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.


* 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, 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.


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Cordwainer said...

On the subject of the the Age of Discovery I suppose you could have an alternate history where the Age of Discovery happened later and different European or Global powers found the Americas. Maybe Russia, Japan , Sweden, Denmark-Norway or a historically stronger Kalmar Union would havew discovered the Americas instead.

Cordwainer said...

To expand upon a past post I had earlier. I wonder what would have happened if John Ericsson had discovered magnesium injection cycle and combined that with his heat engine designs. We could have ended up with a very steam punk universe with smaller size and weight steam and hot air engines with earlier development of airplanes.

Tony said...


"Justify" in what sense? In the moral sense? No, of course not -- economies are amoral phenomena. In a practical, cost-benefit sense? Yes, but in the opposite direction of the way you're going. Economic outcomes justify economic choices. Or they don't. Once again, it is what it is.

As for the persistence of the free market, what do you propose to replace it with? And how? (We'll get back to this in a minute.)

"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?"

You should pay closer attention to your history reading. Overweaning oppression is what gets strongmen overthrown.

There's no force in our politics or economy that's going to shove motor vehicles down the throats of a people that doesn't want them. This grand conspiracy theory about big corporations and government forcing American and the West at large to adopt cars is plain hooey.

Now -- getting back to strong men -- how do you think your prefered outcome is going to take authority over an economy that is apparently perfectly happy to be where it's at? By main force, no? You have to know in your heart of hearts that you're not going to persuade people. You're just another man who would be king.

"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?"

In case you hadn't noticed, there was quite a drastic market correction in the 19th Century. THe point to be made here is that the correc tion would not have taken place had the majority of people owned slaves and been happy with the outcomes. When cars become like slaves, come back and talk to me. Until then, this is a ridiculously irrelevant analogy.

Tony said...


"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?

A couple of things here:

1. I saw what you did there. You implied that our automotive economy wa a "stupid decision". I grant that you believe so. BUt that's far from demonstrating such a thing objectively.

2. I saw the other thing you did there. You implied that the vast majority of Americans go along with the automotive economy -- that they wouldn't have any of it if they could do something about it against the establishment minority in their midst. I'm sure you believe that. But it just ain't so. People like their cars. Most people who don't have cars aspire to have them. There's no evidence whatsoever that they're coerced into this state.

"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."

1. It doesn't appear to be popular. It is popular, by all available evidence.

2. I don't ignore the critiques. I just ignore their exagerations and the exageration of their importance. Just because a critique -- or even a list of critiques -- is valid, that doesn't add up to an indictment from on high.

"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.

Automobile company advertising is -- and has been, for decades -- focused on people believing that one car or truck is better than the other, not on getting people to buy cars that they don't otherwise want. Apparently somebody in this conversation is ignorant of that.

Tony said...


"I don't think jolly reaper hates cars or has really been siding with Damien, Tony. As for Damien's posts I don't see him offering solutions just tearing down everyone's assumptions when it comes to paying for the cost of possible solutions with his externalities argument."

This is real life, not a debate club. We don't have to assume pure motives and a sense of fair play. And I don't. I've heard Damien's and jollyreaper's rhetoric since I was in high school. That's thirty years now. I simply can't ascribe benign motives to it, because I've never -- ever -- met anyone using it who didn't have a personal agenda.

BruceJohnJennerLawso said...

"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. "

Thanks for looking that up. I might still quibble over the details a bit, but I'll conceed the argument for now :)

Geoffrey S H said...

Can't we make the tone of the conversation more cheerful/ bipartisan? Talking about planet-killing super-lasers seems to do the trick usually.

Cordwainer said...

If you are correct in your assumption of jollyreaper and Damien's hatred of personal transportation then what is their reason for such hatred. I have yet to see you or they define that reason or for that matter present an alternative if they have one. All I have heard is a bunch of whining about the status quo situation of fossil fuel use which would not be solved through mass transportation. Most forms of mass transportation would require combustion engines. While not all automotive technologies require combustion engines.

As for magnesium injection I suppose if it had been invented earlier it would have required cheap production methods for magnesium that weren't invented until the 1940's. That being said the types of engines it might be used in would probably only have niche applications in the beginning anyways, so electrolytic processes might have provided sufficient sources in the beginning and pushed while the technology itself would push the development of better processes. Ericsson did develop solar powered heat engines so maybe the development of a solar still to produce magnesium might have been a logical development of this technology, particularly if he had attempted to marry magnesium injection with his heat engines.

Had such engines been developed we might have seen automobile and airplane development come about earlier in the timeline along with better submarine and torpedo air engines. When used to heat air injection in an Ericsson cycle combustion engine along with early adoption of sleeve valves might have prevented the adoption of leaded gasoline.

The timeline would not be all that different from our own. World War One might have used airpower and mechanized infantry to a greater extant. With the later development of more powerful Ericsson cycle piston engines jet engines might have been slower to develop or developed more quickly due to the overlap in technologies. Either way this would have created some earlier improvements to air travel although probably not markedly so.

Cordwainer said...

I believe their were other methods for producing weapons grade fissionables other than gas diffusion that scientist were aware of at the time. I believe a small bomb could have been made using these methods, although at what expense I don't know. I believe the German's and Japanese both had programs to build a bomb using different uranium enrichment methods than those used by the Manhattan Project.

I agree with you Landis and have been trying to steer the convo to something more ludicrous but they aren't taking the bait.

Tony said...


"If you are correct in your assumption of jollyreaper and Damien's hatred of personal transportation then what is their reason for such hatred."

Jollyreaper has more than once complained than once that the automotive economy is not designed for bike riders like himself. And he dislikes that, intensely. Damien I won't speculate about. But his rhetoric is the rhetoric I have come to associate with that of Cause Guy. If you've known Cause Guy in your life, then you can imagine what animates Damien.

Damien Sullivan said...

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

Or you don't actually have a rational basis for your opinion.

"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."

And your opinion is wrong. I want *all* externalities to be internalized, as best we can. Cars as they exist pollute, and the polluter should pay. Elementary economics.

If we're going to play psychoanalysis, you're clearly so enamored of your car that you must resort to bizarre irrationalities to justify not paying the true social cost of your ownership.

"More importantly, my point is that it's just impractical"

That's absurd. Taxing fossil fuels isn't impractical at all. We tax gasoline right now, and most countries do so much more.

"All of the costs of our economy are paid by somebody within the economy, and those payers extend their costs to whoever they can

The whole definition of an externality, which remember you denied even exist, is a case where the costs of a decision are paid by someone other than the decider. Which matters.

Damien Sullivan said...

"As for Damien's posts I don't see him offering solutions"

Dude, carbon tax. It's not exactly exotic. You tax negative externalities and subsidize positive ones. I said this. Econ 101, again.

Tony said...

Damien Sullivan:

"Or you don't actually have a rational basis for your opinion."

I have a perfectly rational basis. You're not saying anything I haven't heard my entire adult life. It's not at all hard to associate known rehtoric with known motivations.

"And your opinion is wrong. I want 'all' externalities to be internalized, as best we can. Cars as they exist pollute, and the polluter should pay. Elementary economics."

More known rhetoric. You just want us to do things rightly and justly. But the agendized advocate is always focused on one thing that really animates him. For some it is nuclear power. For others it is abortion (either side of the argument). For yet others it is Microsoft. For you it is cars.

"If we're going to play psychoanalysis, you're clearly so enamored of your car that you must resort to bizarre irrationalities to justify not paying the true social cost of your ownership."

I'm not particularly enamored of any machine, except for maybe the Atlas missile (both for its engineering and a close family connection to one aspect of the program) and the Soyuz spacecraft (and I guess the R-7 launch vehicle that goes along with it). To me, personally, a car is just another tool I use in my life. To me, as a citizen, the automotive economy represents mobility, the options that come along with mobility, and economic prosperity.

As for the rest, you tip your hand by invoking the Truth and the Social. That's also known rhetoric.

"That's absurd. Taxing fossil fuels isn't impractical at all. We tax gasoline right now, and most countries do so much more."

You can tax anything you want, if you can get enough people to vote for it. But what are you taxing, and why? You said you want all externalities to be internalized. That means you have to account for all of them, and tax only the amount that is unanswered at the point of purchase. (Presuming of course that it is a case of taxation, and the numbers don't add up to a rebate. If we're being 100% honest, it could well turn out, on close examination, to be that car buyers pay more than their fare share of the costs of the automotive economy.) That means accurate accounting at all levels of the system, not arbitrary assessments that satisfy some advocate's personal prejudices and personal sense of justice.

"The whole definition of an externality, which remember you denied even exist, is a case where the costs of a decision are paid by someone other than the decider. Which matters."

And who says the costs aren't being paid by the car buyer? He certainly pays for every cost in the extended supply chain, both for the car and in the petroleum industry. A lot of those costs are all of the things you claim to be so concerned about. And the car owner pays more in taxes for publicy funded mitigations and abatements. Have to account for all of those assessments that have already been made against the car buyer.

That is if you're being honest. If you're just seeking to penalize a thing you don't like, who cares about accurate and fair accounting, right?

Anonymous said...

Could you guys take this ridiculous economic/political debate about cars somewhere else? You are way off topic.

As Geoffrey said "Can't we make the tone of the conversation more cheerful/ bipartisan?"


Cordwainer said...

Looks like they are in full debate mode, no stopping them now. Can we get Rick to moderate?

Have always wondered how far a society could get technologically without metals being common? I guess you could have hoop cannon and wooden war rockets with a Congreve like design. Making a steam engine would be difficult to but you could make fire pistons and primitive matchlock gonnes. You could have Magnus rotors, rotosail or even kitesail maritime vessels. I suppose all sorts of novel structural materials could be made by laminating wood, bone, stone, leather as well as fibers and latex from plants. Mechanical pulleys and even primitive chain and cog drives might be employed. Glass and plastic might allow some primitive electric batteries and air piston engines to develop. Whether they would be useful for much of anything is debatable.

Anonymous said...


"Have always wondered how far a society could get technologically without metals being common?"

That is an interesting question. For a sci-fi story, off the top of my head I see two different scenarios. A colony transport unlucky enough to land on a metal poor world and a society with a metal poor homeworld.

The colony transport would have all the information it needs to build a technological colony, but none of the resources. The ship and its starting industrial capacity would be the only source of metals. People living at the ship would have all the comforts of the ship while those who moved out to expand the colony would be living a pre-industrial world. There is a lot of room for tension in that scenario.

A culture born on a metal poor planet, including the above group thousands of years later, could develop science, but would have a rough time with technology. This is where the author can come up with some interesting ideas using ceramics, plastics, and natural materials. Looking at the Mayan and Aztec civilizations may help with ideas. Other than gold, I don't believe they had access to metals. Imagine a world with advanced science, but you have sailing ships, airships, and you fight boarding actions with wooden swords edged with obsidian.


jollyreaper said...

Look at the car debate as a model for building conflict in a story. Few people invent secondary worlds just to have everything work out just fine. Utopias don't make for drama. A proper secondary world needs conflicting philosophies and agendas. And from there you can either work towards settling differences peacefully or going Game of Thrones on everything.

Technology always comes with consequences, the only question is whether they are ones we can live with.

Byron said...

I'm going to ask everyone to drop the snarling on cars and economics. Personally, I agree with Tony, but at this point, nothing is going to be accomplished, and those of you participating are annoying everyone else.

