Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Balance of Technology


In comments on the (relatively!) recent post on monarchy in SF/F I remarked on balance of technology as a key element of successful worldbuilding. Regular readers will not be surprised that the subject has come up before, explicitly so in Space Warfare XV: Further Reflections on Laserstars. (Three years ago - yikes!)

The particular example I gave there of 'unbalanced' technology came from a science fiction novel I once had, in which figured a World War II era heavy cruiser that had been refitted with smoothbore guns.*

This is something you probably do not want - unless you do want it, perhaps because (as in the book) you are dealing with a post-apocalyptic setting having a mix of surviving high-tech artifacts and the much more rudimentary technology that the survivors can contrive on their own.

Needless to say, 'unbalanced' technology has its own interest and appeal, which is one of the factors that has made the post-apocalyptic subgenre so popular. And, to get really pedantic - something this blog never fears to do - unbalanced technologies also have their own logical balance.

My personal guess, for example, is that people who could maintain a steam turbine power plant in operable condition would also be able to keep precision-machined guns in working order, and even provide ammunition and powder, if perhaps in limited supplies.

Likelier 'unbalanced' technologies might include sailing vessels with auxiliary motors available for limited use, and a limited, perhaps dwindling supply of modern weapons. Or drones with canvas wings on aluminum-tube frames, powered by lawn mower engines and controlled by smartphones.

What is not particularly likely, I think, is a simpler linear regress, such as steampunk-era ironclads (cool though they are). Building a 10,000 ton ironclad requires the ability to harness resources on a large scale, and a massive if unsophisticated industrial base. And anyone who has those things can systematically research more advanced technologies, especially if even a few artifacts have survived for reverse engineering.

Disclaimer and proviso: Of course the rule of cool trumps all these considerations, which is why post-apocalyptic futures tend to be heavy on punk rockers and motorcycles.


Which brings us back to balanced technologies. Alas, having brought you this far, I really don't have magic solutions to offer for keeping a futuristic setting's technologies in balance. The further you get from a souped-up present day, the less obvious it is what technologies should fit together neatly.

Does FTL imply that you 'should' also have torch drives for normal space operation? Or normal-space propulsion as demi-magical as FTL itself is? Or could a future starfaring civilization (linked on general principles) be using two-stage expendable rockets to get into orbit, and rendezvous with upper stages to get to wherever the jump points are?

In this case there are plausible (at least plausible-sounding!) arguments going both ways. On the one hand, FTL implies a revolution in fundamental physics, which ought to enable a whole range of new technologies involving pretty much every aspect of life. On the other hand, a century after Einstein, Newton still provides a pretty complete explanation of how our actual space propulsion technology works.

What I can say - unhelpful though it may be - that the general principle of balance of technology also applies to other aspects of the speculative subgenres of Romance. Other things equal, magic too should be in some kind of balance: If every hedge witch can work powerful spells (even if not always reliably), it is hard to then turn around and have magic effects be few and far between.

A bit more vaguely, I feel that this principle applies to social and political worldbuilding as well - suggesting that it is a bit problematic to project agrarian-age institutions such as feudalism or the Roman Empire into a post-industrial future.


On a more cheerful note - from a writer's perspective, not necessarily that of your characters - the balance of technology is dynamic, not static. No small part of the entertainment value of the 16th century is that its technology was in rapid transition, as indeed was its broader culture. Early-modern tropes, such as royal musketeers, existed alongside medieval tropes such as knights in full armor.

And in an encounter it is not always a given that the more 'modern' combination would prevail. The same is broadly true in any era of rapid technological and social change.

Discuss:





* Does this story element ring a bell with anyone? As I recall, the book (which probably dates back to the 70s, at least) also had an attempt to launch a space ark, which did not end well.



The image, from a site called damngeeky.com, is described as a post-apocalyptic PC case mode. To me it looks more like a steam powered laser. And no one should be surprised that most Google Images under 'post-apocalyptic technology' involve punk rockers, motorcycles, or both.



326 comments:

1 – 200 of 326   Newer›   Newest»
Jim Baerg said...

"could a future starfaring civilization be using two-stage expendable rockets to get into orbit?"

Even if the physics revolution that makes FTL possible doesn't allow eg: antigravity, the resulting greater space traffic would make hypersonic skyhooks, laser launching, or Lofstrom Loops, economically feasible where they aren't today.

I still rather like this suggestion I made for a technology combination that *looks* unbalanced, but makes sense in the circumstances. However, this or this look plausible enough that I now think my 'no petroleum subsitute' scenario to be unlikely.

Gyalogtank said...

IMHO the balance of technology is dependent on one single factor: Maintenance. Imagine a tribe of Masai flying a jet plane. They can do it until the kerosene lasts, but as the fuel runs out, it's over. But let's assume that they find some way to keep it going, or the technological artifact does not need refueling: At the moment the first part malfunctions, they have no way of repairing it. So any civilization using long forgotten archeotech for long is simply impossible. What they can not manufacture, they simply can not use.

However the manufacture does not have to take place everywhere equally. Consider the arab countries, they use cars, computers, and almost everything else which they can not manufacture themselves, however they can easily buy these from other countries that manufacture them. These settings need extensive interplanetary trade to work, but it is entirely possible, that a newly founded colony buys two fission reactors, and a heap of spare parts, which will last them for a hundred years, and simply produces the uranium needed as fuel, which is much-much easier than building a reactor itself. If they track spare parts, any purchase could be arranged years in advance, and a critical malfuncion will likely only damage one of the reactors, they can scrape by using the other until the replacement arrives.

But the civilization portrayed in the post-apocalyptic genre is simply a transitional state, it will last only for a few years, until they either rebuild factories, or plunge back into the middle ages.

Grognak said...

I'd say the key concept is coherence, and applies to technology and to its effects on the economy, society and politics.

For example, if the world you are creating has electricity (which allows cheap aluminium) and combustion engines or something similar but not airplanes, you are going to need a very good reason to explain why. If it is your average post apocalyptic environment and you want rockers with motorcycles in it, you need to explain how do they get fuel, spares and tires (and zippers for their leather jackets, indigo and cotton for their jeans, etc) and last but not least, who's maintaining a road network in PostApocaliptia and why. If it has steam power, it has to include cheap books and newspapers, and the social changes that go with them, mass alphabetization, popular politics, famous novelists, publicity, suffragism, etc, etc.

But even more interesting is the opposite. If your world is like the real world it needs to include feasible technologies that are not developed, not used, or used only very rarely. Things like gas warfare in the 1900s and 2000s, analytical engines in the 1800s, or long distance navigation in the 1400s (crossing the Atlantic was in all probability doable in 1400, but circumnavigating Africa to India certainly was doable centuries before!)

Just to put an example, a world in which crossbows and fire weapons are known technologies but despised and generally not used is perfectly conceivable. We have several similar examples; poison gas is the obvious one, but Tokugawa Japan managed to suppress fire weapons after they had been widely used for decades (i.e. technology used impacts society... but society impacts technology use!)

Mukk said...

I think you can avoid the worst of the problem by thinking through the consequences of any technologies you create. For example, teleporters are a SCI-FI thing. If you include Star Trek style teleporters then you'd better not include any standard fire missiles. People will ask why the missiles aren't teleported as a firing mechanism.

If you avoid that level of conflict you can hand wave the other stuff as random chance. Scientists may have made a breakthrough on replicating nanobots but not yet figured out FTL or advanced fusion. That's fine. You just say that scientists happened to get lucky on the one in this timeline and not the other two.

Grognak said...

Mukk's post made me consider another point: there are technologies that seem very promising but aren't developed because they demand extremely high initial investments, that's a given and I'm sure every reader here can think of at least six or seven examples, space based solar power to name but one.

However, we have at least one such technology we have developed in spite of an extremely high initial investment and other problems. It's nuclear, both bombs and reactors.

If we imagine a world in which Nazis never became important (the Great Depression was milder, or the Treaty of Versailles wasn't so humiliating, whatever) Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner could still discover nuclear fission but without the war getting money to develop atomic technologies would be almost impossible, getting anything like the scientific talent of the Manhattan Project, completely impossible. Even worse, research would swiftly uncover the dangers of radiation and atomic waste. Scientists could still be trying to build an 'atomic pile' while skeptics laugh and say 'Atomic energy has been, is now, and forever will be the power source of the future'.

Thom S said...

I'll second the call to think through technological speculations before including them in stories.

As an example - I once had an idea for a story based around the effects of a limited anti-gravity drive invented in the early 1900's. Essentially, the drive would take in a fixed amount of energy and then produce anti-gravitons (or whatever) which result in a distance-dependent dampening of gravity around the device.

This lead to lots of productive speculation about flying buildings and mile-high skyscrapers, until I realised that you could use the effect to create unlimited energy by simply sticking the device to one side of a giant flywheel. Whoops.

Part of the fun of speculation is in working out implications. Unfortunately, your potential audience will probably be doing the same so fudging must be justified enough to be overlooked.
Here it might (as Rick mentioned) be interesting to look at cases where different tech. levels existed alongside each other.

Finally, it should be remembered that (as has already been discussed around these parts) the transition state between one technology/mode of life/social system is often the most interesting in terms of setting.
Unfortunately, the historical inhabitants of such eras have always had trouble identifying them as such. By that logic, we may ourselves be in the middle of some great, unseen transition that will only become apparent to future generations and will also serve to make our own speculations about the future seem naive and short-sighted.

Bill said...

Just a minor nitpick, but instead of referring to smoothbore canons, you might want to refer to them as black powder canons. There are some quite advanced smoothbore canons used in modern militaries (The 120mm gun on the M1 tank for example).

Jim Baerg said...

Grognak:
I could equally well see your scenario of 'no WWII so no Manhattan project' helping the peaceful uses of nuclear power.

Building a rudimentary reactor like Fermi's Chicago Pile or ZEEP is trivially easy compared to building a nuclear bomb. So with no WWII somemthing of the sort would have been built by the late 1940s & soon thereafter been used to make artificial radioactives, eg: Co60 to replace radium in cancer therapy. Initially the heat from the isotope production reactors would just be dumped or used to heat buildings near the reactor, but a power production reactor using natural uranium for fuel and graphite or heavy water for moderation would be built within a few decades. Nobody would bother developing enrichment without the pressure to build a bomb.

Without the wartime pressure nuclear exploives could remain a merely theoretical possibility for a long time.

How this would help nuclear power is that, while there would be people with ideological or financial reasons to spread FUD about nuclear power as in our time line, they wouldn't have the nuclear weapons stick to beat nuclear power with.

Mangaka2170 said...

Another argument against technological symmetry based on practicality: in Firefly, there are the core worlds (which have access to all the advanced technology available to humanity because they develop and manufacture it), and you have the rim worlds that had just been terraformed and settled. The rim worlds tend towards a wild west or Amish manner of living because they have no practical use for most advanced technologies because they don't have much more than the basics (an automobile requires quite a lot of infrastructure to support; roads, refueling stations, repair and maintenance facilities, etc. while a horse needs practically none of that, and is further capable of producing more of itself through breeding). In between the core and rim worlds, however, are the border worlds that tend to have an idiosyncratic mix of the two lifestyles. Since all trade has to be done through spaceships, anything that can't be supported on the planet itself is typically not used unless circumstances on the planet itself require them (I would assume that access to the FTL communications network called the "cortex" in-universe qualifies).

Geoffrey S H said...

I once tried to think about the effects of certain handwavium technological discoveries a few months ago. It began with sketching out the ability to manipulate gravity and gravity wells to get fusion power (create a steep gravity well for a small "sun" to fit in a reactor casing), and led onto tractor beams, "tractor beam engines" that work in a way similar to jet engines or propellers, and ended up with the ability to bounce beams off each other via gravity wells to send beams round corners, and then send nano-bots on those beams as part of small surgery or rescue work in a collapsed building. Did the same with rocketry ("what if we somehow develop more powerful propellants and lighter materials for better rockets?") and ended up with lighter aircraft, micro-missiles and very large ships. Put 'em all together and you have very large aircraft with the ability to hover and pull containers into their cargo bays whilst supporting their mass over a large area with tractor beams, then flying off to their destination. I did make sure these things were in the prototype stage long before someone made full use of them in my timeline, however.

Anonymous said...

An interesting point about different levels of technology due to location/time of development: newer colonies/communities may only have the most basic of support/industrial infrastructure, while older, more established areas might have a complexity of capabilities more like our own. An example: Titan, at the end of the 22nd century, may have several domed city-states around the shores of its southern sea. These communities have grown from small scientific outposts over the last century into self-sustaining centers of industry and agriculture. Around the northern lakes, several newer settlements have been built, and adventious people go there to seek their fortunes or simply to gain a large chunk or real estate for cheap. These newer communities are bare-bones types; tunnels carved under the ground or into the sides of mountains, with only the minimum life support and power. The new settlers can bring what they are able, to make whatever living they can. These new settlements would probably be analogues to mining camps or whatever the southern city-states may need in the way of resources. You now have an unbalanced technology in what is essentially one civilization.
Another example: A new, revolutionary breakthrough in technology, with an initially limited application, would have many people and corporations scrambling to both explote the initial application, as well as fierce compitition to find broader applications for this new breakthrough. Say this new breakthrough was FTL (that didn't automatically cause time paradoxes); how best to use it? does it have broader applications? Can it be used for communication? Computing? Teleportation? A story about finding what can and can't be done with the new technology would be challenging, but it could be fun.

Ferrell

Kyle Allen said...

Another thing to consider would be simple socioeconomic inequality among the colonies and their sponsor nations. Strictly speaking, we can already see real-world examples of unbalanced technologies in places like the Philippines or Indonesia, where an enormous peasant class has to do without electricity or running water, lacks access to even basic services and basically lives a mid 19th-century lifestyle... then suddenly you go over a bridge somewhere and run into a McDonalds and an Apple Store.

To extrapolate into a sci-fi context, it would be a bit like some asteroid belt colony suddenly having a pirate problem when Weyland Yutani lays off all the minors on Vesta and the pissed-off minors grab space ships, some shotguns and some old Colt .45s and decide to do some commerce raiding. At least until the military gets involved, you wind up with a conflict in which civilian spacecraft -- owned by people who cannot really afford effective anti-ship weaponry -- are getting into "Pirates of the Carribean" slugfests that involve space ships closing to a couple hundred meters with crewmembers in EVA suits firing RPGs at each other, trying to repel borders with shotguns and bolt-action rifles.

This scenario could even be feasible in the case of relatively powerful torchships, especially in an environment where full-blown military weapons would be both highly expensive and tightly regulated; the Planetary Alliance may have battlecruisers armed with bomb-pumped x-ray lasers and torpedoes with thermonuclear warheads that can track you down and kill you from five light seconds away, but Captain Joe's debris retrieval ship is armed with a flaregun, some pistols, and an AK-47. With growing pirate trouble in the belt, he might invest in a grenade launcher or a couple of old mortar tubes, or he might get creative and rig an old pipe and a compressed air tank to spit demolition charges at 500 meters per second.

Technologies only balance if people have the money and a good reason to invest in a wider range of technologies. There are many cases where people have neither a reason nor the money to do so.

Thom S said...

In regards to firefly and the Wild North (of Titan), these could both be seen as transitional - twenty to 100 years later and the imbalance will have been ironed out by development. Which just goes to show that a stable, peaceful and prosperous existence makes for poor storytelling.

The firefly example brings up something else - the retention of 'obsolete' technologies (horses) because they are more suited to their environment than 'higher' tech.
An example which I'm fond of is the side-by-side use of early firearms and existing ranged weapons, which persisted in places (West Africa) for a very long time. One of the results (especially when the Portuguese got involved) was a crazy mix of weaponry* being used along with such refinements as extensive field fortifications (trench warfare) and naval gunfire support.

*Short bows with poisoned arrows, muskets, throwing spears, shields, leather armour, chain mail, plate armour, stabbing spears, swords of all kinds, axes, clubs, cavalry, light artillery, galleons and war canoes.

Hugh said...

One way to get unbalanced technology in space would be for humanity to discover either Frederik Pohl's Gateway or a Babylon 5 jumpgate in the inner solar system.

FTL travel ... and no idea how it actually works. We'd be able to explore the galaxy with Apollo class spacecraft.

Grognak said...

@Jim Baerg

A very plausible scenario if enough funds could be raised to build and maintain an atomic pile. How much money did cost Fermi's Chicago Pile? I'll confess I haven't got the slightest idea. Perhaps it was a relatively cheap project (it was small and simple enough to be built by hand, after all) but then again I don't know if ultrapure graphite - for example - was even available in 1940, never mind its price.

Cambias said...

I actually find tech mismatch kind of entertaining. I love reading old SF adventures with interstellar travelers who carry revolvers (and was delighted to learn that energy density issues mean that space travelers probably will pack a trusty Colt instead of a blaster).

There are several technologies which could show up much earlier than they did in history -- Napoleon or even Louis XIV could have employed poison gas, and I don't know any reason why the Romans or the Qin Dynasty couldn't have built hot-air balloons.

I recently sold an SF novel set about half a century in the future, with the only "handwavium" being an interstellar FTL drive. Everything else is still real-world space technology.

Brett said...

RE: Rick

I think it's easy to imagine an FTL civilization where any rocketry beyond short-range chemical rockets is not well-developed. If it's more cost-effective to "jump" over distances longer than a few tens of thousands of kilometers, why bother?

In fact, if you can fit that FTL stage on to the top of an expendable two-stage rocket, then you could get a whole ton of manned and unmanned space exploration without any significant permanent space presence. Imagine being able to send manned missions to Jupiter with that type of technology, or other stars.

@Grognak

I'll have to second Jim on conventional nuclear power. It's very different from fusion, where just getting it to generate power was and is an immense struggle. You could build a fusion reactor at home if you had access to the right type of enriched material, although you'd be crazy to do it without proper shielding.

My guess is that it would be even -more- widespread than it is in real life. A lot of the general anti-nuclear opposition came from a convergence of fear over nuclear armageddon and the rise of the environmental movement.

Then again, I think the spread of nuclear weapons would rapidly escalate after the first nation tests one, although the time period leading up to that would be prolonged. Ideas for nuclear weapons were going around in the 1930s.

Brett said...

EDIT: Sorry, "Fission reactor", not "Fusion Reactor."

Brett said...

I do wonder, though, if a more gradual lead-up to the development of nuclear weapons might make arms restrictions on them easier to get. They might be more tactically oriented, with delivery mechanisms aside from those used to destroy potential invading armies banned.

BruceJohnJennerLawso said...

Well, I finally get a chance to comment on one of these blogs.

It strikes me that maybe the arguments about balancing technology in a setting aren't really as valid as they might seem.

Just because history as we know it unfolded in the way that it did, there really isnt any reason to assume that alternate history, or even an alien one would unfold in the same way as it did here.

For example, consider what history might have looked like if the political situation and the discovery of nuclear fission had happened at different times. When fission was discovered in the 1930s and matured in the 40s, it was employed as a weapon because that was the most important issue of the day. BUT, consider this: What would the use of nuclear power have looked like if it was discovered a few decades earlier, like during the middle of the industrial revolution. The engineers and politicians of that era might have seen it as simply the next step after fossil fuels, and use of nuclear fission as an energy source would have been developed far more than nuclear weapons. Its not that big of a shift in the story for a writer to make, but the implications for world-building are huge.

Teleros said...

A classic example of the high/low tech divide in the same setting must be Warhammer 40,000. Imperial Guardsmen have to make do with double-digit-MJ flashli- erm, lasguns, even though far more powerful weapons exist.

On the other hand, said Imperial Guard has to have very reliable weapons (which its lasguns are), that are also very easy to use (often by feral conscripts etc). And given the way FTL travel works in the setting, standardising everything across the whole Imperium is effectively impossible (never mind the Imperium's messed up society etc).

Compare that to the Star Wars Galactic Empire, with its (very) high speed FTL, strong central government and, for lack of a better phrase, well-established nature: a stormtrooper is a stormtrooper is a stormtrooper, wherever they come from and wherever they fight.

Anonymous said...

Victorian era nuclear power; sounds a little like a premiss for a Steam Punk story, and an interesting one at that! I like "The Wild North" of Titan! Thanks Thom!

Ferrell

Thucydides said...

Some of the balance has to do with the culture of the setting. I have made this point before, the Romans were quite capable of building light duty atmospheric and steam engines in the 1rst century AD, and were in possession of the crank mechanism (using it to convert rotary waterwheel motion into linear motion to power saws, for example).

So they had most of the physical elements for an industrial revolution, but in the real world considered engines, clocks and the like to be clever mechanical toys, and so only exploited these devices as "special effects" in temples (automatic door openers are described in texts dating to this time) and clever toys.

WRT other settings, for the most part the "rule of cool" is indeed in effect; if getting gasoline was so difficult, why does the Lord Humungous traverse the desert in a fleet of cars and dune buggies looking for it? (The Road Warrior). While it may be more realistic for the Road Warrior's barbarians to be pushing a few dirt bikes along by hand (for use when it will give them surprise or an uncontested edge), you can hardly set up the conditions for a massive car chase and battle on the roads with this sort of background.

Transitions between eras, cultural zones and so on do provide the fertile ground for story telling. You can look at a few series that were on TV recently, one where the McGuffin was that some mad scientist had managed to eliminate electrical power on Earth, and a more recent one where the Earth seems to have been taken over by aliens who randomly terraformed portions of the planet for reasons of their own (I don't watch TV on a regular basis, so can't even think of the titles off hand. If My descriptions seem out to lunch, that is why).

Anonymous said...

Thucydides, The shows are "Revolution" (that I think are losely based on S.M. Stirlings' novels "Dieing of the Fire" if I remember right); and "Defiance" is on SyFy, and you pretty much nailed it. Insidentally, the "Defiance" story line is linked to an online game; the two affect each other. Anyway, both of those examples are good ones for unbalanced tech.

Ferrell

Cambias said...

It occurs to me that this kind of tech imbalance has been a feature of the real world for about two or three centuries now. In the technologically advanced societies, there's always something new coming along, disrupting existing arrangements -- we just think of that as "normal" ever since the Industrial Revolution.

Meanwhile outside those societies, there is a constant weird juxtaposition of imported high-tech with traditional devices. The most vivid right now is the African cell phone system, which allows people who are conducting pre-industrial subsistence farming to use smartphones.

When we see "strange" tech mixes we're just seeing ones which aren't familiar in 21st-century America.

H said...

Hello.

Well. I would suggest these technological imbalances are a feature of the developed world too.
In consumer electronics, it has become common to replace every gadget as soon as the next version arrives.

But that is not the case with infrastructure, and large equipment. The US has an early 20th century electrical grid, and a highway and airport system that is 50 years old. Meanwhile, Its air force operates 50 year old bombers, tankers and recon planes and its navy designs its ships for in order to last half a century. So yes, 21st century technology is being used and mixed together with technologies that are almos a century old.

H said...

I think it is also important to consider social, political and economical conditions that may accelerate or slow technological progress in scientifically and technically advanced societies.
Today, our society is in some cases readopting "traditional" manufacturing and agricultural systems, just because (without any apparent reason) they are seen as better.

Thucydices, speaks about how close the Grecoroman world was to an industrial revolution.
The steam turbine, the Aeolipile, and steam powered temples where invented in Greek Alexandria, the Antikythera mechanism wouldn´t be surpassed until the renaissance. And ancient greece had a mathematical knowledge.
But nothing of this was ever used to perform any kind of physical work.
The reason, might be that it didn´t make economic sense. Physical work was done by slaves in a much cheaper and much more effective way than any early machine could have done.

