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Future imperfect

Gonzo technology, past and present illustrates that some, if not all, of our ideas about the future are possible — at least at the prototype stage.

The M-497 jet-powered commuter train of 1966 hit 183 miles per hour in trials, a perfectly credible 300 kilometres per hour, and while it didn't go anywhere in service — quite simply, the North American railway network isn't up to scratch (and the noise abatement issues would have been somewhat problematic) — other nations routinely run steel wheel trains at that kind of speed (and I am so going on a Series 500 Shinkansen if I get the chance, this September!).

M-497 jet train

Meanwhile, the Kawada Industries' HRP-2 Promet Mk II humanoid robot weighs 58 kilograms, stands about 1.5 metres tall, can walk on slippery and uneven surfaces, use a screwdriver, and they're planning (software permitting!) to put them into production in 2010 as the HRP-3, a construction site labourer — the cost per unit translates to about US $120,000/£60,000. I think this might be just a little optimistic (and the idea of these things running around a building site on NiMH batteries gives me some cause for concern, too) but there is going to be a huge market for humanoid robots in Japan if they can crack the power management and control software problems. Most amusing of all, the HRP-2 was styled by Yutaka Izubuchi, designer of PATLABOR (among other classic animé about honking great humanoid industrial robots). Which shows that someone is working hard at making science fictional clichés come true, rather than just assuming that the invisible hand of market forces will wave a magic wand if we wait long enough.

HRP-2 humanoid robot



Fantastic as long as Yutaka Izubuchi, isn't designing the hyper operating system as well.

But in all seriousness Patlabors did have a lot of thought behind their design: As well as the capacity to transmit a lot of technical information in a lighthearted fashion.


I really don't see the point in humanoid robots. In an age when we have robots exploring other planets, walking up a flight of stairs seems distinctly non-impressive to me. Humanoid robots look good at expos, and on the news. But when it comes to exploring (but not colonising) space, defusing bombs, clearing minefields and all the other stuff robots are good for, the human-type robots are not going to be the best at the job.


The thing is - if you can crack a working humanoid style robot; you give it the flexibility of working that a human could have.

Obviously it just requires you to get the right AI, Sensors, gyros, balance, detection, logic circuits...


Humanoid robots should serve to fill one very useful niche: anything that's designed to be filled by a human-shaped body. Industrial welding bots and Mars rovers are the wrong physical shape to work as housekeepers or auxiliaries in nursing homes, because we actually inhabit environments that are tightly tailored to human dimensions and proportions. Look at a Roomba and ask yourself how you'd need to modify it to dust on top of a door frame, go upstairs without assistance, unload the dish washer, and feed the cat: by the time you've added the necessary attachments it's easier to just admit defeat and design something humanoid.

On the other hand, programming a robot to walk and chew gum is quite seriously a difficult problem. If it was just down to the servo motors and mechanical engineering, we'd have had Asimov-style servants decades ago.


In the same vein as the jet powered train, check out this jet powered VW Bug.


Oh brave new world, that has such rolling stock in it...


Human scale bipeds are good for this planet.

The world is built to human scale, to negotiate it you need a roughly human scale biped. Note the difficulties of the wheelchair bound or even little people in operating in a city.

That, and the Dalek realdolls don't sell very well.


For the really this-is-so-not-going-to-fly shape of future transport, you need to take a look at the jet-propelled Sinclair C5 (more on the origins of this miracle of misplaced British ingenuity here).


Wow, how low would the productivity of that robot be?

Right now they seem to work much more slowly than the real meat (robot soccer notwithstanding), they need to recharge batteries every so often, they are unlikely to be autonomous in any degree - will thus need human supervisors (prehaps several of them when working around the clock), maintainance is definitly going to be an issue, their optical sensors will struggle much more with low light levels than the human eye ... and so on.

Even at $120.000 they'll be unable to do the work of the 3 human beings you could pay for a year with that money - maintainance, insurance (they'll sue the heck out of you if a robot stamps over someones flower fields ...) etc. included.

As for robots fitting in human opitimized enviroments, isn't that what the Americans have Mexicans for? (My apologies to anyone who might feel offended, but it had to be said.)



someone is working hard at making science fictional clichés come true, rather than just assuming that the invisible hand of market forces will wave a magic wand if we wait long enough

Kind of amusing to note that the communications systems that are used so blithely by the Libertarian zealots who worship market forces, like the ones who recently slashdotted this journal, were invented and championed by people whose motto was "The best way to predict the future is to create it."

monopole @ 6

That, and the Dalek realdolls don't sell very well.

And people are always mistaking them for salt shakers.


tp1024: you're quite right, on all counts.

I think what they're hoping is that over the next 5-15 years they'll get most of the autonomy issues fixed, so they'll at least be able to cope with basic instructions like "pass me the number four torque wrench".

I'm not convinced low light levels will be an issue -- human eyes don't work too well in the dark (at least, mine don't!) but software control will be a problem.

The flip side is, if they can get them working, even sluggishly compared to a human, well ... most human workers don't actually work for 8 hours in a working day. In fact, most of us aren't really busy for more than 2-3 hours a day. A robot running at a quarter of human speed could nevertheless drastically outperform a human if it's not constantly going home to watch television and sleep for 128 out of a 168 hour week, and isn't wasting three quarters of its on-the-job time nattering to its neighbours.

Finally: immigrants tend to increase their wages over time. Cheap immigrant labour isn't something you can count on forever -- it's just a transient function of incomplete globalization. And then there are countries like Japan where there's a strong prejudice against allowing immigration, coupled with demographic shrinkage of the workforce. Autonomous humanoid robots -- if they can be made to work in the field -- would be a big hit in that kind of environment, with labour costs spiraling into the stratosphere and lots of old folks who need their beds making and their apartments cleaning.


The shinkansen are nice. They are much more relaxing to ride on than the plane. Taiwan and South Korean now have them and they are building a few lines in China. I can sleep very well on the shinkansen. I do not sleep well on airplanes.

The problem is cost. Both the right-of-way acquisition as well as the construction cost of the rail line itself. Also, maintainence is an issue in that the alignment of the track must be checked (and adjusted daily). Also, normal railbed (like that in the U.S.) is not suitable for high-speed rail. All of the shinkansen tracks are on concrete rail bed.

You need a very high traffic density in order for a shinkansen line to pay for itself. Most of the Japanese lines run at a loss. Only the Tokyo-Osaka run is profitable. A train leaves Tokyo station for Osaka almost every 5 minutes in the morning and early evening. The rest of the day has train departures every 10-15 minutes. Each train has the capacity for 1500 (three 747 loads). This is the kind of traffic load that is needed for these lines to be profitable. This is also why the U.S. will remain based on cars and airplanes for the forseable future. Most of the U.S. simply does not have the population density to justify high-speed trains.

The jet-train idea is rather silly. Its speed was not any more than that of the present day shinkansen, yet the noise would have been outrageous. A lot of funky ideas from the 60's (jet trains, super sonic airplanes, etc.) never made it and rightly so.

I'm actually not impressed with the humanoid robots coming out of Japan. To me, these are as silly as the 1960's jet-train.

Humanoid robots seem to be the current Japanese thing, much like religion and libertarianism being an American thing (hint?). Humanoid robots get the media attention, but real automation (which is one of the things I do) is much more prosaic - PLCs and SCADA/HMI - and is progressing just as rapidly. It is no accident that all of the worlds makers of PLC (except for AB and Siemens) are Japanese companies.

I actually see little use for humanoid robots. But then I'm a science and industrial guy. I have never thought much about robots being used for personal service. I prefer to interact with real people. I suspect most people are like me. Maybe the Japanese will prove me wrong.


A memorable and relevant line from the Economist about 18 months ago:

HER name is MARIE, and her impressive set of skills comes in handy in a nursing home. MARIE can walk around under her own power. She can distinguish among similar-looking objects, such as different bottles of medicine, and has a delicate enough touch to work with frail patients. MARIE can interpret a range of facial expressions and gestures, and respond in ways that suggest compassion. Although her language skills are not ideal, she can recognise speech and respond clearly. Above all, she is inexpensive. Unfortunately for MARIE, however, she has one glaring trait that makes it hard for Japanese patients to accept her: she is a flesh-and-blood human being from the Philippines. If only she were a robot instead.


Kurt9 Jet propelled trains will be viable and economical once we ditch the gas turbine for nuclear technology. That's right, dust off Project Pluto for rail use: The engines were the size of a locomotive anyway, and ill suited for mounting on a Sinclair C5 Although there might be some NIMBY issues.


monopole @ 14

Although there might be some NIMBY issues.

You think? If I lived near the tracks I'd be a little upset. About 35 years ago my kitchen window was ~15 feet from the tracks, and one Saturday morning the freight train that was supposed to haul 2,000,000 pounds of high-explosive (aircraft bombs to be exact) right past me 8 hours later blew up in the yards 10 miles away. We could see and hear the explosions for hours. And you want me to live next to glow-in-the-dark trains?


One huge problem with humanoid robots for the next couple of decades, anyway, is going to be how much supervision and rescuing from their own limitations they're going to need. Control software just isn't going to be able to handle complex, changing environments well for some time, and inappropriate reactions on the part of the robots are going to be common enough that there will have to be a human supervisor close enough to each one to get to it if, for example, it starts to change the patient instead of the sheet.


I think that when the control software starts working well enough to handle the complex environments of the non-factory floor in addition to performing tasks, it will be a weak-AI, or at least appear to be.

It seems more likely to me that the AI will be developed separately and put to use using these mobile robots (or others of any shape) as remote waldos and sensing devices. Because what's the sense of limiting the physical IO to a single base, with a few axes - for example a humanoid robot with two arms - when you could easily have it control more of said robots at the same time, using multiple arms and sets of 3D sensors with local, diverse and redundant image and feedback processors?


I have a quiet personal bet with myself going: that the homeostatic control software for humanoid robots that works best will actually be a neural network system, and will end up mimicking large chunks of the human neural architecture because it's an already-extant model for how you control a bipedal robot with the right number of joints and sensors and of roughly the right mass and size in the same gravitational field. Probably implemented using specialized FPGAs designed to support neurocomputing.


About the fast trains: while the 250 kmh standard ICE train feels pretty normal, the 350 kmh fast track between Frankfurt and Cologne is somehow an experience (one thing: it feels fast, espeically if you walk in the train while it goes up to its travelling speed, the other: you look out of the window at the autobahn, and all the cars there look like standing still ...).



Human eyes are a marvelous device in some respects. One of those is a dynamic range that not even good old chemical film can keep up with. CCDs are much worse.

You're absolutely right arguing that sluggish robots with great endurance would surpass human beings, but not as long as they have to depend on the care of dedicated humans. And I'm rather sceptic that we can program robots to be autonomous enough in everyday live, if we haven't even figured out a program that can beat a decent GO (or weiqi) player. Or a robot that could roll around on mars without being in constant danger of running straight into a rock or getting stuck for that matter. At least not within the next few decades. All that might come along with the fusion reactor and artificial intelligence we've been waiting for for the last 50 years ...

Workforce is going to be the least of our problems:

At least in terms of manufacturing (and lately administration) the productivity of people is basically post singularity - output is almost independent of the number of humans working, after a certain skeleton crew - completely out of proportion with the actual production - is on the job more people can't increase the production. (Something Germany's 130-years-old social system has yet to realize.) We'll have all the people we'll need - but we have to make sure they'll be paid or have a decent living.

What's that rant about humanoid robots working in fields?

Sounds like the Agromech in Mechwarrior novels to me. Perfectly pointless. We can adapt the fields, the plants, the robots, the soil and whatever to maximize yield - and there is no doubt that human beings are not perfectly adapted to working on fields. And the fields themselves also have a long way to go. Maybe we can finally get away from monocultures with better automatisation, better pattern recognition etc. (For starters: one that could tell green leaves and green cucumber reliably apart ...)


My guess is that the control software is going to be a number of individual neural networks connected in a more communications-oriented way, rather than being sub-networks of a single large neural net. The brain has had to build both its processors and its cables out of the same (or at least very similar) components, so the network is probably more complex than it needs to be for the purpose of building robots.

The system architecture of the brain seems to be a number of specialized organs connected in a specialized topology. Each organ may turn out to be a collection of smaller subsystems connected by similar connection mechanisms.

But we don't have to emulate all that as a neural net if the functional description of a working brain can be modeled as a set of components (each a net) connected by cables.


Stross Which shows that someone is working hard at making science fictional clichés come true, rather than just assuming that the invisible hand of market forces will wave a magic wand if we wait long enough.

Cute. You don't see the Invisible Hand because it's you - and me - and that other guy down there at the end of the bar. It's us, doing whatever it is that we do that makes the world go round and that Hand do it's thing.

@2 I really don't see the point in humanoid robots.

You probably don't live in Japan. They're looking at a huge labor shortage as people get older, there are going to be fewer young people running around to do scut work and the culture is biased against immigrants.

You can't expect them to redesign an entire cityspace around robots on wheels - humanoid bots are going to be the hod carriers and trash haulers in twenty years in Japan.