Geoffrey S H said...

"Glass and plastic might allow some primitive electric batteries and air piston engines to develop. Whether they would be useful for much of anything is debatable."

To get plastic you need oil. To get oil you need strong machinery to haul it out the ground. Can you make such machinery on wood and fibres alone?

Cordwainer said...

Looking back the idea of a "reactionless drive" with a more or less "open system" energy generation, I'm thinking carrier-drone based fleets might not be necessary or only used for offensive actions. If your ships, drones and missiles make heavy use of meta-materials then you would tend to have a more close-in submarine like form of combat, and if your drive and power generation is surprisingly efficient then automated drones could escort your fleet without ever having "refuel" aboard a carrier.

Carrier's would be used mainly as tenders to re-arm and repair drones. Most missions like commercial and military escort missions and other defensive operations would only require command-and-control ships for the drones, not carriers. Drone tenders/carriers might have a use in invasion fleets and large fleet to fleet battles, though. A defensive fleet might consist of a retinue of drones attached to small manned command-and-control point defense ships. While more expensive offensive fleets would consist of Drone Carriers and smaller faster manned Missile Carriers built for close in ship-to-ship combat and boarding or commando actions. Some Drone Carriers could in turn be modified as transports for "Space Marine" landing parties.

As for an advance "stone age" culture I was actually looking at a water world setting and more of a fusion between Polynesian, Aztec and Chinese technologies. I figured some primitive gunpowder based weapons as well as repeating crossbows, greek fire and poison or irritant gas weapons would get developed. I think gliders and kites would be more controllable and useful in such a setting than airships. Body armor could be quite developed and able to handle the primitive gun and arbalest projectiles used, so blunderbusses, volley guns and chukko-nu type weapons would be predominate. Hollow hafted stone axes and maces as well as maquahitl or Polynesian shark teeth clubs would be common. Laminating microlithic blades of different materials together to form a stronger more flexible blade and mounting them in a flexible material like natural rubber or gum might allow one to make light and sturdy war picks and cleavers. You might have ships and ornithopters/airplanes powered by air piston engines. Windmills could provide the energy needed to pressurize air tanks for pneumatic engines. Relatively modern plastic, glass and ceramic technologies along with rubber seals might allow for relatively advanced pressurized tanks and pneumatics. Whether such technology could be used for steam engines is debatable. It's anybody's guess as to how far electric technology could get my guess it would be nothing more than an expensive curiousity that would never get beyond the Franklin level of development. You could make brushed generators from natural fibers and metallic ceramics and you could make primitive wires from animal hair or plant fibers as well. Such tools might have a medicinal use for pain relief and in fostering electrolytic reactions to create pharmaceuticals.

Cordwainer said...

Oil does bubble to the surface on occasion, and bioplastics can be produced with enough chemical know-how. I thing adequate pumping could be developed for a natural well with primitive tech as well.

Even so I think plastics would be expensive and rare items, which is why I don't think steam or combustion engines would be very likely in such a setting. Air pistons and even primitive "hot air" engines might develop even without plastics as long as you have adequate rubber. After all the Chinese were able to pipe natural gas through bamboo "pipes", and Malayo-Poynesian societies made use of fire piston type fire starters. Such a society would have along time to work with the materials at hand, and a water-world environment with sizable islands and small proto-continents might encourage such development for purposes of trade and war.

Cordwainer said...

Also just because a planet might be metal poor doesn't mean it would be devoid of metal. Light metals like boron, lithium and aluminum could exist in large quantities. While tin, copper, iron and nickel though rare would exist in some quantities as well. Certain metallic ceramics from alumina mixed with other metals might allow for relatively strong cast gearing technology. You would still have coal, natural gas, coke and natural oils to fuel high temperature kilns. Windmills and watermills could provide the energy for cottage level industry. Ben Franklin made brushed generators from glass and natural fibers. Wires have been made from horse hair and bamboo fibers. Electrolytic removal of metals from salts and other electrolytic processes might be possible. I have doubts a metal poor world could ever mass produce aluminum though. If they could though that would open up all sorts of possibilities.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, cultures on metal-poor worlds in fiction usually wind up developing biological based technology; I wonder if something like steam punk, but with ceramic/plastic/glass substituting for metals could develop instead? An interresting idea.


Cordwainer said...

I imagine you could make relatively strong composite material gearing by laminating or glueing together rubber, leather, hardwood and natural fibers. The gears would be more flexible than metal gears to prevent wear and tear so they would have to have teeth with larger surface areas to prevent slippage.

Cordwainer said...

Malayo-Polynesian culture not Malayo-Poynesian no offense to Poy eaters it was a typo not a pun, seriously.

Cordwainer said...

Well bioengineering could help to produce better construction materials in a metal-poor society as well. Glues and resins for composite materials as well as chiton for cement and bioplastics could be obtained from shellfish. Better silk could be bred and obtained from spiders and silkworms. Silk as well as shark and eel skin are excellent conductors of electricity. Blubbery skins of marine animals can be dried into a rubber substitute for primitive sealing materials.

If your dealing with a society of colonists who are stranded on a metal poor world, I'm sure they could very creative.

Geoffrey S H said...

This talk of alternative technology trees reminds me of some world-building I did some months ago. If one has an avian or maritime race- let's say dragons or squid- then their definition of what is basic transportation might be different to ours. Dragons pulling Hackney Cab style "sky chariot" gliders, or squids engaged in underwater warfare seeing the first (non-watertight) submarines as akin to tanks or airplanes. That's probably too off topic for now though.

Cordwainer said...

I tend to think that you have to be very careful how a carbon tax is applied particularly if you include a carbon credit system. Also if you "internalize" all externalities in price you stand the risk of creating a very hefty "consumption tax".

As I have said before a moderate land-value tax on undeveloped property with green credits for farmland and private land set aside for nature preserves. Along with a small "consumption tax" with green exemptions that is value added at all levels in the chain of supply as a way to average out exorbitant service, capital gains and sin taxes would be preferrable in my opinion.
Particularly, since it would encourage economic growth in "green economy" sectors and land development.

Cordwainer said...

Like the idea of a non-water tight submarine. Would you use fossil fuels, natural oils or air bladders to produce negative buoyancy underwater? Be perfect for a race of mermen or genetically engineered aquanaughts with gills. You always see anthropomorphic robots and exoskeletons in anime but the only use I could see for them in the real world is in construction or as underwater divesuits. Somebody did recently build a wooden submarine its on you tube.

Been trying to come up with a plausible universe where the Russians discover North America via Alaska in the 18 century without changing the timeline to much to where there are no Mongol Hordes, Hanseatic League, Ottoman Empire or Polish Lithuania to encourage the Russian Empires need to form a strong collective polity.

Cordwainer said...

I would also like to see a speculative tax levied against all high-risk or "virtual" economic exchanges such as stocks, bonds, commodity and currency certificates etc.
Of course that would be in exchange for getting rid of the income, capital gains and treasury tax normally assessed. The speculation tax would not apply to conventional and internet retail sales just those sales within the stock exchange. The riskier the market based product or exchange the higher the speculative tax levied. That along with a lowering of the foreign profits tax to the domestic rate, a slight raise in tariffs, restrictions on some tax loopholes, and a tax free status on personal savings, more transparency in the market as a whole, government sponsored refinancing programs and a central bank would solve a lot of our economic problems in the U.S.A.

Cordwainer said...

If Mars had been big enough to hold onto a decent atmosphere I suppose you could have had a rocketpunk or dieselpunk invasion from Mars scenario. I was pondering using such a scenario during the mid 19th century with various martian mega-states landing on Earth and conducting a "cold war" in proxy between the various Napoleonic era empires. I figured they would land in the middle of large land masses owned by the various colonial empires. You could have different Martian nation-states land with different agendas land in different colonial empires and make alliances with those powers. One group would land in Russia, another in Brazil, Australia, and French held parts of Africa. The Russians would sell Alaska to the aliens instead of the Americans. Tsar Alexander II would have escaped assassination and Alexander the III would have lived longer due to "alien medicine". Russian would not have lost Finland or Manchuria nor all of it's territory in Poland. The Russo-Japanese war would have turned out differently or never happened and the splitting up of China would have differed as well.

The Empire of Brazil would have enjoyed a technological and economic renaissance and military success sufficient to keep the landowners and the republicans happy and not out for Emperor Pedro's resignation.

The British would have "loaned" the "barren lands" of Northwest Australia and Western Canada which might lead to tension between a different Martian faction living in Alaska. Involvement in the American Civil War would by Great Britain and other foreign powers would have been more pronounce and may have had another ending due to alien involvement.
Who knows what the result of the Crimean War and Pan-Slavicism would have led to in this timeline.

Whether the 2nd French Empire would have survived even with martian intervention is questionable. I was thinking the Martians would support monarchy if not autocracy to make it easier to implement their aims. Either Napoleon III survives long enough due to advanced martian medicine that his son Napoleon IV takes the the throne or the aliens support the takeover and coronation of a Bourbon Emperor of France and the eventual union between the French and Brazilian Empires. Whether Maximilian stays in control of Mexico with martian support is debatable.

A universe where the constitutional monarchies and colonial empires of the late 19th century have advanced technology and are more wide-spread would make for good drama and provide for a good combination of reverse-engineered or cobbled together steampunk and martian dieselpunk and rocketpunk designs.

Cordwainer said...

Whether Napoleon III goes to war over Luxembourg due to alien support and starts and earlier Franco-Prussian War is also debatable. I don't know if even a Russian and French Empire supported by alien technology and policies would have been able to stop the expansion of the Prussian Empire completely.

Cordwainer said...

Also while anti-gravity seems like a birthday wish I wonder if we might discover materials or create meta-materials that interact with gravity in such a way as to produce gravity shielding or gravity amplification? Would such a thing violate the Standard Model?

Noclevername said...

There is a way to amplify gravity, it's called "more mass". :)

As for Mars, it might have gone the other way; We could have invaded them. Mars is resource-poor compared to Earth and might have suffered slower tech development, so we'd be colonials to their natives. By the present day there might be a "Bureau of Thark Affairs".

Anonymous said...

Corwainer, I seem to remember back in the '90s something about using a lattice of aligned, microscopic magnetic bubbles to odify (amplify or reduce), gravity; the problem was, you needed a source of gravity to modify. I can't remember the name of the researchers, I'm afraid. Try looking up NASA online archives during the early '90s. I hope that helps.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, that should have been 'modify' not 'odify'


Anonymous said...

I remember reading an Invasion:Earth genre story once. As the alien fleet Jumped into Sol System, the author gradually revealed the fact that the invaders are technologically backward -- their ships are made of wood and their weapons are black powder muzzleloaders! The invaders were shocked when the non-spacefaring "primitives" displayed fighter jets and M16's.

Turns out the "trick" of interstellar travel is ludicrously simple; everyone (except us) discovered it about the time they developed gunpowder and clockwork mechanisms.


Anonymous said...

On the subject of feudalism and other antique societal systems:
If it worked for human beings before, there is little reason to suppose it couldn't work in the future. We are still humans, and still relate to each other in the same old ways. For example, the client-protector (serf-lord) relationship still functions in various forms, even though it has been (temporarily?) eclipsed by other systems as the dominant societal organizing principle.

Sure, I seriously doubt we will ever see real absolute ruling monarchs again -- but when I observe the virtual idol worship and limitless trust some folks display for certain political figures... Well, it suddenly seems far from impossible.

