Take Control of Your Digital Storage cover

This week, another book just for Mac users! As the amount of data we store continues to grow, figuring out where to put it and how to access it becomes more complicated. Every Mac includes internal storage in the form of a hard drive, SSD, or Fusion drive. But you may also have one or more external devices (such as hard drives, flash drives, SD cards, or RAID devices), not to mention network-attached storage (NAS) devices or cloud storage (like Dropbox or iCloud Drive). Making sense of all your options, managing your stored data, choosing new devices or services when you’re running out of space, or even just figuring out what’s where can drive anyone to distraction.

Jeff Carlson covers all this and much, much more in his book Take Control of Your Digital Storage. For example, the book helps you choose a new (internal or external) hard drive, SSD, or hybrid drive; determine how much storage space you need; understand APFS, Apple’s new filesystem; format, partition, and repair disks using Disk Utility; choose and use a NAS, RAID, flash drive, or SD card for use with your Mac; work with disk images; and decide among local, network, and cloud storage for various types of files.

This book, like all Take Control titles, comes as an ebook, and you can download any combination of formats—PDF, EPUB, and/or Kindle’s Mobipocket format—so you can read it on pretty much any computer, smartphone, tablet, or ebook reader. The cover price is $14.99, but as an Interesting Thing of the Day reader, you can buy it this week for 30% off, or just $10.49.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Hubbert's peak as projected in 1956

The controversial theory of Peak Oil

Whatever your feelings about the cost of oil, the means of obtaining it, or the effect that burning it has on the environment, one thing’s for sure: there’s a finite amount of it, so sooner or later it has to run out. At least, I hope so, because once all the oil’s gone, perhaps the planet will finally have a fighting chance against global warming. Many people, however, would take a decidedly negative view of the impending disappearance of the world’s oil reserves for all the obvious reasons. Either way, just how long will the oil last?

In 1956, a geophysicist named Marion King Hubbert developed a theory to predict future oil production. He assumed that for any given oil field, production follows a bell curve. After the well’s discovery, production quickly ramps up as new wells are added. But eventually, as the oil is drained from the underground reservoirs, the production rate hits a peak after which it begins to decline, eventually returning to zero. And what is true of an individual oil field should, Hubbert reasoned, be true for the entire planet as well. Using these assumptions and the best data he had available at the time, he plotted historical oil production on a curve and estimated that oil production in the United States would peak by 1970, and worldwide by the mid-2000s. The moment at which global oil production peaks came to be known as Peak Oil (or Hubbert’s Peak), while the overall theory that production of oil (or other products based on non-renewable natural resources) follows a bell curve in this way was called the Hubbert Peak Theory. After that time, there would of course still be plenty of oil, but the production rate would drop at about the same rate it rose, until eventually it was all gone.

Peak Performance

So now, over 60 years later, how did those predictions work out? Within the United States, at least, Hubbert’s prediction seemed for a while to have been off by just a year, as domestic oil production did indeed peak in 1971. But after several decades of decline, the number started rising again, and in 2018, U.S. oil production reached an all-time high. That false peak was due, in part, to the development of new techniques for extracting previously unreachable oil (such as hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, and the exploitation of oil sands). Presumably, if Hubbert had access to current data and knowledge of the latest technologies, he’d have had to revise his date forward considerably.

What’s true in the United States also goes for worldwide oil production. Although it appeared for a while that we had in fact already passed the peak worldwide—perhaps in 2004 or 2005—newer estimates put the peak far in the future, though experts are seriously divided as to how far. For every apologist of Peak Oil there’s also a naysayer, and the arguments against the theory are both wide-ranging and passionate.

Numerous researchers have taken exception to Hubbert’s math as well as his fundamental assumptions. To some extent, it appears that he started with a theory and tried to come up with data to support it, rather than the other way around. There’s no particular reason to assume, a priori, that oil production should follow a bell curve. It could have any number of dips and spikes, for many different reasons, over a long period of time; the aforementioned development of new extraction techniques is a case in point. Another type of claim is that anyone who buys into Peak Oil must have an agenda, either political or financial in nature; oil simply can’t, mustn’t, and won’t disappear any time soon. In any case, most critics admit that yes, there must logically be a worldwide peak in oil production eventually—with an end to oil production some time long after that—but that whenever this happens, it will be so far in the future as to make worrying now seem silly.

Increasingly, commentators have noted another factor: demand. Hubbert didn’t envision decreasing demand for oil, but if that occurred, then ipso facto, production would also decrease. Indeed, it looks increasingly likely that within our lifetimes, that will happen—even if peak production capacity has not occurred. In other words, “peak” doesn’t necessarily mean what Hubbert thought it meant.