That and the only way we'll get mecha are if the Japanese figure out the locomotion thing (grin).



the 350 kmh fast track between Frankfurt and Cologne is >somehow an experience

Nothing compared to the Shinkansen - which is much, much more comfortable compared to the ICE (even for tall Europeans).



Ooh, agricultural automation, one of my favorite topics!

Yeah, humanoid fieldworking robots are a ridiculous notion. Combine harvesters aren't particularly humanoid, but would be the perfectly obvious first step in automation (if a human driver weren't so cheap.)

Even if you're talking about tomatoes (or yeah, cucumbers), a wheeled base is still vastly superior to a humanoid frame -- anybody who thinks bipedal human-sized workers are built for tomato harvesting has never seen an actual tomato plant. The tomatoes are a foot above the ground! No, there, the trick is going to be gentle handling, and I can see that happening pretty easily, if Mexicans weren't so cheap. Even in other areas, like here in Puerto Rico, humans are still cheap enough that automation simply doesn't make sense.

Where it might make sense is when you start talking about raising organic produce in a high-CO2 atmosphere. Organic, because your financial return is so much higher, so you have the profit margin to talk about mechanization, and high-CO2 because it's not only really good for the plants, it simultaneously kills the insects -- presto, no need for pesticides.

An automated tomato harvester could run on a rail on the top of a long, skinny CO2-filled enclosure and harvest all the tomatoes you want, without that pesky need to breathe that makes humans so practical.

Trust me -- that is the future of organic produce. I've been toying with the idea of applying for some agricultural grants from the Puerto Rican government to try a pilot. Without the robo-harvesters, of course. That's just my secret pipedream. But the CO2 tents for organic produce are a winner -- the insects in the tropics are nasty little buggers and they'll eat a whole crop in a day if you let them. Besides, you could technically make plastic for the tents out of corn -- renewable and organic and not petro-based, another clear winner for Puerto Rico's island economy.

But back to agroautomation -- in the single movie I can recall that ever dealt with field robots (that Tom Selleck flick from the late 80's, the German title was "Spiders of Death" but I've never seen it in English) the robots in question were little boxy guys on wheels that looked like the front end of tractors. And their operators wore seed-company baseball caps, just like real life.

Those robots weren't humanoid. And I don't believe they would need to be. Fields are all flat. How else can you plant with existing planter technology? (Not to mention that if the field isn't flat, you have an awful lot of erosion... Even if the landscape isn't flat, you terrace your fields. So they're flat. Meaning wheels.)

(Sorry for the non-ninja subject matter. I'll try to do better next time.)


"I prefer to interact with real people. I suspect most people are like me."

Maybe, but I have to admit I'm an exception-- in thousands of years of human civilization and hundreds of thousand of human evolution, no one's managed to get the bugs out of people. The robot could at least theoretically be made to be the perfectly inoffensive servant or companion.

Even more advantageously, being able to substitute programming for training ought to be a great time and trouble saver.



I was all in favor of your grow-plants-in-CO2-filled-tents idea (even before you mentioned it, they had an appearance in Kim Stanley Robinsons "Red Mars") - until you mentioned the bugs ...

The problem is, that there are probably more useful bugs than harmful ones, you'd kill them along with the others. And that's just the smallest of your problems. You'd change the whole balance of microorganism growth. Soil, after all, isn't just dirt, it's a complex eco system. You'd really have to carefully study the influence of a CO2 enriched atmosphere on the organic components of soil. Those changes need not be bad, but must be carefully studied. And while you're at it, you could try to find out the most important organisms in soil etc. ... We don't know crap about a lot of that stuff.


Another fun aspect of growing plants in CO2 filled tents is what happens when your agrobot breaks down halfway along the track. At which point you need to either bleed air into the tent, or have somebody go in with an oxygen tank (and woe betide them if anything goes wrong -- CO2 poisoning regularly kills incautious brewery and sewage plant workers; now we've just added the relatively low-paid agricultural sector to the mix).


Michael @ 25

" in the single movie I can recall that ever dealt with field robots (that Tom Selleck flick from the late 80's, the German title was "Spiders of Death" but I've never seen it in English)"

The film is called Runaway:


I've long felt that humanoid machines are not going to be independent robots of the sort that so many past SF writers have described. They're going to be remote-control machines with human operators--Starship Troopers power armour with the man in a safe place.

And isn't the hardest part of a spacesuit the hands. Even if you want the man right there, why struggle with gloves?


Dave @ 30

Humanoid robots are intended to solve two problems:

1) Doing dangerous jobs that humans have traditionally done, but which we now value our lives too highly for.

2) Doing menial jobs which humans have traditionally done, but which we now value our intellect and free time too highly for.

Your suggestion would only solve problem 1), although I agree that the technology to achieve this may well be more imminently within our grasp. (We'll have radio-controlled bipeds before we have genuine autonomous A.I.).

It's interesting that you choose power armour as your example though, because war machines are one of the areas where remote control devices are least desirable due to the potential for losing control of them during a battle, either due to accidental loss of communications, or intentional enemy action (hacking).


Yes, but you can see Power Armour as a remote with zero-length wires.

And the whole unmanned aerial vehicle thing is one of the areas where the military are moving towardss combat remote control. It's a fairly low bandwidth application to keep the vehicle out of the cumulo-granite, and you can build a lot of error checking and correction into the comlink. Air combat, it's much more of an issue.

And have you seen the robot project for carrying casualties out of the battle?

I think the menial jobs thing is a bit misleading. A partial answer is to improve how the workers get paid; there's a dehumanising streak to the management. Think about the Japanese reaction to foreign workers as an extreme case of the problem. They want robots because they don't want to treat human beings as if they were real people.

It may be something as simple as changing how the work week is arranged. I know one local business which is always advertising the same job. The pay's good, the average hours per week are ordinary. But it's in 12-hour shifts.

Working with machinery. I wouldn't feel safe by the end of a 12-hour shift. As a farmer, I've done them, and it's frightening having one of those did-I-fall-asleep moments while driving a combine harvester.

(All typing errors are the cat's.)


Re: growing stuff in CO2-filled greenhouses.

Unless you genengineer the plants they're not going to benefit from messing with the atmospheric mix. It turns out that higher concentrations of CO2 don't particularly promote plant growth -- the plants that are around right now are the winners in the evolution race that was run in an atmosphere with close to the current levels of CO2. They're not biologically capable of benefitting much from having lots more "food" present.



I don't mean nidpicking, but I think you have some misconception about the agricultural sector. It won't be underpaid immigrants (be they Mexican, Polish, Belarussian, Moldavien ...) of yore working there. This would be a full blown industrial operation. The productivity of workers surveilling/operating machines is much larger than that of farmworkers sweating out a liter an hour, and consequently their education and pay will be a lot better. Just compare a factory worker at - say - Daimler-whatever-it-is right-now and one in a Chinese sweat shop. The latter is of course a low paid job, since these jobs typically have low productivity. (I wonder what kind of progress we might have made in automatisation without China providing some 500 Million workers to do all the manufacturing for the now-deindustrialized-world.)

As for machines breaking down CO2 filled tents:

a) It won't hurt much to fill common air in the tents/buildings for a few hours - CO2 after all is pretty darn cheap and the plants should be able to cope with it, even genetically optimized ones to make full use of the CO2 levels.

and b) engineers are fully capable of implementing safe failure modes that will not require a) in 95% of all cases.

An idea that just occured to me is that with the atmospheric seal you may even convince a majority of the EU parliament to allow the use of GM-plant in Europe. After all, you just need a slightly lower pressure to effectivly prevent contamition of the outside world. If those plants would depend on severly increased CO2 levels they could not even grow on the outside if someone took the seeds out there.


tp1024: I'm tending to listen to Dave Bell on this one. (He used to run a farm. And I know him personally.)

I'd also like to note that the anti-GM resistance in Europe isn't simply about contamination of the external biosphere with pollen; it's about eating the bloody things. With the organic sector growing at a compound rate of 25% per year there's serious public unease about just what goes into our stomachs. I personally think that some of the anti-GM sentiment is misplaced ... but the behaviour of the corporations marketing the stuff -- companies like Monsanto, for example -- doesn't fill me with confidence. Personally I gave up buying food at supermarkets a couple of years ago: about 50% of what I eat is organic. (I'm not terribly keen on being a guinea pig for the long-term side effects of cholinesterase inhibitors, for example, and the tendency of interesting organic metal complexes and heterocyclic organic molecules to end up dissolved in fats at the top of the food chain -- milk and cheese, for example -- has been a big incentive to switch to exclusively organic sources of dairy produce.)


Charlie: "Which shows that someone is working hard at making science fictional clich�s come true, rather than just assuming that the invisible hand of market forces will wave a magic wand if we wait long enough."

-- ah... Charlie... that IS the invisible hand working.

Unless you think Kawada Industries is a charity, or a government agency?

The market is an information-delivery system and a set of incentives.


Charlie: "I'd also like to note that the anti-GM resistance in Europe isn't simply about contamination of the external biosphere with pollen; it's about eating the bloody things."

-- sorry, you're already eating them. The "unmodified" Brazilian soy that's ubiquitous in European food products is actually mostly grown with GM seed smuggled in from Argentina. They just lie about it.

The anti-GM hysteria in Europe is amusing to behold; rather like watching a legion of people frantically trying to sweep back the ocean with brooms.


SMS @37: rolls eyes.

I think a careful look at the sociological phenomenon of the frankenfood scare is worthwhile. Most of the western European nations where people went overboard on it are so highly urbanized that most people think food comes from supermarkets and don't see rural areas or farms except from the windows of airliners and high-speed trains. There was a recent survey in the UK that discovered that about a third of school children didn't know that eggs and chickens were somehow connected, or that your carton of milk was obtained by squeezing a cow. About 20% didn't even know that the bacon in their sandwiches was made out of dead pigs.

Superstitious thinking about food shouldn't come as any surprise when people are so divorced from the source. <flame-bait strength="mild">It's like expecting a random sampling of Americans to reason sensibly about life on other continents</flame-bait>. (Based on the fact that only about 20% of US citizens hold passports, most of those are only used for travel to Mexico and Canada, and what passes for "foreign news" on US television is only loosely correlated with reality.)



Maybe it's different up there, but in middle england things like "organic" vegetables seems to be a codeword for "twice and expensive and so low quality I'm far more concerned about food poisoning from eating them than long term chemical poisoning from "regular" vegetables".

The local co-op is a partial exception to that, but their organic vegetable quality tends to vary wildly from one day of the week to the next.

As to meat and such, I eat Kosher for reasons beyond religious.


Andrew: yup, all of that. Being selective tends to go with the territory.

On the other hand, for dairy produce, it's from animals that haven't been fed on prophylactic antibiotics and growth hormones, and that have been eating herbicide-free grass. Once it's been pasteurized I'm reasonably confident of the quality.


am so going on a Series 500 Shinkansen if I get the chance, this September

Get a Japan RailPass before you leave if you're planning on taking trains at all. And in Japan, you should plan this, because the trains make a "short morning sightseeing trip" = anything within a 400km train ride.

When I went in 2001, the pass paid for itself within a day because the individual ticket prices are high. The pass covered everything except the fastest Shinkansen- for those there was a slight surcharge ($40).

Check to see if Japan runs a tourist office near you: if it's like the one in San Francisco, it'll be full of printed guides to various towns and tourist spots. I often found many of those to be more useful than either guidebooks or internet sources.

For example, one was a booklet of hotels that rent to foreigners. Japan has a free English-language phone service that'll do everything except make reservations. We'd call the phone service, they'd call the hotel and check that a room was available, and then when we spoke with the hotel manager all we had to say was 'hai' to whatever they'd say. Worked out well.


JR passes are on the agenda, but the nearest travel agent who handles them is in London, i.e. the thick end of 600 kilometres away from here. I expect to spend quite a long time on the phone this week ...


Charlie, not so much "selective" as if I only ate deacent quality organic vegetables, I'd not have vegetables a lot of the time.

Dairy products, well, don't eat many...

(there are cash issues there as well, I admit - I really really need a better paid job)


Seems like there is absolutely no idea you could possibly have for the first time.

Posted six and a half hours ago: (for any other German speakers around)

containing a link to ... guess what:

Anything but humanoid I'd say.

And yeah right, the sentiment on GM-food, especially here in Germany, is also about eating the stuff, though I could not possibly judge what offends people more and on which of the topics people are least informed about. Most of that is just I-don't-want-any-atoms-in-my-coffee thinking, people are just against it, because they lack the knowledge, the capacity, the willingness, the resources or the time to understand even the basics about it. And as they have no idea about it, they are against it for no reason in particular. (That is my opinion, nothing else.)

