Off the edge of world

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Own work, into the public domain.

Last week, a neat bit of robotic technology was brought out.  Of course, it is highly dependent on a suite of technologies that are all highly interdependent upon each other.  The original thought was to expand on this, but in ruminating on it a bit more, and pulling the proverbial zoom lens back, there was a realization that trying to talk about this or that finite resource or material doesn’t really convince people of much.  What does convince people?  Disasters.  Big, fat, hairy disasters.  Not just random snowstorms, earthquakes, or hurricanes, but big random events that impact the large swath of a country.   Mere human events, like wars, are bad enough.  Ones made by Nature, especially those that come with little to no warning are chilling in the uncompromising and all-encompassing effects that they have.

What is so striking about these events is that they seem to  be forgotten over the years, falling off the historical “edge of the world” with their reality safely tucked away in the pages of history books.   For North Americans, especially Americans on the wealthy coasts, there seems to be a neat ability to forget much of our natural history, and the large scale events that could wreak almost unimaginable havoc in our lives.

A recent article in the New Yorker about the Really Big One in the Northwest (which is overdue for a massive earthquake and tsunami by the rupture of the Cascadia fault) made me wonder about some of the large scale events that have impacted a good chunk of the planet.   Here’s a short list of some of the big events we’ve had over the past few hundred years; some have had small effects and others large, but the scale and size of these natural events are something most of us cannot even comprehend:

There have been other glitches; Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Super Storm/Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and numerous earthquakes in California may come to mind to some of you.  Yet in spite of the damage, loss of life, and economic impact, these regions did bounce back, and there was the rest of the country to pick up the slack.   This is not to downplay the severity of these events.  However, it is one thing to lose hundreds or a few thousand lives, and many billions in property damage and another to lose tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, and for property damage to go into the hundreds of billions or more.

The point to be made here is that many of these events had very little warning and huge worldwide impacts.   Some of these, like the Carrington event and the Cascadia fault events didn’t have much impact, because at the time, the infrastructure was relatively immune or population wasn’t large.  But had they happened today, in a populated and technologically complex area, their impact would be devestating.  As we’ve gotten used to a world which is more crowded, and more technologically dependent and complex, these sorts of things will one day make a very big dent in everyone’s world.

Questions:

  • How do you make people take notice of such things?  Some “primitive” (yes, that’s in quotes) tribes have oral histories that have been passed down so when certain events happen, they respond quickly.  Why do these stories get listened to, and others don’t?
  • Which of these seems like it might do the most damage to a modern American or European society?

 

 

 

 

 

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Neat tech

429px-Toyota_Robot_at_Toyota_Kaikan_02.jpg

This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at //commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Toyota_Robot_at_Toyota_Kaikan.jpg under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.

As much as there’s a waryness about too much technology, this bit about disabled folks using telerobotics to do useful things made me think that we might see some unique things down (and perhaps on) the road in our own lives.

In this “use case” devices are being controlled by people who can’t do physical things in the real world in cafes.  Driving trucks, running construction equipment; those and every other job that AI might take could be done by these folks, as the ZH article notes.  It is all dependent on high tech, high-speed communications, and other reliable infrastructure, of course, and that might not exist down the road.  More on this to follow.

 

 

The Sheep Look Up

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commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Ovis_aries#/media/File:Ewe_sheep_black_and_white.jpg ; By George Gastin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6663137

A few posts ago, it was asked “Who got it right?” with regard to predicting our current crazy situation.   After asking the same question to some science fiction aficionados, the title The Sheep Look Up, by John Brunner came up.  The book is a easy but disjointed read (per design); it has some of the same short blurbs that Twitter gives us, and has the random news that one might get off of Zero Hedge or a Reddit feed.   The precursor to this, Stand on Zanzibar is similar, and this is a nice bit of praise (from 2000):

Thirty years after its initial publication, Greg Bear praised Stand on Zanzibar as a science fiction novel that, unusually, has not become dated since its original appearance: “It’s not quite the future we imagined it to be, but it still reads as fresh as it did back in 1968, and that’s an amazing accomplishment!”

Another bit of accurate prediction came with a book Paris in the Twentieth Century, by none other than Jules Verne.  Although written in 1863, it was published in 1994, and has a good view of 1960.