I doubt we will ever see another major theocracy... But it looks to me like there are quite a few people who hold certain ideals (about socialism, the environment, the sanctity of firearm ownership, whatever) every bit as dogmatically, inflexibly, and dictatorially, as any religious zealot ever held his faith. If enough such like-minded folks had the ability to force their agenda on the populace, how would this really differ from a theocracy?

Frankly, when it comes to human behavior, I can't help but agree with The Preacher: "There is no new thing under the sun".


Cordwainer said...

Well Mars has due to its position from the Sun cooled earlier than our own planet, and a more massive Mars would not neccesarily be resource poor. A planet with twice the mass of Mars would have lower gravity but still an adequate atmosphere. Lower gravity might mean more volcanism and a thick protective atmosphere which would mean greater depositing of metals on the surface without the blow off or constant meteorite impacts that our own Mars experienced. Also lower gravity might mean powered flight and space flight might develop earlier.

Major theocracies may not exist but some minor ones still do. Also North Korea has a very feudalistic-like dictatorship.

I seem to remember an unsucessful experiment in the 80's to create a monopole like event, they later used a similar method in the 90's with some success. Problem was you could only maintain it for very short periods of time, then you had to reset it. Required strong magnetic fields to.

Anonymous said...


"Sure, I seriously doubt we will ever see real absolute ruling monarchs again -- but when I observe the virtual idol worship and limitless trust some folks display for certain political figures... Well, it suddenly seems far from impossible."


"Also North Korea has a very feudalistic-like dictatorship."

The Kim Dynasty of North Korea is an absolute monarchy. They just don't call it that because it would not work well with their propaganda.

With a little history, tradition, and clever propaganda a charismatic dictator could create a new monarchy.

North Korea is an example of "The Balance of Technology." While most of the population live in primitive conditions, the government has nuclear weapons and missile program.


Cordwainer said...

Well, James I didn't want to come out and say it but I guess you agree the Kim's are probably as close to an absolute hereditary monarchy as is possible in today's age. Of course Thailand has maintained a constitutional monarchy for almost a century now, and had an absolute monarchy well into the 1930's. While Great Britain has had a constitutional monarchy well into the modern age though it is more a figurehead monarchy now. I believe the Prince of Monaco and the Emirs of some Arab Gulf states hold the most legislative power of the more traditional monarchs presiding today. Of course Russia had an absolute monarchy until 1919, and has only substituted monarchy for a series of dictators since.

Anonymous said...

Cordwainer, I agree that NK is effectively an absolute monarchy. I probably should have phrased my statement more carefully!

The Kims show one way an absolute monarchy can still come about. There could be others. If a given representative democracy became too gridlocked with seriously disruptive partisan squabbling for too long, if the government showed itself incapable of maintaining order and law -- eventually quite a few folks would back whomever could make the trains run on time and deal effectively with criminals and rioters. That charismatic, forceful individual just might manage to make himself de facto king.

Unlikely? Yes. But history can show that stranger things have happened.


Noclevername said...

"Also lower gravity might mean powered flight and space flight might develop earlier."

Airplanes did not lead to rocketry. They were separate areas of development.

Tony said...


"Airplanes did not lead to rocketry. They were separate areas of development."

I think it's more accurate to say that they were ultimately convergent fields of development. Rockets started as artillery, while aircraft started as transportation. Now aircraft can be used as a form of artillery, while rockets can be used for transportation.

Cordwainer said...

Didn't mean to say airplanes would necessarily lead to space flight. But, if you have air travel that makes certain advances in materials technology and rapid transportation and eventual given. Those advances in turn could spawn a desire for space flight, and drive it's cost down. Also, the costs of space flight would be less on a lower gravity world.

Looking at zero point energy and Woodward effects, if this could be used as handwavium could make for an interesting defender versus invader encounter.
While both rely on stochastic electrodynamic theory they are essentially based on two different although possibly related phenomenon.

Zero point energy is the result of an ambient field, whether you could get usable energy from such a field is unlikely but let's say some enterprising alien race manages it. They could have gravity manipulation of their own planets gravitational fields and would have infinite energy to power torch ships and ravening beams of death. Gravity manipulation could be used to fling missiles in orbit or deflect incoming missiles. Make these guys the defenders.

Now have some war-like alien race invent propulsion systems based on the curved space Woodward effect. They end up with reactionless drives and eventually open curved space Alcubbierre-like stasis fields and benign wormhole manipulation through closed time-like curves which provides them with FTL capability. Who would win in this scenario?

Noclevername said...


I think the invaders would win a total-war scenario. They could open a wormhole between the nearest sun and the defenders' planetary core, or ram a relativistic projectile into them.

In an invasion/conquest scenario where an intact population or planet is the goal, things become a lot more complicated and IMO favor the defenders.

Cordwainer said...

Well their gravity control could also be used to interfere with the invaders ability to form or position their wormholes. The real problem is that the invaders could use an Alcubbierre-type "bobble" to "warp" or "teleport" a projectile into their sun or onto a planet without detection and would be immune to gravity manipulation even if detected.

Jim Baerg said...

Re: tech on metal poor world.
See Poul Anderson's planet Diomedes in _The Man Who Counts_ & several centuries later in _A Knight of Ghosts & Shadows_. In the earlier story we see the natives using 'advanced' tech using stone wood, resins etc. In the later story contact with interstellar society has introduced electolytic methods to extract aluminum, magnesium etc.

James: The story you are thinking of is _The Road Not Taken_ by Harry Turtledove.

Thucydides said...

The balance fo technology can produce pretty strange bedfellows. The US Navy is very interested in high powered lasers for fleet and ship defense against high speed anti ship missiles. In order to identify and target incoming threats at the maximum range, the sensors and weapons would be best placed overhead, rather than on the ship itself. While a 747 sized aircraft carrying laser weapons could circle over the task force, there would be limitations as to how long the flight crew could last, as well as issues like time on station even with air to air refuelling.

A large blimp or rigid airship has the ability to carry large sensors (the USN routinely used giant blimps as large radar piquets into the early 1960's I believe) and it may be reasonable to imagine a blimp as a "fighting mirror" to redirect the beam from a warship to detected targets dozens to hundreds of kilometers away (rather than within the last 5 or so kilometers to the visible horizon).

More ambitious people could envision the airship itself as the fighting platform, with sensors and weapons arrays on board, able to cruise for extended periods over the task force at sea.

A quick spin on externalities:

Today you probaqbly breathed in a particle of fallout from a 1950 era nuclear test, a bit of fly ash from a powerplant outside of Bejing and dust from the Sahara Desert. How are you going to apportition costs or collect from the USSR, the Chinese government or the Roman Empire?

neutrino78x said...

We the People already have restrictions on cars, everything from requiring air bags in new models to requiring cars that run on fossil fuels to get a certain minimum number of miles per gallon.

Personally I support banning cars that use only an internal combustion engine running on gasoline as their means of propulsion; I would give the car companies 10 years to design all their products to be at least plugin hybrids.

That is pretty much what has already happened, since the new CAFE standards require 54.5 MPG by 2025. You're not going to get that with a 350 small block engine.

(At least not with normal driving habits and the stock configuration of the vehicle.)

I don't know why people would complain of such standards...a plugin hybrid uses electric motors to drive the wheels, which results in much faster acceleration. It goes purely on batteries for the first 50-100 miles, assuming you plugged it in the previous night, which not only is better for the environment, but also saves you money on gas. You could drive such a car every day to work and never have to use fossil fuels, assuming the grid power is clean (of course I also support green power, and nuclear is included in that for areas where other types of green power are not as practical).

neutrino78x said...

Article about the new CAFE standard:

Tony said...


"...assuming the grid power is clean..."

How are you going to keep it clean when you add a signifcant part of the motor vehicle expenditure to the load on the grid? You can't retire much old generating capacity whe you're trying to expand total capacity significantly. WRT nuclear, it's just not politically realistic after Fukushima.

Thucydides said...

Students of history might note that electric cars were the vast majority in the early part of the last century, but the grid could not expand fast enough to keep up with demand, while gasoline and hydrocarbon fuels could.

As Tony notes, the reason we don't have electric cars flooding the market today is that the Grid cannot expand fast enough to keep up with demand.

Also, moving metal is energy intensive. I don't have the reference anymore but I recall a comparison of how much solar hardware it would take to power a typical American house vs how much would be needed to power an electric sedan. A typical roof would serve to power a house, while a car would need the equyivalent of something on the order of 2.5 roofs to get enough charge to go for the typical commute.

Of course, similar comparisons can be made regarding the energy density of electric batteries vs hydrocarbon fuel. The Chevy "Volt" can go @ 40 miles using one ton of batteries to provide the charge, and 300 miles on a single tank of fuel. One might suspect a Chevy "Gas" stripped of the heavy batteries, electric motor and control electronics would actually have a much greater range on the same tank of gas....

Anonymous said...


"How are you going to keep it clean when you add a signifcant part of the motor vehicle expenditure to the load on the grid? You can't retire much old generating capacity whe you're trying to expand total capacity significantly. WRT nuclear, it's just not politically realistic after Fukushima."

That's correct. It will be very difficult to get nuclear power plants built.

Solar and wind are limited because the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow. New affordable energy storage systems are needed. Without that you still need some baseline power system. Since nuclear isn't politically realistic, you're stuck with fossil fuel for most of your baseline power.

I guess with electric vehicles you are centralizing the pollution production. That may make it easier to control.

Another thing about electric or hybrid vehicles is that the battery production produces lots of pollution.

Maybe hydrogen fuel cells are the way to go, but storing and producing hydrogen has problems too.

There are no easy answers.


jollyreaper said...

The car situation doesn't really make a whole lot of sense, especially in today's economy.

Q: Why does everyone need a car?
B: Because everything is so spread out, you can't afford to walk and mass transit can't cover it.

Q: Why is everything spread out?
A: Because the car made this a cheaper way to build.

Q: But doesn't that make things more expensive? Lower density means a greater cost in building out utility access and roads and delivery costs?
A: That's right!

Q: Then if we are facing a time of declining resources and revenues, a more consolidated urbanism would be more cost-efficient?
A: Yes.

Q: But people won't like that, right?
A: Depends on the generation. The people who grew up in the cities before WWII only saw the bad points and the suburbs were the shiny new thing. Some people who grew up in the burbs like them and others are seeing all the bad bits and reject them.

Q: Are the cities still the same as when people fled them?
A: No, but there are a mix of problems cultural and technical. You get fleeced either way, either fleeced in the burbs or fleeced in the city. You have crap landlords in the city who charge you too much for too little but in the burbs the cost of maintaining the ticky-tacky houses will eat you alive.

What we're looking at is like a time-motion study for a society. You talk to a foreman on a factory floor and he'll tell you that the most sensible way to arrange things is to keep the pathways as short as possible and minimize extraneous movement. You cut down the distance traveled, you save time and money.

Of course, there are other factors involved. Some friends of mine used to live in my same neighborhood and moved 40 miles north because that was the closest they could find the kind of house they wanted at the price point they were willing to hit. It's in an area I can't stand, low-density sprawl with no work. Everyone I know who lives up there commutes 40 miles south for work. Fortunately for them, their work is all on the internet so they can work from home. It really makes sense in their case. But if they both worked south, that's two cars and a tank and a half of gas a week. They'd eat up every saving they had with the bigger house where nobody lives.