I also have to agree with disagreeing with the behavior of Monsanto and others, also the issuing of patents on living organisms or genes that we all run around with. I just hope that all of that is going to lead up to the demise of the whole system some time. Right now it is not just ridiculous, but anachronistic and hampering development.


tp1024 @ 27: by "bugs" I mean actual insects, not the soil organisms, but now that you mention it that is indeed something I'm going to look into. And I'm not talking about fully evacuating the oxygen, either, by the way -- just tipping the balance to slow the bugs down would be a help. To be honest, I'm not even sure there would be soil involved at all for many crop species -- I like aquaponics, myself, having (1) done a small amount of dabbling in it and (2) read a little about ongoing experiments in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Cheap protein, tilapia.

Robert @ 33: not according to what I'm reading from Purdue. But I grant you that I'm hardly an expert yet. And note: I'm not talking about didding with the air that much. Actually, just keeping them in a tent at all would do a lot to keep the ants and caterpillars out -- the CO2 mix is just a little icing on the cake.

Genetic modification would be missing the point entirely. This is something I'm actually starting this year, not something I want to do in the lab for the next 20.

Charlie @ 28: cheap tents. Rip them out if the machine breaks down, grind them up and toss them to the worms for recycling, and put a new layer of plastic down when you've kick-started the machine again. They'll have to be replaced on a regular basis anyway after sufficient exposure to tropical sunlight -- you can trust me on that one, the sun down here is murder and it's year-round. It's frankly all that free energy that has me convinced that the tropics would be the perfect place to feed the world, if you could slow the native ecosystem down in its ineluctible drive to digest anything in its way. But at least I could feel a little better thinking that Puerto Rico will be able to feed itself when the oil runs out -- something that right now would make Haiti look like a day in the park.

Also in re that comment -- the robots are just for fun. I'm not sure what will be necessary to make them cheaper than people -- and my primary point was to note that agrorobots will almost certainly be non-humanoid.

Humanoid robots will be damned important on the market, though, for one reason if nothing else, and this touches on a couple of earlier comments. Non-humanoid robots are there to do work. Humanoid robots are there to be slaves. That is, their humaniformity (cringe) fulfills a social purpose, not necessarily a functional one.

Shorter SMS @ 37: "I'm right in all respects, and if you disagree with me, I will take refuge in my knowledge that you are an unwitting dupe." Sheesh. First of all, most organic food I myself buy is produce, not "products", thus perforce contains no soy ingredients, whether Brazilian or not. Second of all, I very much doubt that magical GM soy is "ubiquitous" in European food products in the first place. You're as tiring as ever, and I've noticed that when I pass your books on the shelf at the bookstore, and occasionally think one might be worth buying, I realize who wrote it. And I put it back -- not because of any silly notion of boycott, but because I realize that the whole damn thing is going to reek of ignorance and spite and will simply increase my blood pressure. And that is solely because of your ridiculous behavior here on this very forum. Wake up and learn some humility. You might find it wins you the occasional friend. (Or, more likely, you will continue your passive-agressive posting behavior in the rather pathetic belief that you are "winning".)

The organic produce market is indeed capitalizing on some pretty overblown fears, and people's buying choices are in almost every case wildly misguided, because they think if they bought something at Whole Foods it must have come from the local farmers whose pictures are prominently displayed, rather than one of three nominally organic agrobusiness companies in California, or rather questionable producers in South America. But that doesn't mean that the notion of fresh, healthy food is wrong, no matter what you might wish were true, SMS. (Hell, I find I can't remember your actual first name; is it Steve?)

The primary worry about GM crops is that there have been no studies of their effects when consumed. Sure, we can presume to imagine, as SMS surely does, that the chemical composition of the foods being roughly equivalent, there must be no difference in their effects when eaten. And maybe that's true -- but studies should nevertheless be done. But I know of only one researcher who attempted to do so -- and he was ruthlessly hounded by the food industry and lost funding. Not that rich men would spend money to corrupt science to protect their investment -- that would, of course, give lie to the notion that our market economy respects scientific findings, thus it cannot be true. (In the long term, basing your investments on reality pays off, but in the short term, manipulating public (and insider) belief about reality pays off much better. And that's not science, but who's keeping score on that, anyway? The people doing this manipulation don't know or care squat about the scientific method; all they want is something to print in the prospectus, and they'll spend whatever it takes to get that, and to demolish anything that contradicts it. You'd think that as a science-fiction writer, SMS would realize that science works but not everything done by paid researchers is science -- too bad he's not a ninja writer like Charlie.)

As the father of two kids with digestive allergy problems (one has kidney problems modulated by atopic allergy, and the other has Crohn's Disease) I pay a lot of attention to food. We've had actual solid results from dietary changes -- and of course that's necessarily anecdotal given our population size, ha ha, but it's suggestive. Sneers that "you're already eating GM food without knowing it, you pathetic fool" are tiresome and inaccurate. Which won't stop SMS, of course, and I say this from experience, but in actual point of fact here in reality, it is indeed possible to know what you are eating if you care to find out. Especially if you grow it yourself. Hence my increased focus on just that -- but since I grew up in farm country myself, and the son of back-to-the-land Mother Earth News readers, I've always been interested.

So yes, SMS, you are correct that if you live like an ignorant schmuck and buy the most colorful packaged food on the shelf, odds are you're eating something that didn't evolve on its own. But if you care about what you are eating, this is simply not the case. The problem -- whether eating nominally "organic" food or not -- is the processing, not the origin.

Ideally, for some values of "ideal" which don't square well with the treehugger crowd I usually talk to about this stuff, you'd be able to grow some of your own food in your home or a nearby small facility, then cook it yourself with a great deal of automation -- thus living on fresh produce and very freshly harvested material, while still being able to interact with our urban society at a meaningful level, in terms of both geographic proximity and the amount of time you have to participate. Organic farming/gardening takes a lot of effort, time I wouldn't have to earn money or blather on online forums like this one, if I were living from it exclusively. And the same goes for cooking from scratch. But both of them are incomparable for improving your health.

My intuition is that addressing that need is going to be profitable over the next twenty years. I certainly hope so, anyway, because this is one industry move I'm actually moving towards participating in. Worst case: I get to spend time playing with robots in the kitchen, and eating good fresh produce I grew myself. That's hardly a lose.

Oh, hey, SMS @ 36: wow, a comment that I agree with. So you're not the Fatuous Channel after all. That's encouraging. I hadn't noticed it was you who'd written it.

Andrew @ 39 -- oh hell yeah. The same goes for a lot of Indiana, and Puerto Rico as well (my two stomping grounds -- I'm actually in Indiana at the moment, even though my thoughts and planning are in Puerto Rico this year). Hence my belief that there's a lot of money to be made -- because people pay a lot of money for crap identified as "organic" and I figure they'll appreciate a choice that really is.

So. Sorry for the length of this post; I actually care about these issues. I should probably shut up here and post them on my own blog instead, but eh. Once you get started typing in one place, it's hard to move to another.


tp @ 44: "Most of that is just I-don't-want-any-atoms-in-my-coffee thinking" -- yes. It is. Which makes it difficult for any serious person to raise the point that corn is already problematic enough for many people with food allergies, without randomly changing God only knows which of its proteins.

Combine that with the fact that the science of the digestive system is embarrassingly naive when it comes to both the mechanisms and the consequences of food allergies, and you think, hey, maybe sticking with the species we've used for a few thousand years might be good idea. Which is why more science is needed -- because it might well not be a problem, but the current knowledge just isn't sufficient to know for sure, and since (pace SMS) this affects every fricking body in the world except people who grow all their own food, it behooves us to find out.

But again -- that science potentially threatens billions and billions of dollars of investment. So it's nipped in the bud in no uncertain terms when anybody threatens to do it.

And wow -- cool orange harvester. It seems somewhat ... questionable to me to make a 3D model of the entire orange tree, then move the harvester through to get the oranges (what, there's no wind?) but if your processing time for each camera view is high, I can easily imagine that individual cameras on each gripper would slow the process down to the point where it's just not feasible.

And yeah -- the current government rumbling about immigrant labor certainly does have the agribusiness people scared shitless. If they have to do without cheap labor, they'll be up a creek.


In my part of the US at least, it getting hard not to eat organic foods, if you look for something a cut above basic staples.

Though I mostly eat packaged and prepared organic food, I haven noticed many quality problems with fresh organic fruits and vegetables. Mainly they're a little smaller than traditional products.

As for GM food, I'm all for it. I can understand why some people might not like to eat it, however. Labelling items that are GMO-free might be a solution.


"Superstitious thinking about food shouldn't come as any surprise when people are so divorced from the source. It's like expecting a random sampling of Americans to reason sensibly about life on other continents."

-- I was born in France, myself.


"Organic farming/gardening takes a lot of effort"

-- tell me. I've done it. Far too much like hard work. Which goes for farming of any sort, and that's the opinion of most of humanity, who 'flee from the land' as soon as they get the opportunity.

Being close to the Earth turns out in practice to shedding a lot of sweat while wallowing in the mud with the bugs.

Thing is, I'm a historian, so I know how lousy food often was in the prelapsarian preindustrial paradise; spoiled, scanty, adulterated, seasonally unavailable and just plain poisonous for many.

The ordinary food in supermarkets in 1st-world countries is cheaper relative to average incomes and higher in quality than at any time in the past.

We're healthier than at any time in the past, too. We're so healthy we live long enough to die of degenerative diseases.


"And yeah -- the current government rumbling about immigrant labor certainly does have the agribusiness people scared shitless. If they have to do without cheap labor, they'll be up a creek"

-- "agribusiness" is largely a myth, as far as actual farming is concerned.

If you look at the census returns, you'll find that the number of hired laborers in American agriculture has been declining faster than the number of farms. So has the number of hired farm managers.

There are far fewer migrant laborers than there used to be, both in absolute numbers (tho' those are still large) and as a proportion of the agricultural labor force.

In other words, farming has become more reliant on the labor of farm owners and their families over the past couple of generations.

Farms have also gotten larger and more heavily capitalized, of course.


OK, the farming I did was bulk crops, mostly grain, and that's where the big machines can pay offBig machines, big fields, large-area monoculture. But a few tens of miles away you get vegetable crops that still need hand harvesting, and they do depend on immigrant labour, mostly from the new East European members of the EU.

GM Crops: there are at least three major approaches.

1: Crops producing their own pesticide. One example is cotton, modified to produce chemicals which deter certain insect pests. Sounds safe, even "green", because nobody eats cotton and you get the pesticide without a petrochemical-based factory. But waste from the cotton plant can end up in animal feed.

2: Crops producing a specifical compound for further processing. This is still on a small scale, and an extension of existing specialised crops. For instance, the Opium Poppy, and varieties of Cannabis Sativa grown for fibre rather than pharmaceuticals. There are car manufacturers who use hemp fibre to reinforces plastics: some expensive cars could be siezed for their cannabis content in the USA.

3: Herbicide-tolerant plants which allow weeds to be controlled with inexpensive non-selective herbicides.

The example I'm most familiar with are the "Roundup Ready" crops pushed by Monsanto. Rge active ingredient of Roundup is glyphosate, an out-of-patent compound which subverts the plant's metabolism so that it poisons itself. It gets enthusiastically consumed by sol bacteria, and the glyphosate is less toxic than the solvents, oils, and wetting agents which carry it.

But if you grow a Roundup Ready crop, the purchase contract forces you to use the Monsanto product.

In the UK, the main proposed glyphosate-tolerant crop was oilseed rape, also known as canola. One of the fears given great publicity was the possibility that the gene would get into weeds and prevent them from being controlled. This was based on some pretty fundamental ignorance.

The point about the GM crop was that selective herbicides for brassicas are expensive. OSR is almost embarrassingly susceptible to some cheap selective herbicides used on wheat. Alternate OSR and wheat, and weeds that are hard to control in one crop can be readily controlled in the other.

This is called crop rotation.

The big problem with GM crops is that they tend to even more extreme monoculture. If I wanted to grow milling wheat in the UK, there are maybe half a dozen varieties in large scale use, with differing breeding and differing metabolic resistance to pests and diseases. Add the newer and older varieties, and you can double or triple that number.

How many Roundup Ready OSR varieties are there?

Breeding a new crop variety is expensive, but it's not incredibly so. British farming, in the late Twentieth Century, could support a dozen or so plant breeding companies dealing with wheat. Which meant you had a choice of varieties bred for British conditions.

It really was evolution in action.

Can you imagine Monsanto competing with themselves?

So there are millions of acres of genetically identical crop.

The question you should be asking yourself is "Do I feel lucky?" Mother Nature packs something consioderably more substantial than a .44 Magnum.


Oh, and Mr. Stirling, I think you're being misled by the agrregation of statistics for all crops, throughout the USA. A style of business that works for corn doesn't work for tomatoes. And US-style farmng isn't neccesarity the way the crop might be grown in Europe.

Looking at recent USDA figures:

Russia: 45 million tonnes from 24 million hectares.

That's less than 2 tonnes per hectare.

Canada's yield is predicted at 2.6 tonnes per hectare.

The prediction for the UK is 8 tonnes per hectare. Back when I used to have a copy of Nix to hand, that was barely break-even.