It will be interesting to see who in our era predicts the future of 100 years from now.

 

 

A week with my precious

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commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/IPhone#/media/File:IPhone_2G_PSD_Mock.png by Justin14 CC BY-SA 3.0; ring image added

[A slightly shorter essay – travel has worn me out slightly…]

Circumstances of travel and technology had me borrow a smartphone for about a week of out-of-town travel.   At the same time, I figured I’d give the first book of Lord Of The Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring) a try, if only to have a bit more cross-cultural knowledge, given that there was some time for travel reading.

My take on the book and on the use of a smartphone was about the same – meh.  Yes, there were some neat features of the smartphone, and the LotR book was filled with description.  But for some reason, the entire smartphone world seemed so unappealing for the same way other baubles seem to transform the user.  Sitting at dinner, many people can’t pull themselves away from their comrades (or dates).  And as for LotR, well, maybe I’ve got to take another crack at it.

Questions:

  • How do we pull people away from their screens (smartphones, or otherwise)?  Another ‘app’ seems a bit like trying to give lower grade alcohol to alcoholics.  Yeah, it might work, but does seem a bit counter intuitive.
  • One good things about LotR is that got people to read.  For me, it does have that bit with Gollum and the ring, and cautionary tales are always needed.  What is a similar tale, set in the modern era, that shows how a powerful but ultimately destructive force can exist?   The Peak Oil story?
  • Does anyone else start asking questions about Lord Of The Rings like “How can this ecosystem work?”, or “How would magic work?” or “What does the rest of the world look like?”  Larry Niven has done some work in this area, with the concept of ‘manna’ so magical stories can have some basis.  And of course, fans have gone wild with this sort of thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

National emergency?

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(Based on commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Servicos_emergencia.JPG, in public domain)

An honest commentator tries to speak truthfully, and call out inconsistent or troubling behavior, from any part of the political spectrum.   The latest bit in the news was that the US President, a Republican, declared a national emergency over funding a border wall.  Agree or disagree, it is troubling for the same reason that imperial dictates of any kind are generally not a good idea; if this is permitted, it will be far easier for someone down the line to take the opposite tack.

If a Democrat or Independent is elected President in 2020, many “national emergencies” could be declared – ones on health care, gun violence, climate change, reproductive or civil rights.   As much as the US system (or any other representative democracy) can be maddening at times, it is maddening in generally a peaceful way.   And if the current president is re-elected in 2020, this sort of ‘government by emergency’ has the echoes of other times in history which haven’t ended well.

The saddest part of these sorts of antics, is that yes, there may be real emergencies.   And yes, immediate action sometimes needs to be taken.   But if this kind path is taken too lightly, by any part of the political spectrum, you can wind up with situations far worse than the original problem; a true ‘from the frying pan into the fire’ situation.

Questions:

  • What should we define as a true national emergency?
  • Given that the definition of a national emergency might be tricky to do, what might make a check on emergency powers?  The US has the War Powers Act for when the President commits troops; perhaps an Emergency Powers Act will need to be drafted?

 

 

And a pony!

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commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Ponies#/media/File:Chestnut_pony_with_flaxen.jpg, Public Domain

The recent Green New Deal put forth by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was quite the list.   Rebuilding and retrofitting buildings, phasing out air travel, guaranteed jobs; there were lots of far-reaching and sweeping proposals.  Of course, the pushback was immediate, from many quarters.   JHK had a sober critique of socialism that was put up yesterday that brought up the energy/entropy issue, and that WW2 style programs won’t be saving the day.

We can appreciate the promise and possibility of new ideas and bold proposals, but shouldn’t a reasonable fifth grader be on staff to ask simple questions like “who will pay for all this stuff?”, or more importantly “Is this even scientifically or logistically possible?”   It is curious why the plan, with all its pie-in-the-sky ideas, only lightly touched on some of the more reasonable courses of action (like a carbon tax), which seems a natural fit for figuring out how to actually pay for things and reduce carbon emissions. If you want to reduce the amount of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere, a carbon tax is probably the simplest and most equitable way to do that.  It would need coordination by all national governments, which would be tricky (an understatement, of course), but the concept doesn’t force any one particular solution as a silver bullet to our current predicament.  The good thing about a carbon tax is that actually might help people at the bottom of the economic ladder, and could be considered a type of Universal Basic Income (not that this is a good or bad thing, just pointing out that it could be a funding model that could actually work).