The final example refers to the far east. China and Japan were large and technologically advanced societies ind the middle ages. But complete centralization of political power resulted in intentional technological stagnation in order to avoid disruptions in political power that come with change. Among others, advanced shipbuilding was banned by Chinese emperors, while Japanese shoguns banned gunpowder and western knowledge.

These kind of situations have resulted in cases where advanced and primitive technology coexist for longer periods of time.

Just some humble thoughts.

Damien Sullivan said...

"advanced shipbuilding was banned by Chinese emperors, while Japanese shoguns banned gunpowder and western knowledge"

The shoguns banned unregulated contact with the West. They studied Western knowledge, or "Dutch learning", a lot. "Rangaku". Banning guns was gun control, after they'd used guns to establish power.

Not sure about shipbuilding, but Mann's _1493_ made it sound as if the Ming "banning of trade" was less a withdrawal from the world and more of a state attempt to monopolize trade, one that only lasted 50 years anyway. As for stopping the treasure fleets... they weren't profitable. Much like manned space missions.

***

Technology mixes: Japan had the first bullet trains and has e-mail happy cell phones... and still uses fax machines a lot, and reportedly has little home insulation or central heating, even in 'Western' style homes, despite rather cold winters.

The US is advanced in lots of ways, but lacks the giro, a simple European system for pushing money to other people; is behind on electronic banking; and has laughably slow and expensive broadband. (Not to mention passenger trains, which have actively regressed.)

Thom S said...

Cambias, H and co:

The cellphone thing goes deeper then that - its actually being used to leapfrog some other techs. So these African farmers have access to better cellphone banking than the developed world. This is also the reason why places like Kenya are undergoing something of a revolution in terms of IT: lots of apps are being produced that the rest of the world will never see because they work on Nokia 3310's.

This was brought home to me when I visited Japan recently and found that the internet was great but that banking was a nightmare - no carding facilities and the ATMs physically lock themselves down after work hours.

It all makes me wonder what other stuff I consider normal that is well ahead of/well behind other parts of the world.


H said...

Damien Sullivan:

Yes the treasure fleets were never profitable, but Chinese emperors were keen to avoid all trade they could not control. And acted against maritime commerce on several occasions:

The century before Zheng He's voyages, the Ming emperors, in an attempt to stop piracy, imposed a ban on all oceangoing activities (the Haijin edicts). This of course had the result of turning many honest fishermen and traders into pirates.
In the decades after the treasure fleets where dismantled, all oceangoing ships, government and privately owned, were destroyed and the construction of new ones was forbidden.
And during the 17th century, in order to combat Ming sympathizers, the Qing dynasty ordered the evacuation by force of several coastal cities.

Just as an example of how a strong centralized political power can, willingly or not, completely stop technological in one or more areas.

Tony said...

I'm kind of surprised nobody has mentioned the WW2 German army. It was between 10 and 20 percent mechanized (depending on the year) and 80 to 90 percent horse-drawn. (Yes, the infantry divisions did have motor vehicles, but their artillery units and supply columns were horse-drawn, making the divisions effectively horse-drawn.) And all WW2 armies were rail-dependent for sustained supply needs. (Yes, even the Western Allies, who rode the French rail system to victory, after the initial Normandy breakout halted on the German border.)

--------------------------------

WRT passenger rail in the US, its collapse was due to the widespread availability of personal vehicles for travel over a few hunded miles (which is the market that keeps passenger rail in Europe and Asia alive). For long distances, most people everywhere fly now anyway. IOW, there's nothing backward about Americans -- just different economic circumstances.

Noclevername said...

Hello. I've been enjoying Rocketpunk Manifesto for about a year and thought this was a good time to join in the fun.

"The Balance Of Technology" is an example of coincidental great timing. I just started working on an alternate-history story literally the day before reading it. The article addresses many of the issues I'm interested in, like timelines where technology developed differently or under different circumstances.

Does anyone know of technologies, concepts, inventions, devices, machines or lines of development that worked, but for one reason or another just never gelled or became widespread? You can include "modern" industrial-era tech; for example if thorium became the predominant fission fuel instead of uranium, or the OTRAG rocket system that worked a little too well and was deliberately quashed to prevent Third World nations from getting ballistic-missile potential.

Cambias said...

Supersonic commercial aircraft are probably the best-known example of a recent technology which got shelved for political/economic reasons. The Concorde had the bad luck to come into use right in the middle of the 1970s "energy crisis" and the first wave of the environmental movement. The combination scared airlines away from ordering supersonic airliners.

Without large orders to lower the cost, the plane stayed very pricey, which meant that fares stayed high, which meant nobody ordered any . . . and eventually the British and French governments got sick of funding it. Once the Giant Airbus gave the President of France a cooler ride to international meetings, the Concorde was bound for the museum.

Byron said...

I'd question the theory that nuclear weapons wouldn't have been developed without World War 2. Going into the war, it was believed that air power would end conflicts. Nuclear weapons are a logical extension of that idea, and would be developed, although more slowly. And remember that states are, at their core, paranoid, and will develop them just in case someone else does. As to reactors without bombs, I don't think that's likely. The two are fairly intimately tied together.

For technologies that were shelved due to political reasons, the two examples I can think of are Mach 3+ flight and the rotodyne. The B-70 would have had significantly better performance than the SR-71, and it was cancelled because of poor strategic thinking on McNamara's part. If that hadn't been shut down, we might well have Mach 3 airliners. Mach 3+ is a rather different environment than lower supersonic speeds, which would make air travel at that level far more efficient.
I'm not entirely sure why the rotodyne was killed off. It's a brilliant idea, tiltrotor performance without the complexity and cost. Sadly, British politicians of the day were deeply stupid and shut it down.

Vershner said...

I'm surprised no one's mentioned that other steampunk staple - airships.

If the Nazis hadn't come to power, the Zeppelin company would have been able to purchase helium from the US, and so the Hindenburg disaster would not have happened.

Airships certainly had plenty of other problems, more were lost to bad weather than hydrogen explosions, but those disasters were similar to those that happen to ships and winged aircraft. People were used to those and the danger would have lessened as navigation, aerodynamics, meteorology, and engine power improved.
Also, crucially, the Hindenburg disaster was filmed.

Obviously winged aircraft would have continued to advance, but without WWII that advancement would have been slower. It's easy to imagine that airships could have maintained a role in freight and luxury travel. Possibly other more specialised roles too, such as construction, surveillance, sight-seeing, communications...


Byron said...

Vershner:
If the Nazis hadn't come to power, the Zeppelin company would have been able to purchase helium from the US, and so the Hindenburg disaster would not have happened.
If the Nazis hadn't come to power, I don't think the Hindenburg would have happened.

Airships certainly had plenty of other problems, more were lost to bad weather than hydrogen explosions, but those disasters were similar to those that happen to ships and winged aircraft. People were used to those and the danger would have lessened as navigation, aerodynamics, meteorology, and engine power improved.
The problem is that an airship is inherently worse at almost everything than a winged aircraft. It's slower, more fragile, far more vulnerable to bad weather (which is compounded by lack of speed), and more expensive to build and operate. It was never going to be a mainstay, and even a lack of the Hindenburg disaster wouldn't change that. The Zeppelin company might be running today, but only as the air-going equivalent of a cruise line. A good parallel might be RMS Queen Mary.

Obviously winged aircraft would have continued to advance, but without WWII that advancement would have been slower.
Only a little bit. Most of the theoretical background existed prewar.

It's easy to imagine that airships could have maintained a role in freight and luxury travel. Possibly other more specialised roles too, such as construction, surveillance, sight-seeing, communications...
Not sure why you'd see freight as a viable role. A 747 has broadly similar payload to the Hindenburg, and it's faster. Luxury might happen, but only as a really exotic thing. Construction might be a real possibility, but it seems cheaper to just use helicopters and land transport. There have been lots of schemes to use airships, and none of them have been successful. Surveillance is something they're already used for in some areas, but it appears that aircraft are cheaper.

BruceJohnJennerLawso said...



I assume that you were directing that at me eh? ;)

Just to clarify, I also think that Atomic weapons would have been developed, but I suspect that the use of Atomic fission as a weapon first, then as a power source has probably been detrimental to the latter use. People learned to fear the technology before they could appreciate it, and economic considerations have always been #2 to security ones in the nuclear power industry. If the industrial application had come first, it might have had enough time to get firmly ingrained into society, suffer an accident or two to learn from, & never lose control of the market to relatively backwards technologies like oil & coal. The 19th century was relatively peaceful after the Napoleonic Wars, so the Nuclear power industry might never have received a thought as a weapon from all of those military men who had never fought an actual war...


Small note: Sorry about my URL link coughing up a 404. I tried to link it to my homepage on the http://www.orbiter-forum.com/ , but it didnt like the link when logged out. If you want to contact me, just find the user by name of BruceJohnJennerLawso on those forums. Sorry for any confusion.

Byron said...

BruceJohnJennerLawso:
I assume that you were directing that at me eh? ;)
Sort of at the general consensus. I wasn't sure exactly who brought it up.

Just to clarify, I also think that Atomic weapons would have been developed, but I suspect that the use of Atomic fission as a weapon first, then as a power source has probably been detrimental to the latter use. People learned to fear the technology before they could appreciate it, and economic considerations have always been #2 to security ones in the nuclear power industry.
That's not exactly true. People didn't learn to fear it until the 60s, when they were told that nuclear power could become like nuclear weapons. It didn't help that nuclear weapons were going out of style at the time, but if you get me discussing nuclear strategy, we'll be here all day.

The 19th century was relatively peaceful after the Napoleonic Wars, so the Nuclear power industry might never have received a thought as a weapon from all of those military men who had never fought an actual war.
This doesn't follow. If anything, peace would mean the more extreme air power advocates had no experience to temper their views. They'd have even more confidence in the efficacy of atomic weapons, and want them all the more.

Brett said...

@H


Don't over-rate this technology. The Greeks and later Romans figured out some clever ways to use steam, but they were still far less efficient and useful at generating usable "work" than even the Newcomen Steam Engine in the early 18th century. More specifically, the Romans lacked the capability to do precision casting of steel/iron to make pistons and other machine parts, and that type of ancillary technology is what really made steam power useful in the industrial revolution (along with water power - many of the early factories in the US and Great Britain were elaborate water-powered machinery).

And it's not known whether anyone in that time period ever built an Aeoliphile.

The reason, might be that it didn´t make economic sense. Physical work was done by slaves in a much cheaper and much more effective way than any early machine could have done.

Sort of, but not entirely the truth. The Romans could and did adopt new technologies, and they did make use of some machines on a large scale. The Barbery and Janiculum water mill complexes are examples of that.

@Tony
WRT passenger rail in the US, its collapse was due to the widespread availability of personal vehicles for travel over a few hunded miles (which is the market that keeps passenger rail in Europe and Asia alive).

Transcontinental passenger travel was never really profitable, although it usually at least paid for the operating costs before the spread of passenger air travel and automobiles.

Passenger rail does still have some niches in the US, even if they're few and far between. The Northwest Corridor is profitable, or would be if Amtrak wasn't forced to operate a whole ton of unprofitable lines elsewhere. It's a real pity the whole thing got nationalized, since it means that we couldn't get a gradual climb-down in passenger rail to what is profitable - if Congress ever faces reality and cuts off the money, a whole ton of passenger lines will just go down very quickly.

As for technology that might have been used earlier if conditions had been different - think telecommunications. Tim Wu wrote a good book about how state-enforced monopolization in various telecommunications industries (radio, television, telephones) retarded the implementation and use of a lot of new technologies for years.



H said...

Brett:

True. Such early machines where very inefficient in generating usable work.
While precise working of iron and steel was not available, the ancient greeks where very capable of producing precision machinery of copper, as the Antikythera Mechanism proves, although it was more of a handmade process rather than an industrial one.

But the greater picture is that greek and roman societies failed to continue the development of the technologies they developed. There is no indication that they saw the importance of technological improvement and tried to encourage it, much less to apply it.

And yes, there where some examples of roman factories like the Barbery and Janiculum water mills. But these examples are the exception rather than the norm, demonstrating that the romans where perfectly capable of using water-powered mills at least with the same frequency as was done in medieval times, but failed to do it.

And there are multiple examples of less impressive tools, most of which where invented by slaves, since they where the ones benefiting if work became easier, whose use didn´t never spread far beyond its place of origin.

Vershner said...

Byron:
If the Nazis hadn't come to power, I don't think the Hindenburg would have happened.
Why? The airship industry was well established in Germany before 1933.


The problem is that an airship is inherently worse at almost everything than a winged aircraft. It's slower, more fragile, far more vulnerable to bad weather (which is compounded by lack of speed), and more expensive to build and operate. It was never going to be a mainstay, and even a lack of the Hindenburg disaster wouldn't change that. The Zeppelin company might be running today, but only as the air-going equivalent of a cruise line. A good parallel might be RMS Queen Mary.
Airships needn't necessarily be more expensive, especially not to run, as the fuel costs would be lower. The falling price of aluminium and the emergence of plastics would have driven construction costs down too.
Certainly airships would never have been used for mainstream travel, but they could have held on in particular niches.


Not sure why you'd see freight as a viable role. A 747 has broadly similar payload to the Hindenburg, and it's faster.
You're comparing a mid-30s airship with a late-60s aircraft. The Hindenburg could carry more than anything of its era.
Also, an airship can deliver its freight almost anywhere.


Luxury might happen, but only as a really exotic thing. Construction might be a real possibility, but it seems cheaper to just use helicopters and land transport. There have been lots of schemes to use airships, and none of them have been successful. Surveillance is something they're already used for in some areas, but it appears that aircraft are cheaper.
Since WWII all attempts at constructing airships have been hampered by the lack of any existing airship industry. This means everything is custom built and costs balloon, err... literally.
If the airship industry had continued through the 40s then many of these areas could have been established while costs were lower and public and government acceptance was higher.

Tony said...

Brett:

"Transcontinental passenger travel was never really profitable, although it usually at least paid for the operating costs before the spread of passenger air travel and automobiles."

Railroads were always kept affloat by freight.

But it's important to understand that railroads had to provide passenger service. Passenger service was the initial application of the early railroads, and people had come to expect and rely on it. We imagine the 19th Century railroads as paragons of unfettered capitalism, but if they had failed to provide robust passenger service at all distances on their own, they would likely have been forced to do it by the government.

"As for technology that might have been used earlier if conditions had been different - think telecommunications. Tim Wu wrote a good book about how state-enforced monopolization in various telecommunications industries (radio, television, telephones) retarded the implementation and use of a lot of new technologies for years."

Telephones are a case of monoploy (somewhat, more in a bit), but radio and television? I don't think so. There's a radio dial, rather than just an on/off switch, precisely because there isn't a monoploy. Likewise with the television channel selector dial.

AFAICT, the RBOCs never had a problem with letting cellular telephony join the system, even though it eventually became a direct copetitor for device installation numbers. Cable and satellite TV, which started out as niche providers for niche markets, seem to have developed pretty muc organically alongside broadcast TV, even when in dierect competition for eyeballs.

Byron said...

Vershner:
Why? The airship industry was well established in Germany before 1933.
I was wrong on this. I thought Hindenburg was a prestige project on Hitler's part, when it was started in 1931. However, Helium exports were banned in 1927, so him not coming to power wouldn't have helped.

Airships needn't necessarily be more expensive, especially not to run, as the fuel costs would be lower. The falling price of aluminium and the emergence of plastics would have driven construction costs down too.
They are for a given capacity. The biggest issue is that they're physically bigger than an airplane, which drives up the cost of the facilities needed for them. Construction requires enormous hangars, and it can't be towed around an assembly line like an airplane can. Then you need a hangar for them when they're operational, and the other ground equipment. As this is specialized, it's going to cost you more than an airport "costs" an airplane. Combine this with the fact that an airplane can fly across the Atlantic in maybe a fifth of the time it takes an airship (allowing it to carry more passengers in a given period) and it just doesn't make economic sense.

Certainly airships would never have been used for mainstream travel, but they could have held on in particular niches.
The more I look at it, the more the operating costs make me doubt that.

You're comparing a mid-30s airship with a late-60s aircraft. The Hindenburg could carry more than anything of its era.
Yes, I am. But an airship's lift is set by its size, and I was wrong about how much the Hindenburg could lift. Wiki says 11 tons useful. That's on par with the payload of an Mi-26 or a C-130.

Also, an airship can deliver its freight almost anywhere.
This is a common claim of the airship faithful, but it doesn't hold up well under analysis. First off, you need a really big airship to be able to carry things a helicopter can't. Even assuming that a lot of Hindenburgh's payload is taken up by the passenger accommodations, I still don't see it getting much over 40 or 50 tons. That's approximately half of what a C-5 or a C-17 could lift, and a 747 is in the same ballpark.
Second, you need to be able to somehow offload the cargo, which requires a very large landing spot. That's not "almost anywhere", that's "in the middle of the desert.
Third, most places that are so remote other forms of shipping don't work have bad weather. This is tremendously distressing when you're in a slow-moving gasbag.
Fourth, what happens after you unload? Unlike an airplane, an airship has to be neutrally buoyant. After dropping a third of your weight, you have to get rid of that buoyancy.

Since WWII all attempts at constructing airships have been hampered by the lack of any existing airship industry. This means everything is custom built and costs balloon, err... literally.
I don't think that the airship industry was ever large enough to see real economies of scale, nor would it be in any plausible scenario. There's no really exotic technologies involved, either. Startup costs are the only major problem, and those would exist in any timeline.

If the airship industry had continued through the 40s then many of these areas could have been established while costs were lower and public and government acceptance was higher.
The problem with this is that in a lot of these cases, public acceptance doesn't matter. For heavy cargo lift, the only people who have to think it's a good idea are those who need heavy payloads delivered to remote areas. They find it easier to work their engineers slightly harder and deliver it by helicopter. For travel, there are airship faithful who would go that way. But, given that we haven't seen even a serious start-up to my knowledge, not enough to make it economically viable. And by this point, I don't think it would ever be.

Brett said...

@H
But the greater picture is that greek and roman societies failed to continue the development of the technologies they developed. There is no indication that they saw the importance of technological improvement and tried to encourage it, much less to apply it.

That's not true, as I pointed out earlier. They implemented stuff like the water mills, desert irrigation, better road construction, and more standardized armor-making. It's just that they didn't have as much incentives to apply labor-saving technology to everything, and in any case their technical ability to do so was limited - they really were a long ways away from anything resembling industrialization.

And yes, there where some examples of roman factories like the Barbery and Janiculum water mills. But these examples are the exception rather than the norm, demonstrating that the romans where perfectly capable of using water-powered mills at least with the same frequency as was done in medieval times, but failed to do it.

They're not really the exception, they're just the ones we've found the best archaeological evidence for. There's evidence for other water mill complexes that didn't last as long.

Thom S said...

Much as I love airships, I have to agree that they would probably never have lasted. Part of this is economic: they cost a lot unit-for-unit and require a large amount of ground infrastructure to work, so you'd expect to see them produced mainly by larger, more conservative entities (big corporations, governments) rather than smaller outfits. This would lead to them being used only for the most obvious and 'safe' purposes (mail, passenger lines, bulk cargo to set destinations, scouting and warfare) where they would almost always be at a disadvantage compared to equivalent-era aeroplanes. This would, at best, result in a heavily-subsidised service that slowly gets phased out when the airships get pushed out of niche.

The second is psychology. People tend to view risk based more on the size and nature of an accident than its frequency. As airships are, by their very nature, large and spectacular, this means that any one accident will generate a disproportionate amount of media attention, fear and backlash. This will, unless the society involved is absolutely committed to the idea of lighter-than-air flight, tend to place more and more restrictions on airships until they become extinct.
This means that the Hindenburg-as-tragedy narrative is actually the expected one, rather than some sort of exceptional event.

Anonymous said...

Thom S, check out the Aeros Corporation's new variable bouyancy airship design. The first prototype is supposed to have its first flight some time this year. We'll have to see if this new technology works out.

Ferrell

Brett said...

@Ferrell

It's interesting stuff, especially if they can eventually pull off a 66-ton-carrying airship capable of extended unfueled flight.

"Fuel cost" is the biggest reason you might want to use airships instead of planes, followed by "lack of available landing space". If that's not a problem, then you could just use planes capable of carrying massive amounts of cargo (like the Antonov An-225, which has carried up to 247 metric tons in cargo on flights).

Vershner said...

Byron:
This is a common claim of the airship faithful, but it doesn't hold up well under analysis. First off, you need a really big airship to be able to carry things a helicopter can't. Even assuming that a lot of Hindenburgh's payload is taken up by the passenger accommodations, I still don't see it getting much over 40 or 50 tons. That's approximately half of what a C-5 or a C-17 could lift, and a 747 is in the same ballpark.
Second, you need to be able to somehow offload the cargo, which requires a very large landing spot. That's not "almost anywhere", that's "in the middle of the desert.

The airship doesn't necessarily have to land to offload its cargo. That's why it could be used for construction. An airship could pick up 50 tons of steel from the foundry, and deliver it over land and sea directly to the top of a skyscraper construction in the middle of a city.
This kind of thing is not really practical with helicopters because of their massive fuel requirements and relatively small payloads.

Also, as the technology improved, airships would be able to run longer without needing off-line maintenance, and could run more like surface shipping does. The airship rarely needs to fully land and be shut away in its hanger. For refuelling, topping up helium, and minor testing and maintenance; it only needs to dock. A company need only have one hanger per fleet, rather than one hanger per ship.

Third, most places that are so remote other forms of shipping don't work have bad weather. This is tremendously distressing when you're in a slow-moving gasbag.
Weather would be a problem, and some places would not be suitable, but improving understanding of weather patterns and more powerful engines would mitigate to some extent.

Fourth, what happens after you unload? Unlike an airplane, an airship has to be neutrally buoyant. After dropping a third of your weight, you have to get rid of that buoyancy.
For a freight airship the best way would probably be to load something of equal weight into the ship as it offloads.
Apparently some newer designs can compress their helium to maintain neutral buoyancy.

The problem with this is that in a lot of these cases, public acceptance doesn't matter. For heavy cargo lift, the only people who have to think it's a good idea are those who need heavy payloads delivered to remote areas. They find it easier to work their engineers slightly harder and deliver it by helicopter. For travel, there are airship faithful who would go that way. But, given that we haven't seen even a serious start-up to my knowledge, not enough to make it economically viable. And by this point, I don't think it would ever be.
More than a startup, there's an existing company still operating under the Zeppelin name, who have several operational airships.
There are also several startups making heavy-lift airships, as mentioned in other's posts.


One further point - we're talking about alternate-history fiction here, so it only has to be plausible, not likely. Widespread airship use is plausible because, for a while, it actually happened.

Byron said...

Vershner:
The airship doesn't necessarily have to land to offload its cargo. That's why it could be used for construction. An airship could pick up 50 tons of steel from the foundry, and deliver it over land and sea directly to the top of a skyscraper construction in the middle of a city.
This kind of thing is not really practical with helicopters because of their massive fuel requirements and relatively small payloads.

That's not really practical either. First, there's the fact that the airspace low over a city is a nasty place to be. Other buildings, wind, helicopters, etc. Second, you're ignoring the practical mechanics of doing this. If you've got tens of tons of steel dangling below the airship, which suddenly jerks, you're going to have a problem for the people who were about to secure it. Third, there's no particular reason to think this would be cost-effective. For putting things in place, you'll still need a crane, and trucks will almost by definition be cheaper than this.

