Think or Thwim

A Collection of Things Worth Considering

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Peak Oil is Nothing Compared to Peak Phosphorus

Believe it or not, peak phosphorus is probably our biggest global emergency, but I don’t hear anyone talking about it.

The problem

Phosphorus is one of the most the important elements of life. It is a major component of RNA, DNA, and ATP (the molecule produced by photosynthesis that carries energy to the other plant cells – which in turn provide us with energy).

Of the nutrients used as building blocks for life, the following elements all have gaseous phases at the temperatures and pressures found on the surface of the Earth and are therefore easily redistributed through the air:

  • Hydrogen
  • Oxygen
  • Carbon
  • Nitrogen
  • Sulfur

However, the following elements are solids or liquids and don’t move around so easily:

  • Phosphorus*
  • Sodium
  • Potasium
  • Calcium
  • …64 more

In a natural ecosystem or on a traditional small farm, plants take these molecules out of the soil and air to build themselves. Animals eat the plants and use the same molecules to construct their bodies. When the plants and animals die, microbes return the molecules to the soil. Lather, rinse, repeat.

On the other hand, with our current industrial agriculture system the plants do their part and take in the molecules they’re supposed to, but then we ship them to a feedlot or city where they are consumed and decay far away from where they originated. The molecules of the elements easily transported by air are replaced relatively easily, but the molecules of solid and liquid elements won’t make it back to the field they came from for a long, long time.

Phosphorus is more sensitive to this imbalance than the others because it is 10X more concentrated in the body than it is in the Earth’s crust. None of the others are more concentrated in living beings like that.

The phosphorus was originally put in the soil by weathering phosphate rocks. That’s still going on, but that process took millions of years to build up the reserves we used during the last century.


To replace the missing phosphorus, we mine phosphate rock, grind it up, and sprinkle it on the soil for the plants to use as RNA, cell walls, etc. This seemed like a great idea when we figured it out 170 years ago. It continued seeming like a good idea all the way up until about 40 years ago when we started noticing the two big problems with this system:

Big Problem #1

Phosphorus that doesn’t get used is washed away by rain into rivers and eventually into the ocean. Phytoplankton (algae) in the ocean are very happy with their newfound abundance. They grow fat and reproduce prolifically. The problem comes when they die. As the algae is decaying, the bacteria breaking it down use too much of the oxygen dissolved in the water, killing everything else in that area.

Algae bloom near La Jolla

Big Problem #2

We’ve already used half of the phosphate rock available. According to a study by Patrick Dery peak phosphorus occurred in the US in 1988 and the rest of the world in 1989. Others think we’re still 30 years away from the peak, but it doesn’t matter who’s right. Either way, unless we change what we’re doing now, we will have depleted our supply of the central building block of life within a few hundred years of discovering it, and we do not know how to make more.

Chart from

Current uses of mined phosphate rock:

90% fertilizer.

5% animal feed supplements.

5% soft drinks, toothpaste, etc.


The Solution

Fortunately, the solution is easy. We did it for our first 100,000 years, and we’re the only creatures not currently doing it. The answer is eat, poo, and die in one place.

That doesn’t mean we all have to be farmers, but it does mean we need to be localvores and get over being sqweamish about the fact that we’re animals that are part of the web of life.

Plant food in your yard. Buy the food you don’t grow from local farmers. Insist on pasture raised meat. Compost every organic material you can find. Crap in a bucket. When it’s time to die, have yourself planted in the ground without preservatives so that a tree can build itself out of the molecules you’ve been using.

Guerrilla Public Service

Richard Ankrom grew tired of panicked drivers cutting across four lanes of traffic on the 110 trying to make the unmarked 5 exit in LA, and he did something about it. He created his own shield and letters out of aluminum, donned a Caltrans-ish orange vest, and installed the missing information himself.


That was August, 2001. Ankrom’s helpful alteration remained until November of 2009 when Caltrans finally replaced the whole thing with an updated version, complete with Ankrom’s correction.



There is No Speed Limit

Derek Sivers:

I met Kimo Williams when I was 17 – the summer after I graduated high school in Chicago, a few months before I was starting Berklee College of Music.

I called an ad in the paper by a recording studio, with a random question about music typesetting.

When the studio owner heard I was going to Berklee, he said, “I graduated from Berklee, and taught there for a few years, too. I’ll bet I can teach you two years’ of theory and arranging in only a few lessons. I suspect you can graduate in two years if you understand there’s no speed limit. Come by my studio at 9:00 tomorrow for your first lesson, if you’re interested. No charge.”