I recall an article in The Furrow, a few years ago, that reported on some US farmers who had adopted European techniques, and finding that they had land which wasn't worth farming. You can get equipment for a combine harvester which will map where the crop is growing.

Average USA -- 38.7 bushels per acre. Well, that's around the same as Canada.


Monopole @ 14: Jet propelled trains will be viable and economical once we ditch the gas turbine for nuclear technology.

Heh. A few months back, New Scientist had as one of its "This week 50 years ago" snippets a quote from an article they published in 1957 about a German design for a nuclear-powered locomotive: "Trains to go nuclear".


Didn't a recent article show that "genes" are not unique portions of DNA that only code for one protein; rather that overlapping portions of two or more "genes" code for different proteins? What up until now we called a gene is just a portion of DNA that we can connect to a particular protein. Therefore if you insert a gene for coding insecticide, unknown proteins will also be created from overlapping parts of the new insecticide gene and the previous DNA - and we have no real understanding of what those unknown proteins will do.

I am very much a layman in these matters, however. So I will welcome corrections to my understanding of facts.


Hey, Charlie. You might get a kick out of this. Picture a public school in New York City, circa 1982. Over the course of the year, the kids grow vegetables in a terrarium, tracking their growth over time, learning a little about biology and a little more about ecology.

At the end of the year, of course, the class takes the carrots and potatoes out of the terrarium, cleans 'em, and eats 'em. Or at least Ms. Ferrara is about to chow down on a carrot when young Joey Espinoza, always concerned about his teacher's well-being, yells out, "You can't eat that! It's growing in dirt!"

Joey went on to design airplanes for Boeing.


Mr Teufel @ 54: Some genes do overlap, but not all. You have to have some specific conditions for it to happen; it's not going to automatically appear very time you insert a gene.

Also, I would suspect that randomly created proteins would be strongly nonfunctional, since they don't fit into the plant's biochemistry. They might cause the plant to be weak or die; they're less likely to cause the plant to manufacture something unpleasant. (I think most poisonous/toxic substances produced by plants are non-proteins, produced by a complex sequence of steps mediated by different proteins.)


-- I was born in France, myself.

A link to examples of sensible reasoning about it would be helpful here. All I remember you coming out with was some Snitchens-style asscrack about They Shall Be Buried Beneath A Tide Of Muslims While Americans Look On In Horror Faintly Tinged With Smugness.

But perhaps I'm mixing you up with someone else.


Labelling items that are GMO-free might be a solution.

That would be far too boycott-enabling for some people.


The anti-GM hysteria in Europe is amusing to behold; rather like watching a legion of people frantically trying to sweep back the ocean with brooms.

They just don't feel like eating what someone tells them is good for them. I can understand how that must come across as insubordination, though. Refusing the benevolence of American corporations, the presumption of it! Surely being buried beneath a tide of Muslims is too good for them.


Peter, except now with pebble bed reactors, a nuclear-powered train is a lot more viable.


Peter, except now with pebble bed reactors, a nuclear-powered train is a lot more viable.

The nimbyism along the rail lines would be something to behold, though.


@58: Adrian, I think people have a right to eat or not eat what they like. While I'm not bothered by GM food enough to seek out and avoid these things, I believe those that wish to have a right to be informed. As do vegans have a right to know if there are even trace animal products in food. If you believe in The Market, as so many seem to, then you should believe in total freedom of information about the products being marketed, as economics is based on the concept of informed consumers. And given the tendencies of corporations to obfuscate information that may hinder sales, the consumer has a right to distrust them, especially when the corporation is trying to sell them something they may not be equipped to understand.


@58: "They just don't feel like eating what someone tells them is good for them."

How do they know the unmodified food is safe? I don't think most traditional foods have been put through much in the way of randomized, double-blind scrutiny, we just know they don't kill the average consumer too terribly quickly. Of course, you could say the same about tobacco. The strange thing to me about European food preferences seems to be the bizarrely strong conservatism and risk aversion.


C @ 58: That's a good point. Pretty much all "natural" food has had less testing than GMO foods. It was created by fairly random mutation and breeding for traits without know exactly what else you were getting. Not to mention a period there where bombarding with radiation to see if anything useful happened was the cutting edge in crop development.


How do they know the unmodified food is safe?

They don't. But being told that they should eat something new because it's been tested by SCIENTISTS goddamit and if they don't eat it then they're hopeless Luddites seems to have had the effect of making a few of them dig their heels in on the issue.

People can be so emotional sometimes. I mean, not trusting scientists! Whatever is the world coming to.


There's been several trial sowings of GM crops in the area where I live, and the anti-GM protesters turn up in full hazardous materials protection and destroy the crop.

On one occasion they got the wrong field.

There's also some evidence coming out of the USA that the extreme-monoculture problem has greatly reduced the economic advantage of Roundup Ready crops.


@65 Adrian:

Versus telling people that they should only eat the traditional food, and that they'll fall prey to any number of unspoken potential maladies if they munch the GM food? The tauting comes because this does start to sound like reactionary ranting. "These new things will bring unspecified harm! They must be prohibited, even if the harm hasn't been demonstrated yet!" It gets filed with people who are convinced the internet is used by no one but perverts and scam artists, that gay marriage will being about the downfall of civilization, or that video games will result in children turning homicidal en masse.


Versus telling people that they should only eat the traditional food,

It's the devil you know, innit.

and that they'll fall prey to any number of unspoken potential maladies if they munch the GM food?

I worry more about unusual genes going walkabout myself.

The tauting comes because this does start to sound like reactionary ranting. "These new things will bring unspecified harm! They must be prohibited, even if the harm hasn't been demonstrated yet!"

I've personally got no problem with lots of people signing up as unpaid guinea pigs for Monsanto. Their altruism may bring me untold benefits, like knowing which are the soybeans to avoid ten years from now, should any such materialise.

It gets filed with [...]

Only by libertarians afaict.



The main problem here to my mind is that there's yet to be demonstrable harm from the stuff, yet it still meets with opposition. What's the reason, if not paranoia? Avoiding unknown risks simply because they're different than known risks is not a particularly good strategy for development, as it would tend to stultify most new growth and development.


I'd be somewhat more impressed by European objections to GM food if they were accompanied by more of an interest in knowing what's in the (non-GM) food people are already eating. There's a dramatic contrast between American food labeling and, for example, German food labeling; the latter is rarely anything more than the ingredients.

Some people need to keep track of how much of certain things (e.g., sodium or cholesterol or carbohydrates) are in the food they're eating. Most people, arguably, might want to have some idea how much saturated fat or trans fat is in the food they're eating. This is easy to do with packaged foods sold in US markets, but much more difficult in German markets.

Since European consumers are apparently less concerned about such things than American consumers, it suggests that European objections to GM food don't flow from a purely rational, "I want to know what's in my food so I can eat intelligently" perspective.


Andrew @60: we've got nuclear-powered trains. Safe nuclear-powered trains, even.

Or rather, the French have got them. They're called TGVs, and they're electrically powered, and 90% of the French electricity supply is nuclear generated.

(Why put a nuclear reactor on a rapidly moving platform with inadequate shielding that's vulnerable to collisions, when you can stick it under a concrete dome and run wires out to the train?)

C @69: y'know, food is pretty fundamental. You stop eating it, you die. Having large and somewhat secretive corporations who have in the past coopted regulatory machinery to push products into the market that weren't terribly safe trying to do the same to the human food chain is a bit worrying to some people. This is essentially a political/regulatory problem; I suspect the opposition to GM food per se will fade if issues of regulation and testing -- and monopolisation of the market -- are addressed.

I'll also note the fun Monsanto has had in suing farmers who aren't customers of theirs, but whose farms are adjacent to customers for roundup-ready crops and who grow similar plants. They allegedly basically go fishing for samples -- which they will get; pollen dispersal doesn't respect real estate boundaries -- and then take legal action for patent violation. This fun little business practice is a big stick that is used to cultivate a nascent business monopoly, and the issue of whether the GM crops are good or not is entirely orthogonal to it: the alleged business practices are clearly dirty, and that's enough -- in my opinion -- to warrant regulatory investigation (and a consumer boycott -- on my part, at least).


@69 Clearly food's important (I say while enjoying breakfast), but


@69: Clearly food's important (I say while enjoying breakfast), but unless you feel like growing your own, you are going to be at the mercy of someone else's motives and potential chicanery. In this, getting food from the corporation and the small farmer are no different.

Are regulations on GM crops any less stringent than those for selectively-bred ones?


C: I think you mean should regulations on GM crops be any more -- or less -- stringent than those for selectively-bred ones?

I'm inclined to say "no -- but this doesn't mean we should relax regulations on anything; if anything we need to get tough." On the other hand, when dealing with an existing strain of crop that's been around for some decades, a case can be made for grandfathering it in until there's time to do some detailed research on it.

It'd be quite a bummer to discover that, after all these centuries, potatoes are the cause of hypertension, wouldn't it?


@73, here in the UK the organic gatekeeper for "organic" is the Soil Assciation, and some of the rationale for some of their rules on organic food production is a trifle irrational.

(Oh dear, did I just write a sentence like that?)

The thing is, they permitted some really old-fashioned chemistry--pesticides such as nicotine--while, for livestock, giving a massive loophole for modern veterinary science. So organic beef is almost certainly differently fed, may have been farmed without preventative medication, and may have been dosed with modern curative medications.

Now, there are ways of farming so as to reduce pesticide use. There can be safer options, and a lot of the rules on pesticide use and storage, on the farm, can be cheerfully ignored by the home gardener. And the supermarkets. It's a huge breach of the rules for a farmer to store pesticides in any building containing foodstuffs. Tesco are selling herbicides and insecticides, and letting their customers put them in the same shopping baskets as a loaf of bread.

And yes, there's the paranoia about dirt from our customers. You used to be able to get processed sewage solids as fertiliser, for free. Including application. And I've no complaint about the supermarkets not wanting it used on vegetable crops, but it's got to the point where it's unusable on any crop grown for food.

Even organic crops.

And the suppliers outside the UK don't run under the same rules.


To give an example of some of the silliness and shortsightedness of anti-GMO protesters and the general public, take a look at Triticale. (

It's a cross-species crop that combines rye and wheat, first developed in the 1800s. However, since it was a hybrid it wasn't fertile naturally. Later, they used a chemical agent to double the chromosomes in the plant, making it fertile. Essentially a new species was created long before we knew about genes or genetic engineering.

Some 10 million tons of it are grown in the EU each year, a far more haphazard method of engineering a new crop than anything done with GM organizisms people are upset about today.



Okay, build a new stationary nuclear reactor in under 5 years. Or for that matter, at all. Also, not all the world has electified train lines, y'know.

Monsanto give GM crops a bad name thanks to their business practices. I know a LOT of geneticists who detest them.


The main problem here to my mind is that there's yet to be demonstrable harm from the stuff, yet it still meets with opposition. What's the reason, if not paranoia?

Because for some unaccountable reason the American government's way of handling the affair has come to be seen as bullying, and some people oppose bullying on general principles. GM foods could be swathed in nutraceutical nanoimprovements which cured everything from the common cold to afterdinner flatulence, and having them forced down our collective throats on the grounds that they're-good-for-you-dammit would still inspire resistance among some.

People don't like being told what to do. Why is it so difficult for some Americans to understand this? Is it a side-effect of reading Heinlein?


@74 True-- should would have worked better there, because I was slack about doing the ten minutes of web searching to find the answer-- in the US, at least, the answer is no-- the FDA only considers the final product, and doesn't care whether the method of production was traditional or biotech. The government's main argument seems to be that genetically-modifying crops hasn't seen the production of new proteins which might be toxic or allergenic, merely the shuffle of proteins from product to product. If you assume all pig proteins are safe and all tomato proteins are safe, then you can swap them out willy-nilly between the two, for example.

@78- (apologies in advance) Yes, the next thing you know the government will be shoving fluoride down our throats by putting it in the drinking water.


Charlie @ 74:

It's funny you should mention potatoes, because like all members of the nightshade family they do have a natural poison (solanine?) in them. It's what gives them a bitter taste if you leave them exposed to light until they turn green. There have be cases were selective breeding of potato cultivars has resulted in higher levels of the poison, making them unfit for human consuption. That's why potatoes are often tested for it today.

In theory you could have the same problem when breeding new strains of tomato or eggplant.


77:Okay, build a new stationary nuclear reactor in under 5 years. Or for that matter, at all. Also, not all the world has electified train lines, y'know.

I'm sorry, but that's crack-smokingly stupid. Develop me a nuclear-electric locomotive within 25 years and..

Do you really think that making trains as complicated as nuclear submarines is cheaper than stringing a wire over the tracks? It cost £335 million for Don Heath's team to electrify the East Coast Main Line, and I doubt you'd get under that for one nuclear loco in series production.


Yes, the next thing you know the government will be shoving fluoride down our throats by putting it in the drinking water.

Fair enough when it's your own government doing the shoving, a little less acceptable when it's somebody else's.


@77 Flamanville 3 is supposed to be built in 54 months. We'll see.


