reason we started Y Combinator is neither selfish nor virtuous. We didn’t start it mainly to make money; we have no idea what our average returns might be, and won’t know for years. Nor did we start YC mainly to help out young would-be founders, though we do like the idea, and comfort ourselves occasionally with the thought that if all our investments tank, we will thus have been doing something unselfish. (It’s oddly nondeterministic.)
— http://www.paulgraham.com/whyyc.html

Who cares if it takes the average company a decade to earn you a return on your investment, it shouldn't be about money. It should be about adding value to humanity.

I'm legitimately afraid for our species. Our self-proclaimed champions for change and good are still driven by profit, and not just modest returns, but constantly on the prowl for that mega millions jackpot of a company.

Another example of something that wholly puzzles me is, YC has recently asked for solutions to global warming, chiefly carbon sequestration solutions. We're going to produce close to 40 gigatons of carbon this year that will enter the system, that's insanity. If you filled the 10 largest bodies of freshwater in the world with azolla (see the azolla event) you'd only pull roughly 10% of that amount out of the atmosphere annually and you would only sequester a fraction of that. Yet YC, for the interviews for companies that get an invite, they want the founders to fly to the Bay Area for a 10 minute interview. FOLKS! One round-trip flight from New York to Europe or to San Francisco creates a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person.

I know this won't be found in favor by the tech and VC communities, I'm a nobody with a GED and a dead end job that gets rejected time and time again by companies for not having a degree. I'm a nobody from the Midwest that has never made a billion dollar company, I'm not independently wealthy, I didn't make the iPad-fruit-of-the-month app that made me 1 million dollars a day, I'm not a scientist.

I'm just a guy. A guy that's terrified. A guy that just wants someone, anyone, at YC to go "hey, wait a minute, let's pause and take a look at where we are headed".

I’m not saying YC is bad, I’m not even saying they are misguided (not entirely anyway), I’m saying that YC and similar institutions seem to have developed a very myopic view and have slipped into the same problems the generations before us have “profit profit profit”.

Take chances on stuff that’s almost certainly not going to pay back with dollars but with value added to society in general. Throw 10, 20, 50% at ideas that can make life better for people that don’t involve an app or SAAS and worry about adding value to people and not fattening investors bank accounts. When you’re on your death bed will you be proud you made meaningful contributions to society or will you be proud you funded the next “Clash of Boom Candy With Friends Meets Bagles: the best freemium game with built in relationship and threesome finding matchmaking!” ?

What the hell do I know though. I’ve not exited a startup and unlocked the achievement ‘fat bank account’ so no one cares what I have to say. I don’t have an Ivy League degree, or a community college degree, so no one cares what I have to say. I’m just a guy scraping by to make ends meet, with a bankruptcy, with a GED, with this silly notion that the likelihood of 46,666% returns should not be the deciding factor in what ideas are given a chance.


Tackling the problem of food production

(And can indoor farming help us)

One very potential means of omnicide is losing our ability to adequately feed the humans of the earth which, given an adequate failure, could result in any number of armed conflicts that may even reach nuclear exchange.

To understand the importance of this issue we first have to look a bit at farming. Growing crops requires vast stretches of fertile soil, adequate water via rain or irrigation, adequate exposure to solar radiation and time. 

Soil

Fertile soil is hard to add in quantity to a region but fertile soil that is already present can be maintained (it takes thousands of years to create worthwhile amounts of soil, what we'd need for farming), however, poor management combined with environmental conditions beyond our control, can easily lead to events such as the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. (For those interested on a drought potentially causing this again see the BBC article 21st Century US 'dustbowl' risk assessed)

Water

Where adequate rain is not available for use water must be found in the local environment. This can be from above ground bodies of water such as lakes and rivers which can be channeled into fields via irrigation or by tapping aquifers for groundwater which can and is, leading to groundwater depletion

https://water.usgs.gov/edu/gwdepletion.html

https://water.usgs.gov/edu/gwdepletion.html

Sun

This is something largely out of our control. The sun will do as the sun pleases. Rampant air pollution could negatively impact the amount of solar radiation reaching plants but the real threats here are supervolcanoes and nuclear winter causing mind-boggling levels of smoke and ash to enter the atmosphere blocking out sunlight for years or decades.

In our food system, we face various issues. Waste, heavy reliance on just-in-time delivery, access to adequate water, access to adequate solar radiation.

Waste

It might be shocking to learn that approximately 1/3 of food is lost to waste globally. This happens all throughout the supply chain and in our homes and businesses. In fields, crops can be lost to fungus/pests/weather damage/damage during harvest/inability to harvest in an adequate time frame. Damage can occur in transit from the fields to processing plants, from plants to warehouses, from warehouses to retail outlets. Then food gets purchased and not consumed, either neglected in your refrigerator (let's be honest, yours needs to be cleaned out doesn't it?) or prepared and discarded. One way to drastically reduce this would be to produce food much closer to the final point of sale, another to be more aware of the issue as consumers and try to eliminate the waste on our end by being more conscientious about our portions and by using as much of a vegetable, fruit or animal as possible (an easy way being stocks and soups). 