Read the rest at

Driving Orientation

From Wikipedia. Click to zoom:


Red = drive on the right
Blue = drive on the left

Timelapse of Our New House Being Built

I don’t think I’ve mentioned that we’re in the middle of building a new house. We started at the beginning of September and the roof went up this week. Here’s a timelapse of the progress so far. Notice the leaves changing:

2 minutes. Link to video

1 minute. Link to video

Pictures are here:

Cheating on Your Taxes? Better Know Benford’s Law

If you examine all the lengths of all of the rivers in the world, the sizes of all of the files stored on your computer, or all of the numbers on your tax return, what is the probability that the first digit and any number is a 1? It should be 1 in 9, right?

Well, it’s not. The answer is 31% (almost 1 in 3)

The probably of a 9 is only 4.6% (less than 1 in 20). How can that be?

Distributions of numbers follow a power law. In 1881 Simon Newcomb noticed that the first few pages of his logarithm tables were more worn that the last pages. In the 1920’s Frank Benford noticed the same thing with his logarithm tables. Benford then looked at lots of other data sets, and found the same distribution occurring in lots of measured data.


Random number sets and assigned numbers like lottery numbers, dates, and telephone numbers typically do not follow Benford’s Law, but data taken from observations of the real world does tend to follow it.

To make it even freakier, it’s scale invariant. From

In 1961, Pinkham discovered the first general relevant result, demonstrating that Benford’s law is scale invariant and is also the only law referring to digits which can have this scale invariance,” the scientists wrote in their letter. “That is to say, as the length of the rivers of the world in kilometers fulfill Benford’s law, it is certain that these same data expressed in miles, light years, microns or in any other length units will also fulfill it.


The best explanation I found is at the Journal of Accountancy:

Mutual fund math. An intuitive explanation of Benford’s law is to consider the total assets of a mutual fund that is growing at 10% per year. When the total assets are $100 million, the first digit of total assets is 1 . The first digit will continue to be 1 until total assets reach $200 million. This will require a 100% increase (from 100 to 200 ), which, at a growth rate of 10% per year, will take about 7.3 years (with compounding). At $500 million the first digit will be 5 .

Growing at 10% per year, the total assets will rise from $500 million to $600 million in about 1.9 years, significantly less time than assets took to grow from $100 million to $200 million. At $900 million, the first digit will be 9 until total assets reach $1 billion, or about 1.1 years at 10%. Once total assets are $1 billion the first digit will again be 1 , until total assets again grow by another 100%. The persistence of a 1 as a first digit will occur with any phenomenon that has a constant (or even an erratic) growth rate.

The numbers 5 and 6 show up most when people try to fake a random distribution. The 2004 election results show anomolies in the State of Florida (surprise). Tax agencies use Benford’s Law to look for irregularities, so if you’re going to cheat make sure you use lots of 1s and 2s.

How Viruses Work

Robert Krulwich and David Bolinsky explain how viruses trick our own cells into becoming little virus factories.

Rapid Prototyping with Clay

Mark Ganter at the University of Washington is using clay for 3-D printing.

Dagen H

On September 3, 1967 Sweden switched from driving on the left to driving on the right.

As Dagen H neared, every intersection was equipped with an extra set of poles and traffic signals wrapped in black plastic. Workers roamed the streets early in the morning on Dagen H to remove the plastic. Similarly, a parallel set of lines were painted onto the roads with white paint, then covered with black tape.


On Dagen H, Sunday, September 3, 1967 all non-essential traffic was banned from the roads from 01:00 to 06:00. Any vehicles on the road during that time had to follow special rules. All vehicles had to come to a complete stop at 04:50, then carefully change to the right-hand side of the road and stop again before being allowed to proceed at 05:00.


On the Monday after Dagen H, there were 125 reported traffic accidents, compared with a range of 130 to 198 for previous Mondays. No fatal traffic accidents were attributed to the switch. However, many older people gave up driving rather than learn to cope with the new rule of the road. Experts had suggested that changing to driving on the right would reduce accidents, since people already drove left-hand drive vehicles, and would therefore have a better view of the road ahead. Indeed, fatal car-to-car and car-to-pedestrian accidents dropped sharply as a result. Some of the decrease was attributed to a reduction in speed limits by 10 km/h for some time after the switch. The accident rate rose back to its original level within two years.

:: Wikipedia

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