Also, as the technology improved, airships would be able to run longer without needing off-line maintenance, and could run more like surface shipping does. The airship rarely needs to fully land and be shut away in its hanger. For refuelling, topping up helium, and minor testing and maintenance; it only needs to dock. A company need only have one hanger per fleet, rather than one hanger per ship.
No, because you need somewhere to put them when the weather is bad. This might only amount to half the fleet's capacity, but that's still a lot of space.

Weather would be a problem, and some places would not be suitable, but improving understanding of weather patterns and more powerful engines would mitigate to some extent.
It's not engines that I'm worried about. It's the material of the gasbag itself. And yes, that would be made stronger with better materials. But you have to trade between that and saving weight.

For a freight airship the best way would probably be to load something of equal weight into the ship as it offloads.
This removes any incentive to use it as a construction crane, or in a lot of other roles. The compressor stuff would work, but how long does that take?

More than a startup, there's an existing company still operating under the Zeppelin name, who have several operational airships.
No, they're not still under the name, they're a new company under the old name making semi-rigid airships for observation and advertising.

There are also several startups making heavy-lift airships, as mentioned in other's posts.
Those have a disturbing tendency to go bust. Also, I was specifically discussing a company dedicated to transatlantic flights, although I may not have made that clear.

One further point - we're talking about alternate-history fiction here, so it only has to be plausible, not likely. Widespread airship use is plausible because, for a while, it actually happened.
I will admit that some of my opposition is driven by a distaste of airships. But there are a lot of reasons why airships went away, not just bad luck.

Tony said...

Byron:

"But there are a lot of reasons why airships went away, not just bad luck."

That's one of my major beefs with alt-hist in general. There are reasons why things turn out the way they do. THere is in fact very little contingency in large events. I find it far more interesting to study the history of the events and find out why they turned out the way they did, rather than read poorly founded fantasies about how they could have turned out different, when they really couldn't have.

Brett said...

@Tony

The best possibilities for Alt-History are where something would have likely swung on the charisma/drive of one particular man or woman. For example, if you went back in time and shot Mohammed dead back in the 7th century CE, there would still likely be powerful Arab tribal confederations, since those had existed before - and the Persian Empire might still fall to one, as it did in real life when it fell to muslim Arabs. But you'd never get this new religious-cultural identity that re-shaped the Middle East and North Africa in real history. It would just be another invasion by a tribal society, like the region had faced in waves over centuries. And the culture and history of the region would be vastly different, probably much more "Greek" (since Greek was the language of the Eastern Roman Empire).

In the US, one of the best examples I can think of would be if Joseph Smith had never been born, and never founded Mormonism. The entire history of Utah would be vastly different, and probably more akin to Colorado or Nevada now.

@Byron
That's not really practical either. First, there's the fact that the airspace low over a city is a nasty place to be. Other buildings, wind, helicopters, etc. Second, you're ignoring the practical mechanics of doing this. If you've got tens of tons of steel dangling below the airship, which suddenly jerks, you're going to have a problem for the people who were about to secure it. Third, there's no particular reason to think this would be cost-effective. For putting things in place, you'll still need a crane, and trucks will almost by definition be cheaper than this.

You also don't really need that much "weight" in supplies over the construction site at that time, and there would be objections to the visual obstruction of the blimp by residents (construction tends to draw enough resentment as is).

That said, I do think there are uses for them. If they can stay buoyant for weeks at a time, then they'd be great for making deliveries to isolated places with limited access to expensive fuel.

And that's just on Earth. James Lovell made a pretty good argument for using them on Mars.

Byron said...

Brett:
That said, I do think there are uses for them. If they can stay buoyant for weeks at a time, then they'd be great for making deliveries to isolated places with limited access to expensive fuel.
What sort of places would those be? I'm not sure how fuel-efficient a blimp actually is, and a primitive runway isn't that hard to make. Plus, there's the weather problem. I wouldn't want to spend more time than I had to in an airship over Antarctica.

And that's just on Earth. James Lovell made a pretty good argument for using them on Mars.
What? That's going to be difficult, as the atmosphere on Mars is very thin. Venus is a much better candidate. I'll have to look this up.

Tony said...

Brett:

"The best possibilities for Alt-History are where something would have likely swung on the charisma/drive of one particular man or woman."

The difficulty here is assessing how much a given individual really ditorts history, and how much he's a product of his times. I'm not particularly convinced either way. For example, a world without Hitler would have been an at least somewhat different place. But on the other hand, even without the Holocaut and emrgence of Israel -- at least not in the same way -- the Middle East was still going to be the focus of international security issues. The existence of crude oil there is the reason for that. The Arab-Israeli conflict is just a facet of it.

With Mohamed, one really has to question whether somebody else might not have come along and influenced the direction of the world in much the same direction. Even Jesus is in some ways just a front man forces larger than himself. It's not like he was the first messiah, nor the last. He's the one that got the best press.

"In the US, one of the best examples I can think of would be if Joseph Smith had never been born, and never founded Mormonism. The entire history of Utah would be vastly different, and probably more akin to Colorado or Nevada now."

I live in Utah and have a lot of Mormon friends. But I have a hard time seeing how differences in the way this state developed would have had much influence on the nation as whole, much less world history. Not to mention that it did develop in most ways like other states in the region. There was agriculture, mineral resources, and the influence of railroads. Mormon religion and society didn't really change much of that one way or the other. It's really just affected how the population spends its free time.

Tony said...

Byron:

"What? That's going to be difficult, as the atmosphere on Mars is very thin. Venus is a much better candidate. I'll have to look this up."

It's not that hard to figure. The pressure on Mars at the datum plane (equivalent to sea level on Earth) is about 1% that of Earth atmosphere at sea level. The altitude equivalent of that is 101k feet. So figure what kind of airship we could manage at that altitude. Not very effective, huh?

Byron said...

Tony:
It's not that hard to figure. The pressure on Mars at the datum plane (equivalent to sea level on Earth) is about 1% that of Earth atmosphere at sea level. The altitude equivalent of that is 101k feet. So figure what kind of airship we could manage at that altitude. Not very effective, huh?
I should clarify that I meant difficult to build, not difficult to figure out. Do remember what my 'day job' is. I ran through basically the same logic you just did, and I can't see it working except maybe for remote sensor work.

Tony said...

Byron:

"I should clarify that I meant difficult to build, not difficult to figure out. Do remember what my 'day job' is. I ran through basically the same logic you just did, and I can't see it working except maybe for remote sensor work."

I do recall what your current employment is, and your level of achievement in that field. I wa kind of nonplussed by the suggestion that anything had to be looked up, that's all.

In any case, SF that has some respct for real world physics tends to see long ditance travel on Mars as the province of railroads -- presumably electric (monorail types seeming to be very fashionable for some reason) -- and ballistic rockets.

Byron said...

Tony:
I do recall what your current employment is, and your level of achievement in that field. I wa kind of nonplussed by the suggestion that anything had to be looked up, that's all.
I looked up what (if anything) had been done in the field. There have been a few papers on small balloons, but nothing serious on anything resembling an airship. Lovell has no connection with anything in the field. It was his name more than anything that prompted me to at least look, but it was apparently a mistake on Brett's part.

In any case, SF that has some respct for real world physics tends to see long ditance travel on Mars as the province of railroads -- presumably electric (monorail types seeming to be very fashionable for some reason) -- and ballistic rockets.
Fixed-wing flight is on the edge of possible, but not very easy. Most of it would have to be supersonic just to get enough lift.

Vershner said...

I can't prove that airships would work for freight and construction, and you can't prove that they wouldn't, because it's never been tried, so I'll just agree to disagree on that.

No, because you need somewhere to put them when the weather is bad. This might only amount to half the fleet's capacity, but that's still a lot of space.
You'd only need to do that if the weather was very bad, and it would probably be better to just send the ships away. For ordinary storms, just tying them down securely would be fine. (assuming durable plastic skin - the older linen skins did not stand up to storms so well)

It's not engines that I'm worried about. It's the material of the gasbag itself. And yes, that would be made stronger with better materials. But you have to trade between that and saving weight.
Plastic would be stronger and lighter than the doped linen they used in the 30s.

But there are a lot of reasons why airships went away, not just bad luck.
No, not just bust bad luck at all. Mostly human error, putting greed and pride over safety.

All the crashes from the last generation of big airships were due to human error, forcing the airship to fly when conditions were not suitable, or the craft was not in a fit state.

Hindenburg - US government decision to restrict helium sales to Germany, and the German's decision to go ahead with hydrogen.
Akron - Flown into a storm at sea and the subsequent crash turned into a disaster as the crew had no life jackets.
Macon - Not fully repaired after sustaining damage climbing over a mountain pass. The weakened frame then buckled in a storm.
Shenandoah - Flown in violent weather against the wishes of the commander.
R101 - Set off on a flight to India despite not completing testing and being refused a certificate of airworthiness from the Air Inspectorate inspector overseeing the testing. Also used hydrogen.

Brett said...

@Byron
What sort of places would those be? I'm not sure how fuel-efficient a blimp actually is, and a primitive runway isn't that hard to make. Plus, there's the weather problem. I wouldn't want to spend more time than I had to in an airship over Antarctica.

That's why I qualified it with the "expensive fuel" element. If that's not a problem, and you can build a runway, then there's not much reason not to use planes. It's not like airships are cheaper.

@Tony
With Mohamed, one really has to question whether somebody else might not have come along and influenced the direction of the world in much the same direction. Even Jesus is in some ways just a front man forces larger than himself. It's not like he was the first messiah, nor the last. He's the one that got the best press.

I'm skeptical about that. There wasn't, as far as I can tell, a general overall trend for monotheistic religions to pop up in the Arabian peninsula at that time, so if Mohammed had either never existed or been much less successful, Islam or some equivalent could very easily have never arisen.

Like I said above, you could still have a major expansion in "Arab" culture, since there had been Arab tribal confederations before (and they were apparently quite rich at the time). But it would be very different without that Islamic religious element, and I think they'd be absorbed into the existing cultures of the region (meaning Byzantine Greek and Sassanid Persia).

I live in Utah and have a lot of Mormon friends. But I have a hard time seeing how differences in the way this state developed would have had much influence on the nation as whole, much less world history. Not to mention that it did develop in most ways like other states in the region.

The state had far larger initial settlement with the Mormon migration, and succeeding communities to Salt Lake City were mostly organized as farm town "colonies" sent out from there by Brigham Young. Virtually every major town and city in Utah had that pattern.

Without it, the state would have been settled later, in more gradual numbers until after the transcontinental railroad. The first towns likely would have sprung up around mining sites, with a handful of farming communities here and there. Like I said, we'd look a lot more like Colorado than we do now.

It's not that hard to figure. The pressure on Mars at the datum plane (equivalent to sea level on Earth) is about 1% that of Earth atmosphere at sea level. The altitude equivalent of that is 101k feet. So figure what kind of airship we could manage at that altitude. Not very effective, huh?

Conceded. I looked it up again, and Lovell was using them on a partially terraformed Mars, as part of a fictional thought experiment of how to terraform Mars in his book The Greening of Mars.

In any case, SF that has some respct for real world physics tends to see long ditance travel on Mars as the province of railroads -- presumably electric (monorail types seeming to be very fashionable for some reason) -- and ballistic rockets.

That sounds realistic, once you have the infrastructure on site to produce everything for it. Since you have to pressurize the whole thing anyways, it's not a stretch to have a pressurized train.

Byron said...

Vershner:
I can't prove that airships would work for freight and construction, and you can't prove that they wouldn't, because it's never been tried, so I'll just agree to disagree on that.
I suppose I should throw in the towel, as you're obviously one of the airship faithful. However, you have yet to provide a compelling rationale for any of these capabilities. Yes, some of them might be useful occasionally. But there are also times it would be nice to have balloon tires on warships.

You'd only need to do that if the weather was very bad, and it would probably be better to just send the ships away. For ordinary storms, just tying them down securely would be fine. (assuming durable plastic skin - the older linen skins did not stand up to storms so well)
And your payload just went down, driving costs up elsewhere. Stuff like this costs weight, at least in the sense that if you used the old specs, the thing would be lighter. Maybe that's cheaper, but "modern materials will give us super airships" is just false.

Plastic would be stronger and lighter than the doped linen they used in the 30s.
Yes. But is the Dreamliner that much stronger than its predecessors? Not to my knowledge. Better materials general translate to lighter instead of stronger in the aerospace industry.

No, not just bust bad luck at all. Mostly human error, putting greed and pride over safety.

All the crashes from the last generation of big airships were due to human error, forcing the airship to fly when conditions were not suitable, or the craft was not in a fit state.

Assuming that these can be wished away is rather silly. Also, most of these were caused by bad weather, which is my exact point. A wind is going to mess up an airship a lot more than an airplane, and if your fleet is grounded half the time due to weather, you won't see many customers.

Tony said...

Brett:

"I'm skeptical about that. There wasn't, as far as I can tell, a general overall trend for monotheistic religions to pop up in the Arabian peninsula at that time, so if Mohammed had either never existed or been much less successful, Islam or some equivalent could very easily have never arisen.

Like I said above, you could still have a major expansion in 'Arab' culture, since there had been Arab tribal confederations before (and they were apparently quite rich at the time). But it would be very different without that Islamic religious element, and I think they'd be absorbed into the existing cultures of the region (meaning Byzantine Greek and Sassanid Persia)."


I wasn't under the impression that only fanaticism about monotheism would lead to expansionist behavior. Or you could look at it this way -- Islam is really just a militant Christian heressy. It's not like Mohamed was the only guy capable of establishing one of those.

In either case, there's just not that much evidence the the Arabs needed Mohamed to become a regionalpower bloc.

"The state had far larger initial settlement with the Mormon migration, and succeeding communities to Salt Lake City were mostly organized as farm town "colonies" sent out from there by Brigham Young. Virtually every major town and city in Utah had that pattern.

Without it, the state would have been settled later, in more gradual numbers until after the transcontinental railroad. The first towns likely would have sprung up around mining sites, with a handful of farming communities here and there. Like I said, we'd look a lot more like Colorado than we do now."


I didn't realize Utah was that much different from Colorado. SLC is roughly analogous to Denver. Grand Junction is kind of like St. George. And not much agricultural land has gone unclaimed in either state.

Thucydides said...

The only semi plausible way around the conundrum of airship ground handling is to shape the envelope as a wing or lifting surface and use the aerostatic lift of the helium to almost counterbalance the static weight of the unloaded craft.

The craft will have "positive" weight on the ground, making ground handling somewhat simpler, and need much less energy to lift off and maintain flight. OTOH it is still a huge sail to be caught in the wind, and will have structural issues limiting either the amount of payload you can carry, or the weather conditions you can fly in. John McPhee wrote a wonderful book about a company which tried to build such a craft in the early 1970's (The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed), and since there is still no such vehicle, this should suggest there is no economic niche for it.

Wing in Ground Effect is another one of those "gee whiz" concepts which have been around for decades without much practical application (the only practical application that I can find is the practice of German flying boats to skim low over the surface of the ocean to get into "ground effect" during trans-Atlantic runs in the 1930's in order to economize on fuel. This could only be done when the weather was clear, for obvious reasons).

Other fantastic devices which fall into this category are VTOL aircraft (the Harrier is the only successful example of the breed to date, and it is a V/STOL aircraft which still uses takeoff runs to get into the air).

Going back upthread a way, commercial use of the spectrum was and is heavily regulated by governments. In Europe, the situation was so extreme that many nations had only one or two broadcast radio channels for decades, and I recall having a vintage radio where the dial had cities like "London", Paris and Berlin marked on the dial rather than the frequency liek we are used to today (this is the origin of the line "London calling from the top of the dial" in the song "London Calling" by the Clash)

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"Going back upthread a way, commercial use of the spectrum was and is heavily regulated by governments. In Europe, the situation was so extreme that many nations had only one or two broadcast radio channels for decades, and I recall having a vintage radio where the dial had cities like 'London', Paris and Berlin marked on the dial rather than the frequency liek we are used to today (this is the origin of the line 'London calling from the top of the dial' in the song 'London Calling' by the Clash)"

There's a substantial difference between an economic monopoly and government interference in a market.

Byron said...

Thucydides:
The only semi plausible way around the conundrum of airship ground handling is to shape the envelope as a wing or lifting surface and use the aerostatic lift of the helium to almost counterbalance the static weight of the unloaded craft.
While that might help the ground handling, it's going to muck up absolutely everything else. Let's see. First off, you've destroyed the major advantage of the airship, which is that it doesn't need to keep moving to fly. This means you now need a runway, even though it's probably fairly short. Second, it's going to limit your payload, unless you want it to really be a very large, very slow airplane. Third, it's incredibly inefficient. Your Oswald efficiency will be terrible, because the aspect ratio will be about 1 to 10. Lifting bodies aren't know for fantastic L/D ratios, but this will be far, far worse. I'd suspect that any savings would be wiped out by that alone.
One idea I have seen is the use of a hot air cell to serve as a buoyancy compensator. Just working it out in my head, you could probably do some heating with the engine exhaust, although it might take more than that.

Tony said...

If you use engine exhaust (I presume we're talking about turboprops here) to heat air for a compensation cell, you create backpressure into your engine, robbing it of power.

Thom S said...

On the airship faithful - I must admit to being very enamoured of failed/almost-ran technologies (especially flight-related ones - airships, ground effect aircraft and pulsejets). Unfortunately for me, these always turn out to be marginal or niche-application sorts of techs, which is why they are never developed to the same point as their more mainstream competitors.
Airships are a classic case in that there is a good argument for them becoming viable once you've ironed out all the kinks, but why would you do so in the first place? It would be like trying to develop freight-hauling submarines; because obviously weather is a big issue for ships.

As to the sweep of history, I hove to the view that there is something analogous to inertia at play. People in the right place can affect the details or set things in motion (possibly with big consequences in the long term), but in the here-and-now your options are constrained by the environment.
But then, I think Dune is a great book :)

Thom S said...

On compensation cells:
Why not just heat it directly using a burner? It's not like you'd gain or lose thermodynamic efficiency or anything.

Byron said...

Tony:
If you use engine exhaust (I presume we're talking about turboprops here) to heat air for a compensation cell, you create backpressure into your engine, robbing it of power.
Good point. I didn't think closely enough on this.

Thom:
Airships are a classic case in that there is a good argument for them becoming viable once you've ironed out all the kinks, but why would you do so in the first place? It would be like trying to develop freight-hauling submarines; because obviously weather is a big issue for ships.
I'm not sure about that. Even with all the development in the world, airships just don't seem to have what it takes to work. Their proponents seem to forget that we've gotten along fine without them, and that most of the proposed roles can be easily worked around. The engineers might wish for an airship, but when all is said and done, making it in three pieces is cheaper and easier.

Brett said...

@Byron
I'm not sure about that. Even with all the development in the world, airships just don't seem to have what it takes to work. Their proponents seem to forget that we've gotten along fine without them, and that most of the proposed roles can be easily worked around. The engineers might wish for an airship, but when all is said and done, making it in three pieces is cheaper and easier.

I'll have to agree on that, which I specified some specific conditions in my posts (such as expensive, scarce fuel). They're a solution looking for a problem, and while you might be able to find some applications for them somewhere, it's not enough to really drive development.

I think a better comparison to airships would be designing a modern wind-powered sailing cargo ship. I'm sure you could design one that saved fuel, but there's just not that much need for one yet. Modern cargo ships are already one of the most fuel-efficient ways to move large volumes of cargo, if not the most efficient.

@Thom S
But then, I think Dune is a great book :)

Same here. Pity about the sequels - God-Emperor of Dune broke my will to go on, especially when I know that the series is ultimately finished off by some crappy books written by Herbert's son and Kevin J. Anderson.

As to the sweep of history, I hove to the view that there is something analogous to inertia at play. People in the right place can affect the details or set things in motion (possibly with big consequences in the long term), but in the here-and-now your options are constrained by the environment.

That's why I thought of Mohammed - it's one of the few times where having a particular ideology established with a particularly powerful regional group ending up making a vast difference in the long run.

Alexander the Great might be another one. His conquests in the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia led to the "Hellenization" of the region. Most other conquerors tend to just accelerate particular trends already in place, like with Julius and Octavian Caesar, or Columbus* (if Columbus hadn't led a Spanish expedition to the Americas, someone would have - oceanic exploration was on the rise).

* Although I do wonder if it would have been less brutal if a different country than Spain had been the first to make discoveries. Had the wave of disease outbreaks been followed by a period of relatively low-level colonization, the New World societies might have been better positioned to deal with eventual colonization attempts.

Jim Baerg said...

Thucydides: "The only semi plausible way around the conundrum of airship ground handling is to shape the envelope as a wing or lifting surface and use the aerostatic lift of the helium to almost counterbalance the static weight of the unloaded craft."

There is also the possibility of using ammonia for part of the lift, & pumping it into a tank when you want to reduce buoyancy for landing. Ammonia is lighter than air (molecular weight 17 vs 29 average for air) & condenses to a liquid at about 10 atmospheres pressure & 25 °C. The lesser lift from ammonia means you would want to get most of the lift from helium or hydrogen.

This doesn't do anything about the bigger problem of vulnerability to strong gusty winds, so it would still leave airships as a rather marginal technology.

Byron said...

Brett:
I think a better comparison to airships would be designing a modern wind-powered sailing cargo ship. I'm sure you could design one that saved fuel, but there's just not that much need for one yet. Modern cargo ships are already one of the most fuel-efficient ways to move large volumes of cargo, if not the most efficient.
That's an excellent comparison, actually.

Jim Baerg:
There is also the possibility of using ammonia for part of the lift, & pumping it into a tank when you want to reduce buoyancy for landing. Ammonia is lighter than air (molecular weight 17 vs 29 average for air) & condenses to a liquid at about 10 atmospheres pressure & 25 °C. The lesser lift from ammonia means you would want to get most of the lift from helium or hydrogen.
I'm not sure how workable that's going to be for freight, either. Helium produces about 1.06 kg/m3 of lift, while ammonia is only going to do about .505 kg/m3. For comparison, hydrogen is 1.14 kg/m3. If you've got a large amount of variance in your payload, that means a lot of the lifting gas has to be ammonia, which in turn drives up size. It's not quite as bad as I originally expected, but it's still worse than you'd really want for carrying lots of stuff. Not a bad idea for passenger craft, though.
One interesting thing I noticed yesterday is that the performance of airships is totally independent of local gravity, at least to the first order. While the weight of the payload will be reduced, the same can also be said for the buoyancy of the craft itself. If we were to terraform Mars, we could fly airships there with no modifications. The only advantage to lower gravity is lower structural loads, so it could be somewhat lighter. Conventional aircraft will see significant reductions in takeoff distances, and smaller improvements in range and top speed. Note that all of this ignores changes in atmospheric density.

Cambias said...

Byron: You're forgetting about atmosphere density. Sure, Mars has only 1/3 Earth gravity, but its atmospheric pressure is about 1 percent of Earth's. Now it happens to be mostly CO2, which is denser than the N2/O2 mix we have here, but the low pressure still means you'll need a bigger gasbag. My back-of-the-envelope figures indicate a factor of about 20. To lift a payload equivalent to the Goodyear Blimp you'd need a gasbag the size of the Graf Zeppelin.

Byron said...

Chambliss:
No, I didn't forget it. I explicitly noted that I was neglecting changes in atmospheric density to point out that gravity had nothing to do with airship performance. And your numbers are off. My calculations show the standard sea-level density on Mars to be .0146 kg/m3, a factor of 84 less than Earth. I'd guess you forgot to account for the fact that air is diatomic.