Just Add Oil

But the most surprising criticism of Peak Oil is based on the claim that Earth can never run out of oil, because it simply keeps manufacturing more. We all learned in school that oil is a fossil fuel, created over many millennia by heat and pressure acting on the remains of plants and animals that lived and died eons ago. Because all that biological matter hasn’t been regularly replenished, once the planet’s supply of fossil fuel is gone, it’s gone. But according to supporters of the abiogenic petroleum origin hypothesis, oil never came from biological matter at all. It’s produced within the Earth’s crust and mantle by heat and pressure acting on ordinary and plentiful substances such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and methane. And what’s more, the production of new oil has never stopped: look in the right places in the right ways, and you’ll see oil reservoirs being replenished. This hypothesis first appeared in the 1870s, but it has never had much traction outside Russia and the Ukraine. Still, that hasn’t stopped Peak Oil opponents from using it to bolster their position.

Well, what if oil did run out—and what if that happened within, say, the next few decades? Once again, the reactions to this scenario vary dramatically. Some predict it will lead to a collapse of the worldwide economy, mass starvation, and perhaps even the end of the human race. Most pundits say it won’t be that bad; between now and then, we’ll develop the necessary technology to replace oil with something else for large-scale applications such as transportation; given the rapid progress in electric vehicles, that seems entirely plausible. And in between are survivalists who fear the worst but are figuring out how to live petroleum-free lives when the day comes.


What I find most striking about this entire debate is its emotional intensity. Websites both pro and con often consist of extremely long, sometimes boring, and often inscrutable rants accusing the other camp of all sorts of diabolical motives, along with insults and name-calling a-plenty. And all this over a theory that might never be proven one way or another—we could always end up finding massive, unexpected oil reserves (or easy ways of getting at more of the existing oil) far in the future, creating an entirely new production curve. Meanwhile, we already have the technology to generate our own oil from garbage, an infinitely renewable resource.

In short, if you want to worry about the price of oil, fine. If you want to worry about global warming, fine. I heartily support any and all efforts to develop alternative energy sources, conserve fuel, and protect the environment. But I can’t bring myself to worry about running out of oil. Either it will happen or it won’t, and if it does, it’ll be either sooner or later. But my money is on much later, by which time I fully expect the world will have either gotten over its oil dependence for other reasons or destroyed itself in any of several increasingly plausible ways. Either way: nothing to worry about.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on July 17, 2006.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

The town of Llívia

A little piece of Spain in France

As an American, I’ve always felt a bit embarrassed at my limited grasp of foreign languages. I have friends in Europe who speak four or five languages fairly fluently, and they rightly boggle when they hear that most Americans are monolingual. But for complicated historical, cultural, and political reasons, that’s just the way things turned out. However, I did take French classes in high school (and picked up quite a bit more during the years I lived in France), studied linguistics as a grad student, and picked up a handful of phrases in half a dozen other languages here and there, all of which probably makes me slightly less clueless as a tourist than many of my compatriots. I usually know at least enough to recognize which language I’m listening to. Years ago while driving through Europe, we stopped at a gas station in Austria near the Italian border, and when we asked for directions to a certain castle, the clerk’s response included French, German, and Italian words in the same sentence. I got the general drift of what he was saying, but I marveled at how intertwingled the languages had become in this border region.

All sorts of interesting things happen around international borders, especially when those borders are not clearly defined. While looking at France and Spain in an actual printed atlas (remember those?), I saw something I’d never noticed before: a tiny region in southern France surrounded by what appeared to be an international border, but without any label whatsoever to tell me what it was. Andorra, a small country that straddles the border between France and Spain, is nearby, but this little blip was farther east in the Pyrénées and clearly something different. The light bulb went on shortly thereafter when I was reviewing my list of suggested topics readers had sent in: someone wanted to see an article about a curious place called Llívia. That was the blip! Due to a series of weird historical, geographical, and linguistic flukes, an entire Spanish town ended up completely within the borders of France. But that’s just the beginning of the story.

All Around Town

Officially, Llívia is considered a Spanish enclave within France. It’s a small town of about 5 square miles (13 sq km), situated less than a mile (about 1km) from the Spanish border and connected to the rest of Spain by a single, small road. The town’s official website lists its current population as 1,456, though I’ve seen considerably lower and higher numbers. Whatever Llívia’s population may be, it’s historically important that it be considered a town rather than a village.