Supply chain

Just-in-time delivery isn't just an issue for food, it's an issue for nearly all sectors and goods and is something we absolutely take for granted and should not. It is cheaper for an entity to order a good just before it will be needed than to maintain a warehouse full of goods to draw upon as needed, even when this might mean shipping something from China to Indianapolis by air in 1-3 days.

The problem here is large population centers often have, at best, days of food available for consumption and in fact, the world only has 2-3 months of food reserves. One method to address this is to simply begin maintaining warehouses of shelf-stable food near large population centers. Another is to grow the food considerably closer to the end user to build better flexibility into the supply chain and allow for quicker delivery of goods.

Water

As I addressed above one solution to adequate water is accessing aquifers, however, as illustrated above this is already causing issues in the U.S. and basically everywhere else. Crops require obscene amounts of water, for example, you need an input of roughly 594,000 gallons of water for 1 acre of corn with a yield of around 200 bushels (11,200 pounds of corn). Now obviously this water doesn't cease to exist but you do need to bring it in one way or another, often we largely rely on rainfall but when rain is scarce we tap those aquifers. One way to drastically reduce the amount of water needed is by having a closed system.

Sun

Again, the sun will do what the sun wants but we do have grow lights now (and technically you can use orbital mirrors to reflect more sunlight on a given area as was attempted with the Znamya project). While the sun is the cheapest option grow lights allow many benefits such as controlling the duration and intensity, allowing you to grow indoors or even in space habitats in the future for outposts on the moon or Mars.

An interesting approach and part of a viable solution is to look at growing indoors in largely enclosed systems. 

There are three entities doing this right now that I'd like to use as examples.

Jeff, AKA, The Real Martian

 

Jeff and his wife have constructed a greenhouse on their property and are actively looking at this as a potential solution, Jeff's words say it better than I will:

Over eight years ago now, my wife and I started on a journey to design, build, and operate a sustainable energy and food production capability on our ranch. Since we started we’ve had quite the adventure as we try to develop our aquaponics system to grow plants, our microgreens for revenue generation, our automation equipment to control it all, the solar panels to run the system, and the anaerobic digester to help provide heat and energy. We’ve faced a lot of challenges and this year should be even better than last. Join us as we attempt to complete Hab 1 and accomplish our mission of providing sustainable food and energy to our local community.
— https://www.patreon.com/therealmartian/overview

His YouTube videos document the process of constructing Hab 1 as well as all of the challenges they are facing as they go through the process in a somewhat open-source fashion. His funding comes from his income and his Patreon donors. 

Jeff is relying on both grow lights and natural sunlight to some extent. His energy comes from photovoltaic panels and he also has a digester which he can harvest natural gas from to run a generator on. 

Square Roots, founded by Kimbal Musk and Tobias Peggs

Square Roots is a company that is doing indoor farming in shipping containers. While I think shipping containers are an ok prototyping platform, and as an easily shippable educational/training environment, I think they are neither cost-effective or scalable for commercial capacity. 

Square Roots does recognize some of the issues this article have, in their own words

Our cities are at the mercy of an industrial food system that ships in high-calorie, low-nutrient, processed food from thousands of miles away.
— https://squarerootsgrow.com/purpose/

 

They appear to be marketing more towards the "let's give people 'healthy' food" and less towards the "let's feed the world" aspect for their business model. I think this is great for raising awareness to indoor farming but largely I don't see it as something that solves a problem. They will, however, be adding experience to the indoor farming movement which is always a plus and I will admit that the amount of press they've generated has likely turned minds towards the idea that otherwise would not have.

Beanstalk Inc, part of the Winter 2018 batch at Y Combinator 

Beanstalk Inc is an indoor farming startup that aims to grow produce at the cost of outdoor farming. They intend to grow food within 100 miles of their customer using zero herbicides, fungicides or pesticides and use automation for as much of the labor as possible. 

This is a company that is truly thinking towards the future. While energy costs still make it hard to compete with the sun for your radiation input, controlling the environment drastically reduces water input and loss prior to harvest. 

Their use of heirloom seeds is also interesting. This should allow for considerably more diversity, likely better taste profiles and allows us to maintain diversity in the event that a widely used commercial line of a given plant finds itself under attack by any number of pests. I think using heirloom seeds, along with genetically modified varieties, in growing is just as important as projects such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

I'm excited to see what Jack and Michael do over the next few years. 


Closing thoughts

I believe that indoor farming via aquaponics or vertical growing or some combination of both is going to be key to our future as a species. One of the biggest hurdles at the moment is energy. We need photovoltaics to continue to increase in efficiency while their price continues to come down to make this viable at scale until a time that fusion might be a viable means of power (for fusion see Helion Energy, ITER, Tri Alpha Energy etc). Continue to improve LED diodes for use as grow lights should also see this become considerably more viable at scale. Genetic engineering may also provide a means for developing plants that require less input for similar or even higher yields and potentialyl even faster yields.

We also need to be very mindful of our current farming habits and very quickly make some changes both at a farm level for more sustainable practices, throughout the delivery change to minimize as much loss as possible and at a consumer level to only buy what we are going to use to drastically reduce the amount of food that needs to be grown in the first place.