The big question here is peak energy. The proponents say that we are never going to have it as cheap as we had it in the past, there are no new technologies on the horizon that can beat the economics of fossil fuels, that downsizing will be forced upon us whether we like it or not. The naysayers believe that something new will turn up just like it has for every other energy source in our history. Human and animal power gives way to water and wind and eventually we get steam from wood and then coal and then we use oil and have our whiz-bang 20th century. Ok, so fission was a bit of a fizzle but fusion is just around the corner! Or fracking! Something will happen!

jollyreaper said...

I'm no expert but my feeling is that we're going to have to scale back. Some of the more radical peak people are talking about massive deindustrialization. I don't think we're going to go back to the 19th century but I do think there's the potential to see a reshaping of the way we live that could be as significant a change as the advent of suburbia. I'm not thinking cataclysm, more along the lines of kids in 40 years watching television and thinking "Boy, things sure were different back then, huh, grandpa?"

Just a thought experiment. We used to have a lot of corner stores because people didn't have the means to travel ten miles to get to a major destination store for daily goods. Department stores, yes: you planned a day trip to do that and did your shopping. But if you needed milk and eggs, you hit the corner store. But economies of scale beat out the little guy most of the time. You'll drive ten more minutes to bypass the mom and pop shop for the category-killer box store. Likewise, hospitals tend to be bigger, schools are bigger, and people will drive or be driven to get there.

What's the price point at which people will say screw it, I'll take the closer place? If I'm walking, the store 20 minutes away will never get as much business from me as the one that's only 10. If gas becomes very expensive, the same thoughts will factor into taking trips.

There's an economic tipping point where selection and pricing for a category-killer can no longer beat out time and travel expense for the shopper. Every person has a different tipping point.

I don't know if we'll be able to kick the can down the road on this one. We really seemed like we'd hit the crunch, no foolin' in the 70's but large discoveries and copious production gave us a reprieve.

One way or the other, we shall see how this goes.

Thucydides said...

Or we will simply reorganize how we do things.

Instapundit pointed out that people who buy on (not so much on .ca since we don't yet have the same volume or economies of scale that allow this in the US) actually save money and energy buying staple grocery items through Amazon since the delivery truck uses less fuel to make (say) eight deliveries than eight commuters make driving to COSTCO or WalMart. (COSTCO and WalMart gain this this in reverse, they gain savings because the vendor only has to make one trip to the big box to offload the merchendise rather than make deliveries to multiple small stores).

Most people who live in suurbia want room and privacy which isn't possible in apartment or townhouse living. I have done both and vastly prefer suburbia for these reasons. I recall living in Munich that people were "distributed", you had a small apartment, walked six blocks one way to where you parked your car, 10 blocks in a different direction to your patch of community garden and (for people who like "stuff") a walk in yet another direction to your storage unit.

Not sure how many people want to live like that....

jollyreaper said...

I hear what you're saying about living in Munich. People have different needs at different times in life.

A trend in the US has been downsizing. Adults who need the bigger house when kids are living at home end up getting smaller apartments close to the things they need so they don't have the expense and time involved in keeping up with a big place. This is very useful when older folks might still be physically together to walk to the store but not really good at the driving.

A friend of mine who lives up north deals with that parking problem like you described. he's in an older neighborhood that was built out before car culture became king and the parking sucks six ways from Sunday. But this then brings up the question of why the city was built in such a way that he needs a car in the first place. If I lived out in the boonies a 4x4 would be mandatory. Different requirements in suburbia, different in the city, right?

If I wanted to keep horses then an apartment wouldn't be my bag but we have plenty of people who bought houses out in horse country who don't actually have horses. And the houses they built don't really take advantage of being in horse country. They would not look out of place in any bedroom community in-town. So why are they there? Likewise, many people end up living in golf course communities while never playing a round of golf. Seems like a waste but there you are.

The thing I think is important is that there be a plethora of choices so people can live the way they're happy without anyone one person's lifestyle choices infringing upon another's.

Thucydides said...

You hit the nail on the head there:

"people want to live the way they're happy without anyone person's lifestyle choices infringing on another's".

This sounds delightfully like the classical Libertarian or even Classical Liberal position. The compromises needed to live in close or far proximity to your neighbours (depending on how close or far you choose to live) are generally easy to make, and can be sorted out by people of good will without too much difficulty.

jollyreaper said...

The problem is that people have a great deal of difficulty agreeing on what is reasonable. It sounds like we should be dealing with a matter of basic arithmetic but there's too much politics involved to leave any of it simple and straightforward.

neutrino78x said...

thuclydides wrote:

[quote]As Tony notes, the reason we don't have electric cars flooding the market today is that the Grid cannot expand fast enough to keep up with demand.[/quote]

No, the reason we don't have electric cars flooding the market is that lithium ion batteries are still expensive, and the general public has range anxiety.

Few people drive more than 50 miles in a day (usually quite less), yet they don't want to buy a car that "only" goes 200 miles on a charge (Tesla's latest car, the cheapest version).

Electric cars are the future, though. The very near future. Soon the Big Three American car companies will be Ford, General Motors, and Tesla Motors.

neutrino78x said...

In 20 years you won't be able to buy a new car that runs entirely on a fossil fuel engine.

Cars will be either 100% electric, or the other option will be hybrid of electric and a fuel cell of some kind (hydrogen eventually, but initially natural gas) for extended trips away from the grid.

This notion that running out of oil means we can't have cars anymore is ridiculous. The trend is obvious, the gasoline engine is going away, to be replaced by electric motors. The 2013 Tesla Model S Performance Version goes 0-60 in 4.2 seconds. This is comparable to a Ford Mustang GT with a 5.0 liter V8.

As far as generation. I would advocate that all new homes are required to have solar or some other form of green local power generation independent from the grid.

The grid is just for industry and a backup during winter. It will be a smart grid, with superconducting lines for long distance and large scale energy storage for when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing, etc. The State of Texas has invested billions in building superconducting lines to bring wind power from the North of Texas into the populated areas (Austin and Dallas).

There's no need for fossil fuel power generation anymore. Sunny areas will use solar thermal -- where mirrors focus the Sun's heat onto a central point with molten salt, and the salt retains the heat for 12 hours after the Sun goes down -- and other areas will use the form of central power appropriate to them, wind power in windy areas, geothermal in some areas, nuclear in others.

Nuclear is mainly for spacecraft, but I do support it on Earth in those areas where there is no "renewable" option (there are few such places).

jollyreaper said...

Neutrino, the argument is that it will be hard to find substitutes for gasoline-powered cars.

There are a lot of assumptions that go into the pro and con sides.

Facts and agenda can get all snarled up. For example, a religious conservative group could conduct public education programs on the link between oral sex and cancer. And for as much of the truth as they are quoting, this is true. What they leave out is that HPV vaccines could prevent this risk and their real objection is on moral grounds because they find it "icky." Barring that, cervical cancer is just another incentive for girls to stay chaste before marriage.

So, one side says that alternative power sources can't yet replace demand placed on fossil sources. The other side says it can be done. Frankly, I don't know.

We have the same debate with nuclear power. Even some environmentalists have come around to saying it's the least worst option compared to coal and that you can't meet baseline demand without fossil or nuclear plants. Now other people come along and say yes, that used to be the case, but now the tech has improved.

So, what are the agendas? The environmental activists want us to stop raping the environment to death. And they're not wrong, evidence is on their side that we have been.

The other side says things are fine, we'll innovate our way out of difficulties. Their position is understandable: it's a great time to be alive for those of us in the western world, far better than most times in history. It would be a shame to see the party end.

Politics has been defined as who gets what and how and we've had debates between the have's and have-not's since the beginning of time. Would there be enough resources to go around if there was less wealth inequality or are we looking at a diminishing pool of resources for one and all?

If the peak tech people are completely wrong, what then? Let's say we straighten out this 1% mess and bring the jobs back home and we're reliving the 1950's with single-earner families happily in the middle-class, an electric car in every driveway, houses big as barns. What's the carrying capacity of the planet at this rate?

Hawking pointed out that if we had a magic replacement for conventional power like fusion, we'd still be in a pickle due to the heat of industrial activity. Given current trends, we would heat the atmosphere to the point of being unlivable within two centuries.

So, what new, disruptive ideas could come out of left field to change all of this? An essential assumption of the con side is that there are no innovations on the horizon. There's no technological solution. Given our history of inventing game-changing tech, I would not feel as certain.

Tony said...


Efficiency isn't the objective. A liveable lifestyle is. What you seem to be forgetting is that it wasn't all that long ago that 70% or more of people lived on farms or in small towns, many of them not much more than collections of farmhouses. Back then, cities were seen as necessary evils, not praiseworthy designs for living. I don't see that much has changed about that, which is why people seek suburbia and even horse-urbia. Only quixotic city snobs actually like living there, rather than tolerate it if they have to, and commute if they don't. Even if they save no money commuting, they at least get a better palce to go home to.

Truth in advertising -- I lived in horse-urbia, without owning a horse. Why live here? because lots are an acre or larger, we have bunnies and birds and coyotes. Life is so laid back that people's dogs come visiting in the afternoon and nobody gets uptight about leash laws, etc. In essence, it's nature-friendly living that the city can't match. That's why people live out here. It's the way people were meant to live, not in smelly, stinky, congested cities. People can have horses if they want them, but their are many more attractions than that.


Too much idealism, too little understanding of logistical reality. To create electrical current for electrical cars, you burn fuel at some remove, experience line loss getting the energy to the car, then experience more loss in lugging heavy batteries around. I doubt there is any improvement in efficiency at all, when all of that is figured into the energy cost of electric cars. Electricity is just not as good store or transport of energy as hydrocarbon fuels. The same points can be made about injecting hydrogen into the process somewhere.

The other thing is that most people may only drive 50 miles or less a day, but most people also need to go more than a single charge can take them fairly often. I, for example, am making my second trip on business to Las Vegas this year from Saint George, UT. That's about a 250 mile round trip. Easy to do in a single day in a gasoline or diesel powered vehicle. Prohibitively expensive in time and effort to do with an electrical vehicle. I regulary drive 600 miles to and from Denver or 450 miles to and from Phoenix every year to go see major league baseball games. If I had to take those trips in 200 mile per day stages, I'd never take them. Simply put, it would take totalitarian levels of regulation to make most middle class Americans to give up their gasoline powered vehicles, for simple time and distance considerations alone.

Anonymous said...


Efficiency isn't the objective. A liveable lifestyle is.

Too much idealism, too little understanding of logistical reality.

I agree with Tony.

Perhaps one day we will use electricity or hydrogen or some other alternate energy for transportation, but only after it can meet the requirements Tony listed.

Now if we run out of cheap fossil fuel before we have practical alternatives, then we will be forced to change our lifestyle and culture, but no one is going to like it.

Let's keep the R&D money flowing, but let's not be surprised when people won't buy overpriced-not-ready-for-prime-time tech.


Cordwainer said...

We keep making the point that the U.S. is exceptional, but many other countries are no less dependent on automobiles. Even countries with good mass transit like the countries of Western Europe and parts of the Far East. When I was in Europe I knew many people who would trek from Italy to Germany as part of the job responsibilities. Even with loads of mass transit Korea is a nightmare of congestion during rush hour or on the holidays.

Cordwainer said...