Llívia was a strategically important area as far back as the time of the Roman empire, and was considered the capital of the region known as Cerdanya, which includes portions of modern-day France and Spain. But it wasn’t until 1528 that Roman Emperor Charles V (known in Spain as Carlos I) formally designated Llívia a town—apparently more for reasons of history than of population. This decision was to prove momentous a little more than a century later, when France and Spain signed the Treaty of the Pyrénées and thus settled the dispute over the border between the two countries that had been the cause of decades of war. According to the terms of the treaty, the border was to run primarily along the main crest of the Pyrénées, and all villages north of that line were to become part of France. Spain insisted that, according to the letter of the law, Llívia must be excluded from French rule because it was not a village but a town—and that’s why Spain continued to control a parcel of land entirely inside France.

Llivid About That Border

In 1868, the border between the two countries was finally surveyed and delimited explicitly with a series of bordermarkers, numbering in the hundreds, including 45 just for Llívia. Most of these markers are simple chunks of stone, numbered consecutively and marked with “LL” on the Llívian side and initials representing the nearest French village on the French side; a few markers were made by carving numbers and letters into existing rocks. Locating and photographing these markers with the aid of maps or GPS has become a common tourist pastime.

Despite the seemingly conclusive nature of the bordermarkers, and despite the fact that Llívia is just a stone’s throw from the Spanish border, the two countries have tangled over the details of the border numerous times, with little pieces of land going back and forth according to the terms of the most recent lawsuit. One conflict involved the short road connecting Llívia to the rest of Spain: it was supposed to be neutral, but a certain French road crossed it. Each country felt its citizens should have right of way at the intersection, and ignored the other’s stop signs. Eventually an overpass had to be built, at Spain’s expense, to make the issue moot. At another, smaller intersection, a similar conflict was resolved by constructing a roundabout.

Que Parla el Català?

Good information about Llívia in English is hard to come by, though you can find some coverage on the web in French and even Dutch. When I first visited Llívia’s official website, though, I assumed it would be in Spanish. The text had a familiar look to it, but some of the words appeared to be Spanish while others appeared to be French. It took me a while to figure out that I was actually looking at neither Spanish nor French, but rather Catalan, one of the three official languages of the region of Spain known as Catalonia. Catalonia, which also encompasses Barcelona, is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, with its own government and police force and considerable latitude to function, in many respects, independently of the nation as a whole. Thus, culturally speaking, Llívia is more of a Catalonian enclave than a Spanish enclave. (Times have changed since that first visit, by the way—the website is now also available in English, French, and yes, Spanish.) There’s now a popular movement pushing for Catalonian independence from Spain, which—if it ever takes off—could make Llívia’s status ambiguous once again.

Modern Llívia is scenic and quaint, known regionally for its annual music festival in August and a museum that contains Europe’s oldest pharmacy. You can stay in a three-star hotel and, during the colder months, enjoy good skiing nearby. If you happen to be passing through the Pyrénées, be sure not to miss it. (Helpful hint: going north, take the first right at Andorra and follow the signs…assuming you can figure out what language they’re in.)

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on June 12, 2006.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Carbon sequestration diagram

Greenhouse gas disposal techniques

By now, everyone is well aware of the atmosphere’s rising level of carbon dioxide (CO2), as well as the fact that this is increasing the average global temperature and causing climate change. While nations and corporations debate about whether or to what extent CO2 emissions can be reduced, it’s clear that at least a portion of that unwanted CO2 can be captured and liquefied (for example, as it’s produced by power plants and factories), preventing it from going into the atmosphere. Great, but then what? There’s way too much of it to just store it in giant tanks for eternity.

The process of storing carbon dioxide permanently in such a way that it cannot escape back into the atmosphere is known as carbon sequestration (or, sometimes, carbon dioxide sequestration). You may have heard the term in the news, but what does it really mean? Broadly speaking, there are two places one might put large quantities of unwanted carbon dioxide—in the oceans or underground. Techniques for getting the CO2 to its putative final resting place (and keeping it there) are in varying stages of development.

Ocean Storage

The world’s oceans already absorb unfathomable amounts of CO2; some researchers believe they could hold a great deal more with a little help. The upper part of the ocean typically has a fairly high concentration of CO2 (absorbed directly from the atmosphere), but at greater depths, the concentration is much lower. So one way to dispose of CO2 may be to inject it into deep ocean water. At depths over 3,000 meters or so, liquid or solid CO2 is denser than the surrounding water, meaning that it could sink all the way to the ocean floor. Closer to the surface, it would dissolve into the water, which wouldn’t be great because dissolved CO2 makes the water acidic, with detrimental effects on marine life. Liquid CO2 on the ocean floor may react with minerals there and form relatively harmless solid precipitates—or it may simply kill off organisms already living there. So it’s an idea, but not a risk-free one.