Byron said...

Sorry, comment was to Cambias. Stupid cell phone autocorrect.

Thom S said...

Byron:
Your example is better.

Brett:
God-Emperor also lowered my will to live a little. Strangely enough, I liked Heretics a bit better. Also, having actually read one or two of the new Dune books* I have to ask: what is with Kevin J. Anderson and brains in jars? They seem to show up in everything he writes.

The Spanish were a particularly bad way to meet a foreign culture, certainly.

*which, as someone smarter than me joked, are probably based on fridge post-its with 'to do: write more dune books' on them)

Thucydides said...

Dune is long past the best before date. I lost interest somewhere around the "Refrigerator repairman of Dune" , and have not been in the least bit tempted to revisit the series.

Thom S said...

Indeed, although 'Garbage disposal and waste management of Dune' seemed like it was taking the series in a new direction...

Grognak said...

My, my, aren't we engaging in a bit of happy-go-lucky Spain bashing...

@Brett

Had the wave of disease outbreaks been followed by a period of relatively low-level colonization, the New World societies might have been better positioned to deal with eventual colonization attempts.

That's exactly what happened north of Mexico. A couple of expeditions like De Soto's followed by roughly one hundred years without contact. When Europeans traveled north again to modern Louisiana and Mississippi the peoples De Soto met had vanished from Earth and their land was entirely empty of human beings. Some experts actually think their isolation made epidemics worse. Mississippians didn't know what was hitting them and lacked even the crude knowledge Europeans doctors had about how to combat smallpox.

Regarding brutality the Conquistadors were brutal, that's a given, but they weren't fools. What they wanted to do was exploiting the natives using the same feudal institutions they had used back home to exploit Moors (and Christians too). Most tried hard to stop epidemics in their lands if only because they hurt them badly: dead men can't work the fields or pay taxes...

More generally, most people today (including Spaniards) think they know how America was conquered and they are dead wrong. Very especially they don't understand the Conquistadors would have failed without massive assistance from native allies, and how Conquistadors deliberately aimed to integrate native elites.

For example, hundreds of descendants from Emperor Montezuma are alive to this day, both Mexicans and Spanish. Emperor Charles V named his son Lord of Tula, his daughter Countess of Miravalle (he gave Spanish nobility titles to many Aztec nobles, especially those that had allied with Cortes) Today, to make a long story short, they are Counts of Miravalle, Dukes of Moctezuma of Tultengo and Grandees of Spain.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duke_of_Moctezuma_de_Tultengo

Damien Sullivan said...

Cars didn't beat railroads in a free market, they got massive government subsidies. Of course, so did railroads, but still. US governments chose to invest billions or trillions in highways and parking spaces, tearing down neighborhoods, and reconfiguring road use for cars. Collectively favoring individual convenience at the cost of pollution, congestion, and well cost.

***

From what I've seen, airships don't have lower fuel costs than airplanes, but higher ones, at least at their cruising speed of about 100 mph. An airship uses almost no fuel to stay up, but pushing a giant sausage through the air has high costs. To get lower costs per cargo you'd have to be going much slower, and then you're competing with rail and shipping freight, not airplanes. To get lower costs per passenger... you can't.

***

Ancients had limited metallurgy. Precision fit is one limit; also I think the strength of metal, so no high pressure (more efficient) steam vessels; also no rubber.

Anonymous said...

Damien Sullivan:
"Ancients had limited metallurgy. Precision fit is one limit; also I think the strength of metal, so no high pressure (more efficient) steam vessels; also no rubber."

That is an excellent point. Even if a Roman engineer imagined the steam engine, he could not have built it with the technology of the time.

The old BBC series "Connections" by James Burke is worth watching if you can find it. It shows the different developments through history that lead to our modern technology (of the late 1970s). There were also some sequels.

It would be good research for developing the tech background in a story because you would have a better understanding on how things are interrelated.

Ron

Noclevername said...

I'm currently in the middle of watching Connections. James Burke has a YouTube channel with the original series and its sequels, highly recommended.

Brett said...

@Grognak
My, my, aren't we engaging in a bit of happy-go-lucky Spain bashing...

It's not hard, considering what the Spaniards did on Hispaniola in the 1490s and onward. They eventually figured out that it would be better to subjugate the indigenous population under the Encomienda System, but by then they'd annihilated nearly all of the inhabitants of Hispaniola through conflict, disease, and over-work.

@Damien Sullivan
Ancients had limited metallurgy. Precision fit is one limit; also I think the strength of metal, so no high pressure (more efficient) steam vessels; also no rubber.

That's the big one, and it's also not really one that you could do a plausible counterfactual for. Better metallurgy and machining for precise metal parts came out of centuries of improvement in casting church bells and cannons (with a larger quantity of higher quality steel than the Roman Empire had access to), as well as generations of improving construction of clocks and naval instruments.

That wouldn't stop the Romans from utilizing water to a far greater degree than they did (and possibly wind power later on), but to do that you'd have to drastically change the nature of the Roman Republic/Empire, Roman Economy, and Roman Society. Honestly, that type of Roman Empire would be completely unrecognizable, assuming it could ever exist at all.

RE: Railroads

What really hurt railroads was that they were stuck with the old "common carrier" and other regulations for years, even after viable competitors in the form of trucking, cars, and buses had emerged to steal some of their commerce. If Congress had been smart, they would have listed the railroad regulations after World War 2, and let them re-settle their passenger and freight traffic to meet commercial needs.

They did that eventually with freight rail, which is now thriving. A pity passenger rail is still bound into Amtrak.

Brett said...

Sorry, "removed", not "listed"

Grognak said...

@Brett

Ahhhh, Hispaniola. In other words, your source is Bartolomé de las Casas and the Black Legend (sigh... why am I not surprised?)

Please notice that I'm _NOT_ denying that there was a lot of brutality, I'm certainly not trying to erect a White Legend in place of the Black Legend. Conquistadors were a greedy, violent, fanatic lot that had crossed the Atlantic looking for riches, not redemption. What I'm saying is, they weren't any different from English, French, Portuguese or Dutch. All of them behaved in the same way, more or less, with the same results, more or less. Last time I checked there weren't many natives left from Newfoundland to Tobago, passing trough Massachusetts, Virginia, Florida, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Antigua and Barbados. Mexico, Peru, etc, are different, but probably that's only because natives there originally were far more numerous, enough for viable populations to survive and grow again.

However, far from being genocidal, most Conquistadors tried to keep their Indians, because they needed them. There was a saying that went 'sin indios no hay Indias' ('without Indians there are no Indies') meaning lands were worthless without natives.

Regarding the "encomienda" system, it was anything but new. Rather, it was the established procedure used by Castile in reconquered and/or resettled lands during the 'Reconquista', and had been used as recently as 1492 in Granada. What was different in America was that Columbus and his brothers during his 10 years of governorship used other methods. If that had any significant influence in their failure is open to speculation.

Grognak said...

"That is an excellent point. Even if a Roman engineer imagined the steam engine, he could not have built it with the technology of the time."

Sometimes I think Romans and Greeks dreamed of steam engines like we dream of robots and exoskeletons. We have great ideas and beautiful designs, but without a compact, powerful energy source they are doomed to remain being merely dreams.

Thucydides said...

Roman engineers did indeed build low pressure atmospheric and steam engines as "special effects" for theaters and temples. They also had relatively sophisticated mechanisms for water clocks to ensure regular timekeeping even as the water level changed.

If the culture of the time had looked on these as more useful than toys and curiosities, then the process of continuing development and refinement of techniques would have occured.

Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"Cars didn't beat railroads in a free market, they got massive government subsidies. Of course, so did railroads, but still. US governments chose to invest billions or trillions in highways and parking spaces, tearing down neighborhoods, and reconfiguring road use for cars. Collectively favoring individual convenience at the cost of pollution, congestion, and well cost."

Of course roads were reconfigured for cars. It's what the people wanted. Say you came along in the 20s or 30s and tried to get elected on a platform of returning the roads to horses, or even just optimizing them for buses and trollies. You wouldn't have gotten party backing, much less gotten elected. (I just love it when the "government" is blamed in the US, as if the people didn't elect it and re-elect it all of the time.)

As for "tearing down neighborhoods", I detect a serious bit anti-development self-righteousness creeping in. As if the crowded, dirty, lightless city neighborhoods were something to be envied. Sheesh.

Coming from LA, I can't argue the congestion and pollution, but once again, it's what the people wanted.

Rick said...

Finally catching up with this thread - welcome to some new commenters!

On steam engines, etc., in antiquity:

If the culture of the time had looked on these as more useful than toys and curiosities

For practical purposes, I suspect that devices such as the aeolipile and even the Antikythera mechanism *were* toys and curiosities. As someone noted upthread, the Newcomen steam engine, primitive though it was, performed a practical task, pumping out coal mines.

In contrast, the ancient devices were way cool, but weren't even remotely close to having 'practical' applications that would encourage further development for anything but coolness itself.


Meta, I'm really only jumping on that topic because the most recent posts were about it. In the larger picture, there are so many great comments in this thread that I can just get some popcorn and sit back.

Rick said...

Except that yeah, I do owe a new front page post - will try to get one up reasonably soon!

Thom S said...

Tony,

Is this a regular thing in the U.S? I get that impression from the forums I have frequented.

Around my part of the world there is plenty of complaining about government, but not much argument as to it's role and importance in society.

Thom S said...

On the Roman lack of steam engines (I can't speak for the Greeks):

Its amazing, once you dive into Roman property law (as I had to recently) how integral to the entire economy slaves must have been. In addition to this, there weren't really a lot of ways to get investments together short of forming risky partnerships and most large industries (mining, weapon manufacture etc.) were state-owned.

From this perspective there was neither the means nor the incentive in Roman culture to develop labour-saving technologies like steam engines.
Firearms, on the other hand...

Tony said...

Thom S:

"Is this a regular thing in the U.S? I get that impression from the forums I have frequented.

Around my part of the world there is plenty of complaining about government, but not much argument as to it's role and importance in society."


There is, in the US, at both political extremes, but not in the vast middle, a feeling -- I would hardly compliment it by calling it a "thought" -- that the government is a conspiracy controlled by dark forces. Those dark forces are, for the Right, creeping socialism/communism and, for the Left, big business. Any real or imagined ills in this country (or world) that a far Right or Left person perceives, are at least partially (or, more often than not, mostly) the result of these dark forces manipulating the government.

The assertion that passenger rail was undermined by government action in favor of cars is one of the more popular of these conspiracy theories. Did big business, in the form of the automobile companies, influence the process? You bet it did -- every powerful lobby has an influence on legislative activity. But it's not like the people didn't want their cars to be easier to use and their communities more convenient for cars. Of course they did. And in the rising affluence of the 1920s and post-war periods, more and more people owned cars, of their own free will. That made a voting block that was so large that whatever they wanted for cars, that's what they got. Paranoid conspiracy theories need not apply.

Thom S said...

Tony,

Thanks for the clarification.

Damien Sullivan said...

Richard Carrier has a bunch of blog posts attacking attempts to rehabilitate the Dark Ages; in the process he says that research of the past 20 years has found the Romans made a lot more use of watermills than thought.

Sure, "the people" favored cars and government acted on that, but that's different from cars simply beating trains the way DVDs beat videotapes as a superior technology. It's not about paranoid conspiracy theories, it's about market competition not being the dominant factor. (And especially not fair markets, with accounted externalities.)

Hugh said...

JE Gordon in his book Structures speculated that we could have had pneumatic tires before railroads. (Vulcanised rubber was discovered semi-accidentally, and pneumatic tires would been great for stagecoaches.) If so, maybe we'd have had more car-style personal transport in the 19th Century. Or maybe railways would have arrived a bit later and been better designed for bulk transport - in particular not with such a frickin' ridiculously narrow distance between the wheels.

Plus, different places develop at different times. European cities, and I'd guess many north-eastern cities in the USA, had a 'pattern' set early on with subways and railways. Once you've got those, they stay around, and the voters regard them as normal. But didn't most Californian cities take off after WW2, when cars were booming?

Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"Sure, 'the people' favored cars and government acted on that, but that's different from cars simply beating trains the way DVDs beat videotapes as a superior technology. It's not about paranoid conspiracy theories, it's about market competition not being the dominant factor. (And especially not fair markets, with accounted externalities.)"

Oh brother. As pointed out to you on numerous occasions, there are no externalities, and everything is accounted. The sytem is closed. Somebody pays whatever costs are incurred. What you're upset about is that the costs don't find their way back to the people who you think should pay for them. But what accounting rules are you going to use?

AFAICT, people like yourself want to use the People Who I Hate and Want to See Penalized Pay rule. Because they certainly don't have any better ideas. They can't show that things like pollution and congestion can be laid at any indentifiable entity's feet. And that's because they can't be. Everybody benefits from the automotive economy, and everybody pays part of the cost. It's no more complicated than that.

Anonymous said...

Well, to try and get back to the original topic, railroads and Native Americans in the 19th century are an example of unbalanced technology. Railroads gave the U.S. a decided advantage over the indiginous peoples. I'm sure that that is a debatable point.

Ferrell

Brett said...

@Grognak
Ahhhh, Hispaniola. In other words, your source is Bartolomé de las Casas and the Black Legend (sigh... why am I not surprised?)


No, it was not. And I used Hispaniola because that's the common name for the island that both modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic are located on.

However, far from being genocidal, most Conquistadors tried to keep their Indians, because they needed them. There was a saying that went 'sin indios no hay Indias' ('without Indians there are no Indies') meaning lands were worthless without natives.

Like I said, they eventually figured that out - after most of the population of Hispaniola was gone. By the time they conquered the Mexica and Incas, they'd figured it out.

What I'm saying is, they weren't any different from English, French, Portuguese or Dutch. All of them behaved in the same way, more or less, with the same results, more or less. Last time I checked there weren't many natives left from Newfoundland to Tobago, passing trough Massachusetts, Virginia, Florida, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Antigua and Barbados.

Your point?

I could make the argument, though, that the Spanish set the tone with their efforts. Quite literally on the second expedition to the New World, they proceeded to conquer and enslave a population that had been largely helpful towards them during the First Expedition.

Moreover, the Spanish had a policy of near-genocidal hostility to any other nation's colonies in the region during their period of strength (16th century). When a group of French Huguenots settled in Florida, the Spanish went and massacred them.

@Rick
As someone noted upthread, the Newcomen steam engine, primitive though it was, performed a practical task, pumping out coal mines.

That's a good example, there. The Romans didn't care for labor-saving machinery to pump water out of mines because they had enough labor to do the ancient equivalent to mountain-top removal, and because being a slave miner was more or less explicitly a death sentence (a lot of condemned criminals and prisoners-of-war got dumped on them).

@Tony
The assertion that passenger rail was undermined by government action in favor of cars is one of the more popular of these conspiracy theories.

Government action, no. Corporate action, yes, which was why several companies were actually convicted in 1949 for buying up streetcar companies and replacing them with buses.

As for government . . . not deliberate efforts, but leaving outdated regulations on pricing basically left rail in a position where it was a basket case while auto transportation and trucking took off.

Brett said...

@Tony
Somebody pays whatever costs are incurred. What you're upset about is that the costs don't find their way back to the people who you think should pay for them. But what accounting rules are you going to use?

The rule that everyone understands. An externality is a cost that falls upon people not directly involved in a market transaction.

Grognak said...

True, Columbus arrived in his second voyage, found the base he had built destroyed and all 39 men dead, and got quite understandably... upset, shall we say. However his plans prior to that probably hadn't included birthday parties on even days and singing cumbaya holding hands with native chiefs on odd ones (and those 39 sailors left behind probably hadn't been good neighbors to the Arawaks... or perhaps they were but they were victims of a Carib attack, who knows? No one of them lived to tell their story)

True. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived in Florida in 1565, attacked the French ships or was attacked by them (there was a war going on) marched on land to their new fort, took it, killed the men excepting Catholics and some craftsmen he could use, spared the women and children (at least according to him) and left an Spanish garrison there.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedro_Men%C3%A9ndez_de_Avil%C3%A9s

In other news, a few years later French Catholics treacherously attacked French Huguenots and slaughtered thousands of them in such a coldly planned, bloody massacre that the Kristalnacht seems like Christmas in comparison

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Bartholomew%27s_Day_massacre

And a few years Cromwell's forces took Drogheda, Ireland, in 1649 and massacred thousands of Catholic Irish (and a lot of English Royalists, Protestants and Catholics) followed by so many atrocities like that that his name has never been forgotten in Ireland.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Drogheda

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cromwellian_conquest_of_Ireland

I won't even mention the 30 Years War and its countless atrocities. This comment would become novel long if I did!

In short, I'm not interested in whitewashing the Spanish Conquest of America. My point is, painting Spaniards as anything different from contemporary Frenchmen, Englishmen or Germans (or other human beings) is ridiculous. All over Europe personal beliefs were crimes serious enough to merit torture and execution.

And I wonder if poor Gutenberg had something to do with the wave of rabid fanaticism that flooded Europe. Not that prior to relatively cheap prints (not only books, illustrated pamphlets and newspapers were widely distributed and very influential) religious debate was civil and pacific, far from it... but something seems to have changed during the XV century, making masses increasingly less tolerant, more radical and violent.

Anonymous said...

Violence on a grand scale seems to come and go in waves all throughout history. The 15th century was one of those overly violently times; kind of like the 20th century.

Ferrell

Thucydides said...

There is a lot of 20/20 hindsight with railways (and lots of other things too, but railways seem to excite quite a lot of it)

Railway track gauge was set around mine carts. Mines understandably don't have lots of room, so the track gauge was also narrow. When Steam traction came along, there already was a relatively well developed industry for carts and tracks, so the industry "standard" was already clustered on narrow rather than wide. Government regulation to create a Standard Gauge would be biased towards the familiar existing technology, and most of the lobbyists for various gauges would also have the backig of existing miners, cart builders etc.

The government bias towards roads rather than rails in the postwar period can be explained by contemplating the official name of the US road network:

"The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways"

Eisenhower had once tried to organize a military motor convoy across the US in the pre war years, and took something like 2 months to get from coast to coast. During and after the second world war, he had been impressed by the German Autobahn system, which had also been explicitly designed to help move armies and supplies across Germany (railways were still the prime means of strategic movement even in Germany, however).

Like the Roman roads, military highways also fostered trade, and truck and car usage rose to take advantage of the new highways, accelerating demand and thus supply of motor vehicles.

Railways, being mature technology, obviously did not attract the attention of lawmakers the way roads and vehicles did, but I also suspect railway operators were satisfied with the then current system since knowing and understanding the current regulatory system was already a "sunk cost", and also served to keep out potential competitors on the railway industry. If they did not have the foresight to recognize road and air transport as the competition, that is hardly our fault.

AS for pricing externalities, as
Tony says, the costs become subsumed in other things. An economy is similar in many ways to an ecosystem, and just as hard to predict outcomes, much less control them. You may have noticed that the recent attempt to "price" externalities by creating a "Carbon exchange" in Europe has been a massive failure.

Externalities are often external because they are diffuse in nature. Attempting to solve them is a bit like trying to get a drop of ink out of a bucket of water. The effort and energy to do so is far beyond the expected benefits.

Tony said...

Brett:

"The rule that everyone understands. An externality is a cost that falls upon people not directly involved in a market transaction."

That's not an accounting rule. That's a definition. And it's not exaclty a good one, since externalities tend to be bandied about in cases where (as Thucydides pointed out) the indirect costs are diffused beyond the point of reasonable accountability.

Also, along with diffused costs, there are diffused benefits. Even the most tree-hugging, bike-riding, oganic-eating Cause Guy beneifts from the automotive economy. It bring everything to him that he needs, in the form of deliveries to the various businesses that he patronizes. If we want to track externalities, they come right back to the people that think they don't qualify as parts of the system.

So, diffuse costs, diffuse benefits, all accounted for somewhere, just not in direct relationships. And that's because they can't be. Everybody benefits, everybody pays.

BruceJohnJennerLawso said...

Byron said

This doesn't follow. If anything, peace would mean the more extreme air power advocates had no experience to temper their views. They'd have even more confidence in the efficacy of atomic weapons, and want them all the more.

What air power advocates? What airplanes? Air power didnt really become fashionable until the interwar period, really over-hyped at the time, not as effective in reality (the devils in the details)

I would argue that most of the great powers, pre-WW1, would have been highly opposed to atomic weapons. Without aircraft to deliver it, the only plausible way to use it would be a suicide attack on the ground, an easy way for a disaffected person or group to attack the government.

Of course, considering the discussion currently happening, I suppose that an airship could deliver an A-bomb as well. Might make for an interesting alternate history where the WW1 zeppelins drop something more on London...

Byron said...

Bruce:
What air power advocates? What airplanes? Air power didnt really become fashionable until the interwar period, really over-hyped at the time, not as effective in reality (the devils in the details)
I'm confused. Your suggestion appeared to be that the interwar period didn't end in World War II when it did, so the airpower people would still be around.

As for the earlier use of the atomic bomb, not a chance. Technology tends to be more self-reinforcing than we often admit. The theoretical framework for nuclear weapons didn't exist until the interwar period, and the practical building of the weapons relied on lots of things that they didn't have until then, either. Specifically, I don't think they could have enriched the necessary uranium prewar. It would probably be possible to make the bomb if they had that and the necessary knowledge, but they didn't.

Mangaka2170 said...

Additionally, they already had a perfectly viable delivery system for nuclear weapons pre-airpower: artillery. If they were that driven to build and use nukes, it would have been a fairly simple matter to adapt existing technology to deploy them, much like how bombers were adapted from conventional warfare to deploying nukes.

Tony said...

I'm with Byron on this. Aircraft are a lesser included offense of a technological toolbox capable of nuclear weapons.

Byron said...

Mangaka2170:
Additionally, they already had a perfectly viable delivery system for nuclear weapons pre-airpower: artillery. If they were that driven to build and use nukes, it would have been a fairly simple matter to adapt existing technology to deploy them, much like how bombers were adapted from conventional warfare to deploying nukes.
Not really. The problem is that even the longest-range artillery pieces are unsuitable for strategic bombing, which is where nuclear weapons are really useful. The Paris Gun was originally 211mm, later bored out to 238mm with a range of ~130 km. The first nuclear artillery piece was the M65 Atomic Cannon, which was 280mm and had a range of about 32 km. It was first deployed in 1953, after a lot of bombs had been tested. The W33 (203mm) wasn't deployed until 1957. So to produce a viable nuclear artillery shell, it takes years and lots of testing. Also, those were not high-yield devices, and tended to be inefficient users of uranium. That said, I don't see nuclear weapons occurring significantly before aircraft able to carry them.

Also, WRT nuclear weapon use biasing us against anything nuclear, I'd almost have to say that the opposite is true to some extent. If more had been used, and if they hadn't brought the war to such a screeching halt, we'd have seen them as really big bombs instead of something special and different. That in turn takes 'nuclear' out of the exotic category and puts it into mundane.

Thucydides said...

The letter that Albert Einstein wrote in 1939 suggested another possibility:

In the course of the last four months it has been made probable — through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America — that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future. This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable — though much less certain — that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.

Geoffrey S H said...

"In short, I'm not interested in whitewashing the Spanish Conquest of America. My point is, painting Spaniards as anything different from contemporary Frenchmen, Englishmen or Germans (or other human beings) is ridiculous. All over Europe personal beliefs were crimes serious enough to merit torture and execution."