Apropos @77, @81, that's a classic example of the "we must colonize space!" falacy -- it tends to ignore economic issues in general, never mind the very important question of "is this the most productive use of our money?"

If you've got an un-electrified railway network in this day and age, then -- sorry to rub this in -- you've got an inferior infrastructure problem and you really need to look at what you can do to upgrade the whole system, rather than fixating on a single very expensive magic wand (that may or may not work, but that comes with a huge price ticket attached and interesting and exciting side-effects if something goes wrong).

Passenger trains -- even the fastest Shinkansen and TGV train sets, rated for up to 300 km/h in service and 550km/h on test tracks -- don't draw more than 16Mw as a rule, and often a lot less (IIRC the current draw on a GNER InterCity 225 multiple unit starting from cold is 6Mw -- this is for a 500 seat, 480 ton 140mph express train). Freight trains may weigh an order of magnitude more, but they seldom go above 100km/h and they accelerate much more slowly. So we don't really need a modular power source that can produce more than 10Mw in a locomotive. Meanwhile when traveling at speed they're using an order of magnitude less power.

Aside from space-rated kit, the smallest nuclear reactors in general service -- naval ones -- start out around 50Mw and work up from there.

On the other hand, on any given day in any remotely developed country there will be thousands of train movements, if not tens of thousands, and many hundreds of locomotives are needed.

So. Which makes more sense?

(a) Add overhead electric wires and install a couple of big, centralized, 1Gw PWRs, each of which can accelerate a hundred trains up to cruise speed or keep a thousand of them running between stations,


(b) Build several hundred to a few thousand small 10Mw reactors, with all the maintenance and repair costs this implies (and the multiplier effect of the MTBF issue, only applied to nuclear reactors, means you'll be having reactor whoopsies on a monthly to annual basis rather than averaging one per two or three decades), which will be running at less than 10% of peak output for most of their operational lives?

Seems like a no-brainer to me. Science Fiction aside (and I've been guilty of committing ATOMIC POWERED LOCOMOTIVES!!! COOL!!! myself -- see "Singularity Sky"), nuclear locos are loco.


IIRC the current draw on a GNER InterCity 225 multiple unit starting from cold is 6Mw -- this is for a 500 seat, 480 ton 140mph express train

You see, this kind of thing is what we need in every boy's handbook to hypermodernity.



How is a nuclear powered locomotive "not going to work". it might not be economical, but that's entirely different from "not going to work". Pebble bed, not PWG.

There are plenty of countries out there which don't have electric rails. There are economic, distance and climatic factors in some countries which makes deploying them very, very expensive (and protecting them when they're up, even more so). "Centralised" reactors in other, even more of a joke.

Pebble bed reactors don't start at 50MW. Indeed, there are upper limits on what they can do which is restrictive, rather than the other way round. And the massive accelerations which you note are for passenger trains in a few first world countries... sure, you and I expect them. Someone from India won't.


There are economic, distance and climatic factors in some countries which makes deploying [overhead electric cables] very, very expensive (and protecting them when they're up, even more so). "Centralised" reactors in other, even more of a joke.

OK, all true. But may I suggest that, if your economy is so poor that you have problems with people stealing overhead cables, and you can't get a simple power station to run reliably, then maybe you shouldn't be messing around with thousands of rolling nuclear reactors?


I know it's been pointed out before, but in much of the US diesel trains are more economical than electric at the moment. Apart from the Northeast -- we have a lot of electric trains up here.


Andrew, "not going to work" is shorthand in this instance for "not obviously impossible, but clearly completely stupid". Let me submit that, where electrification is impractical, funds for a nuclear locomotive are likely to be unavailable: meanwhile, plain old-fashioned diesel-electric traction has a lot to commend it -- it's an off-the-shelf technology, it's scalable, it's efficient enough to have shown off challenges from turbine and other thermodynamic cycles, it doesn't have failure modes that scatter radioactives all over the landscape (even the relatively benign pebble bed design may have trouble if it's in the middle of a head-on collision between freight trains), and best of all -- it's much, much, cheaper.

Hell. Even if the cost of gasoline goes through the roof, you can run diesel-electric trains on orimulsion or synthetic diesel (which is somewhat easier to make from coal than lighter fractions, AIUI).


To expand a little more on why overhead electric rail is impractical in the US, keep in mind that we have just about the same lenth of rail as the EU in a an area about twice as big with about half the population.

Most of our rail transit is cargo -- due to the ecomomic situation resulting from the above. We have 2700 billion ton-kilometers of freight each year, compared to 359 in the EU.

As for passenger rail, the US only has 8.8 billion passenger-kilometers each year, slightly less than Belgium. The EU has 352 billion...

So the US has rather different needs than the EU or even Asia. Russia is probably closest to us.


Andrew G: I wonder what would happen to US passenger rail service, if it was actually possible to build new tracks and obtain right-of-way as easily as it is in France or Spain, for example. Coast-to-coast would not be a large market, IMO (although on some routes it would make sense -- think in terms of a TGV sleeper train departing from Penn Station at 11pm and arriving in San Francisco or LA at 9am the next day, for example), but the three hour overheads imposed by airline security and baggage check and travel to/from out of town airports makes high speed rail competitive with air for distances of up to about 1600km.

I've ridden the Accela service from Boston to New York; the carriages are comfortable enough, but it's slow and un-punctual. If it was replaced by something like a Japanese or French high speed system on new track, using existing right of way only for the final ten kilometres in and out of existing city centre stations, you'd be looking at under two hours, city centre to city centre, and no more than four hours from DC to Boston. That would end up beating the airlines handily; and with separate TGV track with no goods traffic clogging up the network, it'd have the potential to be punctual, as well. The Spanish TGV service refunds the ticket price with no questions asked if your train arrives more than five minutes late; but less than 0.5% of trains do that. Mixing passenger and goods services on the same track is a big chunk of the reason why passenger rail in the USA is a pile of shit that makes even the abomination that is the British rail network look fast and punctual.


High speed rail service in the US would probably be economical from Boston-Washington, and possibly out from NYC to Chicago as well.

But getting the right of way is difficult -- that's some of the more valuable real estate in the country, and there a lot of backlash against emminent domain lately thanks to cities' habits of taking land to sell or give to developers on the theory than increased tax revenue is a public benefit, and low value homes aren't worth anything.

But I suspect as long as air transport is cheap it will be difficult for rail to compete except as commuter rail*. For instance, I recently booked airfare from New Haven to DC that was cheaper and about three times as fast as the Accela service on the same route. Airport security is a pain, that's one thing rail has in its favor.

Mixing of passenger and freight rail is a problem -- but if you did build new high speed railways like you'd need to, it wouldn't be a problem to leave freight and commuter rail on the old systems.

*Commuter rail shows some promise. There's been some political interest in light rail in different cities here, but I think commuter rail is a better bet. I think a lot of metro areas would benefit from new or expanded commuter rail out to the satellite cities or to other regional metro areas.


Andrew G: Commuter rail will work in large, and maybe middle-sized cities in the US (say down to 1 million city population, 3 or 4 for the metro area) but there are a lot of smaller cities where the capital outlay is just too great to be justified by the relatively low numbers of riders. I live in Portland, OR which couldn't possible make commuter rail work; the city has a population less than half a million and the metro area is around 1.3 million. So instead we've invested heavily in light rail (and even that wouldn't be possible without federal support). It's proving to have been a good idea; as the population densities have increased over the last 20 years the road system is turning into gridlock, and there's no effective way to relieve that congestion with more roads, given topography and land prices.


Not that diesel engines will run on vegetable oil, and in some environments (waterways in some European countries come to mind) the much reduced toxicity from spillage is an advantage.

You can remove the glycerine from the vegetable oil and use that for other purposes, and that allows the end biofuel to be used in un-modified engines. Otherwise, you need to look at fuel-tank heating, and the precise design of the fuel metering pump and injectors.

This would be a viable option for such things as switching locomotives and line maintenance operations.

Note also that electric traction allows the use of regenerative braking, so some of the potential energy of a train at the top of a mountain pass can be trandferring to the trains going up.

It also occurrs to me that worrying about competition from airlines may be a tad shortsighted. Depending on the model, a 747 in cruise flight may be using something like 65Mw (though the calculation I've seen seems to gloss over the issue of efficiency).

That's ten times the power for about four times the speed; 2.5:1 per passenger mile, in terms of energy consumption, ignoring efficiency differences.


The places where air travel has the advantage is speed, and in some cases price. The other big advantage of air travel is that it's much easier to scale or reroute than rail. Just add or remove planes from an airport. With rail you're limited by the capacity of the track -- or indeed if there's any tracks at all.

OTOH, what I'd really like to see since we started talking about future techs that never were is airships. Big, nuclear powered airships a kilometer long cruising the world...

And maybe smaller commuter airships too. :)


The other big advantage of air travel is that it's much easier to scale or reroute than rail. Just add or remove planes from an airport.

Well, that's not entirely true. Airports have a limited number of gates, and a limited number of runways. There are times of the day when people want to come and go, and times of the day when there's little demand. It strikes me as a lot easier to add platforms at a rail station, or to add cars to the trains in order to cope with peak capacity demands than to add airplanes to an airport. Runways and gates are really expensive, cost a fortune to build and operate and consume a LOT of land.

You could go with bigger airplanes too, but they cost more to build, more to maintain and (the big problem) a lot more to run half-empty during non-peak periods. Big planes guzzle big fuel. Trains can simply drop off relatively inexpensive cars during periods when they're not required (or haul them along - they don't take that much extra fuel to carry empty).

In the US high speed rail probably makes sense DC to Boston and for the San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Las Vegas corridors (possibly Los Angeles / Palm Springs / Phoenix as well, since it's fairly flat and land out thataway is still pretty cheap). It might make sense to link the big cities in Texas via rail as well. Transcontinental doesn't make a lot of sense, although we've wasted vast sums of money on plenty of other schemes (the Space Shuttle, anyone?) with little to no payoff that have provided far less in the way of public good.


Andy, you do know that there are power lines covering large distances in the US, don't you? And, y'know, the lengths between substations on a railway system are pretty small compared with them...


The funny thing is, the US had a high-speed rail system - for the time - right up until competition from cars and airlines killed it dead. I mean, if you look at pre-car, pre-plane American cities (NYC, Chicago, SF), while they're maybe more spread out than European ones of the same vintage, they're more similar than they are different.

The interlocking factors that make high-speed rail (and to lesser extends, commuter rail, light rail, and subways) unappealing here defy simple untangling, especially in a country so large and varied as the US. My thoughts on What Those Silly Americans Should Do have evolved quite a lot as I've lived here and grown to understand more about the situation.

One of the main factors here is that land is relatively cheap compared to capital improvements. Pre-car, even though land was cheap, you were limited in how far out you could build and still get people to work. Cars hugely expand that range. So, there's still a mindset where Development is king - and concreting over endless thousands of acres with freeways, housing developments, and malls is just fine. This is often criticized as an American character flaw, but I think it's natural (not all that desirable, but natural) when you feel like you have all the land in the world. If you look at other places & times where development reigned supreme - London after the advent of commuter rail lines and the Tube, I think? - the same impulse is there. And why not? We may not all want McMansions, but most people would want more living space than they have. If cars hadn't arrived right around the time that Europe hit a space crunch, and if European population growth hadn't been slowing while American was still going strong, European cities would look just like American ones. And it's my extremely unscientific impression that countries with more space - like France, maybe Germany - tend to have more car-centric suburbs than the UK, which stalled earlier.

And because of the cheap land, American cities are still expanding rapidly, where most European cities have slowed radically or turned inwards for development. I'm always amazed at the sheer number of new houses, new freeways, and new malls that you find when travelling around in America. This also means that there's lots of brand-new, car-centric infrastructure, where in Europe it's all worn-out and overcrowded.

OK, so, cheap land means roads and freeways, and good roads and freeways mean car commuting is by far the fastest and cheapest way of getting to work. I mean, I live near a BART station and my office is near another. If I take BART I can be there in 40 minutes if I time it right, more like an hour if I don't, and it costs me about $9. If I drive it takes me 15 minutes and costs about $5. I drive, duh. With the exceptions of the big cities built before the advent of cars, this is true virtually everywhere in America, even in places where there are existing commuter rail systems. Driving is fun, fast, and cheap, and you don't have to sit on railway cushions that smell like pee.

So: cheap land, cheap cars, cheap gas also means big freeways between the cities. So you've got two ways of getting anywhere: slowly and cheaply by car; or quickly and still fairly cheaply by air. When freeways get too congested, you can expand them, because land is cheap. (Counterexamples abound in dense parts of the Northeast, I'm sure, but this seems to me to apply even here in the SF bay area - I was down on a stretch of 880 the other day newly expanded to 6 lanes in each direction.) And when airports get overcrowded, you can expand them. (Again numerous counterexamples I'm sure, but most cities, especially the newly-expanding ones in the West, have space.)