Geological Storage

Well, what about putting it in the ground? Merely burying CO2 is not good enough; in order for it to stay put, it has to be stored very deep in the ground, and somewhere that the gas cannot escape into the atmosphere. Some possibilities include:

  • Saline Aquifers: An aquifer is a porous layer of rock that holds a large quantity of water—often saltwater. Inject CO2 deeply enough into an aquifer, and the surrounding pressure keeps it in liquid form. Meanwhile, an impermeable layer of solid rock above prevents the gas from being released back into the atmosphere. Although aquifer storage is expensive, it is likely to have less impact on the environment than ocean storage—and the CO2 can remain safely underground, theoretically, forever.
  • Oil and Gas Reservoirs: If you can put carbon dioxide into an aquifer, you can also put it into a depleted gas or oil well. In fact, the technology to deliver CO2 into such wells has been in use for decades; pump CO2 into an oil well, for instance, and you can push out extra oil that would otherwise be unreachable. (Of course, that oil, when burned, will also contribute to CO2 overload, but the net effect should be positive.) As long as the CO2 is stored deep enough, it will remain as a liquid.
  • Coal Seams: Most of the world’s coal deposits are located too deep in the ground for mining to be practical. When CO2 is injected into coal seams, the coal absorbs the gas. Meanwhile, in a manner similar to enhanced oil recovery, the process also pushes out methane gas, which can be used as a fuel (again, one that puts back some greenhouse gases back in the atmosphere—three steps forward, two steps back).

And then, of course, there’s a natural CO2 storage apparatus: forests. Trees are incredibly effective at absorbing carbon dioxide and creating oxygen, so planting (or replanting) millions of acres of forest could go a long way toward solving the CO2 problem—no drilling or high-tech research required. This is not technically sequestration, as you wouldn’t manually inject previously collected carbon dioxide into a tree—but it does have essentially the same net effect.

Carbon sequestration is not a magic bullet—it will help, sure, but as long as we keep pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere, we’re still making the problem worse. Furthermore, although all the potential terrestrial CO2 storage spots show some promise, the safety, capacity, and long-term effectiveness of carbon sequestration is ultimately unknown. At best, it will address only a small portion of the atmospheric CO2 surplus; at worst, we may find that something we thought we buried comes back to haunt us. (If you want to be really sure carbon never escapes again, you could compress it all the way into diamonds. That’s possible, but requires too much energy to be feasible.)

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on December 17, 2004.

Image credit: LeJean Hardin and Jamie Payne – derivative work: Jarl Arntzen [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Interior of Crypt of Civilization

Museum in a time capsule

On July 4, 1976, bicentennial celebrations took place all over the United States. I was nine years old at the time, and along with my five-year-old sister, I went to a special gathering just a few doors down from our house near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A local funeral parlor, in a highly publicized event, was going to bury a time capsule (instead of a coffin) in a corner of its parking lot. Memorabilia from the community would be kept there until the capsule was unearthed, as I recall, 50 years later. Children were particularly urged to come, in order to sign a replica of the Declaration of Independence that would be included in the capsule. By the time my sister and I had made our way to the front of the crowd, the page was completely full, so someone brought out extra sheets of paper to hold the rest of the signatures. I remember being both excited to have my signature in a time capsule and annoyed that I had to sign a stupid blank piece of paper.

The capsule was filled with nitrogen to preserve its contents, buried, and covered with a small monument that included a plaque explaining what was inside and when it was to be opened. On a couple of occasions since then, I’ve visited that monument, which is now pretty dingy and largely forgotten. And I’ve thought to myself: Will anyone actually remember to dig this thing up in 2026? The people who buried it will be long gone. And who knows what will have happened to that property by then? If I’m alive and I show up for the disinterment, will I have to bring my own pickaxe? And if someone does remember, will we actually learn anything interesting from those 50-year-old artifacts?

Museum for the Future

The idea of burying something to be found by future generations goes way, way back. But the modern notion of a time capsule didn’t appear until at least the 19th century, if not more recently. The first serious attempt to preserve a large collection of information and artifacts for the distant future is also, to date, the most elaborate: the Crypt of Civilization, sealed in 1940 at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia.