Well induction rails can be built into highways to lower the size of batteries that you carry, but that might increase line loss. Some type of large-scale ultra-capacitor technology is really really needed to make electric cars efficient and ecologically safe. That being said some high school kid just invented a cheap ultra-capacitor, whether it can be applied on a large enough scale remains to be seen. Also electrical energy doesn't need to be produced from fossil fuels, but the infrastructure to move to alternative energy sources will take time and money. Without high-voltage ultracapacitors it is also likely that electrical motors will be limited when it comes to high load/high torque applications. Low load/high torque(small personal vehicles) or High load/low torque(maritime and rail freight) may be accomplished by and large with all electric systems but High load/high torque regimes like cargo and delivery trucks will probably require hybrid technologies. I still thing the nearest term solution that does not impact the economy too severely is a move to cleaner fossil fuels like propane, CNG/LNG, biogas and synthgas.

neutrino78x said...

tony wrote:

To create electrical current for electrical cars, you burn fuel at some remove, experience line loss getting the energy to the car, then experience more loss in lugging heavy batteries around. I doubt there is any improvement in efficiency at all, when all of that is figured into the energy cost of electric cars.

Are you kidding? You sound like you're not familiar with the subject at all, there is a MAJOR improvement in efficiency.

An internal combustion engine, just taking gasoline and converting that to mechanical motion, is maybe 50% efficient (more like 30%).

Whereas with an electric vehicle, you have transmission and storage in the battery. Each of those stages (assuming green power at the generator, such as nuclear fission) is upwards of 90% efficient. It's night and day, dude. It is not even remotely close.

As far as battery pack weight, on the Model S it's about 1200 pounds, but again, the car goes 0-60 in 4.2 seconds. How fast does your car do that?

btw DoE estimates that 84% of all cars in the USA could be converted to plugin hybrids with 33 miles of all electric range and we still would not have to build any new power plants. Because electric cars are vastly more efficient.

(report was from 2007. The Commander in Chief was George W. Bush.)

The reason we use gas for cars is not that it's efficient. LMAO. no, no, no, no, no. LOL @ gas cars more efficient.

What happens is that gasoline is so cheap and energy dense that it is okay to be inefficient. Unfortunately, we're running out of the cheap oil sources. Sure, there's lots of it in Canada in shale oil (and parts of the US too I think), but that's expensive both in energy input and in economic cost.

Whereas if we deal with green energy sources, be it nuclear, geothermal, wind, solar, tide, etc., all of that is far more abundant than oil could ever hope to be.

Regardless, there's no debate here, because the CAFE standards have already been raised, and this is going to happen. In 20 years it will be very hard to find a new car that runs on internal combustion only, if you can find one at all. The trend is already going in that direction, even Ford has an electric Ford Focus (it is not very good compared to Tesla's cars).

Car and Driver observed 94 miles of range, which is a lot for most drivers. You don't need 500 miles on a tank when you only drive 20-50 miles a day and you charge it every night. 500 miles is from here (Silicon Valley) to Los Angeles, I don't know many who drive that distance every day. Remember that when an electric car is "idling" like in a traffic jam, the motor is not using any energy.

A typical commute might be from south San Jose to Sunnyvale, which is like 20 miles, easily done with all of the new 2012 electric cars. Chevy Volt could go there and back before turning on the combustion engine.

neutrino78x said...


Perhaps one day we will use electricity or hydrogen or some other alternate energy for transportation, but only after it can meet the requirements Tony listed.[/quote]

It will be in less than 20 years. The CAFE standards have already been raised. In 12 years the average US car will have to get 54.5 MPG. It's already decided. Realistically that's not going to come from an all gas car. They're going to have to go hybrid at least. No lifestyle changes required, just improvement in car technology, which we are already doing as we speak.

neutrino78x said...

Also this.

Thucydides said...

The laws of physics are enforced with a ruthless efficiency that would make the Stasi look like Keystone Kops. The more stages or steps there are in a process (especially energy conversion) the worse off you are. Period.

The most practical short term means of having efficient personal motor vehicle transport will be the substitution of high strength/low weight materials for steel (no need for magical motors)

Mid term we will probably see hydrocarbon fuel cells (look up Solid Oxide Fuel Cell); some prototypes can run on diesel fuel, combining the high energy density of hydrocarbon fuel with the efficiency of a single energy conversion step (chemical energy to electrical energy).

Geoffrey S H said...

It all comes down to how light the battery is. If they are quite light (handwavium technology alert) but inefficient, then you sinply buuy a six-pack of 'em at your local store. When the juice meter reaches zero, stop, slap a new one in aand carry on. If they are heavy then suburbanism will die out. Simples.

I do wonder how shipping in international waters might change. Hybrid motor/windjammer super freighters complemented by nuclear freighters? Or is that ridiculous due to the anti-nuclear lobby and the inability of windjammers to get to locations directly due to the winds involved (I am ignoring the transit time issue here for now)?

Cordwainer said...

Who has the money to just buy a car that is only good for commuting, particularly at the gouging price that many electric vehicles are priced at. Yes, it is engineering-wise possible to make electric vehicles cheaper and have greater range. Tesla Motors and China's electric car company(Can't remember the name right off the bat). That being said even with improved battery technology you don't get nearly the same range as gas powered vehicle and you still need to wait quite awhile even with a quick charge station to charge your vehicle. Gas powered cars are not efficient but their damn convenient. Even in a place where you don't have a modern electric grid you can still count on an old fashioned diesel truck to get you around. As I have said before although in more wordy terms it comes down to two things.

1. Which fuel infrastructure is the cheapest, easiest to build and has the greatest flexibility or utility.

2. Which infrastructure poses the least economic threat to the current fuel regime.

Political and economic saliency will usually trump efficiency or good engineering . We are Humans not Vulcans and I say the Ship will Fit!

Cordwainer said...

As was stated before batteries also cause pollution as well. Of course we could rely on air batteries or ultracapacitors in the future. I tend to agree that plug-in hybrids using cleaner fossil fuels as I mentioned before would probably be the easiest way to reduce carbon emmisions and improve fuel efficiency. Creating a "green grid" will take too much time. Of course we need to reduce emissions in other ways as well. A Global Clean Coal Initiative and "green" improvements to the way plants and animals are grown to lower the level of greenhouse gases the produce and increase the amount of carbon the sequester, would greatly reduce carbon emissions and be relatively easy and in many cases more profitable. While we are at it get with breeders and veterinarians and create a database for health and longevity on all breeds and mixed breeds of pets(particularly dogs and cats) and then set stringent health criteria to breed only the healthiest specimens and either neuter/spay or cull the rest.

Cordwainer said...

I think we are almost at the technical economic limit when it comes to making vehicles lighter. To make them "much lighter" would require some rather expensive/exotic materials. We will see some additional lightening of vehicles but probably not a drastic amount. Also a lighter curb weight vehicle increases safety hazards which have to be mitigated in some way.
Most low temperature SOFC's(Solid Oxidizing Fuel Cell) tend to require exotic materials in their construction although Solid Cell Inc. has developed a Chromium free CERMET cell. Personally, I tend to support hybrid high temperature SOFC gas turbine(SOFC-GT) because you can get additional energy from the turbine, get fuller breakdown of the chemical fuel in the fuel cell and even add a Stirling engine to regenerate electricity from some of the waste heat created by the turbine and not used by the fuel cell. I just tend to think fuel cells are not good near-term candidates. Near term for some applications mid-term for others.

Tony said...


First, stop with the exhortation. This isn't a college student twitter feed.

Second, you fail physics forever. If the fuel isn't burned in the car, it's burned at the power plant. Your stipulation that the power source has to generate with something other than fossil fuel just shows that you're ignorant of the energy generation infrastructure, the physical constraints that surround it, and the political constraints that influence the whole ball of wax.

Third, the study you invoke relies on plug in hybrids that are not driven more than 33 miles in a day. It includes pickup trucks and vans in the total vehicle fleet that would be influenced. Pickup trucks and vans tend to be driven much more than 33 miles a day, and they tend to be driven under circumstances that require more load draw than average.

Fourth, if you talk about electric-only vehicles, the study's assumptions fall apart in half a heartbeat.

Fifth, CAFE won't be perpetuated if it doesn't reflect market realities. It can be reapealed or modified. Relying on it as an ultimate argument is not a good diea.

Sixth, you fail engineering forever. Just because the average person doesn't exceed the average vehicle usage every day, that doesn't mean they don't want vehicles that can easily and economically meet their peak needs. Juat like the power grid has to be constructed and juiced to meet the system's peek needs, a car needs to meet the user's peek needs, not just the average need.

Cordwainer said...

I agree with your 3rd through 6th points Tony but no need to get snotty with your first point(which really isn't a point but an eschatalogical opinion). As for the 2nd point if the fuel is burned using greener sources vis a vis it does make sense it would produce fewer emissions. The issue is as you pointed out one of engineering, politics and timetable issues to building such a grid. I tend to think energy demands will grow in the future so the economic incentive for green power may increase as fossil fuels become less common and as alternative energy technology becomes cheaper and more efficient.

I would also like to bring up the likely assumption that off the grid sources of power will increase exponentially in the years to come as the price of fuel cells, photovoltaics and solar thermal devices goes down. While it is an assumption of a possible trend it is a very sound assumption, I think. After all much of the grid in many countries is more decentralized than those of Europe or the U.S. and built around personal generators of some sort.

jollyreaper said...

Snotty isn't even the word for it.

Concerning average and peak, this is the pickup vs. subcompact argument. My average trip is just me in a car. Ah, but what if I need to carry a bunch of big stuff? What's my frequency of heavy moves? If it's every other week, I may be stuck driving a pickup. If it's every six months, I can rent a pickup when I need it, drive the subcompact and still come out ahead.

A friend of mine has two vehicles in his household, one electric and one hybrid. He drives the electric to work and around town; wife takes the hybrid and is usually driving the kid around. They're making a big car trip next month. Because they have it, they'll take the hybrid. But if both vehicles were electric, they could have rented a car instead. They don't do a lot of long-distance driving. Naturally, if he was the kind who drives more than 70 miles a day, the electric would be a non-starter for him.

Cordwainer said...

Well this hightlights my previous point jollyreaper. Not everyone can afford to be a two vehicle household even in the wealth and luxury that is the United States. Unless something is also done in the mass transit and rental/rideshare market the impact of "human-engineered solutions" like the one you mentioned will have only a small impact. The other point that I'm sure Tony was referring to when with the pickup vs. subcompact market is that a lot of our industry and business utilizes large personal vehicles as fleet vehicles. One market solution might be to one subsidize ride share programs to lower costs and use social media to increase on-demand access to these programs. Another would be for rental agencies to specialize in the rental of used vehicles with good track records to lower maintenance and overhead costs, or create public private partnerships to subsidize the adoption and maintenance of hybrids and other green vehicles for mass transit needs(taxis, buses, rideshare, fleet hauling for small businesses).

Tony said...

Cord & jollyreaper:

"[S]notty", huh? So you like people shouting simpleminded propaganda at you? I didn't think so.

Also, it's not valid, as a mode of analyis, to presume that there will be greener or at least more efficient electrical power generation in the foreseeable future. Fukushima put the brakes on nuclear for the time being. Natural gas may be "greener" in terms of CO and CO2 production, but the big problem with all large power plants is that they emit large quantities of steam into the environment. Water vapor is also a greenhouse gas, as well as heat, which also contributes to the problem.

