Monthly Archives: February 2019

A week with my precious

iphone_ring.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.


  • 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?


(Based on, 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.


  • 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!

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).


  • 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, 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.


  • 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)?