The idea for the Crypt came to Oglethorpe University president Thornwell Jacobs in the 1920s, and he solidified it into a plan in 1936. Jacobs realized that the information left to us by ancient civilizations is spotty at best, and he wanted to do a favor for historians and archeologists of the future. So his idea was to collect a vast storehouse of information and objects representing all of human history to that point—including science, technology, entertainment, and every aspect of popular culture—and consolidate it into a multimedia museum, specially preserved for millennia.

While Jacobs was supervising the three-year collection process, his project got a lot of publicity, and similar (though smaller-scale) efforts began to spring up elsewhere. The Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company decided to create a torpedo-shaped container of artifacts to be buried during the 1939 World’s Fair (and opened 5,000 years later). They called their container a “time capsule,” and that term was soon adopted for nearly all such projects. All except the Crypt, that is—even though it was, in a way, the prototypical time capsule, its scope was so much larger that the word “capsule” wasn’t appropriate.

Pooling Resources

In fact, the Crypt is a room that was once a swimming pool. Located on the lower level of Oglethorpe University’s Phoebe Hearst Hall, it is a chamber measuring 20 feet long by 10 feet wide by 10 feet high (6 x 3 x 3 m). Because it was originally a pool, the bottoms and sides of the chamber were already waterproof. It rests on bedrock and has a thick layer of stone above it. In other words, the room will survive nearly any catastrophe outside. It underwent extensive renovations to further reinforce and seal it; and the most delicate items inside are hermetically sealed in specially designed containers. The chamber itself can be entered only through a heavy stainless steel door that was welded shut on May 25, 1940.

The Crypt contains many hundreds of items, from the sublime to the mundane. Among the contents are copies of over 800 books of all kinds, stored on both microfilm and metal plates; audio recordings; newsreels; a radio; electric light fixtures; games and toys; a typewriter; plastic samples; and a container of beer—to name just a few. There are microfilm readers and projectors; the archivists also thoughtfully included a wind-powered generator in case electricity is not available when the Crypt is opened. And—my favorite part—the first thing one will see on entering the Crypt is a machine to teach basic English, so that the rest of the materials can be understood even if English is long dead.

If you’re thinking that sounds like the Crypt was destined to be sealed for a long, long time, you’re absolutely right. Most time capsules are intended to be opened in 50 or 100 years. The Crypt of Civilization, however, is not “scheduled” to be opened until 8113. This seemingly arbitrary date was 6,177 years from the time the Crypt was designed in 1936—which was, in turn, 6,177 years from the first date for which we have historical records (4241 BCE, when the Egyptian calendar began). Thus, the Crypt should contain a fairly good record of the first half of human history as of the date it’s opened.

Pass It On

Considering how much the world has changed in the last 6,000 years, it would be foolish to assume that Hearst Hall, Oglethorpe University, or even the city of Atlanta will still be around when the Crypt is supposed to be opened. After so many generations, it would be quite surprising if someone actually knew the location and nature of the Crypt when the time came. As it is, the Crypt was all but forgotten just a few decades after it was sealed. In 1970, a student exploring an off-limits area of Hearst Hall with a flashlight came upon the mysterious sealed door. That student, Paul Hudson, later became a history professor and co-founded the International Time Capsule Society (ITCS) in 1990. The organization’s sole purpose is to track all the time capsules buried around the world and pass that information on to future generations, so that each one can be found and opened at the proper time.

The ITCS estimates there are about 10,000 time capsules buried worldwide, most of which are “lost”—that is, no one knows the capsules’ exact locations. I don’t know whether the bicentennial capsule with my signature in it is on their list; their registry is not available to the general public. Although I can understand that making information like this public might increase the likelihood of theft, it would also improve the odds that the time capsule will be remembered—and that is (or was), after all, the organization’s mission. However, I have some doubts about that mission’s likelihood of success. A note that appeared on their website in 2016 and is still there today says:

Note: Although the ITCS continues to accept time capsule registrations, it currently is not active.

What does “not active” mean for the future? Perhaps a history student centuries from now will stumble upon an old computer from the ITCS and somehow figure out how to extract its list of time capsules! I kid, but surely any effort to collect and maintain this information is better than nothing.

Meanwhile, Back at the Crypt

The people who bury a time capsule—since they usually will not be the ones to open it—must rely on the goodwill of future generations to follow their instructions as to when the capsule should be unearthed. There’s no authority that can ultimately prevent the people of, say, the year 3936 from opening the Crypt of Civilization if they feel like it—or if the instructions for when it should be opened have been lost. If history has shown us anything, it’s that buried treasure (even if the treasure is simply knowledge) has a habit of escaping.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on April 30, 2005.

Image credit: Oglethorpe University Archives. Used by permission.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day