So, whether we like it or not, we're looking at fossil fueled power sources, with similar thermal efficiencies, whether we're talking about engines in cars or engines in power plants. Electric cars, plugins or hybrids, simply don't change the fact that you burn fuel in a heat engine of limited efficiency in order to produce the motive power. That is basic physics. Period. End of story.

The problem with rental/ride-sharing/whatever solution is that it has either opportunity or real monetary costs that people in the market for motor vehicles simply don't want to support. The opportunity cots of ridesharing should be obvious. It's why people buy their own cars in the first place. But there are also economic costs to renting. If I were to buy a car, I want one that does everything I want it to do. I don't want to support the cost of a personally owned vehicle and then, on top of that, pay an expensive rental fee for going anywhere outside of a relatively small* radius. There is also an opportunity cost inherrent in renting. One has to schedule the rental, in competition with other potential renters, pickup the rental, and then drop it off again.

*When the free, largely unrestricted travel distances of the North American continent are taken into account.

Cordwainer said...

I don't mind people shouting simple minded propaganda at me, Tony. Like has nothing to do with it. I don't like talking to you, but I agree with many of your points and I enjoy this blog. If I had to work with you I would try to work with you even if you are a source of constant skepticism and old school "put the brakes on it" because we cant' engineer or afford that. Advancements in technology and changes to resource allocation costs may influence our future economic decisions in directions we cannot imagine or fathom today. That being said you are right that many of the concepts I and others mentioned will not impact things that greatly and fossil or carbon rich fuels will continue to be a big part of our economy in the near future. Which is why I am always apt to point out that we should not just be looking to reduce greenhouse gases in the transportation market but in other markets as well such as industry, agriculture and power generation.
I would also point out that whether you argue in favor of reducing greenhouse gases or whether you believe it is even possible to do so, we still have a responsibility to conserve fossil fuel resources and develop alternative fuels since fossil fuels are a finite resource. Water can be recycled into a steam cycle, heat can be more efficiently directed into the environment with heat sinks, stirling engines and nano-photonic crystal radiators. Also, only a small portion of water vapor created by industry actually makes it to upper atmosphere where it can effect global solar insolation so while it can effect temperature and environmental conditions locally in the same way as smog and smoke can it is not necessarily a driver of "global climate change". Yes we should be concerned with local phenomena because they can have tremendous local and even cross-regional consequences but lets deal with one thing at a time, Tony. Lessen the global consequences with a global approach then it will be economically easier for our global partners to deal with their own local and regional problems.

Cordwainer said...

That doesn't mean I hate you, Tony. Just don't like talking with you because your curmudgeony attitude often means I have to talk at you rather than talk with you.

Cordwainer said...

By the way heat engines are getting more and more efficient in producing power all the time, and plug in hybrids often mean you can use smaller engines in Allison cycle to transfer energy into electricity rather than directly drive the wheels. You only need to use the electric and combustion motors in conjunction when you have high torque/high load which is not over the entire mobility regime of the vehicle. Also, I did mention in prior post that political and economic saliency will normally trump efficiency and good engineering. Humans usually move from a state of what is just good enough to get the job done when it comes to technology.

Tony said...


You may choose not to believe this, but I'm not generally the "it can't be done" guy at work. I'm usually the "let me take a shot" guy. But of course at work I'm teamed up with skilled professionals who know the real world constraints of the technologies we use. They just don't make outrageous suggestions or fall for simplistic arguments. I respectfully request that you contemplate that for a little while.

Tony said...

And, oh, yeah -- I'm also generally not the "old school" guy either. Even though I'm the oldest software developer, I tend to introduce newer technologies where they're appropriate.

Cordwainer said...

Well, you have to understand that I am not nor are some of our fellow bloggers as technologically or socially as savvy as yourself. That being said I think my point has been pretty consistent. My point being that policy and business solutions for social or collective problems should be couched around advances in technology and should be crafted to be politically salient in their application and communication to the powers that be. Whether that technology is "newtech","greentech", "socialtech" or "browntech" we need to utilize it. Also when it comes to being politically and economic salient sometimes the simplistic solution or argument is the best solution or the only acceptable solution for consumption.

Cordwainer said...

Also, consider that I come from a work environment where if you have a good idea expressed simply maybe 10 percent of those ideas will be adopted. Where as if you express an idea in complicated and meticulous terms it will bore your audience to tears but it might get adopted piece meal by others. Which is better to get that 10 percent out their that you can actually claim as a bullet for promotion or to get out a really good plan only to have it co-opted by others. I still haven't fully decided on that one since by my nature I'm not a very egotistical person.

Tony said...


It is what it is. I came up in a school that valued what they used to call "straight shooting". If that's seen as "snotty" and "crumudgeony", I can live that -- very easily.

Cordwainer said...

Well, that may work for you fine in the environment you work in but in many environments that one has to work in particularly those that are "old school" traditional types may not take too well to "straight shooting". Also outside of information technology heavy environments most work environments are very doctrinal in their approach, proper ettiquette is very important in those environments. Example, for instance where one has to apply information operations into supply and logistics fields and explaining or selling your product to that business is your job it can be very difficult to make people accept change, adopt new processes or justify their expense from an economic or infrastructure context.
While some businesses have good infrastructure reasons for not adopting a product, many business fail to adopt a product because the salesman can't explain it properly or the programmer fails to make the product user-friendly or self-sufficient enough. Businesses are left with the choice of keeping a Windows 2003 software system because the new stuff is to hard to digest for the layman or requires a team of experts to maintain.

Anonymous said...


And, oh, yeah -- I'm also generally not the "old school" guy either. Even though I'm the oldest software developer, I tend to introduce newer technologies where they're appropriate.

I'm in a similar situation with IT infrastructure.

The younger guys, especially the ones right out of college, come up with a lot of great ideas that are not practical for our company. They will dismiss some of my comments and suggestions, but are surprised when management agrees with me.

If we were a Silicon Valley start up I would love to work on all of their ideas. However, we are the IT department for a conservative corporation and everything has to survive a cost vs. benefit analysis.

The 'rule of cool' does not apply. The 'rule of does this improve our efficiency so we make more money?' applies.


Anonymous said...

Now I'm willing to entertain interesting ideas in this blog, as long as they are based in reality. We are discussing the plausible near future and new technologies may resolve some current issues or at least lead to some interesting story ideas.


Cordwainer said...

Hmm, what's the cost benefit analysis on a personal solar generator that cost $1500 versus a gasoline powered one that cost $300. The solar generator offers some advantages, after all you don't have refuel it and it can be used in an enclosed space where you can't use a gas powered generator. Haven't studied the energy density of such devices but even if they are moderately low I would figure the simplicity of the device would make operation and maintenance cost low, after all I have solar powered calculators from the late 80's that still work. Of course availability of sunlight may be a concern but such devices no doubt produce some energy even of cloudy, rainy days. If the device is fitted to some type of intelligent circuit control that puts you on line power when the current drops too low you could really save some money I think.

Anonymous said...

The big problem with solar is all the costs are upfront. If it can pay for itself quickly it is practical.

In some parts of the US, solar power for homes is practical. The key is a variable rate structure based on demand. Of course, you also need to be in a sunny place.

You don't bother with batteries and you stay on the grid. During the day when you are at work, the demand for power is greatest and the rates are the highest. On a sunny day, your solar panels produce more power than your house uses and the power company pays you for the extra. At night when the rates are lower you are consuming power from the grid. If you wait until later at night to wash and dry your clothes or other power intensive activities you are doing it at a cheap rate. Over the course of the year, you can break even or come out ahead.

In the near future, as solar panels become cheaper and state commissions change the rules, solar panels will become more common. Twenty years from now there might be solar panels on nearly all buildings.


Cordwainer said...

How effective are fuel cells that reform hydrogen from natural gas lines or burn natural gas directly. I seem to remember seeing advertisements for those. Obviously natural gas infrastructure is relatively poor in the United States compared to other countries but this would provide a very clean carbon based fuel system for some home and business power applications, I think.

Anonymous said...

I'm not familiar with fuel cells other than they are very expensive. It is probably far cheaper to stay on the grid.

When you read about alternative technologies, it is important to remember that if it is not commonly used there is probably a good reason for that. In our ruthless capitalistic society in the US, any new tech that would save you money or make you money will be used. If it is not being used, someone is probably doing research to see if it is the next big thing. Either that or it has already been shown to be a bad idea at this time.

However, in the future, further developments could make the alternative or new tech practical and widespread.

I think it is fun to speculate on how society would change if a new tech became practical. Once again, good ideas for sci-fi stories.


Cordwainer said...

Actually looked into home fuel cells they look pretty good if you have natural gas or propane available in your area. Energy density much better than solar. Google, E-bay and Fed-Ex all use home fuel cells from Bloom Energy with a good deal of success. Clear Edge also makes them I think that was the company I originally saw advertisements on. Home fuel cells are also heavily rebated by the government. Now they just need to make one that can run on biogas and get one of those bio-gas reformers they use in the Third World. Too bad they probably don't sell those in the developed world yet, since they are mostly in the proto-type stage of development.

jollyreaper said...

When you read about alternative technologies, it is important to remember that if it is not commonly used there is probably a good reason for that. In our ruthless capitalistic society in the US, any new tech that would save you money or make you money will be used.

Money is the key factor here. If it's wasteful but nobody is really paying the freight on it, market forces don't care.

For example, in Florida we used to build cracker-style homes. Without AC, you had to work with the environment, not against it. You needed to take into account insolation and plant shade trees, orient the house appropriately, and keep proper ventilation in mind. All of this required know-how.

With AC, it became far cheaper to just build standardized boxes and take care of the excess heat with AC. Saved on up-front cost of construction, the houses still sold, it make financial sense. Who do you talk to about the long-term consequences of now requiring so much extra energy?

The numbers all line up and the accountants are happy but what we've really got here is a market failure.

Sometimes the young pup comes along and asks why we're doing things this way, it's stupid, this idea is better, and he's not had enough experience to understand why it's so. Sometimes what he thinks is stupid really is stupid but it's good enough and there's just too much inertia behind tradition to change things, i.e. customary measurements, qwerty keyboards, etc. And sometimes what the young pup points out as stupid is really, tremendously, colossally stupid beyond all excuse and rationalization.

jollyreaper said...

"Decades of drought in central Africa reached their worst point in the 1980s, causing Lake Chad, a shallow lake used to water crops in neighboring countries, to almost dry out completely. The shrinking lake and prolonged drought were initially blamed on overgrazing and bad agricultural practices. More recently, Lake Chad became an example of global warming. But new University of Washington research shows the drought was caused at least in part by Northern Hemisphere air pollution. Particles from coal-burning factories in the United States and Europe during the 1960s, '70s and '80s cooled the entire Northern Hemisphere, shifting tropical rain bands south. That meant that rains no longer reached the Sahel region, a band that spans the African continent just below the Sahara desert."

There's no such thing as an externality. Right.

Anonymous said...

The numbers all line up and the accountants are happy but what we've really got here is a market failure.

The Florida housing market is a good example of the shortsightedness of the market. It seemed like a good idea at the time because energy was cheap. Now it's not.

Sometimes you get people who know better, but don't care because it won't be their problem. That's why you have to be careful what you buy because there are a lot of people out there trying to rip you off.