Indeed. Us Brits were responsible (arguably) for far more deaths in the long run. A share of the 20 million native Americans killed, 10 million slaves overworked during the 18th century, and around 50 million Indians killed (through "accidently on purpose" famines) during the time of the EIC and the Raj.

WRT Airships and ekranoplans- might it be possible to see these as immature technologies that need some improvements that we cannot yet foresee, leading to their adoption POST plausible mid future? Some handwavium lifting material for airships for example. If so then one could create a setting 1000 years in the future (for example) that has technology at least a little more plausible than the usual tired "post-singularity beings of pure energy(tm) travelling around in anti-gravity cars" premise. I seem to see that more and more in far-future sf.

WRT railways, I do sometimes wonder what would have happened over here in Britain had Dr Beeching not eviscerated the railways quite so badly in favour of cars. Certainly the lack of a trans-Welsh line (you have to go through England to get from North to South) was a major irritant when I was at uni in Wales...

Byron said...

Geoffrey:
WRT Airships and ekranoplans- might it be possible to see these as immature technologies that need some improvements that we cannot yet foresee, leading to their adoption POST plausible mid future? Some handwavium lifting material for airships for example. If so then one could create a setting 1000 years in the future (for example) that has technology at least a little more plausible than the usual tired "post-singularity beings of pure energy(tm) travelling around in anti-gravity cars" premise. I seem to see that more and more in far-future sf.
That would require the discovery of a material with negative density, and the physics implications of that are incredibly bizarre. Negative density means negative mass, and anyone who's taken basic physics is now cringing in horror. Theoretically, an object with negative mass would move towards you if you push on it.
If you went with antigravity instead, it's not really an airship.

Tony said...

Byron:

"Also, WRT nuclear weapon use biasing us against anything nuclear, I'd almost have to say that the opposite is true to some extent. If more had been used, and if they hadn't brought the war to such a screeching halt, we'd have seen them as really big bombs instead of something special and different. That in turn takes 'nuclear' out of the exotic category and puts it into mundane."

Even before the first bomb was tested, it was understood that it was in a category all by itelf as a means of applying force. We should remember that a technical demonstration on an uninhabited island was considered, simply because using the weapon meant you couldn't unuse it. While the war continued, the atomic bomb was a weapon to be used. But even if ten or twenty had been used before Japan capitulated, after the war, it's power would have immediately set it apart.

"That would require the discovery of a material with negative density, and the physics implications of that are incredibly bizarre. Negative density means negative mass, and anyone who's taken basic physics is now cringing in horror. Theoretically, an object with negative mass would move towards you if you push on it.
If you went with antigravity instead, it's not really an airship."


The more I read about stellar and gravitational physics, the more I realize that gravity alone is the ultimate source of all energy in the universe. Antigravity, therefore, seems almost like an unreasonable birthday wish.

Thucydides:

"The letter that Albert Einstein wrote in 1939 suggested another possibility"

At the time the letter was written, nobody was quite sure how big a device had to be to work. But the actual authors of the letter -- Szilard, Teller, and Wigner -- wanted to make it clear that it would be of a size to be delivered somehow. As such, that passage is a bit of a historical curiosity, but not a serious "serving suggestion".

Byron said...

Tony:
The more I read about stellar and gravitational physics, the more I realize that gravity alone is the ultimate source of all energy in the universe. Antigravity, therefore, seems almost like an unreasonable birthday wish.
He said handwavium. That allows you to make unreasonable birthday wishes. I was pointing out that the idea of something with negative density (which would be required for a better airship) is basically impossible to conceptualize.

At the time the letter was written, nobody was quite sure how big a device had to be to work. But the actual authors of the letter -- Szilard, Teller, and Wigner -- wanted to make it clear that it would be of a size to be delivered somehow. As such, that passage is a bit of a historical curiosity, but not a serious "serving suggestion".
Actually, the Soviets did work along those lines. The November-class was originally planned with a 1.55 m torpedo to attack harbors with.

Tony said...

Byron:

"He said handwavium. That allows you to make unreasonable birthday wishes. I was pointing out that the idea of something with negative density (which would be required for a better airship) is basically impossible to conceptualize."

To be 100% accurate, a better airship would require a gas of nearer-to-zero density, yet sill capable of inflating a gasbag. You don't have to throw out conventional physics for that. I'd say a gas of hot gammas would do nicely. Of course, that requires an unobtainium envelope, but even wierder stuff like negative mass material need not apply.

"Actually, the Soviets did work along those lines. The November-class was originally planned with a 1.55 m torpedo to attack harbors with."

Yes, and the concept was obviated by advances in long-range aircraft and missiles before it could ever be implemented. I believe you were the guy who originally made the point about technological toolets coming in indivisiable packages. ;-)

Tony said...

That's "toolsets", not "toolets".

Tony said...

On further consideration, you could make the perfect airship out of some material, X, that had the properties:

1. Strong enough to resist atmospheric pressure on the outside, with nothing but a vacuum inside, and

2. Light enough per cubic whatever that the total package of vacuum and envelope is less dense than air.

If a vacuum-filled cylinder of X was sufficiently light, one could actually build a useful lighter-than-air craft around it. It would only have to be neutrally buoyant at ground level to have utility, since wings and propulsion could give it dynamic lift for altitude. Wouldn't that be a fun toy?

Byron said...

Tony:
To be 100% accurate, a better airship would require a gas of nearer-to-zero density, yet sill capable of inflating a gasbag. You don't have to throw out conventional physics for that. I'd say a gas of hot gammas would do nicely. Of course, that requires an unobtainium envelope, but even wierder stuff like negative mass material need not apply.
That's technically true, but there's not much room for improvement without going to negative density. Hydrogen is .09 kg/m3, while air is 1.225 kg/m3 at STP. So even a handwavium vacuum material would only give a boost of about 8% over current airships. Given what has happened in materials since the heyday of airships, that's not likely to be enough. To put it into perspective, replacing hydrogen with vacuum gives about the same boost as replacing helium with hydrogen.

If a vacuum-filled cylinder of X was sufficiently light, one could actually build a useful lighter-than-air craft around it. It would only have to be neutrally buoyant at ground level to have utility, since wings and propulsion could give it dynamic lift for altitude. Wouldn't that be a fun toy?
I'd balance it for neutral buoyancy at the maximum altitude I expected to have it land at, and with full payload, but other than that, it's as good as you're going to get. Which is still not very good.

Thom S said...

Tony,
To be honest, If I had a material that strong and light, an airship would be pretty low down my list of priorities for things to do with it.

Space elevators, on the other hand...

Jim Baerg said...

"If a vacuum-filled cylinder of X was sufficiently light, one could actually build a useful lighter-than-air craft around it."

That's a thought I had about something that could be done with Larry Niven's Stasis Field or Vernor Vinge's Bobble. Put a large volume of fairly good vacuum in stasis & then use it to support LTA aircraft.

Geoffrey S Hicking said...

... which themselves have all sorts of problems, what with payloads having to be balanced with ballast going in the opposite direction to prevent excess vibrating on the cable.

Thanks for the comments on the airship handwavium gas, thinking up handwavium materials/mechanisms that don't rewrite the laws of physics has been become a small hobby as of late! Not sure what kind of use thinking of this sort of thing would have, but wth, its a hobby...

Geoffrey S H said...

Sorry, my last comment was aimed at space elevaters.

Damien Sullivan said...

"Oh brother. As pointed out to you on numerous occasions, there are no externalities, and everything is accounted."

Wow. You're exactly like someone lecturing physicists about how Einstein is wrong.

"Everybody benefits from the automotive economy, and everybody pays part of the cost"

That's the very definition of externality! Your decision to drive imposes costs (and maybe benefits) on me.

Everyone benefits from the industrial economy too. That doesn't mean we let factories spew whatever pollution they want into the atmosphere any more. Heck, we even regulate car pollution somewhat, directly refuting your claim that we can't and shouldn't bother, "everything is accounted".

***


"You may have noticed that the recent attempt to "price" externalities by creating a "Carbon exchange" in Europe has been a massive failure. "

No, I've noticed no such thing.

And the simpler carbon tax has been a success in BC: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/09/19/how-would-a-carbon-tax-work-lets-ask-british-columbia/

BruceJohnJennerLawso said...

"I'm confused. Your suggestion appeared to be that the interwar period didn't end in World War II when it did, so the airpower people would still be around.

As for the earlier use of the atomic bomb, not a chance. Technology tends to be more self-reinforcing than we often admit. The theoretical framework for nuclear weapons didn't exist until the interwar period, and the practical building of the weapons relied on lots of things that they didn't have until then, either. Specifically, I don't think they could have enriched the necessary uranium prewar. It would probably be possible to make the bomb if they had that and the necessary knowledge, but they didn't.
"

Not sure where you're getting that from, but the key point there was that air power doctrine was developed during the interwar period - 1918-1939.

Actually, for the sake of argument, I think that assumption is worth challenging. The physics understanding required to build an atomic bomb is obviously quite high, but the technologies required aren't really all that difficult to find during the first world war or earlier. To build a "gun" style atomic weapon like the one used at Hiroshima, all that is required is significant quantities of enriched uranium, and a fairly reliable firing mechanism (this is where the boat delivery method actually does start to make more sense)

Of course, obtaining all of that uranium is a bigger problem, since you need to filter out the "heavy" isotopes from the rest of the normal uranium. This can be done on a variety of ways, but the first method that is usually done is gaseous diffusion, running uranium hexafluoride gas through massive lengths of pipes to separate the heavier elements. That sounds fairly doable for any industrialized country after about 1850 or so to me, but the process is incredibly intensive, and it requires a lot of energy, people, and money to happen. Maybe development of atomic weaponry is based more on the ability of a society to organize for a large-scale project than the technology involved?


Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"Wow. You're exactly like someone lecturing physicists about how Einstein is wrong."

Actually, that's a good description of how I perceive your contributions on economics. Funny, huh?

"That's the very definition of externality! Your decision to drive imposes costs (and maybe benefits) on me."

The difficulty here is that the meaning of "externality" does not mean certain cost and only potential benefit. It means all costs and benefits, wherever they exist. That's why I say there are no externalities -- the costs and benefits tend to balance out over the whole system. That's empirically verifiable -- everybody gets what they need through the automotive economy, while at the same time that economy is not overtaking our ability to manage it.

"Everyone benefits from the industrial economy too. That doesn't mean we let factories spew whatever pollution they want into the atmosphere any more. Heck, we even regulate car pollution somewhat, directly refuting your claim that we can't and shouldn't bother, 'everything is accounted'."

Oh, come on -- you're just noting one of the many ways in which the costs are accounted or even mitigated to some extent. That doesn't say anything about the overall distribution of costs and benefits.

Byron said...

Bruce:
Not sure where you're getting that from, but the key point there was that air power doctrine was developed during the interwar period - 1918-1939.
I'm well aware of that. I'm not sure why it's a key point.

Actually, for the sake of argument, I think that assumption is worth challenging. The physics understanding required to build an atomic bomb is obviously quite high, but the technologies required aren't really all that difficult to find during the first world war or earlier. To build a "gun" style atomic weapon like the one used at Hiroshima, all that is required is significant quantities of enriched uranium, and a fairly reliable firing mechanism (this is where the boat delivery method actually does start to make more sense)
This is technically true. However, it requires not only the technologies involved, but also the understanding of the basic physics, which was lacking, and the physics in question could not have been developed much earlier.

Of course, obtaining all of that uranium is a bigger problem, since you need to filter out the "heavy" isotopes from the rest of the normal uranium. This can be done on a variety of ways, but the first method that is usually done is gaseous diffusion, running uranium hexafluoride gas through massive lengths of pipes to separate the heavier elements. That sounds fairly doable for any industrialized country after about 1850 or so to me, but the process is incredibly intensive, and it requires a lot of energy, people, and money to happen. Maybe development of atomic weaponry is based more on the ability of a society to organize for a large-scale project than the technology involved?
I was inclined to agree with you, until I poked around the library's nuclear engineering section for a bit. Gaseous diffusion is vastly more complicated than running UF6 down pipes, which isn't itself that easy, as UF6 is nasty stuff. The metal plates must have holes of absolutely uniform size, and the book I found (which probably dates back to the 70s) indicated that some of the techniques involved were classified. I have no clue if they still are, but it's obviously fairly complex. And then there's the metallurgy. You might be able to compensate for some of this by throwing truly enormous resources at it. But when I say truly enormous, I mean dwarfing the Manhattan project, and that wouldn't happen unless you knew it would work. And that's another impossibility. It's just not realistic.

Thucydides said...

Since Tony has taken care of the Externalities, I'll point out the Carbon exchange in Europe has basically collapsed (including accusations of massive amounts of fraud), and a bitter election currently underway in BC hinges around the carbon tax.

BC's economy has tanked as well, which has a lot to do with the ever increasing tax and regulatory burden the government has imposed (mostly due to the fact that while the BC economy is largely resource driven, the BC electorate is concentrated in urban ridings).

This is another neat example of economics evening out; the very people who vote for controlling the "externalities" are now discovering that the costs of these controls also apply to them in the form of lower economic growth, higher unemployment and escalating government debt.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"This is another neat example of economics evening out; the very people who vote for controlling the "externalities" are now discovering that the costs of these controls also apply to them in the form of lower economic growth, higher unemployment and escalating government debt."

Yep. You want to make me pay, in what you consider a direct sense, for driving my car? Then I'll just past the cost along to you in lowered purchasing power at other transaction points. And the freighting companies will just pass the cost along to you at transaction points they have with their customers, who will in turn pass it on to you directly at the cash register.

Externality theory is really about dissatisfaction with the way the world turned out. It's got nothing to do with economic efficiency, since all it does is impose extra accounting costs on a system that has shaken itself out into workable, if not always pretty, operating shape on its own. That's not exactly good economic sense.

Damien Sullivan said...

Thucydides: "BC's economy has tanked as well"

From my link on the carbon tax: "A notable point here is that British Columbia’s economy has also been growing slightly faster than the rest of Canada since the recession. In 2010 and 2011, the province grew at an average rate of 1.78 percent a year. The rest of Canada has been growing at a 1.64 percent."

Th: "point out the Carbon exchange in Europe has basically collapsed"

You already claimed that. Got a citation this time?

"higher unemployment"

Canada's unemployment rate is 7.2%. BC's is 6.4%

***

In one corner, the entire profession of economics, as represented by a handy economics textbook by Michael Parkin. In the other corner, Tony.

Tony: "The difficulty here is that the meaning of "externality" does not mean certain cost and only potential benefit. It means all costs and benefits, wherever they exist. That's why I say there are no externalities"

Textbook: "An externality is a cost or a benefit arising from an economic transaction that falls on a third party and that is not taken into account by those who undertake the transaction."

Then it goes on to talk about how taxes and subsidies can be used to increase efficiency, though it fails to mention Arthur Pigou.

Will Tony and Thucydides continue contradicting economics, like some guy pushing perpetual motion and FTL? Place your bets!

Tony said...

The difficulty you are facing here Damien is that you are standing on descriptive theory as if it were prescriptive. Just because you can describe pollution (a cost) and fresher food (a benefit) as technical externalities of a transportation company buying a diesel tractor, that doesn't give you a prescription for total cost accounting. It is, after all, just a categorical term.

In practical application, every member of our society is a participant in a fully integrated automotive economy. Nobody can escape it. It cannot be set aside for separate accounting consideration, as may be possible with some niche outgrowth. Anything one does with or to the automotive economy is a cost or benefit to everybody, to some degree. Trying to account for externalities in such a situation is denying reality. All of the costs and benefits are naturally distributed throughout the system by market forces. Trying to redistribute "externality" costs just adds accounting overhead, because every "correctly" assessed cost will be passed back into the system, just with an unnecessary accounting premium attached.

Damien Sullivan said...

So you're still saying you disagree with most professional economists about a matter of economic efficiency.

"All of the costs and benefits are naturally distributed throughout the system by market forces."

This is empty voodoo.

Distributed to whom? When a 1965 suburbanite drove down a freeway in his car fueled by leaded gasoline, he got the benefit of the mobility, while a kid in the housing project next to the freeway got the cost of growing up with the lead. How do market forces handle that?


"Anything one does with or to the automotive economy is a cost or benefit to everybody, to some degree"

That's irrelevant. What matters is that the person deciding to drive more makes that decision unaffected by the cost or benefit affecting everyone else. Given that he reaps most of the benefit, while the cost is distributed among everyone else, he will drive too much.

" It cannot be set aside for separate accounting consideration, as may be possible with some niche outgrowth"

Sure it can. Externalities have nothing to do with "niche outgrowth", they have entirely to do with whether an action affects people other than the person choosing the action. This is true even if everyone is doing the action. If everyone uses A/C with CFCs, the CFCs destroying the ozone layer is an externality affecting everyone, and a tax on CFCs will reduce use and destruction. Conversely, without such a tax, "market forces" will do *nothing* to get people to use CFCs less. There's no "natural distribution", just more skin cancers... which won't get anyone to use their A/C less.

This is literally Econ 101. It should be easier to understand than relativity.

Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"So you're still saying you disagree with most professional economists about a matter of economic efficiency."

"[M]ost professional economists"? So there's a consensus among economits to apply an accounting premium to the entire economy to redistribute costs that are alreadybeing absorbed? Could you please document that?

"This is empty voodoo.

Distributed to whom? When a 1965 suburbanite drove down a freeway in his car fueled by leaded gasoline, he got the benefit of the mobility, while a kid in the housing project next to the freeway got the cost of growing up with the lead. How do market forces handle that?"


First of all, by 1965, most people had cars, or knew somebody who did, and who would give them a ride. And please don't tell me I'm FOS. I was there. I lived about 10 miles from downtown LA, in a lower middle class bedroom community. I didn't know a family that didn't have a car. The rich suburbanites with cars and poor city dwellers with public transporation is lie. Most people had the benefit of an automobile.

Likewise, air pollution was visited upon everybody. People that had cars drove them in their own neighborhoods as much as they drove them anywhere else.

How do those costs get absorbed? A little bit at a time, by everyone.

"That's irrelevant. What matters is that the person deciding to drive more makes that decision unaffected by the cost or benefit affecting everyone else. Given that he reaps most of the benefit, while the cost is distributed among everyone else, he will drive too much."

Who decides what is "too much". And how do you figure he reaps "most" of the benefit? The people that made the car, including the extended supply chain, benefit. The people who work in the petroleum extraction, refining, and ditirbution industry certainly benefit. The people who make and do all kinds of things peripheral to the automotive economy, like cleaning supplies, benefit. You want to deny the existence of all of thoe benefits? Go ahead. Make a fool of yourself.

"Sure it can. Externalities have nothing to do with 'niche outgrowth',"

I never said they did. I said that the automotive economy couldn't be treated like a nich outgrowth. Go back and check. I'll wait...

Are we straight now? Ok...

"they have entirely to do with whether an action affects people other than the person choosing the action. This is true even if everyone is doing the action. If everyone uses A/C with CFCs, the CFCs destroying the ozone layer is an externality affecting everyone, and a tax on CFCs will reduce use and destruction. Conversely, without such a tax, 'market forces' will do *nothing* to get people to use CFCs less. There's no 'natural distribution', just more skin cancers... which won't get anyone to use their A/C less."

You're trying to make a distinction between the purely economic marketplace and the marketplace of ideas that exists in politics. Political action to mitigate unnecessary or unwanted costs is part of the marketplace. Likewise cleanup, where necessary. One of the reasons that we have governments is to apply collective action to collective challenges that would be too hard to piece out.

"This is literally Econ 101. It should be easier to understand than relativity."

No, it's Voodoo 101, to borrow a turn of phrase.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Rick, isn't it about time for a new post?

Ferrell

Noclevername said...

So didn't this thread start out as being about tech levels? Could someone talk about that again? It was an interesting topic while it lasted.

Damien Sullivan said...

"One of the reasons that we have governments is to apply collective action to collective challenges that would be too hard to piece out."

Yes, and one of those collective actions is taxing or subsidizing negative or positive externalities.

"No, it's Voodoo 101, to borrow a turn of phrase."

So, an idea literally in my econ text book -- I could give you ISBN and page number -- is Voodoo 101? You're a crackpot.

Damien Sullivan said...

I take it back, this isn't like denying relativity; relativity is complicated. This is like the newspaper saying Goddard was wrong and rockets couldn't work in space because there was nothing to push against.

Damien Sullivan said...

This is actually accidentally relevant to the topic; the past few years have shown us how countries that can make spacecraft and nuclear weapons can also regress in economics back to the 1920s, forgetting all the lessons of e.g. Keynesianism. It's like a fictional civilization with FTL but no germ theory of disease because they've lost it, or they're feudal because the author likes aristocrats. Social institutions are also a technology.

***

Consider two cars, A and B. They perform identically for the driver. A costs $10,000 to build and in its life imposes $10,000 in medical costs, spread around the population. B costs $15,000 and is clean.

An economist would say car A should be taxed $10,000, to internalize the health costs it otherwise generates as an externality; this would make everyone buy car B as obviously cheaper, and society would be better off.

Tony says there's no need, externalities don't exist and everything's accounted for, so everyone in his society would spend $10k on a car and $10k on health costs caused by everyone else in society.

More to the point, some freak who uniquely didn't drive would spend $0 in the car B case and $10k in health costs in the car A case. Someone who drives car B when everyone else is driving car A spends $25,000, 15 on the car and 10 on health. Car A causes an externality.

Anonymous said...

From the Oxford Dictionary (US English):

externality

1 Economics a side effect or consequence of an industrial or commercial activity that affects other parties without this being reflected in the cost of the goods or services involved, such as the pollination of surrounding crops by bees kept for honey.

2 Philosophy the fact of existing outside the perceiving subject.

Note the bee pollination example. Externalities do exist. A discussion as to whether or not a particular example really is an externality is getting too far into the weeds, especialy for a blog topic called "The Balance of Technology."

Ron

Anonymous said...

Cambias:

"Meanwhile outside those societies, there is a constant weird juxtaposition of imported high-tech with traditional devices. The most vivid right now is the African cell phone system, which allows people who are conducting pre-industrial subsistence farming to use smartphones."

If you have a scenario with a capitalistic economy, the uneven spread of technology will be based on cost. Worlds that can't afford the latest robotic factories or farming could still afford some pretty fancy gadgets.

Basically, the society would not be able to buy big ticket items, but could deploy cheaper infrastructure. Then the people could buy mass produced personal tech, assuming shipping costs were reasonable. Things like communicators, personal computers, and laser rifles for controlling the local BEM population.

A poor world maybe a pushover when the Imperial Fleet arrives, but watch out for the well equipped insurgency.

Ron

Rick said...

Hey, Rick, isn't it about time for a new post?

Yes it is - for multiple reasons. My promise to post one 'soon' turned out to be ... relative.


The bad news is that I'm intensively editing Catherine of Lyonesse, working against deadline. The good news is that I'm close to wrapping it up.

So there really should be a new post up in the next few days!

Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"Yes, and one of those collective actions is taxing or subsidizing negative or positive externalities.

Incorrect. That's an outcome you desire. That's not a duty of government. The duty of government is to do those things through collective action that would be inefficient or just plain wrong to do through individual action and initiative. There's no mandate to redistribute cost and benefits in the puruit of factionalized ideas of jutice. In fact, we think that that's a wrong thing for government to do.

And whether you care to admit it or not, redistribution of of the costs of the automotive economy is a factional objective. It's based on purely philosophical interpretation of the desirability and impact of automotive transportation. It's nothing more than punitive cost redistribution, designed to reverse an outcome that most people are satisfied with, but that a small faction can't abide, for reasons that amount to sour grapes.