Another factor from cheap land: lots of small and medium-sized cities spread out all over the place. Thousands of the little buggers, in fact. This contributes to a situation where even though big cities have a lot of people, a huge proportion of the population also live in smaller cities that can't possibly be served by high-speed rail. So, quite reasonably, they wonder why they should pay for it. And cars work great as an ad-hoc, low-capacity, low-cost point-to-point transit system in a low-density network of low-population cities.

So what good is high-speed rail? Well, it's space-efficient, clean, faster than driving, fuel-efficient, and high-capacity. None of which matters at all across enormous areas of the US, because land isn't worth shit, nobody cares about pollution, and there's hardly anybody living there anyway. If you want to go faster than driving, you can fly. And fuel is cheap. So why do you want us to build this monstrously-expensive electric rail system again?

So, us Europeans tend to look at this as a moral failing of Americans, but truth be told, cheap & abundant land isn't the kind of thing you can get rid of by just Being A Better Person. You can't even legislate it away. You're stuck with it. Locally, you can institute restrictions on land development that ignore the underlying cheapness of the land, but the patchwork of jurisdictions in many urban areas makes that harder, and getting something passed to sharply limit development even statewide would be impossible in most places. Federally, forget about it. What happens even locally is that while you shut down development, the next town over decides it just loves developers and builds 10,000 houses and a mega-mall. Then you feel silly, because now they get all the tax revenue.

So, yeah. I think high-speed rail on the Northeast corridor makes sense (hi, Acela!) and probably on the SF-LA-San Diego route. Otherwise, it's not just the intransigence and moral failings of Americans that make it impractical. It's just impractical, and short of, I dunno, salting the land outside the major cities with radioactivity and force-moving the inhabitants to major urban areas, or Mad-Max-style fuel shortages and a crash program of nuclear reactors, it probably never will. Even then, with flying a luxury of the super-rich, electric cars would probably make up the largest proportion of out-of-city miles.


Australia is the same size as the US, and has a far lower population density, and they're actively planning and building new intercity rail routes (Adelaide to Darwin was hooked up a couple of years ago, there's a major Melbourne to Brisbane route via central NSW in the pipeline). I don't think any of those major routes are electrified, but the electric system from Sydney goes at least as far as Newcastle and the Blue Mountains. Electricity in Oz comes from filthy coal stations at present, anyway.

Dave @94: Most (older) diesels will run just fine on straight vege oil, you just need to heat the fuel lines, not the whole tank. I've seen a Peugeot diesel set up to work that way, although it started on normal diesel. For a boat or train you could get the system hot before you hit the go button. I don't know how the modern super-high-pressure diesel systems would feel about such shenanigans, but I'm sure it's possible.


In Australia's case it looks like most of the passenger rail is in a narrow band up the east coast or a line from Sydney to Perth. Australia has no where near as much rail or as many cities to service as the US, and most of the land is relatively easy to get I'd imagine.

Australia's in a position where it can upgrade it's infrastructure in any way it like, and it's choosing rail -- that's a fine choice. In the case of the US we already have the second largest rail network in the world. We also have probably the best road system in world, and cheap intracontinental air travel. The question in the US is, why would we spend tens of billions if not hundreds to replace two first rate systems of transportation with one that has little public support.


why would we spend tens of billions if not hundreds to replace two first rate systems of transportation with one that has little public support.

The two first rate ones are a little petroleum-intensive, perhaps?


Steam engines have improved since the days of Brunel, Churchward, Stanier, and Chapelon. Efficiency is still on the low end of the range, but they're good for biomass fuels.

South Africa built some pretty big condensor locomotives for the lines they have across desert.

Classic-style reciprocating steam engines are hard on the track, but steam rturbine locomotives have been tried.

Sometimes, old technology can be a lot better than we think, when we let it catch up. One reason for the improvement of aero engines between WW1 and WW2 was a better ability to make the cooling fins: better materials and tools.

Ball bearing where changine things in the Fifties. What else have we now?


Dave Bell #102: ISTR that there was an Argentinean engineer who was working on high-speed steam engines and on improving their efficiency. A quick google gives me his obit: Livio Dante Porta -,11439,1011043,00.html

Why are recips hard on the track - do they impose a cyclic load?


Yes, there's a cyclic load on the track. The civil engineers of a century ago would reckon a 30-ton margin over the static weight of the locomotive.

It's partly a consequence of the un-sprung mass, partly an issue of dynamic balancing. The two sets of connecting rods, one each side, have to be 190-degrees out of phase to be balanced, but that means that they can lock at the same time, both sets of cranks at dead-centre with the thrust lines though the axis of the axle.

There's some interesting stuff here


Adrian @ 101:

We're working on replacing the oil we import with biofuels. Or if we need to coal-to-oil conversion. There's still some breakthroughs that need to be made, but they seem inevitable.

Besides, if we did switch to electric trains we'd have some problems. First we'd need about 200,000 km of power lines to be laid. Then we'd need a thousands of electric engines to replace those we have now. And that's just for existing rail.

Then, in the US there's the problem of power plants themselves. About 50% of our power comes from coal, and 17% from natural gas. We'd probably need to ramp up our power production, which means either new plants that pollute, or else a bunch of nuclear plants which still face significant political opposition. I suspect it would be 10 years before the power generation came on line. And it would probably take at least that long to convert our rail system.

In the mean time, it's likely biofuel will be more widely available rendering the whole exercise pointless.


Andrew G: no, you don't need to lay 200,000km of power lines. You electrify the high speed high density commuter lines first; there's probably under 10,000km that accounts for 80% of the passenger movements at speeds over 160km/h, and that's what you target -- the sectors where even a small efficiency improvement will pay off big-time.

Remember that you're running your power lines and siting your sub-stations along existing rights of way. Virtually no extra land is needed.

Remember also that non-electric locomotives can run perfectly happily on electrified lines, and electric locos can be moved around via non-electrified lines as long as you hook them up to a power car.

This is pretty much what happened in the UK. There are large chunks of the network which aren't electrified, and heavy freight is still moved by diesel-electric, but the high speed inter-city passenger services and the commuter rail services are mostly electrified.

You've got a buttload of diesel-electric rolling stock. An electric locomotive is basically a diesel-electric without the diesel, with an added overhead pantograph and a somewhat different transformer. They're not magically different alien technology; it's just a variation on a theme.

As for ramping up power production, that's a huge red herring. Switching to electric traction simply means changing where the power is generated -- retiring a bunch of oil-fired generators (on wheels) and replacing them with stationary, more efficient generators. You're already generating the power to move those trains -- you're just using inefficient small mobile power stations instead of big stationary ones and a transmission grid. And you don't need to do it all at once.

In general, electrification of railroads seems to be a project that most countries take a couple of decades over -- or even longer.


We're working on replacing the oil we import with biofuels.

Any replacements for natgas to make the fertiliser to grow the biofuels on the horizon? A lot of them seem to take nearly as much energy to produce as you get from burning them. Hemp would probably be a good choice if people hadn't decided to be permanently silly about it.

Or if we need to coal-to-oil conversion. There's still some breakthroughs that need to be made, but they seem inevitable.

People can be very complacent about how cheap'n'easy it would be to throw together the plants and accessory infrastructure you'd need, particularly since the companies that would be expected to build them seem to be waiting for a liquids price that would have the rest of the economy on its knees. Maybe they're waiting for some petrochemical corollary of Moore's law to provide pocket ones.


In general, electrification of railroads seems to be a project that most countries take a couple of decades over -- or even longer.

I think Andrew's more fundamental point was the lack of consumer demand for rail in the US, on top of and resulting from the hugely spread out development that would make it only practical for the larger urban centres. Once people start using cars, going back to trains for most of them may seem like a step backwards in personal freedom unless they have to face London or Tokyo-style traffic.


Charlie, if you're just talking about the main passenger areas that we have now, the biggest one - the Northeast Corridor - is already electrified. I'm not sure about other commuter systems. I know in Connecticut half of the trains are electric even though the tracks are electrified, and up around Boston they're diesel even though some lines are on the Northeast Corridor.

The problem may be that apart from Amtrak, all commuter lines are run on a local level. NYC's commuter systems are all pretty modern and electric, but those run in other places are diesel. The Shoreline East system here in Connecticut runs diesel because their engines are all from the 60s and 70s.

It's all local politics, no one's interested in seeing their taxes raised for mass transit. And with the cheap cost of cars and gas, it's hard to run them at a profit except in a few places like the New York metro area.

And to give an example of just how fragmented things are, in New York City there are 7 different rail systems running plus Amtrak, run by 5 different authorities in 3 states.

Basically, Americans just don't care enough about rail, and it's not economical enough to survive as an independent business on its own.


Trains (and airplanes too)

Economic system and Human society determine which vehicle is better adapted in a given environment, and it so foolish to say that trains or airplanes or cars are 'better' as saying that tigers are 'better' than sharks. What makes perfect sense in one place is folly in another.

This applies not only to trains vs airplanes/cars. It also applies to the 'best' airplane, for example. Take the new Airbus 380:

Boeing, applying American experience, considers it too big and lacking in flexibility; having two 300 passengers planes obviously provides the carrier (and its clients) with more options than one big 600 passengers monster. Even in lines where the demand is high enough to justify using one A380, two smaller planes allow the carrier to operate two daily flights - more flexible, more convenient.

Airbus, applying European experience, considers that for starters the approachs to many airports are already overloaded, making bigger airplanes the best, if not the only, way to transport more passengers. Using more planes is definitely not an option. Besides, bigger planes are inherently more economic to operate and maintain. One A380 has four engines, two Jumbos have eight...

Which plane is better? For Western Europe, Japan, and other very densely populated areas where expanding airports and building new ones is exceedingly difficult (in some cases it's already next to impossible) the 380 is IMHO the obvious answer. Its benefits, however, become increasingly less convincing as air traffic density decreases. In America only a handful of routes would justify such a plane.

This same principle would probably apply to another old SF cliché, the modern dirigible, which would offer some undeniable advantages in terms of noise, landing space and direct access to city centers (and you can't crash them into anything) but would above all make available new, lower altitude air corridors, making its use far more attractive in overpopulated zones. Its speed would probably limit them to short range trips, tough.


I'm deeply impressed by the recent advances in the field (I never dreamed I would see a robot running!) but, as already mentioned, we still face two big problems to start using them in great numbers: software and autonomy.

In other words, robots are still not as useful as they could and should be because they need to be too closely monitored and their batteries need too frequent replacement. Those batteries could be designed to allow them to be easily replaced by the robot itself, but if they are to work 24/7, their main economic advantage, their sensors and software need improvement

Has anyone tried to develop sound sensors for robots, for example? Some kind of ultrasonic sonar could be very useful, their data easier to interpret, and allow the robots to work in the dark.


Biofuels: Farmers have depended on biofuels within living memory. My father has ploughed with horses. It took about half the farm to feed the horses.

I'd expect some increase in efficiency from using tractors which don't need to be fed year-round, but the percentage of usable fuel is likely to be lower.

The Air/Rail/Road choice: Air and Road transport depend on high energy-density liquid fuels. Road transport has alternatives, because of the different constraints on vehicle mass, and the significant short-range market. You can use trolleybuses--electric light-rail without rails==but rail-type systems are the only practical way of using non-portable energy sources for long-distance travel.

(There are various ways of getting temporary energy storage--big flywheels, accumulator batteries, "fireless" steam--and all could be useful for inner-urban mass transit systems.)

The devotion to air travel seems to depend on a misplaced certainty of fuel supplies. Air travel does have advantages, and staying within the air-centric system has other benefits. I'm sure Charlie can explain the extra hassle in shifting from an airliner at Heathrow to high-speed rail between London and Edinburgh.

And perhaps the American fixation on cheap oil is going to make them the Evil Empire of the 21st Century.


Dave "perhaps the American fixation on cheap oil is going to make them the Evil Empire of the 21st Century."

I think you can drop the "perhaps" and the "is going to"; it's already happened.


contamination of the external biosphere with pollen; it's about eating the bloody things

But if pollen didn't spread, we could just demand proper labelling and choose not to buy the stuff if we didn't want to eat it. Not wanting it grown anywhere near anything we eat is about contamination.

Let me submit that, where electrification is impractical, funds for a nuclear locomotive are likely to be unavailable

A suitably corrupt government might be prepared to commit ATOMIC POWERED LOCOMOTIVES!!! COOL!!! for, say, a line between the political capital and the main population centre, considering a reactor easier to keep under guard on the presidential train than miles of wire would be, and claiming that it would be a matter of national prestige. Well, I'd believe it in a novel anyway.


Dave @ 111: The key to long term economical use of biofuels is to find ways to convert cellulose and other organic materials into fuel easily and cheaply. If this can be done then what's now mostly agricultural waste or weed species will be valuable crops. Marginal land could be used, or crops that don't need the same level of care and inputs as food crops.

And if that's not possible, or even as a way to improve fuel yeilds, it might be possible to genetically engineer crops that produce fuel or materials that need little processing. Might make brushfires a bit of a worry though... :)


Charlie @ 112: The US is a hegemony, not an empire. That's the usual pattern for the Americas. Unless you mean Imperium in the Roman sense.