The real estate market crash is a good example. There were companies giving mortgages to people who couldn't possibly pay them. That was no problem for these unscrupulous lenders because as soon as they got their commission they sold the mortgages to greedy banks who didn't look at the details. The inevitable foreclosure was not their problem. Cheats like that helped cause the Great Recession. Too bad the government can't execute people for economic treason.

And sometimes what the young pup points out as stupid is really, tremendously, colossally stupid beyond all excuse and rationalization.

Your other two points sound good, but you need to provide examples before I'm willing to accept this one. They are probably just extreme examples of tradition inertia.


jollyreaper said...

The exact term of art for what happened with the mortgage bankers is a moral hazard. The system, by fault or design, encourages immoral behavior. Like paying a stock broker a commission on number of trades transacted rather than a percentage on total assets managed. Commission encourages churn, trading that benefits broker but not the client. Percent of assets managed aligns broker's interest with the client -- if the client doesn't do well, the broker doesn't do well.

"Colossally stupid beyond all excuse and rationalization."

Well, it depends on the flavor we're talking about: engineering, politics, social custom, etc.

To my definition, if there's a clear beneficiary even if most participants are suffering, it makes sense. It may not be moral or justified but an observer can clearly understand why it is so.

For it to be completely inexplicable is when you can't even begin to find a winner. The Cambodian Genocide was pretty damn inexplicable, even by dictator standards. Seeing as the system became so unstable that even the ruling junta lost power, you can't really say it was working out as planned. Contrast that with a successful dictatorship like Cuba where Castro was kept in virgins and cigars for a very, very long time. Even war can make a little bit of sense when you look at who makes the money off of it. Almost everyone loses, a few become very rich. And if they were the ones who started the war in the first place, how clever they are.

In thinking about engineering examples, I guess that it depends on whether you find the explanations sufficient. I find the security holes in Microsoft products to be inexplicable, given the size of the company and the sources capable of throwing at it. Someone else might say that it's the only possible outcome given Microsoft's corporate culture and no one should be surprised. The whole XBox One kerfluffle to me seems in danger of ruining the entire product line and smells like overreach. If the platform bombs, surely there will be many asking "What were they thinking?" Maybe an insider could offer an explanation that helps you see it from their side, how the bad decision seemed like a good idea. And maybe you still won't buy it.

Limiting ourselves to engineering questions, VHS wasn't as good as Betamax. Why did it win?

Network effect, bandwidth effect, convenience over quality?

Anonymous said...

To my definition, if there's a clear beneficiary even if most participants are suffering, it makes sense. It may not be moral or justified but an observer can clearly understand why it is so.

For it to be completely inexplicable is when you can't even begin to find a winner.

Okay, now I get your point. Excellent examples and the Wiki link is interesting.


neutrino78x said...

Tony wrote:

[quote]If the fuel isn't burned in the car, it's burned at the power plant.[/quote]

And I acknowledged that, sir. You are still very wrong, and I'm still more knowledgeable on this subject.

Try this.

Put the Zip Code for Colorado Springs, Colorado (which is 80901) into that program. They get most of their energy from burning coal. The electric car STILL generates 3000 pounds less CO2 per year than an internal combustion vehicle. The national average is 49.6% coal and that results in 5,000 pounds less CO2 per year from an electric car.

Here in the State of California, we get most power from natural gas, which produces less CO2 than coal. The other major sources we use are nuclear, hydroelectric and "renewable energy", none of which cause air pollution.

Even if you assume the power plant burns coal, there are STILL less emissions from electric vehicles. SIGNIFICANTLY less.

That's because an electric vehicle is INHERENTLY MORE EFFICIENT than an internal combustion vehicle. An internal combustion engine is only 40% efficient at converting gasoline into mechanical motion, whereas an electric motor is 90% efficient at converting the electric potential in a battery into mechanical motion (and the electric lines and batteries have similar efficiencies). Logic dictates that the electric car would result in less emissions.

Let me put it this way: A Ford Mustang GT needs 420 horsepower (313 kW) and 6500 RPM before it goes 0-60 in under 5 seconds.

The Tesla Model S Performance Version goes 0-60 in 4.2 seconds, faster than a Mustang GT V8, and does it using less power (416 horsepower or 310 kW). Also, the Mustang needs 6800 RPM to produce its 420 horsepower, whereas the Tesla motor gets 416 horsepower at 6 RPM.

(The Tesla Model S Electric Car is the Motor Trend Car of the Year for 2012, btw.)

The motor in the Tesla also only weighs 70 pounds, whereas the engine in the Mustang weighs hundreds of pounds. The V8 has hundreds of moving parts, the Tesla motor has only one moving part.

So tell me again which one is it that logic would tell us is more efficient?

The problem with electric cars in the past has been limitations on how much energy that can be stored in a battery at a given price. Lithium ion batteries have significantly improved that issue. As the batteries are manufactured on a larger scale, the price will go down, and electric cars will be cheaper. That's where the CAFE standard comes in; it puts more pressure on the car manufacturers to make the switch earlier. Consumers can't choose electric cars if they aren't on the market.

Tony said...


"While some businesses have good infrastructure reasons for not adopting a product, many business fail to adopt a product because the salesman can't explain it properly or the programmer fails to make the product user-friendly or self-sufficient enough. Businesses are left with the choice of keeping a Windows 2003 software system because the new stuff is to hard to digest for the layman or requires a team of experts to maintain."

Don't know much about the packaged software business. I've always worked on the bespoke end, for service providers. But I know enough to know that the programmers who design and build software, either as a commercial offering or in support of a service, have to understand the problem domain and how the uers work. And while it's the programmer's reponsibility to ask the right questions, it's just as much the customer's responsibility to tell him the truth. In software projects that fail, it's at least as much the customer's failure to understand his business in procedural terms as it is the programmer's to comprehend the requirements.

Also, one of the things that a lot of businesses that could benefit from software products fail to understand is that useful software need to be maintained and upgraded in order to reamin useful. IOW, software is always incomplete, simply because business requirement change. A project may meet all requirements upon initial deployment, but months or even week later, major changes need to be made. But a lot of customers want a turnkey package infinitely configurable by laymen. No such thing exists. That team of experts comes with the software.

neutrino78x said...

And btw driving 33 miles per day sounds right, because 78% of Americans drive less than 40 miles per day.

Recall, again, that while a gasoline engine burns fuel while idling in traffic, the electric/hybrid car does not. So the issue isn't if your commute takes 2 hours, but how far it is. Most people drive less than 15 miles to work one way.

So, if everybody is using a car which is a hybrid of battery and fuel (most likely a fuel cell using methane, natural gas, hydrogen etc., since this is more efficient than an engine), and the fuel is only used when the batteries are depleted, after 50 miles or so, and you can plug the car in to recharge it at night and at work, then most people will never use the fuel.

That's the very near future, the next 20 years or so.

Most parking lots at major companies, like IBM, Google, etc., will look like this:

That's a Tesla Supercharger, it uses solar power (zero emissions) to charge electric or hybrid cars plugged into it. There are other brands of solar parking lot canopies also, of course.

The excess energy generated when not charging batteries, of course, would go to the smart grid.

Tony said...


Having fun patting yourself on the back?

If you've lived in Florida, then you know that the objective was to attract retirement income from the Northeast. The only way to do that was to build as many houses as possible on the smallest plots of land. The only way to do that was to provide air conditioning. It wasn't stupid at all. It was accomplishing the business objective, as well as the economic objectives of the state of Florida, in the only way possible.

See, what you call "stupid" depends on what predicates you apply to your analysis. The developers in Florida weren't wroking from your predicates, nor were the Florida Secretaries of State, nor the various chambers of commerce in Florida. Your predicates are based on a set of values that they simply don't share. Call them "stupid" all you want, but that opinion only applies under your system of values, not anyone else's.

Sometime the young pup thinks he has a monopoly on The Truth. But of course, he doesn't...

Tony said...


Seriouly, are you a shill for the electric car industry? Do you make a commission on every rant?

Assuming that your not...

1. It's not the how efficiently the car uses energy at the axle. It's how efficiently the energy is used throughout the system. As already pointed out, fossil fuel plants are anywhere from no more thermally efficient than internal combustion engines, to only somewhat more efficient. The only real difference is transport losses on the way to the vehicle. With IC engines the loss is in electricity use to run pipeline pumps and fuel used to power tanker trucks. With electric vehicles it's mostly line loss. I don't know the exact numbers, but I'm willing to bet they're equivalent, seeing as a tanker truck only burns 40 or 50 gallons to deliver 10,000.

2. I'm orignially from California. Don't lie to me about the energy production sources used in that state. Sure, there's a lot of natural gas installed inside the state, but the power that California buys off of the grid -- and it's a lot -- comes from outside of the state. It can jsut as easily be produced with coal or oil as with any other means.

3. Don't confuse your interest in emissions with anybody else's. My concern is to get the best performance out of the fuel we burn. Maybe that comes with hybrids -- I doubt it would come with pure plugin electrics -- but your breathless paroxysms of hyperbole won't convince many people.

4. If you want to compare power train weights, be sure you include several hundred to over a thousand tons of batteries for hybrids or electrics.

5. 6 rpm? No, 6-9,000 rpm. (Read your own sources, k?) Also, the v8 Mustang is powered to go a lot faster at the top end than the Tesla. Let's keep apples and apples together, k?

neutrino78x said...

Solid oxide fuel cells can use gasoline and are more energy efficient than an internal combustion engine (56% as opposed to 30-40% for an engine).

They are working on ones to use in cars that would operate at lower temperatures. The Bloom Energy Server operates at 900 C, obviously too hot for a car, and is very heavy (it's for household or corporate energy needs), but this new one fits in your hand and operates at a much lower temperature (650 C...they are trying to lower it to 350 C).

So you would use this as the range extender in a plugin hybrid. The first 50-100 miles or so would be battery only, and when the batteries run out, this device would take in fuel and give you electricity, with some CO2 if the fuel is a hydrocarbon (albeit far less than the emissions from a gasoline engine). When you get to your destination (or home, as the case may be), you would plug in and recharge the battery.

Geoffrey S H said...

Before things get anymore acrimonious, I'll just say that everyone here has something important and useful to contribute. Young pups and old dogs all can contribute something new and interesting, or conversely can repeat tired cliches or ideas that draw too heavily on the status quo (in the case of older folk)and lack of experience (in the case of the bright young things).

Maybe its my line of work that's prejudicing me here, I don't know. But many of the things stated on this blog have been useful in helping me develop my own thoughts and enquiries in what I studied at university and after. Very few comments have ever seemed completely useless.

neutrino78x said...

tony wrote:

It's not the how efficiently the car uses energy at the axle. It's how efficiently the energy is used throughout the system.

Well, yes...and electric cars still win. The gasoline engine is only 30-40% energy efficient.

Electric cars are still 80+ percent energy efficient even if you look at everything from electricity transmission to mechanical turning of the wheels.

Your original claim was that the gasoline engine is more energy efficient than electric drive. You claimed hybrids are also not as efficient as using a gasoline engine. A plugin hybrid is a type of electric vehicle; the electric motor drives the wheels.

So, you fail, and I win, so far.

Don't lie to me about the energy production sources used in that state.

I'm not. Look at the link I gave you. It's mostly natural gas here. The link I gave you takes into account getting electricity from other places. It should be "renewable energy", in my opinion, and a lot of that is being built in southern California, but we're not there yet.

Electric cars still have significantly lower emissions, so I still win.