The idea of becoming an entirely 100% renewable and green economy sounds great, but to do this in a ten year time frame is wildly optimistic.  The Hirsch Report was written regarding the issue of Peak Oil, but the time frame of moving off of fossil fuels was more in the 20-30 year range, not ten.   A cursory inspection of the nation that had a New Deal, cranked out lots of aircraft and munitions for WW2, and put men on the moon finds that the “secret sauce” of those achievements was cheap and abundant domestic energy which we don’t have any more.   Economically, the amount of resources put into the war effort was substantial.  As far as the creation of the middle class, this was done after the war, when nobody was left standing (industrially) except the United States.

It’s been noted before, but well worth noting again – for a reality-based look at renewable energy, and what it can do (and can’t do), check out Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air.  Pass this on to everyone you know who talks/handwaves about this stuff, because it easily boils things down to numbers, and is written in a fashion that makes it easy to see if these ideas are reasonable.  Yes, some of the best solutions from that book are the same in the proposal by AOC and crew; electrifying transport (going to trains/trolleys); solar thermal and heat pumps (not ripping down buildings, but replacing their heating/cooling sources), but these are based on sound engineering principles, not on wishes (or wishful technology).

Questions:

  • If anyone recalls – the US stopped producing domestic autos for the duration of WW2 – could something as drastic happen again?
  • Given the size of the US budget, and what it is spent on, what would be cut from the current budget?

 

 

 

Self-driving side effects

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Waymo_self-driving_car_side_view.gk.jpg, CC-BY 4; four times

It’s been a tiny badge of honor that older members of my family have been saying things like “You know, [Peakfuture] is making a lot of sense…”  It’s not that these ideas have originated with me; it is simply that I’m less inclined to make small talk all the time, and try to get real issues out in front of everyone.   So, when this most recent tidbit of interest came across the interwebs, I had to smile:

UCSC Predicts Self-Driving Car Gridlock

Now, it is good to see something like my hunches backed up by data, but does this not surprise anyone?  Make something cheap and easy, and yes, there will be more of it.  In this case, more traffic, and more gridlock.

My own take on the self-driving car bit is that if they do actually come to pass, they will probably make commuting longer distances a great deal more attractive to people.     You won’t care about acceleration, since if it takes a minute to get up to highway speeds, you’ll be doing something else, so it may be that these self-driving platforms will become cheaper than automobiles in some regards (although the sensor packages might balance that out).  People who work in NYC might live anywhere in a one or two hour driving radius (check out this map tool), making the suburbs more attractive, and perhaps increasing gridlock to even more amazing proportions.   For places (like the NY metro area) that have a lot of commuter rail, it might increase the use of those services, as people might not mind the short jaunt to the station (where your car, or a rented car) might return home.  For other places (like the Boston metro area) it might even be that you’d want a self-driving van (so you could exercise on a treadmill or rowing machine), and then drive down from New Hampshire, up from Rhode Island, or places like Fall River.   Given that self-driving cars are being tested in warm weather states (since snow, fog, and rain are difficult to handle), we might first see these effects in warm places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or Phoenix.

In any scenario, this is going to put a lot of strain on the roads, and on other transport systems.  The opposite of efficiency is resiliency, and as efficient as these systems might seem to be, they will have a very large Achilles heel, and be far more prone to catastrophic failures, like every other modern system that exists.  Ever since the steam engine was made more efficient, practically every bit of technology that has been made better, has been used more.

Jevon’s Paradox.  It’s real.

Questions:

  • What other nifty inventions will have obvious or not-so-obvious side effects?
  • If someone comes up with a great idea or machine which makes things better/cheaper/faster (typically, you only get two of those), how can these things be limited so that Jevon’s Paradox doesn’t kick in?
  • Imagine the failure mode of the GPS network being hacked, or the cars themselves have been hacked.  How does everyone get home then?  How efficient is travel when a snowstorm makes self-driving cars difficult to navigate (and if many people have forgotten how to drive)?