"So, an idea literally in my econ text book -- I could give you ISBN and page number -- is Voodoo 101? You're a crackpot."

You have an economics textbook that says that the direct users of automotive technology receive almost all of the benefit and pay almost none of the cots? Let's have a fair use cite, please.

Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"Consider two cars, A and B. They perform identically for the driver. A costs $10,000 to build and in its life imposes $10,000 in medical costs, spread around the population. B costs $15,000 and is clean.

An economist would say car A should be taxed $10,000, to internalize the health costs it otherwise generates as an externality; this would make everyone buy car B as obviously cheaper, and society would be better off.

Tony says there's no need, externalities don't exist and everything's accounted for, so everyone in his society would spend $10k on a car and $10k on health costs caused by everyone else in society.

More to the point, some freak who uniquely didn't drive would spend $0 in the car B case and $10k in health costs in the car A case. Someone who drives car B when everyone else is driving car A spends $25,000, 15 on the car and 10 on health. Car A causes an externality."


The problem with such toy examples is that they don't represent reality. There's no real car that likely causes anywhere as much damage as it costs. There's no real car that causes no damage at all. There's no economically or administratively realistic way to even approximate what the actual net extended cost of a given car is. What are the costs of industrial accidents, industrial waste streams, etc? In the steel industry alone, how do you apportion those into the individual cars, railroad rails, ship hull plates, hardware, tools...whatever, that steel gets made into. What's the benefit of returning scrap into the manufacturing system? On the other hand, what's the value of wages, benefits, etc that the steel indutry generates? And why aren't we symmetrically rolling up those benefits as a discount on the rolled up costs?

Well, actually, all of that is happening.

Obviously, the person who purchases the car or commercial vehicle knows that an industrial infrastructure, with both costs and benefits, exists behind that purchase. And even if he doesn't know all of the details, if he is even minimally economically aware, he knows that some proportion of all of the overhead costs of the industrial system are rolled up into the purchase price. Likewise, all of the benefits that that system provides are paid for by him as well, in the form of wages, benefits, and profits. The purchaser knows this, at least in abstract. He knows that his car pollutes, and that he will pay premiums in his taxes and in the cost of manufatured goods for mitigation and cleanup.

So all of the technical externalities that economists love to point to are fully, if not always consciously, intended by both the purchaser and seller. And both the benefits and costs accrue throughout the system and are accounted for at every point they come due. To say that they don't is living in denial of reality.

Cordwainer said...

Has Taken me along time to get caught up woth this blog so I will try to put in my two cents.
1) No World War II probalbly would mean more peaceful development of nuclear energy versus use as a weapon, although someone would have eventually developed into a weapon. The concept for building a nuclear reactor or a nuclear bomb were already well understood around the beginning of the 20th century, like Lilienfeld's transistor it was a question of developing the materials of production not the initial investment cost. Space based solar power and skyhooks will cost an exorbitant initial cost unless someone comes up with anti-gravity.
2) Traditional manufacturing and agriculture practices are "better" in some cases. Like when you have a poor economy with limited manufacturing resources or when you live within a climate zone with a different latitude and ecology then the "Goldilocks" zone that most of our current staple crops developed.
3) The treasure fleets while affected as much by gamesmanship between different schools of thought by different "Schools of Eunuchs" did have some economic benefits. For one the brought direct wealth to the members of the royal court via "tribute". While this was paltry in comparison to the total wealth gained in domestic taxes it was a lot more showy and did not require as great a level of direct management and oversight by the court members themselves, since they would be receiving such entitlements as "gifts" and not as privilege of service to the state at a domestic level. Also the treasure fleets helped to establish or reestablish protections to chinese merchants that they had enjoyed during the Mongol Yuan rule. Essentially the Ming were able to outsource their protection from pirates and brigandage via the Treasure Fleets. Finally the opened up or improved new markets through their direct military influence in creating the early Javanese and Sinhalese empires.
4) A Hybrid Ekranoplane/Aerostat or hovercraft/parwig are a better idea then airships. Their has been some talk of using "airtrams" in Japan.
5) In a world without Muhammad there are other faiths to consider then traditional Christianity and Zoraostrianism. Nestorian Christianity and Gnosticism was popular in the Arabian Peninsula, while Manichaeism and Zurvanism were common in the Levant. An early form of Mahayyana Buddhism supported by the Gupta Empire was making inroads in the Middle East at the time as well.
6) The Shogunate used snapping matchlocks in warfare on a relatively common basis, they merely controlled their use to special units and after the Christian revolts banned their possession by samurai vassals. Bombs and grenades were commonly used even before the Western trade. Large artillery pieces were heavily restricted from the 17th century on.
7) Light rail makes sense in the U.S. if it is tied to other forms of transportation like airports, ferries and seaports. As for government involvement in such endeavors I think breaking up Amtrak into smaller regional carriers like how the government broke up Ma Bell would be a good first step to deregulation or "proper regulation".
8) I agree that economic externalities are essentially "theoretical hogwash". The regulatory pricing index on housing and mortgage lenders should be example enough as to why such things don't work in the real world. Prices are never fixed and are always variable and are dependant more on what people will pay rather than what something is really worth. Damien don't believe everything you read in a text book, every salesman knows that what you can believe in is what you can handshake on. While externalities do exist it is nigh near impossible to actually calculate them into the cost of production because the costs are always changing.

Cordwainer said...

I would also like to point out that as much as economist s and economic regulators like to avail themselves of terms like "fair use" and "cost and benefit analysis" they don't actually run the market. The market is run by by buyers and sellers who are largely uneducated neophytes who set the their prices via more "gut-based and immediate concerns" like paying their mortgage, selling their overstock or raising their quarterly returns on their stock options. As much as conservatives talk about how the market is overly regulated it is not that over-regulated. Even in markets that are highly regulated like agriculture and banking people find ways to find a "fair market" price. For instance local growers selling their products and food-coops and farmer markets for prices higher or lower then the common market price or banks and lending agencies engaging in "shadow banking" to get around government lending regulations.

Cordwainer said...

Also when my Introduction to Economics professor hit upon economic externalities in class he explained them very succinctly through his experiences as the Regional President of the Pacific Rail and then proceeded to tell us what a bunch of useless malarkey trying to calculate them was.

Cordwainer said...

To make a long point short and not to sound prescriptive like Tony will probably say I am. Everything is politics whether its trade, war, economic planning, civic engineering or policement. And, like Huey Long said all politics is local politics.

Tony said...

Cordwainer:

"To make a long point short and not to sound prescriptive like Tony will probably say I am. Everything is politics whether its trade, war, economic planning, civic engineering or policement. And, like Huey Long said all politics is local politics."

Sounds pretty de-scriptive and grounded in reality to me.

Cordwainer said...

While we might not be using two-stage rockets to get to orbit we might have chemical based SSTO in an advanced setting, Skylon, Roton or laser launching being plausible examples. I also recently came upon a thread about thermopower or combustion wave technology which seems to have a plethora of uses both as a power source as well as uses in kinetics and propulsion if it scales up to larger sizes well.

Environment could also effect technological development. Low gravity planets might quickly replace fuel cells and electric propulsion for combustion engines. Metal poor worlds might never develop electrical devices, or only develop small scale electrical devices that use very little energy. If we colonize young effectively dead worlds then fossil fuels might be non-existent so any post-apocalyptic or techno-barbaric scenario might rely on simpler hydrocarbons. Similarly without jet grade fuels aircraft might be limited to pulse and piston jet engines running on a combination of biodiesel ,methanol and ethanol. Automobiles might run on steam heated by methane flash evaporators or use ammonia in combustion engines instead of the more expensive biodiesel.

Cordwainer said...

By the way Tony while most of the German artillery was horse-drawn during World War II, didn't they also make heavy use of railroads to haul those horses and guns to the fighting front?

A possible example of a limited use technology in the near future could be a "reactionless drive" or FTL drive using Machian principles like the Woodward effect. While Alcubbiere-like warp drives seem a long way off and on the edge of plausibility, a quantum vacuum plasma thruster or giganto-magnetoresistant tether/sail seem plausible. While the thrust seems limited to micronewtons a sufficiently dense power source, beamed power or advanced photophoresics could bring it's mass to thrust ratios down to solar thermal propulsion levels or better without SMP's limitations. It would also make it much easier to "stealth" your ship. This would also make small ships and "fighters" more advantageous in a space opera setting where your limited to conventional rocketry.

I imagine you could have a fleet of pocket carriers with stealthy fighters. Ships could be fitted with photophoresic panels and nano-photonic radiators that would double as metamaterials and adaptive camouflaging devices. Auxiliary propulsion, maneuvering and munitions could be provided by thermopower pulse jet rockets, which if the technology scales up well could allow a great deal of throttle between plasma drive levels of thrust to chemical drive levels.

Of course all these technologies would invariably have uses in other areas as well and would largely rely on cheap graphene, nanotubes and other carbo-carbon materials. Needless to say this would not change things that greatly. We might replace combustion vehicles with hybrids and electrical vehicles. Portable electronics would get smaller, do more and look cooler. Computing would get faster but not immediately so. (It took us a while to fully make use of silicon based transistors and integrated chips I imagine graphene will be the same) Spark plugs and other ignition devices would be replaced by combustion wave power plasma arcs. Handheld kinetics would use ETC or Ionic propulsion instead of gunpowder and you might eventually have energy densities sufficient to power some type of hand-held gas dynamic laser. No FTL though until you can mega-engineer a Dyson Sphere or its equivalent. No fusion drives(don't need them) and lasers as artillery would be less useful due to the fact that cheap graphene and meta-materials would allow effective high temperature ablative armor and radiators as well as a certain amount of "adaptive armoring".

Cordwainer said...

Interesting historical parallel with the Treasure Ship's of yore, South Korea has built mega container ships and Norway has recently received shipment of these monsters. Of course the global prevalence of a cash economy versus a barter economy make trade imbalances less of an issue. Still I don't see them revolutionizing the industry like they think they will, they are likely to be relegated to regional long range barges not global carriers. If you want to revolutionize long distance naval trade then smaller, faster and more efficient like the Boeing Dreamliner are the way to go. Of course when it comes to long distance passenger air I think bigger may be better, the Dreamliner is more suitable to medium to long distance overland commuter flights, which are the majority. That being said even with air travel costs going up and less people buying tickets I don't think Airbus is going to have any problems filling seats.

Long distance maritime trade might benefit more from wave piercing hull designs or a more efficient hydroplaning hull design, I think?

Tony said...

Cordwainer:

"By the way Tony while most of the German artillery was horse-drawn during World War II, didn't they also make heavy use of railroads to haul those horses and guns to the fighting front?"

Te reality is that you can't have modern war without railroads, even today. You don't want tracked vehicles to march long distances on their tracks, and tank transporters are of limited utility, in that you can't move a lot of AFVs with them in a single lift. The Germans' reliance on railroads was implicit in their war making capability, whether you're talking about their horse-drawn transportation or their mechanized forces.

Which is not a criticism of the Germans. The Soviets, British, and Americans were in the same boat.

Tony said...

Also, we have to remember that the assets that start a campaign on the front line are still there (or close to it) six weeks and six months down the road. If the front has moved hundreds of miles, so have those assets, on their own feet, wheels, or tracks. Yeah, the railhead for supply is behind them or working hard to catch up, but that doesn't make a difference to the guys in the fighting formations, as far as wear ant tear is concerned.

Cordwainer said...

Well yes not being able to reposition your artillery quickly puts you at a disadvantage but Germany's highly mobile heavily armored tanks and precision bombing put Allied artillery in much the same position. The big difference is that the Allies were better at using their air assets both for supply, aircover and other support roles while the blitzkrieg tactics that utilized airpower as a strategic extension of artillery rather than a tactical support net led to a dangerous inflexibility. By the time the Germans adapted materiel losses made it difficult to regain lost ground.

Getting back to the point though it is quite possible to have a mix of old and new technologies if those technologies are used in the proper way or if they complement themselves in such a way to make up for the shortcomings of antiquated tech. Water cooled barrels on a Colt-Browning machine gun,the the Russian use of machine guns on horse drawn "tatanka" carriages and the use of long range "camel guns" by the Arabs are all good examples.

jollyreaper said...

I have a good case in point for tech balance.

Attack on Titan is a recent manga that deals with a post-apocalyptic future.

"Set in a world where the remains of the human population live inside cities surrounded by enormous walls due to the sudden appearance of the Titans, gigantic humanoid creatures who devour humans seemingly without reason. The story centers around the life of Eren Jaeger and his adoptive sister Mikasa Ackerman, whose lives are changed forever after the appearance of a colossal Titan brings about the destruction of their home and the death of their mother."

http://www.mangahere.com/manga/shingeki_no_kyojin/c001/

This story operates on several levels -- the first level is mystery, namely what are the Titans, where did they come from, why do they kill humans, especially when there is no need for them to eat to live? How do they violate all physical laws? The second level is pure horror because these monsters are creepy as hell and humanity is overwhelmed by them. The third level is that the characters remain interesting.

The worldbuilding doesn't really make a lot of sense. We're looking at a feudal environment with gunpowder and cannons but those aren't very effective against the Titans. The best way to kill them is to use three dimensional maneuver gear which is basically a set of harnesses and grappling hooks that let the operator do spiderman/batman tricks, getting into position where lethal strikes can be delivered to the backs of the monsters' necks.

You can clearly see where inspiration has come from. The giants bodily eating humans feel is straight from Goya's Saturn. It's great horror. The maneuver gear is clearly trying to come up with a pseudo-sciency way to explain crazy-ass ninja jumping that's always popular in supernatural martial arts stories. It can't possibly work but it doesn't really get stick in my craw since I'm interested in where the story is going.

It's certainly worth a look. The manga is up to date at the link provided. They're also making an anime that's very well-received.

A clip from the show so you can see what it's like.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=ZcURve9mZ20

The takeaway for me is that while I have a preference for stuff that's really thought out and well-planned, I can be won over and not nitpick if the story is good enough. But it takes a really good story.

Pretty much I'd say that the show is an anacrhonism stew that doesn't entirely make sense but you are engaged enough in the mystery of the Titans that you aren't inclined to nitpick and let it bug you. But God help us all if it ends like a Galactica.

jollyreaper said...

track

Cordwainer said...

To discuss Jim Baerg's entries at the beginning of this blog I would personally favor ammonia since the economics look more feasible and it tends to be a more energy dense fuel than the simple hydrocarbons most easily produced from Fischer-Tropsch. Hydrocarbons from seawater seems to run into the same economic roadblocks as hydrogen from electrolysis in my opinion. Namely how do you power the process and where do you get your hydrogen source for instance in the final cost analysis this makes the process energy intensive, at least with hydrocarbons from coal you can use the coal to initially power the process and then use the synthgas to power the production and provide feedstock for other hydrocarbons in situ. Ammonia on the other hand just requires the right gases and a lot of pressure and can be produced organically as well. Of course methane can be produced organically as well and I have supported the idea of a methane/synthgas/natural gas/liquid petroleum gas infrastructure for some time now, although that is more due to the fact that I don't think the fossil fuel industry or are current fuel infrastructure are capable of adapting quickly to a non-fossil alternative. Using such a system would allow us to make the change without having to radically reengineer our fuel delivery infrastructure or combustion engine technology. Their is also the major problem of methane being one of the most dangerous green house gases, so either burning it directly or getting rid of it in some fashion(ie. reforming it into more complex hydrocarbons and plastics) makes an unorthodox sense to me. Of course on a young world without plant life or that has not undergone a carboniferous type period you might not have "mother coal" to rely on so reforming fuel from sea water might make a perverse sense compared to other methods.

Also I think there are a number of high tech a low tech ways to "direct" and manage a boarding operation in space. Weaponry, cyber warfare and rules of engagement might make it the preferred method of space combat. That being the case a large knife or short sword like the hissatsu would be ideal I think, in which case escrima and butte-jitsu would be excellent training for soldiers particularly since those arts also include throws, traps and strikes that can be used bare hands situations. Personally though I tend to think that warfare will tend to become more and more impersonal as technology advances, this has been the trend since the first cave man invented a sling.

Cordwainer said...

Looks like I might have to give "Attack of the Titans" a try have been to busy with Suisei no Gargantua, Railgun and a half dozen mediocre harem animes to look at that one yet. Although Suisei no Gargantua brings up some other often used "technology limiting" tropes. Namely a global flood and alien interference or "overseer-ship".

Tony said...

Cordwainer:

"Well yes not being able to reposition your artillery quickly puts you at a disadvantage but Germany's highly mobile heavily armored tanks and precision bombing put Allied artillery in much the same position. The big difference is that the Allies were better at using their air assets both for supply, aircover and other support roles while the blitzkrieg tactics that utilized airpower as a strategic extension of artillery rather than a tactical support net led to a dangerous inflexibility. By the time the Germans adapted materiel losses made it difficult to regain lost ground."

Have to correct a few things here. German tanks -- especially the later, heavier ones -- weren't as immobile as some people like to assert, but they weren't particularly mobile either. What made the Germans effective earli in the war was their use of a fully motorized, all-arms formation -- the panzer division. Other armies were still confused about how to use armor effectively and not aware of how to counter penetrations by mobile forces.

By 1943 everybody had their equivalent of the panzer division. (The Soviets had a couple different takes on it in their tank and mechanized corps, plus a large cavalry force that had significant operational mobility as well.

Having said all of that, the Germans did make some unfortunate choices WRT to air power, but it's not like everybody took the heavy strategic bomber route. In fact, only the US and Great Britain did. Everybody else was content with medium bombers, ground attack, and fighters.

"Getting back to the point though it is quite possible to have a mix of old and new technologies if those technologies are used in the proper way or if they complement themselves in such a way to make up for the shortcomings of antiquated tech. Water cooled barrels on a Colt-Browning machine gun,the the Russian use of machine guns on horse drawn 'tatanka' carriages and the use of long range 'camel guns' by the Arabs are all good examples.

I'd be careful about what I called "antiquated". Technologies do mature. But if they're still useful, they still get used. We've already talked about railroads, which will achieve two centuries of practical application within most of our lifetimes. But sticking with weapons, a Lewis machinegun from a centruy ago could still be used as a light machinegun today. It wouldn't be the most handy weapon of the type, but it would still fire fast enough, reliably enough, with modern ammunition.* Also, our US service rifle, the M16/M4, is 60 years in service now. We've applied optical sights to it, but the basic technology hasn't changed.

*Modern ammunition being defined as:
>> metallic-cased
>> smokeless powder
>> 8 mm or less, with pointed, jacketed projectiles
Note that this type of ammunition has been in use for just about 120 years now.

Tony said...

Cordwainer:

"Also I think there are a number of high tech a low tech ways to "direct" and manage a boarding operation in space. Weaponry, cyber warfare and rules of engagement might make it the preferred method of space combat. That being the case a large knife or short sword like the hissatsu would be ideal I think, in which case escrima and butte-jitsu would be excellent training for soldiers particularly since those arts also include throws, traps and strikes that can be used bare hands situations.

How does one use a knife in a spacesuit?

Also, you can't get leverage to practice hand-to-hand techniques in microgravity.

" Personally though I tend to think that warfare will tend to become more and more impersonal as technology advances, this has been the trend since the first cave man invented a sling."

Hmmm...yes and no. War is impersonal at the policy level in a way Caesar and even Napoleon would never have recognized. But it can still get real personal at the point of contact. When you can see the guy you're shooting -- and you still have to, with a rifle or machinegun -- it's not dying-breath-in-the-face personal, but it's still a distinct man consciously trying to kill another, distinct man.

Damien Sullivan said...

I'm not sure Attack on Titan is clearly set in the future, rather than in some alternate very low fantasy pseudo-Earth.

It and Gargantia have some odd parallels, as well as being hugely opposite.

Cordwainer said...

Tony, I don't see the error in my judgements on German tankery during the early part of the war even the weakest armor on a German APC was thicker than early French and Soviet tanks. While Soviet tanks were greatly improved and were probably superior in many ways it was the fact that the Germans were able to use mobile infantry composed of various vehicles in a networked system that made them a force to be reckoned with. Also as to air power I was kind of trying to make the point that the Allies were better at using air power for ground attacks and supply missions than the Germans were. In other words the Allies were better at close in tactical air support while the Germans were more concerned with "big picture" strategic operations.

I should have said antique tech not antiquated that was a mistake on my part, though probably not one that most of our reader's would notice or care about.

As for how you use a knife in a space suit I would guess you meant to say how do you use a knife against a space suit, since I'm certain there are a number of ways you could mount and handle a knife easily even with a cumbersome Apollo tech ELV suit. If you are using a pressurized suit I would say you would want to handle a knife very carefully though or use a hawkbill or sheepsfoot design. If you use a mechanical counter-pressure "hard suit" then a peshkabz or poignard design might be better for getting through crevices in the counter-pressure plates and joints. My suggestion of a hissatsu is predicated on the fact that I think most hand to hand actions during boarding actions would happen aboard ships in pressurized or enclosed environments and in narrow space saving hallways.(even if you vent the air a simple oxygen mask and goggles will still allow your soldier to stay on the move, they would probably be able to operate unmasked for some time after an "explosive decompression") Why narrow hallways you ask, well it controls access and the smaller the amount of crew habitat that you have to provide life support to the more room you have for fuel, armor and munitions. As for martial arts training the type of knife design matters very little since slashing attacks and traps will still offer an offensive capability even if they don't cause a lot of physical damage. A slash can be used as a feint or block while a trap can be followed up with a trap or a throw if your opponent is in an armored suit. Of course your suit could be made of really tough substances, but current suits use layered protection to absorb things like micro-meteorite impacts I believe they can still be cut with a sufficiently sharp blade. A blade made from graphene with a nano-meter edge would be much cheaper then a suit constructed of the same material. It makes sense to make your warships and maybe some small arms out of unobtanium like materials, but space suits and bullets are unlikely. I tend to think boarding actions on the outside of a ship are unlikely or would involve ranged weaponry since you would have to contend with both the ship's cannon and armed infantry forces. A specialized boarding ship that would only go in after a ships defenses had largely been destroyed or rendered inoperable through cyberwarfare seems more likely.

While I don't think war will ever become totally impersonal I think the tendency both politically and technologically is to make those points of contact within a conflict less common or more "mexican standoffish". The use of UAVs, area denial weaponry, special forces, cyber warfare and information wars are examples of this.

Cordwainer said...

Meant to say a trap can be followed up by a stab or throw. Whoops!

Cordwainer said...

As to why you wouldn't want to use guns and lasers in the enclosed area of a spaceship. Well I tend to think if you are going to the trouble of a boarding action then your probably trying to pirate or commandeer the ship rather than "sink it". There could be lots of valuable or dangerously fragile stuff you wouldn't want to damage or set off. Like precious cargo, door access panels, computer kiosks, security cameras, booby traps etc. I imagine thrown weapons, non lethal ranged weapons like "bean bag guns" and sticky bombs or entangling weapons would be used as well as melee weapons. Even today melee weapons still have their uses in modern engagements where lethal projectiles are common place. None of this is new it has been commented on the Atomic Rockets page before.

Cordwainer said...

As for the post apocalyptic bikers I think Thunder Dome sort of explained where they would get hydrocarbon fuels after awhile. Also you can make denim like materials from recycled plastic bottles if you know the proper chemistry. Plenty of natural based dyes that can be used although cyan and dark blue might be difficult with plants from the Northern Hemisphere, black, brown, green, red and khaki would be easy enough with common household items or relatively common occurring plants. I suppose you might use "thousand flushes" type toilet bowl cleaners until you ran out.