Besides, I told you to use Colorado Springs, they mostly use coal. That doesn't help your case either. The electric car is still significantly lower emissions (something like 40% less by my calculations), and as coal plants are decommissioned and replaced by green power, that will only get better.

In Seattle, where they get most of their power from hydroelectricity, it's like 70% less emissions from electric cars overall.

In any case, California gets 71% of our power in state, 53% of which is natural gas, and 1.7% of which is coal.

I'm sure some of the 21% of power we get from southwest states might come from coal. Arizona, probably one of those states, gets most of its power from natural gas and nuclear:

I've shown you my credible sources. Cite your credible source claiming that California gets the majority of our power from coal.

My concern is to get the best performance out of the fuel we burn.

Efficiency, emissions...use whatever metric you want, electric drive, powered by batteries only or by a combination of batteries and a fuel cell of some kind, still wins.

It's the future, the very near future. In 20 years I'll be telling you "I told you so" when you can't buy a new car from Ford, GM, Chrysler/Fiat or Tesla that uses only an internal combustion engine. That's how things are trending already. It's happening already.

6 rpm? No, 6-9,000 rpm. (Read your own sources, k?) Also, the v8 Mustang is powered to go a lot faster at the top end than the Tesla.

Yeah, that's what I said, dude.

Starting at 6 RPM, the Tesla already produces 400+ horsepower. The Mustang has to increase RPM before it does that. The reason is that the Tesla is using an electric motor, and the Mustang is using a V8.

Electric motors generate all their torque instantly. You don't have to get up to a high RPM level. Yet another reason why electric motors are more efficient and superior in every way.

Yes, the Mustang's electronic top speed is set higher than a Tesla. But you can only go 75 on US roads so that doesn't really matter does it? And the Tesla would still smoke the Mustang because it accelerated to 100 faster. There are electric cars which go a lot faster than 130 mph; this one goes 400.

In any case the 130 MPH max speed on a Tesla isn't that much lower than 150 MPH on a Mustang (in practice, more like 140-145 mph for the Mustang), and that's just a software rule in the Tesla's computer.

Byron said...


Well, yes...and electric cars still win. The gasoline engine is only 30-40% energy efficient.

Electric cars are still 80+ percent energy efficient even if you look at everything from electricity transmission to mechanical turning of the wheels.

You either really need to take a thermo class, or just pay attention to what people are saying. The 80% efficiency only comes after the electricity is generated, and totally ignores the problems of generating said electricity in the first place. The only practical options for that are thermal. Taking into account the entire process from raw fuel to motion down the road, the electric car is going to be doing incredibly well to break even.

Electric cars still have significantly lower emissions, so I still win.
No, you don't. Let's ask what is meant by emissions. First, for everything but carbon dioxide, you're completely wrong. After it starts up, a modern (past 15-20 years) car produces zero emissions of things like NOx, CO, and hydrocarbons. Period. These days, the air coming out of the engine is often cleaner than the air going in. There are some emissions on startup, but we can more or less discount these for the moment.
The same can be said for nuclear power, and possibly for natural gas, but not for coal. While the levels are low, there are sulfur and mercury emissions. And if a coal plant has an emissions system failure, then it is allowed to continue operating for a time, during which it emits huge quantities of pollutants of all kinds.
What about CO2? In this case, you're comparing apples to oranges. Electric cars by nature are highly optimized for "fuel economy". A car built to similar standards could achieve very high efficiencies indeed. I've heard 70-75 mpg quoted for some diesel cars that are built like electrics. Run your emissions numbers again, this time against, say, the equivalent VW BlueMotion, and tell me what you come up with.

Byron said...

Actually, I decided to run the numbers myself. I used the VW Golf BlueMotion, which is capable of something like 85 g/km of CO2, which in turn works out to something like 30 lb for the notional 100 mile trip the government site you linked to earlier is based on. Yes, you heard me right. 30 lb, which is half of what any of the other options list. The all-electric car comes slightly cheaper for the trip (I think) but the flexibility of an internal combustion engine more than makes up for it.

Tony said...


Your source says:

"Performance-wise, that rear motor makes 362 hp at 6-9000 rpm and 325 lb-ft at 0-5000 rpm in the base model."

According to the standard typograpihcal convention, that's 6000 rmp to 9000 rpm, not 6 rpm to 9000rpm.

Now, for the conversion of rpm to horsepower, the mathematical relationship is:

horsepower = (torque x rpm) / 5,252

Or, if you're solving for torque:

(horsepower x 5,252) / rpm = torque

So, to get 362 hp at 6 rpm, you need 317,000 lb-ft of torque. At 6000 rpm, you get 317 lb-ft of torque, which is a close match to the reported torque for the lower rpm range.

Some may say it's not fair, but I choose to judge the balance of your contributions by this wild misunderstanding of basic physics on your part.

Jim Baerg said...

BTW in the electric vs. IC engine car argument I saw the figure "30 to 40 % efficient for the IC engine". That sounded higher than my recollection.

On googling I found this in Wikipedia, "Modern gasoline engines have a maximum thermal efficiency of about 25% to 30% when used to power a car."

In another Wikipedia article, "Typical thermal efficiency for utility-scale electrical generators is around 33% for coal and oil-fired plants, and 56 – 60% (LHV) for combined-cycle gas-fired plants."

Just in case these efficiency differences are enough to outweigh the weight of batteries in cars & line losses from power plant to car battery.

BTW if we build a lot of non-fossil electric generation & want to electrify transportation, the 1st thing to do would be to electrify the railways & later do the harder task of electrifying other means of transportation.

Rick said...

There is - at last! - a new post on the main page: How Much Do We Know?

Thucydides said...

Economies of scale count a lot in power generation; it simply is not practical to do many of the things that make central thermal generating plants highly efficient at the size and scale of car sized IC engines. Since thermal power plants tend to run at relatively constant speeds, some of the techniques they use would be counterproductive for car engines anyway.

Indeed, scaling effects occur even in IC engines; the massive diesel engines that power container cargo ships can be close to 50% efficient using techniques that simply are not possible in car or truck sized engines. (A Wärtsilä RT-flex96C has dimensions of 13.5 metres (44 ft) high, 26.59 m (87 ft) long, weighs over 2300 tonnes in its largest 14-cylinder version — producing 80080 kW at 100 RPM).

Some of the techniques that are possible include highly pressurized combustion chambers, tight sealing that allows differential lubrication (the Wärtsilä RT-flex96C uses different lubricants in different parts of the engine) and electrically operated valves. Using these techniques on a medium duty car or truck engine could increase fuel economy, but at a very large price premium, which would probably not be recovered by fuel savings during the life of the vehicle.

Cordwainer said...

Don't think an electro-mechanical camshaft or valve system would be that costly in car sized power plants. But the high pressure valves and tight seals would cost quite a premium. That being said the Audi A6 diesel uses many of the same techniques used in their high pressure/high rpm diesel racing engines. All of this is predicated on cost of manufacture and materials though. Advances in manufacturing and structural materials could make applying such technology feasible. Also efficient designs in fuel/air mixture and kinetic energy transfer can make small engines very efficient. Current OPOC and Grail Engine designs are examples that come to mind.

Thucydides said...

I'm going by memory here, but TAG-Renault made a V-6 engine during the height of the "turbo" era in F-1 racing (early to mid 80's) which demonstrated many of these principles, and had a very high level of "efficiency" by being able to crank out @ 1100 HP from a 1.5 litre engine.

As I recall, the engine used a very high level of boost, direct fuel injection and long valve overlap times. The boost + overlap allowed the fresh air charge to scavenge and cool the cylinders during the exhaust cycle (all valves were open), and still allowed a high level of pressurization during the intake stroke prior to the intake valves closing and fuel injection taking place. In effect, the TAG-Renault engineers were combining elements of two stroke and diesel engines into a 4 stroke Otto cycle engine. (F-1 uses "gasoline", but the fuel blends have little to no resemblance to whatever you are getting at the pump. Since very little is reported about fuel blends, one can only speculate just what effects that has on performance).

How well this would translate into a regular car or truck engine is problematic. The high level of boost would need an externally powered super or turbocharger at most engine speeds, and the scavenging action would wreak havoc on most pollution control devices that I am aware of. Valve timing, spark ignition and engine cooling would also need careful attention to prevent detonation inside the cylinders as well.

Perhaps an engine like this would work well as a stationary generator or running at a constant RPM in a serial electric vehicle, but once again the cost premium would likely outweigh any fuel savings.

An alternative is turbo compounding, prototyped in several late and post WWII aircraft engines, and most famously in the Napier Nomad engine. This is another example of potentially high efficiency design which is limited by some very costly modifications to the basic engine and a very narrow performance "band" where the practical effects come into play. Detroit Diesel and Scania do sell heavy duty truck engines using turbo compounding, but this hasn't taken over the market despite years of effort.

Kevin Long said...

Two thoughts occur to me:
1) In Varley's semi-excellent "Slow Apocalypse," the US still has nuclear aircraft carriers, but it has no oil or gasoline to run planes and choppers off them. The ships are basically reduced to hauling freight and refugees.

2) One of the things that I always liked about Babylon 5 was that each of the species had different technological levels, with humans near the bottom.

Interesting aspects of worldbuilding balance.

Anonymous said...

Rick, after a few months of thinking about it, I think the picture at the top of this post looks more like a steampunk load-bank;for anyone who is unfamiliar with this, it is a device used in measuring the thermal output of generators, or to take up extra electric output during slack-time so the generator can run at a fixed rate. Pretty ornate for such a mundane function.


Geoffrey S H said...

"2) One of the things that I always liked about Babylon 5 was that each of the species had different technological levels, with humans near the bottom. "

But, like Meiji Japan, the humans worked their elbows off to get up to an equivalent tech level, through stealing and adopting other tech if needed. It did at times seem reasonably realistic.

Thucydides said...

One other example of grafting different levels of technology together to make an engine is research into Pulse Wave Detonation Engines.

PWDE's can be thought of as highly evolved versions of WWII era pulsejets (actually, they use a different principle, but the resemblance is close enough to visualize a PWDE as a form of pulse jet), and can be used directly to power aircraft, drones and missiles.

Because of the high theoretical efficiency of PWDE's, one branch of research is putting PWDE's in place of the combustion chambers in regular jet engines, and extracting some of the energy through the turbine. PWDE/turbojet or fanjet hybrids promise to be more fuel efficient, far simpler than turbo compounding (using a two stroke diesel to provide the expanding gasses for the turbine) and more flexible as well. The core of a PWDE/Turbojet engine could become the basis of an unducted fan or turboprop engine, for example. Stationary generators are a possibility, but it is not clear if this could be shrunk down to power an M-1 tank, for example.

jollyreaper said...

That's fascinating. What would a PWDE/jet hybrid look like? How far along is the research?

Thucydides said...

A start is here:

A simple flying prototype has been demonstrated using a straight PWDE engine.

A hybrid PWDE/turbojet would not be noticeable from the outside, but might sound strange with the rapid detonations from the PWDE(s) inside.

Cordwainer said...

Continuous Pulse Detonation Wave would be even better since it would produce a higher more constant rate of pulses and tend to cancel out some of the vibrational loads that a PDWE would create on an airframe.

Thermo-power wave looks interesting to, if scaleable it could be used in numerous ways from power generation to jet and rocket propulsion, even ballistics and gas-dynamic lasers.

Jim Baerg said...

This seems an appropriate post to note this article.

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