Yes, but is it evil?

Those stormtrooper helmets are a bit of a giveaway, and Darth Cheney would look perfect in black body armour with a cloak, but I don't think he's quite up to choking admirals to death with his bare hands or flying an F-22 against his enemies ...


10 signs that you may be turning into an Evil Empire:

  • Everybody hates you.

  • The price of butter is sky-high, but there are guns everywhere.

  • You can't go out the front door without the skies being dark with helicopter gunships and an escort of men in black whispering up their sleeves.

  • People publish annoying cartoon caricatures of you in foreign newspapers. Anonymously.

  • You're maintaining military bases in 70% of all the independent nations on the planet, some of which out-number the host nation's own armed forces.

  • Vladimir Putin tells you you're one of his role models. (The other is Yuri Andropov.)

  • Osama bin Laden stops sending you birthday cards.

  • Orson Scott Card thinks you're a swell president.

  • LANL are doing a special on orbital mind control laser battle stations this month; you tell them you'll take two.

  • Your receptionist pops in to say there's a Mr. Mephistopheles waiting in the office to talk to you about your loan repayments ...

  • 118:

    The only realistic society that would have built nuclear trains would have been the Krushchev and Brezhnev-era Soviet Union. Lots of railways, lots of space, lots of advanced but stupid expensive and dangerous tech.


    Alex @118: and a fundamental disjunction between cost and value.


    Charlie @ 117: LOL, I love #3.... :)


    Elsenet, one of those American arguments about Mexican immigrants has started up. Boeing are getting loads-a-money for a high-tech border system that doesn't work, and of course people have to explain, in great detail, why they need a secure border with Mexico.

    Now, it's arguable that a part of the definition of an Evil Empire is control of internal movements. You don't need a passport to travel within the USA (though the air travel system is really insistent about ID documents), but the USA is part of NAFTA. Which means that the USA, Canada, and Mexico have open berders for goods but not people. In some sense, NAFTA is an internal passport state, controlling the movement of labour so as to manipulate employment markets for the benefits of a class of people with access to authority.

    Arguably, Bush the Younger's career in school, college, business, and politics, is an example of a nomenklatura.


    Oh, I've got to start organizing my WorldCon trip now, instead of leaving it for the week before like I usually do whenever I go somewhere....


    The US is a hegemony, not an empire. That's the usual pattern for the Americas.

    What other examples are we talking about here? The Aztecs?


    Adrian: All of the Mesoamerican civilizations, really. The Aztec were merely the latest in a pattern that stretched back centuries. The Inka had a similiar pattern as well, if a bit more sophisticated. The Algonquin peoples as well, they tended to have a situation where one tribe or confederation would be ascendant over the others, rather than directly rulling large territories. It's likey a result of a lack of rapid land transport before horses were introduced.

    In the post-colonial Americas, the US gradually filled the role of Hegemon.


    Andrew G @ 114: The key to long term economical use of biofuels is to find ways to convert cellulose and other organic materials into fuel easily and cheaply.

    Large-scale biofuels won't work, because there just isn't enough biomass.

    Some numbers: The human race currently consumes about 15 terawatts of power. The entire planetary biosphere (including the rain forests, oceans, etc.) captures on the order of 100 terawatts from the sun.

    So if you could get a chlorophyll-to-gas-tank efficiency of 15%--which would be staggeringly good--you'd still have to use every piece of organic matter on the planet to meet our energy needs.

    Some of the researchers promoting algae-based biofuels understand these numbers. They're essentially proposing we build our own massive biosphere in the desert.

    But all in all, high-density carbon-based fuels are going to be a nightmare in the next hundred years. The only cheap replacement for oil is "liquid coal," better known as the "cook the planet" plan. Even the worst-case global warming scenarios assume that we wouldn't be so dumb as to run our cars off coal.

    If we don't want catastrophic global warming, we're looking at over $10/gallon for gas. European countries are economically optimized for those fuel prices. The US isn't.


    Eric @ 125:

    I'm not suggesting we replace all of our power generation with biofuels. Just transportation and small generators that currently run on petroleum. Even better would be to develop power storage that make all electric vehichles cheap, durable, and long-rage. But that's likely several decades off. Biofuels are a good stopgap measure.

    In the US at least, petroluem counts for very little of our power plants. Coal is about 50% and we've got centuries of that on hand. Natural gas could be a problem, but doubling our nuclear plants would solve it. Cars are our problem....

    I also see great strides in efficiency in the next couple decades. Already we're doing a lot with lighting, with CFLs and LEDs. Per capita the US is pretty maxed out at energy use I think, so we're likey to decrease in the future as things become more efficient.

    And hate to say it, but the US backup plan if biofuels don't work does seem to be coal-to-oil... It's been said that the US is the Saudi Arabia of coal.


    The trouble with coal-to-oil is that it's still carbon-positive, not carbon-neutral.

    We've got a perfectly good energy storage medium for transport, in the form of oil; the problem is where we're getting the oil from. Biofuels probably aren't the answer, but I'd like to see a lot more work on direct synthesis of oil from electricity plus carbon dioxide and water. It's expensive and lossy but it can be done, and we've got the infrastructure to use it right now. As for where the fuel's going to come from, I note that pebble bed modular reactors can apparently crack water direct to hydrogen and oxygen: there's the start of the fuel cycle, right there. Hydrogen's a lousy energy storage medium -- it leaks, it's insufficiently dense, and our existing gas pipes would need replacing -- but if you bolt it onto a carbon backbone you've got something we can process without needing to change anything else in our fuel cycle.

    As for what to fuel the PBMRs on, there's an obvious answer that is only off the menu today for political reasons: plutonium. Our U235 reserves may be limited, but 99.8% of the Uranium out there is suitable for conversion into Plutonium. The drawbacks of Plutonium are obvious, but over-stated: yes, bad guys could get hold of it and make a bomb, but the kind of bad guys who could reprocess stolen ceramic fuel elements from a PBMR and making a working implosion-core nuke are not going to be non-state actors: PBMR fuel elements are sufficiently far from a weaponized state that you really need a full-blown nuclear weapons program to do anything with them.

    If we were to go this route, we'd have enough fuel for several millennia at today's levels of demand. We'd also get to keep our existing oil-based infrastructure, while rendering it carbon neutral (by switching from fossil oil to synthetic fuel as a way of getting energy from those reactors into those fuel tanks). We'd face a marginally higher risk of nuclear proliferation among state actors -- but we're already in a world where there are around ten declared nuclear powers, and another dozen who could do it in under 12 months from a standing start if they wanted nukes. On the flip side, it'd decrease the political significance of the middle east enormously, which would presumably reduce the terrorism threat to the west. It'd put a stake through the heart of the anthropogenic CO2 increase without requiring us to ditch our automobiles. And given that one of the drawbacks of nuclear power is that it's expensive, one suspects that the massive commoditization of PBMR technology that this proposal requires would drive order-of-magnitude cuts in the price of reactors and fuel. (Because I'm not talking about building hundreds of reactors here -- I'm talking about thousands of the buggers, building them on production lines like Boeing 737s.)


    Possibly apocryphal proliferation anecdote:

    When the NK nuclear program began making headlines back in the nineties, a Japanese journalist asked a Japanese Government nuke specialist if it was true that Japan could deploy a working nuclear weapon in six months from a Go order. The official replied "It could take that long, yes."


    I'd give Japan six months, from a Go order ... to "the multi-warheaded ICBMs are in the in silos", not "we've got a working nuclear weapon."

    Those folks can send a sample return mission to an asteroid, never mind building a jumped-up Scud-B clone. They're sitting on a stockpile of more than fifty tons of plutonium, never mind trying to enrich U235. And their economy is considerably bigger than that of the UK or France, both of whom have strategic nuclear missile subs.

    Now, for the "six months to a working nuclear weapon" challenge, I'm torn between Italy, Germany, Canada, Spain, The Netherlands, Brazil, The Ukraine, Australia, and Mexico.

    (We tend to forget that the Manhattan Project was more than sixty years ago. This stuff isn't exotic any more ...)


    Charlie, I agree with you. Gasoline and related fuels are basically just liquid batteries. We'd be hard pressed to come up with something that has the energy density, ease of transport and storage, and safety of petroleum based fuels. Whatever technological fix we come up with for manufacturing it in a carbon neutral way, I have a hard time believing that it will be replaced any time soon.


    Charlie @ 129:

    The limiting factor for those countries is probably finding fissible material. Brazil, has 2 reactors, Mexico only has 1 reactor, and Italy has none. Germany and Ukraine I think definitely could, both have a number of plants and experience with nuclear materials. Ukraine has some experience with nuclear weapons from their Soviet days. I'm not sure about the others, I think they probably could as well.


    Andrew G.,

    That dosn't mean we shouldn't be investing heavily in fuel cells which leech hydrogen from petrol. Same infrastructure, 60-70% better car efficiency. Some bugs still, but perfectly viable technology and a better idea in the short term than fueling cars with an explosive gas directly.


    I'd give Japan six months, from a Go order ... to "the multi-warheaded ICBMs are in the in silos", not "we've got a working nuclear weapon."

    Getting that go order would be difficult - it would need a direct nuclear threat more plausible than anything the Norks could provide IMO. There are big psychological barriers to going nuclear here. Also, the nuclear industry itself seems not to be the usual model of Japanese efficiency, if the stories I read be true.


    Consider that Japanese nuke story as a deniable warning. And not just to North Korea or China. They're saying, "Don't do anything that would make us think we need nukes."

    And don't expect the current nuclear industry to be running things. It wouldn't be hard to find something in Japan like the 1960s version of Vickers--Mitsubishi, perhaps--and Barrow-in-Furness is close enough to Sellafield for a management replacement.


    Carbon neutral is unambitious. We should be dreaming of, if not actually looking at, carbon negative technologies.
    Rain of diamonds, anyone?


    The eye isn't quite that good, actually. CCDs - the sensor in my digital SLR for instance - can handle 5 stops (a stop being a doubling in light) difference in light in one exposure and the real world contains about 8 stops difference from barely sufficient to read by to skiing in sunshine - and then a range I'm not working out from not reading to not seeing anything - but ...

    If you go from sunshine to dusk you are allowed to vary the aperture as well, and any mechanical system can do that, and the retina has two distinct sets of sensors - the bulk of which are flared out all day, and the sharpest of which are useless most of most nights.

    So if we allow the mechanical system two sets of eyes, operating on the brighter elements and the dimmer elements of the same scene, and irises, and let its visual cortex combine the images its performance gets a lot closer.

    We could also allow it to change lenses from time to time, or have a zoom lens on one of those eyes, but an advantage of the humanoid form is that it can just use binoculars - perhaps two pairs at once.


    Stanford recently did a survey of global wind resources, and the top three classifications make up some 72 TW of power, or 14.4TW @ 20% conversion to electricity. So I'm dubious that we need nuclear that much. But out of the 15 TW of total primary heat, the fraction that is accounted for by transport is very subject to adjustment.

    Even producing electricity from oil and using it in lithium-ion battery vehicles would be a big saving - internal combustion engines, and their drivetrains, are horribly inefficient.

    There's some really interesting stuff going on around fancy biomass - such as the SOLZINC project, which uses generic carbon (for example, from waste or switchgrass or such) to reduce zinc oxide in a solar furnace. The Zn resulting can be used in a zinc-air fuelcell to produce electricity directly, or in a stationary fuelcell to regenerate mobile ones via the grid, or (here's where it gets funky) with steam to get H2. The exhaust from the furnace is CO, and the Sabatier reaction with CO+H2 gives you methanol.

    Of course, presumably you use solar heat to pyrolyse the stuff to begin with, and the gas fraction of that will burn in a turbine generator. ETH Zurich has a test plant, I think.

    Who here knows about the CANDU reactor? Isn't that one that likes natural uranium?


    Andrew G @ 126: It's true that we only need carbon fuels for transportation. But in most western countries, transportation is a big chunk of the energy budget. So you'd only need to consume, say, a third of the entire planetary biomass to synthesize enough biofuels. Since two-thirds of the planetary biomass in the oceans anyway, we're still in trouble.

    Charles @ 127: I've heard some scary stories about the nuke business lately. At this point, the only hard part of building a low-yield fission weapon is acquiring the fissile material. I'm told that everything else falls within the capability of a big research laboratory. So I really, really understand the paranoia about plutonium--it's a vastly simpler path to weapons-grade material than separating U-235.

    As for the other technologies:

    • Pebble-bed reactors are apparently not as safe as conventional wisdom would have it. From what I've read, the biggest problem is keeping the pebbles properly sealed--a defective or broken pebble is apparently a pretty major problem. But this is not an area I know much about.

    • Hydrogen has great power-per-unit-weight, but miserable power-per-unit-volume, unless you compress it to 200 or 300 atmospheres. It's also highly explosive. There's just no sensible reason to mess around with the stuff, unless you're going to bind it to carbon as Charles suggests.