Cordwainer said...

Was struck by Berg's idea of a future without fossil fuels seems very reminiscent of Buck Roger's in the 23rd Century doesn't it. Would airships make a resurgence in an electric propulsion based world? I think it likely that such a world would eventually become more urbanized with people gathering around cities with plentiful sources of nuclear or hydroelectric power. Even if solar power never becomes any more advanced then it is today, I would think conventional wind turbines would still make a useful and cheap additional power source to such a future grid. While I agree biodiesel and ethanol would be niche fuels, I sort of think methane would be common enough although its low power density wouldn't make it that much more useful then electric propulsion systems. You might be able to power a jet engine with it for short distances, but you would have to build a large infrastructure for production and distribution to make high speed long distance air travel a reality. Also for those long ocean crossing flights you might have to build floating refueling stations.

Those that don't chose to live in the cities or aren't allowed in might very well have to make do with horses and other domesticated steeds. You could have an even more pronounced difference between cultures that have and those that have not than in our current era of cheap oil.

No doubt light rail and other forms of mass transportation would eventually replace automobiles since they would tend to be more energy efficient and less prone to creating traffic issues as population density in these highly urbanized and sprawling cities would grow. Electric cars would still exist but there movement would probably be heavily regulated inside the city limits.

If airships only travel short distances and run on electricity while getting most of their power from solar cells they might be trump airplanes since they would not consume precious hydrocarbons. Tethering the airship to a track running on the ground might alleviate some of the "bad weather issues". If the weather gets really bad or you have an emergency then the passengers could evacuate via the tether. On the other hand if barbarians attack the track the airship can always take flight. Of course building a "pusher train" would probably be more energy efficient, although that technology might benefit from having it's cars suspended by lighter-than-air buoyancy.

Byron said...

Cordwainer:
Would airships make a resurgence in an electric propulsion based world?
Not necessarily. There are ways to make fuel that use only plentiful materials and electricity. One that was studied back in the 50s or 60s used water and atmospheric nitrogen to produce ammonia. I'd have to check the report, but I think that they also looked at making hydrocarbons. This study was for field-based fuel production using a nuclear reactor. The point is that an electricity-only society wouldn't necessarily mean no liquid fuels.

Cordwainer said...

Baerg left a link to a similar study in the same post, I was talking about his first suggestion that such alternative fuel technologies would never pan out as economically viable. It's the first post and first link going back to an earlier discussion on this blog site. I already mentioned that I think ammonia would make a good alternative fuel, especially since we easily mass produce the stuff as fertilizer. I just tend to think future fuels will move toward cleaner hydrocarbons like methane, synthgas, natural gas and autogas since that would require little change to fuel delivery or vehicle engine design. I believe ammonia would require a fair amount of tweaking to engine design to burn it effectively and keep it safely stored in a fuel tank. Otherwise you get a toxic spill of liquid or leak of gases, much like methanol. Other hydrocarbons are only an inhalant hazard in an enclosed space. Where ammonia may have some advantages is as an additive to hypergolic rocket fuels.

Cordwainer said...

The airship idea was whimsey but I do wonder what the performance of a track-powered/grounded aerodynamic airfoil would be, might be worth investigating as an alternative to Mag-Lev. If the airfoil is "tethered" to an electromechanical bus or rolled linear motor it could lower the cost of "bullet" trains and take care of some of the high speed turn and low-speed approach and take-off issues with Mag-Lev trains.

Cordwainer said...

Another mark against ammonia is that it is not that terribly clean when used in a purely internal combustion engine, dry natural gas and methane would be cleaner. If we go with the aforementioned route of "cleaner" hydrocarbons we could reform all of the fuel we need from coal and fossil fuel sources at first and slowly move toward a pure "methane economy" from coal, undersea methane clathrates and terrestrial methanogen biological sources. Eventually we would move most of our transport technology to purely electric propulsion where possible and use CNG hybrids for high load stuff. LNG would make a better substitute than hydrogen in jet engines in my opinion.

That being said I have always wondered what thing's would have been like if we had gone to fuel cells powered by white gas and autogas in the 19th century, instead of internal combustion engines.

jollyreaper said...

I really can't say what the setting of Attack on Titan is. Given some of the really strange stuff we see in later issues of the manga, it could very well be our world after the end. But if we stick with first impressions, it may well be "a world not unlike our own, populated by humans not unlike us, with an anachronism stew of technology." We've got tudor-style houses, no steam engines but precision casting and manufacture for cannon, medieval clothes on some people and 19th century suits on others, and the combat uniforms of the soldiers seem straight out of the late 20th century.

I think most of it runs off of rule of cool, don't read too much into it. But I do like how some of the things in the series where you might say "Deep sigh, don't think too hard about it" turn out to be wrong for a reason. Titans don't need to eat, are lighter for their mass than they should be, could not have the bodies they do if they were constructed similar to humans, don't seem to have digestive systems, evaporate into mist after death. We are not dealing with the world as we know it here and the writer winks at you to say "Yes, this is supposed to arouse your curiosity."

jollyreaper said...

Catching up with the thread from the bottom up.

With regards of changing as little tech as possible while telling a good story, that's the impetus behind my rift ship concept.

I ran through several permutations of the setting and it boils down to this:
1. There are places on every planet where a ship with a rift drive can pass between worlds through the void.
2. The void is like space, dark and lacking gravity, but also mucks with EM propagation. You can't see far with eyeballs or radar.
3. Inside the void you can find floating masses of weird matter, some of it rich with mcguffinite which powers the big handwave of the story, gravity manipulation. It provides antigrav for airship flight on planets, shipboard gravity in the void, and powers the rift drive.
4. The different accessible worlds are all variations on our own, as if somebody is running a mass of parallel simulations with different seed parameters. There are no "aliens" as in little green men but plenty of alien human cultures.
5. There are plenty of dead worlds with extinct human civilizations, all of them showing signs of being more technologically advanced than the status quo. It's unclear what did them in but the advanced technology seems to be a common theme though nobody is sure which tech is the culprit. Therefore a huge cultural taboo exists concerning advanced research.
6. Technology remains roughly early 21st century. The airships are built like wet navy nuclear vessels -- fission reactors, turbofans for atmospheric propulsion, remass tanks heated by the nuclear pile for void travel. Antiship weapons are turreted cannon firing high-explosive or multi-kiloton nuclear shells. The mcguffinite allows for nuclear explosions without quite so much radiation.
6. Manned fighters remain very much in play. The most advanced are nuclear-powered and capable of VTOL via gravity drives, can fight in atmo or the void, and carry a mix of autocannons and guided weapons.
7. Because EM propagation in the void is futzy, most battles become very close-range affairs. And because delta-v isn't high, relative velocities between combatants remain slow, on a more human scale.

Because of the nature of the FTL system, a journey would involve a ship flying from port to a rift, passing through the void, emerging over another planet and traveling to the next rift. Some planets are inhabited, others are dead. Some might even be gas giants and so the ships are passing over roiling depths of high-pressure, staying up high where the stresses are survivable.

While it remains possible for guided weapons to work in atmosphere, there's a preference for dual-use weapons that can work in and out of the void. This means airships will usually be in gun duels, one way or another. Cruise missiles are considered to be less effective, especially when KT shells can be used in an air defense role.

Cordwainer said...

I suppose the Titans could be alien super-weapons or a scientific or military experiment gone wrong like H.G. Wells "Food of the Gods" or Cordwainer Smith's Menschen Jaeger's.

If a steampunk society adopted fuel cells over combustion engines do you think that would spur development of mass produced high quality germanium and silicon for use as electrodes that would be less prone to fouling and produce higher temperature plasma arcs. If so such a society might develop transistors and the computer age at an earlier stage. What do you think?

Byron said...

Cordwainer:

Baerg left a link to a similar study in the same post

I missed that. Also, it wasn't the same study. this was the study I was referring to. The first section is actually quite a good discussion of a post-petroleum fuel supply situation, as they were working either with regeneration of chemicals (batteries and fuel cells) or with disposable chemicals from the environment. They came down to ammonia and LH2, and chose ammonia.

I believe ammonia would require a fair amount of tweaking to engine design to burn it effectively and keep it safely stored in a fuel tank.
According to this the changes wouldn't be as big as you'd think. It might make sense to disassociate some of the ammonia to hydrogen before burning, but it's definitely feasible. As for toxicity, I don't think it's much worse in overall safety terms than, say, LH2. It's far less flammable, even if it is toxic.

Where ammonia may have some advantages is as an additive to hypergolic rocket fuels.
Would you care to expand on this? I'm not sure why you'd do such a thing.


The airship idea was whimsey but I do wonder what the performance of a track-powered/grounded aerodynamic airfoil would be, might be worth investigating as an alternative to Mag-Lev. If the airfoil is "tethered" to an electromechanical bus or rolled linear motor it could lower the cost of "bullet" trains and take care of some of the high speed turn and low-speed approach and take-off issues with Mag-Lev trains.

This is a bit tricky. You would get a boost from ground effect, but the wing would have to be quite wide. That's going to require a wider right-of-way with greater maintainence requirements. I just don't see that happening in most places. Also, I believe air resistance is the main contributor to power requirements in high-speed trains, and going for aerodynamic lift is only going to make that worse.

Cordwainer said...

Going back to my earlier post on "reactionless" or "open system" propulsion, such systems could very well have limits on where they could be used. Giganto-magnetoresistance or disjunction enhance mag-sail would only work well within the Sun's heliopause and would be tossed around by "currents" in the Sun's magnetosphere and solar wind. Quantum vacuum plasma thrusters would only work well where quantum fluctuations are common.(anybodies guess as to where that would be?)

That being said cruise missiles and drones would be the weapons of choice since they would be able to loiter over a "stealthed" or "silent running" target until the enemy makes a mistake or has to use their auxiliary propulsion in some way.

Cordwainer said...

On the question of ammonia as a hypergolic fuel I believe there was a link in either nasa space flight or wikipedia about the Russians developing an ammonia based replacement for hydrazine. It was also discussed as an additive to NOFBX fuel, can't find the link right now though.

I believe the Japanese have already experimented with bullet trains using aerodynamic lift during high speed turns.

Sounds like tweaking engines to use ammonia wouldn't be any different than tweaking them for natural gas, still toxic though. (remember methanol, there were good reasons why NASCAR went to ethanol not just political ones) You would get about the same power density as E85 or autogas though rather than the paltry energy cracked from natural gas. What it really comes down to though is do you really want to make an enemy of "Big Oil", in the end everything does come down to politics.

Also seems like like they might get better efficiency in a combustion engine from ammonia if the use glow plugs or a common rail system.

Cordwainer said...

Also ammonia while toxic is less toxic than hydrazine and might offer better molecular weight as a reaction mass when added to a tripropellant mixture.

Byron said...

Cordwainer:
On the question of ammonia as a hypergolic fuel I believe there was a link in either nasa space flight or wikipedia about the Russians developing an ammonia based replacement for hydrazine. It was also discussed as an additive to NOFBX fuel, can't find the link right now though.
Google turns up no references for an ammonia-based hypergolic, except for a brief reference on astronautica, which said that it didn't work. Because of the experience base with hydrazine, and the fact that ammonia is itself toxic, I don't see much reason to switch. NOFBX is a monoprop, not a hypergol. Based upon how thoroughly hypergolics were investigated, I really doubt we'll see serious improvements over the current chemicals.

I believe the Japanese have already experimented with bullet trains using aerodynamic lift during high speed turns.
That's a rather different matter. For steady-state cruising, I can't see much benefit.

Also ammonia while toxic is less toxic than hydrazine and might offer better molecular weight as a reaction mass when added to a tripropellant mixture.
I'm not sure it's less toxic enough to make replacing hydrazine economical. And it doesn't perform as well as hydrazine, nor is it a proper hypergol. Look up John Clark's Ignition for more details on this. Also, the low boiling point is a problem for rocket use. Tripropellants have always been an exotic curiosity, and probably will always be so.

Cordwainer said...

Of course you if you don't want to hurt the coal industry too bad then I suppose you could use the Gazamo process and use coal gas or hydrogen as an accelerant. I don't know whether this would be any cleaner than gasoline when it comes down releasing greenhouse gases? Most of the studies supporting ammonia as a "clean" fuel involve using it as feedstock to reform hydrogen for a fuel cell.

jollyreaper said...

Regarding the the car thing, there are a couple of points.

Tony's assertion is that all criticisms of car culture boils down to a moral or aesthetic criticism of a given "thing" that has no real social harm. "I don't like the color the buildings are painted or the women are wearing clothes that are too provocative or they have a funny religion, I want to punish them for that." There's not an atom of rational basis for this position.

Damian's POV is that not all costs are captured in the transaction. Are we willing to suffer the consequences? We can directly prove that coal-fired power plants will cause disease and death. This is fact. Can we substitute another power source to replace these plants? Not yet. And yes, everyone who lives near the plants is using the electricity. But it's not like they really have a choice about it, do they? You either use the electricity or not -- you're still breathing in the pollution regardless. The impoverished factory worker is taking the sugar with the shit but the Amish farmer down the road is only getting the shit. Of course, someone might try to point out that the Amish farmer is selling his craftgoods to tourists who arrive by motor car so he's benefiting from the industrial economy.

I don't really like that argument because it feels a bit unfounded. We know there was a worldwide uptick in cancers from all the above-ground nuclear tests but those costs were paid for because the balance of terror prevented a proper nuclear war from ever happening. I don't think that logically follows. It's like wearing my lucky bulletproof amulet in a firefight. Did I make it through without a scratch? Yes. Am I attributing it to the amulet? Yes. But most people would remain skeptical of my claims.

Whenever anyone makes a critique of our current social and economic system, the defenders say it's all or nothing. "You either have to accept everything in this system or go live in a cave; there's no middle-ground, no case for reform."

I think that's absurd. I like hot showers, warm beds and cold beer. I love computers, the internet, and electricity. I would not want to give them up. But are there more intelligent ways of achieving these things?

I'm recently back from LA. That place is a goddamn nightmare. Environment and geography are gorgeous but the built environment is a criminal waste. So, am I being an ass for faulting people choosing to live that way? My primary critique is there's no way to opt out. I would never go to LA by choice. This was a work trip. I would never live there. But this sort of car culture is everywhere. There's no way to opt out. Nobody really builds walkable cities anymore.

jollyreaper said...


I feel we are trapped by the economic choices made by prior generations and the inertia becomes impossible to fight. How many people in LA are really choosing to live like this or are accepting it because it's the price of being there? Is it really a fair argument to point to the impoverished worker in the factory and say he's working there of his own freewill and he's perfectly free to take his labor elsewhere? The factory is the only game in town, he can't afford to move, and even if he could the next factory would be just as bad. His choice is subsistence labor or starvation.

I think everyone here can appreciate the injustice of imposing one's will upon others. But the question is always who crossed the line first? It's like the smoking debate.

Smokers feel put upon and persecuted because they are told they can't smoke indoors, can't smoke on airplanes, have to stand away from building entrances. They see the first blow struck against them.

Non-smokers feel that the first blow was struck the moment the smoker lit up. Their right to breathable air was insulted and that right to breathe trumps the smoker's right to smoke. If he could smoke without fouling the air then there would never be a problem in the first place. A nicotine patch or gum doesn't intrude on the non-smoker at all.

Both sides claim the moral high ground. Which side do you take?

Cordwainer said...

If I'm getting the CO2 from seawater link right they are proposing to remove atmospheric CO2 by using the ocean as a solvent and then combining it with hydrogen to make fuel. Doesn't make much sense if you burn more hydrocarbons than you remove or sequester. Even if the economics are promising and we go to clean coal which would provide a cheap source of hydrogen for synthetic fuels, we would have to sequester more C02 than we use to make fuel for this to work. I don't know if even at 82 cents a tonne this would work out well for a companies bottom line. At least with the clean coal piece you could force that change with government regulation by citing health and environmental concerns.

Atmospheric carbon removal through "artificial leaves" might have a large initial cost but their energy is received freely from the Sun. I suppose you might get the energy for sea removal of carbon through renewable sources as well but at what cost? Would it be competitive to direct atmospheric removal?

Cordwainer said...

As to the smoker debate I have terrible allergies but I've smoked in the past. It's a person's right to foul up their own bodies but people should have the common courtesy not to smoke in places where it can effect other peoples health. Also the new generation of filters, nebulizers and e-cigarettes offers some solutions to this problem. A loose leaf tobacco only/high ppm filter only law or ordinance might be a step in the right direction.

As for a compromise solution to fossil fuel use I think Baerg and others have already mentioned various solutions, whether they would actually be economically and politically viable is to be seen.

Tony said...

Jollyreaper:

If you can see no rational basis for my opinion about Damien's ideals, then you just haven't been paying attention. Or you haven't been around long enough to understand what's going on from long and hard experience. (Sorry if this upsets you -- again -- but it's a valid point to make.) People who want to penalize others for their choices always have self-righteous, moralistic reasons for doing so.

And my opinion is not that Damien is going on about aestheicts anyway. It's that he has a personal, philosophical reason to hate cars and car owners. He want's as I alluded above, to penalize them for winning in the economy, and creating a world that he doesn't want.

More importantly, my point is that it's just impractical. All of the costs of our economy are paid by somebody within the economy, and those payers extend their costs to whoever they can. And those people pass on costs, etc, etc. There's simply no way to practically reassign those costs to some presumed culprit. On top of that, it's not like car and truck buyers receive all or even most of the benefit of their purchases. I know Damien consistently asserts that they do, but that has no rational basis, to borrow a turn of phrase. When you buy a car, a big part of the cost is sallaries, benefits, and profits, all the way up and down the supply chain that made that car. Those are real benefits to the economy and, more importantly, to people, who then use the money to benefit others. Yeah, there are costs involved too, but who do you think pays those? The car buyer. He pays the industrial waste mitigation and abatement costs of the manufacturers and vendors through some portion of the purchase price. The purchaser also pays for disability insurance (which ultimately actually benefits the -- anvil drop fair warning -- benefficiaries), among other things. Then there are all of the consumables that automobiles use. The story there is esentially the same as the hardware -- a lot of costs, but a lot of benefits as well. All of the stuff that isn't taken care of through commercial transactions is taken care of by government expenditure. The car or truck owner also helps out with that, through his taxes.

Damien applies invincible ignorance of all of those things when he makes his claims.

On top of that, he applies even more ignorance when he suggest that it could all be accounted for somehow and visited upon the automobile owner. All of the costs and benefits of the automotive economy are literally distributed everywhere throughout the economy. It's a few dollars here, a few hundred dollars there, a few cents somewhere else. The accounting cost for "properly" (in some agendised advocate's mind) apportioning all of the costs would likely cripple the economy, and certainly put a significant brake on it. And if done properly -- rather than in a maliciously punitive way, which I sincerely think is Damien's true objective -- it might assess only a few extra or a few hundred extra dollars to the cost of the average car, because very few costs come without a benefit somewhere.

Tony said...

Jollyreaper:

WRT why people live in places like LA... Well, my parents moved there for economic opportunity. It was real then, it's real now. A whole heck of a lot of people are there by choice. So many people, in fact, that at one point in the 80s, California natives displayed bumper stickers saying: "Welcome to California. Now go home." It's not quite that crazy these days, but people go to LA because that's where the action is. And plenty of people, myself included, have had the freedom to leave and have taken advantage of it. Not just the middle class, but people in every economic situation. We have a whole bunch of people working in my company's call center today (and I mean literally today) that are semi skilled refugees from the LA metro area. Nobody's stuck there, who has any gumption whatsoever. That's one of the things we mean when we say, "It's a free country".

Finally, I have no doubt that what you mean by a "workable" city is nothing but an opinion, informed by romantic ideals about what a city is supposed to be. Cities work or don't work. There' no design or principles to it. To think that there ever could be just demonstrates a misunderstanding of the nature and life cycle of cities.

Tony said...

Cordwainer:

"Tony, I don't see the error in my judgements on German tankery during the early part of the war even the weakest armor on a German APC was thicker than early French and Soviet tanks. While Soviet tanks were greatly improved and were probably superior in many ways it was the fact that the Germans were able to use mobile infantry composed of various vehicles in a networked system that made them a force to be reckoned with."

By the time the German APC was around in any numbers, it had very thin armor, compared to anything but the lightest of light tanks. Also, the Germans didn't have a whole heck of a lot of APC mounted infantry at their height of equipment. Generally on battalion out of four or six infantry battalion in a panzer division was mechanized. The rest rode around in trucks and cars of various types. They weren't equipped that well in the Blitzkrieg years. Many panzer divisions only had a single company of APC infantry for the invasion of Russia in 1941.

What gave the Germans the advantage early on was simply understanding how to ue tank correctly, at both the tactical and operational levels. That's why the Blitzkrieg years didn't last forever. What made the Germans superior for the first three years of the war was easy enough to do, even if costly to learn on the battlefield.

"Also as to air power I was kind of trying to make the point that the Allies were better at using air power for ground attacks and supply missions than the Germans were. In other words the Allies were better at close in tactical air support while the Germans were more concerned with "big picture" strategic operations."

That's almost exactly backwards. The Germans were concerned with army support first and foremost, up until about 1943, when Reich defense became an overriding priority in just about everything air related. The Soviets pretty much stayed that way throughout the war. It was the Western Allied air forces that were animated by the prospects of strategic bombing of economic targets. It was only later in the war that they concentrated heavily on ground support. At that point, the Western Allies had so much material superiority that they were able to keep up strategic bombing and service army requirements at the same time.

"I should have said antique tech not antiquated that was a mistake on my part, though probably not one that most of our reader's would notice or care about."

Whether one says antiquated or antique, the point is still that you have to be careful about how you describe things. Just because a technology is old doesn't mean that it is merely decorative, or even that it has been supplanted by something newer. I think my former examples make that point adequately enough.

"As for how you use a knife in a space suit I would guess you meant to say how do you use a knife against a space suit...

Nope. I mean in a spacesuit. Pressure suits are designed to allow the maximum mobility to the wearer possible. That's still not very mobile at all. It's just hard to see how a person trying to use a knife in one could generate any kind of striking speed at all. It's even harder to see how a person in microgravity could find the leverage to even try. One would have to be anchored to something very massive, meaning your intended target could just retreat a few feet and escape your lethal intent. Infighting in space just doesn't seem very likely.

Cordwainer said...

All very good points Tony, and as always your right I'm wrong praise be to the Gods of War.

Still I maintain that I said nothing of real error in judgement regarding German Mobile Infantry, they knew how to use it very well when on the offensive.
But they often lacked the flexibility of supply and support that the Allies had. Of course some of this had to do with a lack of materiel and having to fight a war on two fronts later in the war, it could be said though that even before Hitler betrayed Stalin that Germany was taking on more than it could chew.

The point I was making is that because the Luftwaffe was such an integrated part of the German Army it created an inflexibility in how it was able to operate and support that Army. The Allies on the other hand were willing to use air power both tactically and strategically in ways the German Army was unwilling to do without a strong presence already on the ground. While the Germans did engage in some very daring attacks using special forces, the Allies did a better job on this front I think and saw the overall importance of Air Power and Air Supremacy as a game changer. Yes, the German Army only made limited use of APC's at the beginning of the war but they used tanks, trucks, motorcycles, rockets and mortar teams, as well as air power to compensate for the fact that their horse drawn artillery could not maneuver well. Also the Allies were similarly equipped with mostly horse drawn artillery in the early stages of the War.

Valid point on the effects of micro-gravity on in-fighting, though. Which again is why most boarding actions and close in fighting in space will happen inside the ship. I would correct you though that it would not so much be the fact that you could not generate a killing stroke, it would have to do more with the fact that the person you were attacking would be more easily pushed away by your attack if your weapon were to encounter any kind of "armored" resistance (space suit, body armor, heavy clothing etc.) effectively blunting your attack. So weather you use a club, axe, knife or power tools traps, throws and pins would be heavily employed by any "special forces" trained in boarding actions. For reasons stated before and probably others as well crew habitat for a highly mobile space ship will no doubt be pretty tight and confined, so you might not be able to move out of the way and you could have plenty of mass to push off of. Of course space colonies, space stations and passenger liners or a cargo hold not loaded down with anything might be quite spacious. This might necessitate the use of acrobatic maneuvers as well. Of course modern space suits would prohibit or make many hand-to-hand maneuvers difficult, I expect space suits will get better over time especially if we start having wars in space. Also practice makes perfect, most modern militaries practice hand-to-hand in body armor and protective pads that are anything but easy to maneuver in.


Although I do tend to think both boarding actions and infighting in space will be pretty rare although not impossible. Also I don't discount that people might make use of projectile weapons I just think they will tend to utilize slow moving projectiles or soft projectiles with large surface areas to reduce collateral damage.

Hmm! maybe steel toed, hard heeled shoes with sharpened spurs on the toe and heel might be the weapon of choice over other melee weapons in a micro-gravity situation.

Cordwainer said...

Also I suspect largish size vessels will have some sort of "artificial gravity" either via centrifugal force, acceleration, Woodward effect or "gravity manipulation". Ships might also have magnetic decking or you might use magnetic or adhesive shoes. While low-g offers benefits to maneuverability it also creates problems when using hand tools or performing operations that require leveraging ones body.

Cordwainer said...

Looking over ammonia and the power output doesn't seem all that much greater than natural gas, of course you don't have to store ammonia under pressure. On the other hand you need hydrogen injection to get good load performance at partial throttle. Seems like emissions would be about the same with Nitrous oxide and water vapor being emitted from ammonia and carbon monoxide and water being emitted from natural gas or methane. Pollutants for both would be low and easily absorbed in a catalytic converter. To really get efficiency from either fuel you would have to use them a hybrid or fuel cell propulsion system.

Still of the opinion that a mixed fuel system using propane, coal gas, natural gas and methane with movement to methane-powered and electric propulsion over time makes the best political and economic sense though. Clean coal from coal gasification could be used to produce synthgas for power generation and hydrogen feed stock for atmospheric carbon removal from seawater could be an integral part of the system for making these fuels synthetically as well as harvesting form natural sources. Coastal tidal and wind powerplants could provide the energy needed to power carbon removal, to remove the nuclear hazards like the Fukushima incident.

Cordwainer said...

I am oddly attracted to the idea of compressed air cars of late though, seems outlandish but the more I look at them the more plausible they seem. There is also some effort going on to make steam engines powered by magnesium. Seems like both of these ideas would be at home in a steampunk setting,

Pneumatics seem like a good way to power a "stealthed" weapons platform or launcher in space without giving away the launch point. Once a missile was away and found a suitable target it would engage conventional propulsion to carry a warhead to target.

jollyreaper said...


Jollyreaper:

If you can see no rational basis for my opinion about Damien's ideals, then you just haven't been paying attention.


Ah, I see. If you don't understand someone's POV, it's because they have a silly argument. If they can't understand your POV, they haven't been paying attention. Roger that!

Or you haven't been around long enough to understand what's going on from long and hard experience. (Sorry if this upsets you -- again -- but it's a valid point to make.)


Appeal to seniority. Doesn't count for squat in my book. The old can be just as ignorant as the young, only it's less seemly.

People who want to penalize others for their choices always have self-righteous, moralistic reasons for doing so.

And that's really the irreconcilable difference here, isn't it? Jews say God gave the land to them, Arabs say no, He gave it to us. There's no sorting it out, is there?

You've made up your mind about the other side's argument, therefore no more consideration need be given to it.

And my opinion is not that Damien is going on about aestheicts anyway. It's that he has a personal, philosophical reason to hate cars and car owners. He want's as I alluded above, to penalize them for winning in the economy, and creating a world that he doesn't want.

You're asking people to accept a great many assumptions there. Cars are certainly the dominant form of transportation but to use the phrase "winning" makes it sound as if this were a fair competition, blessed by the market.

The question about cars come down to the following points:

1. Do I just not like them? Certainly it would be the basis for my own feelings but that doesn't carry much weight with anyone else. I don't enjoy peach jam but that doesn't mean I get to ban it from the market.
2. Are car users paying their fair freight? Do they penalize people who don't want to use cars? This question remains relevant even if there were no question of global warming, peak oil, pollution, etc. If we were talking bicycles vs. pedestrians it would be the same give and take between competing interests.
3. Can we as a society even afford them? Are there better solutions available? Will we even have a choice? Is suburbia financially sustainable?

Let's pretend there's no climate change. We are running out of oil. If we could meet demand with fracking and tar sands, there are certainly real environmental factors involved. Do we as a society feel it is important enough for people to whiz about in cars to accept those costs? And the financials of fossil fuel production show that return on investment is falling badly. The new fracking wells are barely breaking even, certainly not the bonanza experienced with the major sweet crude fields discovered in the past.

If criticism of car culture were limited solely to aesthetics, I wouldn't really have much to go on. It would be like complaining about the kids today, their stupid hair, stupid clothes, loud music I don't understand. But there's some real damage being done by cars. Are people raising these complaints no different from concerned Christians complaining about the moral damage caused by satanic rock music? I think there's a bit more evidence backing up the car critics.

More importantly, my point is that it's just impractical. All of the costs of our economy are paid by somebody within the economy, and those payers extend their costs to whoever they can.


Mercury in fish. It comes from our economic activity. Cubans aren't really participating in western capitalism and yet their fish are just as poisoned as ours since they're fishing the same waters as we are. Who's capturing that externality?

jollyreaper said...

And those people pass on costs, etc, etc. There's simply no way to practically reassign those costs to some presumed culprit. On top of that, it's not like car and truck buyers receive all or even most of the benefit of their purchases. I know Damien consistently asserts that they do, but that has no rational basis, to borrow a turn of phrase. When you buy a car, a big part of the cost is sallaries, benefits, and profits, all the way up and down the supply chain that made that car. Those are real benefits to the economy and, more importantly, to people, who then use the money to benefit others. Yeah, there are costs involved too, but who do you think pays those? The car buyer. He pays the industrial waste mitigation and abatement costs of the manufacturers and vendors through some portion of the purchase price. The purchaser also pays for disability insurance (which ultimately actually benefits the -- anvil drop fair warning -- benefficiaries), among other things. Then there are all of the consumables that automobiles use. The story there is esentially the same as the hardware -- a lot of costs, but a lot of benefits as well. All of the stuff that isn't taken care of through commercial transactions is taken care of by government expenditure. The car or truck owner also helps out with that, through his taxes.

Government expenditure. You mean the stuff the government is going into debt to pay for because tax receipts cannot keep up with the spending? Hmm, sounds a bit like communism to me. (well, it's communism when a democrat is in office.)

Damien applies invincible ignorance of all of those things when he makes his claims.

Not in the least. Everything you said is true but it's still not the complete story. It's really a lie of omission. There are kids dying of cancer in Iraq right now. Why? Depleted uranium. Why? Because we used those munitions on their country. Why? Because we wanted Saddam out to control the oil supply. Why? Because cars. Would we have ever fought that war if not for oil? No. Did we trade blood for oil? Yes. All of this remains true along with your cute little story about the supply chain.

On top of that, he applies even more ignorance when he suggest that it could all be accounted for somehow and visited upon the automobile owner. All of the costs and benefits of the automotive economy are literally distributed everywhere throughout the economy.

Personally, I think carbon trading is stupid because it gives a license to pollute. Should I be allowed to strangle kittens because I bought meow credits and kittens somewhere else will be placed in good homes?

jollyreaper said...


We spray pesticides on our crops. Migrant farm workers get doused with the shit. We've had many cases in the papers about birth defects coming from this exposure. These people are perfectly disposable in the economy. We all benefit from their exploitation. Their costs are accounted for perfectly because they have no advocates. They get paid a pittance, we get affordable food, the agricorps turn a handsome profit. Birth defects and cancers are just the cost of doing business.

So, is this something we're happy with? Do we as a society say things are fine?

It's a few dollars here, a few hundred dollars there, a few cents somewhere else. The accounting cost for "properly" (in some agendised advocate's mind) apportioning all of the costs would likely cripple the economy, and certainly put a significant brake on it. And if done properly -- rather than in a maliciously punitive way, which I sincerely think is Damien's true objective -- it might assess only a few extra or a few hundred extra dollars to the cost of the average car, because very few costs come without a benefit somewhere.


You don't like the idea of people with an agenda but not expertise telling people what to do. I can respect that sentiment. We do have many examples of people with more agenda than brains ruining systems that were working well enough. Plenty of cases of communists wrecking economies in the 20th century. But have you noticed our banking failures, our great recession? Capitalists can wreck economies, too. Just as I don't want to have a guy with a little red book tell me he's going to make the country a worker's paradise, I don't want some guy with an Ayn Rand doorstop telling me how we're going to create a liberty-minded paradise.

Noclevername said...

Cordwainer said:

"As to the smoker debate I have terrible allergies but I've smoked in the past. It's a person's right to foul up their own bodies but people should have the common courtesy not to smoke in places where it can effect other peoples health."

I'm 100% in agreement. I used to smoke heavily, (only in places where it was allowed, and fully aware that it was a priviledge and not a right) but in doing so I damaged my lungs and today cannot be around smokers for health reasons. I even have to be careful around campfires.

Cordwainer said...

I think Thucydides and jolly reaper have pretty much dissected Tony and Damien's arguments pretty soundly regarding transportation, pollution and economic externalities. Now how do we come up with a solution that both of these opposing points of view can accept and does not create a moral or economic dilemma.

We have invested so much in a POV(personally owned vehicles) based infrastructure and there are good social and geographical reasons why passenger rail did not "win" over POV's in North America, not just the military need for rapid transport. I doubt rail or mass transit is the answer as it has not been even for those countries that have invested heavily in it. Besides cars and industry are not even the largest greenhouse gas polluters, farmers are. A carbon tax with carbon credits is not only a license to pollute but could lead to market manipulation and a future of winners and losers like in the anime "Shangri-la". Personally, I think a value added tax as "consumption tax" with "green exemptions" and a land value tax with "green credits" would be better for the economy and could be used to generate funds for environmental programs while encouraging environmentally friendly practices.

We are often told to act locally and think globally but we should really act globally more to stop the production of greenhouse gases.
This could take the form of:
1) An agreed upon fuel regimes policy with cleaner fuels receiving more government and international subsidies.
2) An international monetary fund where all nations invest 1 percent of their GDP towards the "green practices" such as improvements to mass transit(this would include roads and highways in some instances, sorry Damien), healthier and more green farming techniques(like terra preta and no-till), sylvestry, urban greenspace and gardens, building of alternative fuel infrastructures, renewable energy, improved efficiency to electrical grids and devices, as well as carbon capture and sequestration. Some of this money would be put out as grants and loans to government, while the rest would be given out in the form of subsidies and micro-loans to business.
3) A "global clean coal initiative" with emphasis on coal gasification along with plasma gasification plants to clean all the fill and coal waste that doesn't get used in the steel and glass industry.
4) Global adoption of clean fuels like CNG or ammonia for the mass transportation of goods and people. In other words heavy haul vehicles like container ships, passenger air and sea liners, buses and semi-trucks.

The idea that we should punish or tax the consumer for the entirety of our shared responsibility toward the planet is ludicrous and shameful. While some sort of "green tax" should be created there is no reason why it has to put a stranglehold on consumption, not when we have the technology to recycle much of what we use.

Cordwainer said...

As to jollyreapers comments glad to see someone called Tony on his age-ism, sorry for using another ism Tony. As to Damien's lie of ommission when calculating externalities I don't think that was intended, I think Damien merely wanted to keep his arguments short and not sound too much like a "bleeding heart liberal". As to the externalities mentioned, that are often not paid for or overlooked because to accept them would make us feel guilty, I tend to think that is why we have a civil law and international legal system even if it isn't always capable of representing everyone equally. Besides some of those externalities mentioned would be either very difficult or impossible to manage in a morally responsible manner. There will always be things that run amok or out of control as an unforeseen consequence of human activity. Does that mean we should put the majority of the population off-planet or in suspended animation to "save mother earth"? Should we restart the population because the ends justify the means?
Should we pay everyone we offend in some way restitution because of something done without malice thousands of miles away or done by our ancestors a long time ago? I don't know? Perhaps we have to accept that there are some moral quandaries that don't have answers or that can only be answered by a more enlightened understanding of events in the future.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"Ah, I see. If you don't understand someone's POV, it's because they have a silly argument. If they can't understand your POV, they haven't been paying attention. Roger that!"

I understand your opinion and Damien's perfectly well. The difficulty you both have is in estimating cost vs benefit. Yes, there are problems with our way of doing things. But they aren't as big as you seem to think they are. Certainly not as big as to justify your preferred solutions.

And I think I'll stick by my opinion that if you don't see a rational basis for the above, you haven't been paying attention to reality. You've just been reinforcing your own personal prejudices against the automotive economy.

"Appeal to seniority. Doesn't count for squat in my book. The old can be just as ignorant as the young, only it's less seemly."

Not even close. I'm relying on knowledge gained through long, hard experience with the world and with Cause Guy. I have every confidence you'll get there someday. But right now you're still mired in youthful idealism and enthusiasm for simple (seeming) solutions to complex issues.

"And that's really the irreconcilable difference here, isn't it? Jews say God gave the land to them, Arabs say no, He gave it to us. There's no sorting it out, is there?

You've made up your mind about the other side's argument, therefore no more consideration need be given to it."


If I've made up my mind about a given line of rhetoric, and the rhetoric never changes, why should I change my mind? What you're missing here is that neither Damien nor yourself has said anything I haven't been listening to for twenty plus years now. You think you're presenting me new information that should change my mind. You're not. I've heard it all before, a gazillion times.

"You're asking people to accept a great many assumptions there. Cars are certainly the dominant form of transportation but to use the phrase 'winning' makes it sound as if this were a fair competition, blessed by the market."

And here we have the standard issue assumptions about governments, big corporations...whatever eeevul forces are perceive to exist in the world that are keeping us all from living shiny, happy lives. Look, while large, powerful organization, both public and private, influence the economy, they don't do anything, over the long term, that the vast majority of people don't endorse. Cars did win, fair and square, in the minds of the people that acquiesced to the result. And acquiescense is the worst case assumption. In reality, people wanted cars, freeways to drive them on, and parking lots to park them in. Yeah, they paved Paradis and put in a parking lot. But they did it because the people wanted it.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"The question about cars come down to the following points:

1. Do I just not like them? Certainly it would be the basis for my own feelings but that doesn't carry much weight with anyone else. I don't enjoy peach jam but that doesn't mean I get to ban it from the market.
2. Are car users paying their fair freight? Do they penalize people who don't want to use cars? This question remains relevant even if there were no question of global warming, peak oil, pollution, etc. If we were talking bicycles vs. pedestrians it would be the same give and take between competing interests.
3. Can we as a society even afford them? Are there better solutions available? Will we even have a choice? Is suburbia financially sustainable?"


1. You're just giving me reason to not take you seriously.
2. See, to me that's not an economically rational question. It's just not humanly possible to account for all of the costs and benefits involved.
3. And all of that is something that the market will decide. If something is economically unsustainable, eventually it breaks down and something else is tried. Talk about Econ 101...

"Let's pretend there's no climate change. We are running out of oil. If we could meet demand with fracking and tar sands, there are certainly real environmental factors involved. Do we as a society feel it is important enough for people to whiz about in cars to accept those costs? And the financials of fossil fuel production show that return on investment is falling badly. The new fracking wells are barely breaking even, certainly not the bonanza experienced with the major sweet crude fields discovered in the past. "

First of all, fracking is primarily used to produce natural gas. Second, if fracking for oil is barely breaking even at this point, if other sources of oil dry up, then it will eventually start to turn a tidy profit. Third, I haven't noticed energy shares taking a bath in the market. This tells me that ROI is at least adequate.

And the bit about what society feels I'll take seperately. Watch TV, look in a magazine, pay attention to the ads you see on the internet. What do you think society feels about the automotive economy? See, the issue here is not what society in aggregate feels, it's what you think society should feel, if it held your own personal prejudices. Being as kind as I can be about that kind of thinking, that's not society's problem.

"If criticism of car culture were limited solely to aesthetics, I wouldn't really have much to go on. It would be like complaining about the kids today, their stupid hair, stupid clothes, loud music I don't understand. But there's some real damage being done by cars. Are people raising these complaints no different from concerned Christians complaining about the moral damage caused by satanic rock music? I think there's a bit more evidence backing up the car critics."

You're viewing the world in black and white here, j. Of course the automotive economy has costs to go along with the benefits. That doesn't mean that cars and trucks are some kind of moral evil. Criticism is fine. Wanting to tear it all down and replace it with your prefered version of a better (for values of "better" that are indiosynchratically the advocate's, not the general consensus) world is irrational.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"Mercury in fish. It comes from our economic activity. Cubans aren't really participating in western capitalism and yet their fish are just as poisoned as ours since they're fishing the same waters as we are. Who's capturing that externality?"

They can always join the global economy in the form of international agreements and conventions about such things, and reap whatever benefits they might gain out of them. But, oh, Tony, I hear you say, that's jut holding our capitalitic gun to the head fo Cuban sociliasm. Guilty as charged. If capitalism fails, then we'll know we were wrong. If it doesn't then not so much.



Government expenditure. You mean the stuff the government is going into debt to pay for because tax receipts cannot keep up with the spending? Hmm, sounds a bit like communism to me. (well, it's communism when a democrat is in office.)"

To the degree that government goes in the hole for it's expenditures, you have investors willing to subsidize those expenditures, for some stated level of return. That includes expenditures on the automotive economy. When the investors dry up -- if they ever do -- other ways will be found to meet the bills. Or less will be done by government. And then people will either accept that, or they'll fins ways to change the ballance of the automotive economy.

"Not in the least. Everything you said is true but it's still not the complete story. It's really a lie of omission. There are kids dying of cancer in Iraq right now. Why? Depleted uranium. Why? Because we used those munitions on their country. Why? Because we wanted Saddam out to control the oil supply. Why? Because cars. Would we have ever fought that war if not for oil? No. Did we trade blood for oil? Yes. All of this remains true along with your cute little story about the supply chain."

And Iraq would be a backward nowhere if it weren't for oil. YOu think the oil revenues the country receives don't make a difference to millions of children there? And why did we even fight a war with Iraq? Because we were stealing the oil from them? No. Because the regime was being a bunch of unreasonable dumbasses, primarily about the cut of the nation's oil wealth that they wished to skim off the top. Everything since 1990 in Iraq, including all of the military and civilian deaths -- the vast majority of which have not been due to depleted uranium, either directly or through radiological disease) has been in the nature of an adjustment in the political economy of Iraq.

"Personally, I think carbon trading is stupid because it gives a license to pollute. Should I be allowed to strangle kittens because I bought meow credits and kittens somewhere else will be placed in good homes?"

Who said anything about carbon trading? I was talking about cost pass-throughs for everything from industrial waste to toxic mitigation on scrap reuse.

"We spray pesticides on our crops. Migrant farm workers get doused with the shit. We've had many cases in the papers about birth defects coming from this exposure. These people are perfectly disposable in the economy. We all benefit from their exploitation. Their costs are accounted for perfectly because they have no advocates. They get paid a pittance, we get affordable food, the agricorps turn a handsome profit. Birth defects and cancers are just the cost of doing business.

So, is this something we're happy with? Do we as a society say things are fine?"


Ummm...yes. Society seems to be perfectly happy with cheap and plentiful food at the cost of migrant farmworker health and well being. Once again, society in't what you think it should be. It is what it is.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"You don't like the idea of people with an agenda but not expertise telling people what to do. I can respect that sentiment. We do have many examples of people with more agenda than brains ruining systems that were working well enough. Plenty of cases of communists wrecking economies in the 20th century. But have you noticed our banking failures, our great recession? Capitalists can wreck economies, too. Just as I don't want to have a guy with a little red book tell me he's going to make the country a worker's paradise, I don't want some guy with an Ayn Rand doorstop telling me how we're going to create a liberty-minded paradise."

I agree wholeheartedly, as far as you take things. But you still seem to have no problem with hating on cars and advocating their restriction, if not outright elimination. Sounds a bit hypocritical to me.

Tony said...

Cordwainer:

"As to jollyreapers comments glad to see someone called Tony on his age-ism, sorry for using another ism Tony."

As explained to jollyreaper, it's not that I think elders are automatically smarter or wiser than their juniors. Many younger software developers than I know much more about software design and implementation than I do. I've only been doing it seriously for about 8 years. A 38 year old developer who started work fresh out of college has been doing it for twice a long.

What I think is that in jollyreaper's specific instance, on the subjects we are specifically discussing, he has a specific lack of experience and perspective.

jollyreaper said...

"Ordeal, a trial or judgment of the truth of some claim or accusation by various means based on the belief that the outcome will reflect the judgment of supernatural powers and that these powers will ensure the triumph of right. Although fatal consequences often attend an ordeal, its purpose is not punitive."

Rational people will understand that in a traditional trial by combat, the outcome is not determined by divine intervention but by the relative skill of the combatants and chance. The rubes might be convinced but to people not blinded by faith it is clearly little more than artful bullshit.

I trust in time that faith in the free market to justify economic outcomes will be seen in time as more of the same.

Look, while large, powerful organization, both public and private, influence the economy, they don't do anything, over the long term, that the vast majority of people don't endorse.

I'm sorry, are we living on the same planet? The bulk of human history has been strongmen oppressing their common man to the point where things fall to pieces and a new strongman arises. The only real variable is on the distribution of power. Is there a strong king holding a vast nation in thrall or are there confederations of competing dukes and barons all striving for control? Does it matter much to the peasant whether he's being oppressed by a power local, regional, or continental?

As to who consent was gained from, it all depends. From one point of view, Africans were taken into slavery by Europeans. From another point of view, dominant African nations enslaved and sold weaker African nations into bondage. One could make a case that if the dominant African powers consented to this, no harm was done. Europeans were simply profiting from the internal politics of Africa. There's no harm in taking advantage of a free market, right?

When a society makes a stupid decision, there's a question as to how the blame is to be apportioned. How many Germans had to go along with the Nazis for them to succeed? Some accounts I've read said that there was only a strong minority that were involved in actively supporting them and the rest were dragged along with varying degrees of complicity. How many antebellum Southerners directly benefited from the slave economy and how many were roped into supporting it simply because that was where they lived?

There is certainly a danger in presuming one knows better than everyone else but there's also a danger in ignoring all critiques of an existing system simply because it appears to be popular.

"Watch TV, look in a magazine, pay attention to the ads you see on the internet. What do you think society feels about the automotive economy?"

This is an astounding new level of ignorance, even for you. Advertising is in the business of shaping opinions, not reflecting them. Nobody advertises an idea people already believe, they advertise an idea they want people to believe.

I could go on but it's late and I've got guacamole to make. Until next time.

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