    • Solar, on the other hand, has good long-term promise. As mentioned before, the human race uses about 15 TW of power, and the biosphere captures over 100 TW from the sun. But at ground-level, the sun provides roughly 125,000 TW to the planet. Too bad we don't have the necessary tech to exploit more than a sliver of that.


    We do: wind.


    The important thing to remember about alternative fuels and the US (at least with the current Administration) is that environmental concerns are a low priority.

    The US doesn't care about carbon-neutral fuels and processes. We don't care if what we're developing is globally sustainable. What the US cares about, medium term, is reducing or removing our dependence on foreign oil. This is a strategic geopolitical move, not an environmental one.

    To that end, it doesn't matter if we have biofuels or coal-to-oil or something else, as long as we can do it in the next 15 years at a reasonable cost and the US is self-sufficient. It may be a combination of ethanol, coal-derived oil, and domestic oil production that we adopt. Or it may just be one of those. We'll have to wait and see.

    If it works, then we have a lot more leverage against oil-producing third world nations if we even pay any attention to them at all.


    @136 The eye isn't quite that good, actually.

    The eye gets to work as well as it does because it is attached to a real-time control system that manipulates it to get the best possible view of whatever the owner is concerned with right now, while maintaining a watching brief on whatever else is going on without caring much about quality there.

    Conversely, a camera needs to deal with the entire image in its field of view, with no way of telling what is important and what isn't, and with the very real possibility that at different times in the future different parts will matter. "Now this is my grandmother on this side of the picture, and my wife's mother over here, and my parents standing behind us." All in a picture taken over twenty years ago.

    I suspect that robots will use camera-like, rather than human-like attention directed, eyes because we know how to make them. Naturally, the software is likely to be attention driven.



    The important thing to remember about alternative fuels and the US (at least with the current Administration) is that environmental concerns are a low priority.

    Quite a few people have noticed that, yes.

    The US doesn't care about carbon-neutral fuels and processes. We don't care if what we're developing is globally sustainable.

    I take it you'll stop asking "Why do they hate us?" at some point in that case.

    What the US cares about, medium term, is reducing or removing our dependence on foreign oil. This is a strategic geopolitical move, not an environmental one.

    I don't see how the administration's actions square with this, though they certainly talk about it. Where's the massively increased spending on research? Biofuels are a boondoggle IMO. I realise some people like to savour the idea of the Saudis gnashing their teeth in poverty, unable to even give their oil away - but if the US hadn't undertaken (for strategic geopolitical reasons) to insulate the al Saud family from the exigencies of democracy after WW2 we might not be in this situation now.

    Course, if anyone mentions "reaping what you sow" in this context some assclown like Giuliani accuses them of blaming the victims of 9/11. Hope you've got a better calibre of people doing the zero-point-energy research than you've recently been in the habit of electing to high office, is all I can say.


    C.S. @ #116:

    Being an Irish-American, it is interesting to hear what other's think. That's one good thing about traveling--you get to talk to outsiders, because you get some perspective. But --evil--? There is so much good done by so many in this country, that it seems a shame to judge our entire lot based on its current crazy government. The Empire is organic in nature and I think its group mind felt so terribly threatened on 911 that it went a little nuts. As a result our group-reptian-brain kicked in and found the perfect semi-sentient primate to be our president. But the human part is going to back in control soon. Pray for us (ha ha ha).



    Jeff: I hope you're right. This century promises to be pretty damn unpleasant if we don't get our collective shit together.


    @143 In truth, there's nothing particularly new about this-- look at the US occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American war, which went from "We're here to help you set up a government" to "Kill everyone over the age of ten." Iraq's comparatively nice. Then not two decades later, you've got Woodrow Wilson trying to get everyone in the world to play nice. Then two more decades later, we've nuked two cities and are threatening to blow up the planet rather than lose an economic clash.

    Anybody think the reason the US scares people is that we're just insanely erratic, flipping between "We love you all" and "Die, foreign scum, die" on a generational basis?


    C.S. @ 143: Don't worry too much. Besides, I tend to think your optomistic side is based on a viable reality (some reality out there), and if you focus on that, then you'll be helping with the "collective's" optomistic future expectations. Besides, upbeat futures have to be better for you to write about, in that writing about a dytopia must require a dreary psychological mindset. And who wants to live with that for the six months to a year that it takes to crank a book out? Not me. Upbeat sells better.



    C @145: I tend to think part of the problem is that only 15% of the US population own passports -- and half of them only use them for visiting Mexico or Canada.

    To the vast majority of Americans, the rest of the world is another planet. The ones who make it off their own continent even once on a package holiday are almost invariably a lot more moderate in their calls to invade this or bomb that, because they've internalized the fact that the rest of the world is a real place with real people in it. (But I can't tell whether this is a self-selection bias -- i.e. whether those people who travel are predisposed to believe the rest of the world exists, or whether they believe in other places because they travel.)

    I should like to note (without comment) that as a matter of public record, prior to his election as president of the USA, George W. Bush's total travels outside the USA consisted of a few weeks in Mexico.

    Feel free to infer my deduction from this.


    RE The Evil Empire:

    "All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities[George Bush you say?]. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted."

    Missionara Protectiva, Text QIV (decto) Chapterhouse: Dune [Frank Herbert]


    Jeff @148: You realize that's an argument for hereditary monarchy?


    @147 Perhaps, but before coming to that conclusion, I'd say put it in context-- what percentage of people routinely travel outside their home continent?


    Charlie@147: I'm skeptical of the premise. I have no a priori reason to believe that contact with foreign lands increases either sympathy or empathy for them. In fact, I've seen the reverse. Haven't you?

    I'm not arguing that a lack of foreign travel is a good thing, of course.

    C@145: That's not exactly what happened in the Philippines, y'know. There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the Philippines; few of them are easy or obvious.

    Then again, I'm not sure that you should be taken seriously. After all, as much as there are a lot of tough questions about the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, I find it difficult to reconcile the phrase "Rather than lose an economic clash" with serious thinking about the morality of war or American foreign policy.

    Charlie@116: The new Army MICH and ACH helmets have lost the stormtrooper look. They just look silly. (I had to wear one of the fuckers.) I dunno if that means we're moving back towards the non-evil edge of the empire scale, or just have bad design sense.

    The Marines seem to have gone for keeping the evil look.


    @151 A full synopsis of the US occupation of the Philippines would be a bit long to post. A line or two summary is going to be necessarily inaccurate, but conveys the essential idea. As for serious thinking on the subject of the Cold War, what would you call the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction? "If we lose, everyone loses" seems to be a good interpretation, and I would wager an accurate one.


    Noel @151: travel to other continents may or may not induce sympathy, but it sure as hell disabuses one of the view that one's own corner of the planet is the only one. Which is, I hope you'll agree, a necessary precondition for any kind of sane foreign policy.


    C.S.@149: I suppose that the Herbert quote could be used that way, but that wasn�t my intention. My intention was to suggest that all human government may suffer from obvious forms of Top Dog psychology. As for monarchies, hereditary or not:

    �Monarchies have some good features beyond their star qualities. They can reduce the size and parasitic nature of the management bureaucracy. They can make speedy decisions when necessary� (Frank Herbert.)



    "Monarchies have some good features beyond their star qualities. They can reduce the size and parasitic nature of the management bureaucracy"

    Not a historian of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then.


    Monarchies also suffer from a single point of failure, viz. the person of the monarch. (See also: George III, July 4th 1776, "nothing of any significance happened today".)

    Random speculation: if we posit a future in which widespread germ-line genetic manipulation of human beings is possible, and a stable long-term future for the human species (with no singularity, no FTL travel, no AIs) ... what then are the prospects for a monarchy?

    I'd also like to note in passing that the US presidency is effectively equivalent in power to a British 18th century monarchy -- the only restriction being the term limit. (And remember, quite a few monarchs came to the throne late in life and checked out after only a couple of years -- this tended to be a common pattern after a long reign, as a late middle aged or elderly crown prince succumbed to the pressure after a couple of years.)


    155: Or, for that matter, the Ottoman, Russian, French, Japanese, or Spanish monarchies, all of which were bureaucracies of desperately stifling proportions and pretty damn parasitic too. I think you'll find the Chinese one wasn't so much anti-bureaucratic, as it existed as an excuse to have bureaucracy. And there's the one we commonly use as a synonym for bureaucracy - Byzantium.

    I can't think of a major monarchy that "reduced the size and parasitic nature of the management bureaucracy" at all, unless it was by transforming itself into a constitutional state - i.e. giving up on monarchy as a form of government, like the British, Dutch, or Swedish ones.

    In fact, it's a quite astonishingly stupid and historically ignorant remark. Who said it? Ah, a right-wing yank sci-fi author. Now there's a surprise.

    However, if you're after a long-lasting institution, why would you want to reduce bureaucracy? Perhaps the idea of a monarch might be useful to create a self-perpetuating courtier state. After all, the Church is essentially Rome with the republican ideal and the emperor scribbled out and "God" written in.


    I think what Frank Herbert was describing could more accurately be called a Tyranny rather than Monarchy. Tyrants can often cut through existing power structures and bureaucracy and rule directly by the force of their will. But tyranny is a short lived condition for any state, it either falls apart or evolves into a more traditional monarchy. It's rare to have power concentrated for long.


    Charlia @156, the problem with the US Presidency is that, white it is essentially a reworking of 18th Cnetury monarchy, it's being run by a 17th Century monarch.

    And neither Bush nor Cheney are Richelieu.


    I think Herbert's general point might have been that, say with a king like Henry VIII, his ability to get things done is unmistakable. I'm sure all these ruling systems have their good and bad points. But,cultures seem to last quite a while under kings and queens, more so than Presidents.



    Regarding US & international travel - Americans might not travel much outside the US (though they do within it), but I've noticed there's always a great deal of interest when someone else has returned from a trip abroad. People want to hear all about it, what the country was like, etc.

    The US is a big place. On a mile for mile basis I'd guess that Americans travel more than Europeans. What we don't get is the exposure to other cultures, which is unfortunate, but we can get a wide variety of vacations and experiences without having to go through the trouble of dealing with other languages or money or customs or anything like that. While the British might go to Spain for holiday, Americans can enjoy the sun and beaches in Florida or California. Road trips are still pretty popular too, loading the whole family in the car and driving a couple hundred or thousand miles to a new state.

    And one final thing that might be a factor -- I remember seeing that Americans have a lot less vacation time than Europeans. We might just be less able to travel because of time constraints.


    C.S.@156, Regarding Monarchs of the future, human gene-tweaking: Wil McCarthy has written a few good books in his Qeendom Universe. The immortal Queen of the future does not sound like a great job, not really. Although the Borg seem to like their Queen(s). I think any ruler that really takes that job seriously must have a lot of really tough days



    OK, here's a crazy idea for producing hydrogen (or methane) to run cars and such - build thousands of massive wind turbines down around Antarctica. The wind blows constantly in the oceans around Antarctica - there's no landmass to slow it down. Use the turbines to generate electricity, and use the electricity to crack water into hydrogen and oxygen. Pull carbon out of the air as well, and convert the hydrogen into methane. Chill that and fill up tankers full of natural gas for transport back to the mainland. You could send the oxygen off as well, for use in industrial processes and such.

    Seems to me like there's almost limitless wind energy to be generated in the vicinity of Antarctica.


    Jeff: "I think Herbert's general point might have been that, say with a king like Henry VIII, his ability to get things done is unmistakable. I'm sure all these ruling systems have their good and bad points."

    And under a dictator, things frequently get done, or sometimes not.

    Under a (US president), things have frequently gotten done - we've had many changes. Sometimes, we don't have so many changes. Perhaps the circumstances are important.

    "But,cultures seem to last quite a while under kings and queens, more so than Presidents."

    Well, historically yes - the time comparison is biased (fewer presidents as one goes back in time.

    But as a causal thing, I think that it goes with the myth of the bureaucracy-slashing king.


    C.S @156. Monarchy might be a populist government compared to what could be possible. Even the most tyrannical of kings still needed subjects. The instant you can train an AI to do reseach as well as a human being, and also efficiently make robots to perform labor, other human beings stop being essential to your own wellbeing and start being competitors for basic resources. Why bother to trade for basic intellectual and labor resources, or even enslave those who can provide them when you can just reduce their numbers and set up rack after rack of AIs and artificial laborers to provide for your every whim and goal? The future might hold a handful of human or posthuman "kings" fighting it out with their competitors.


    Dan, great. But, by the time you've solved the engineering problems of making turbines which can stand up to the weather conditions, worked out how not to catastrophically disrupt the ecosystem, how to transmit the power ..right..


    Andrew C: I find Dan's idea conceptually a lot easier to swallow than O'Neil colonies in L5 building solar power plants and beaming electricity back to earth via maser. (In my universe, we have a technical term for a five gigawatt maser: we call it a "death ray".)

    Offshore wind turbines in the antarctic are easier to get to than lunar orbit, the infrastructure to build the suckers exists today and is commoditized (hello, Kvaerner et al, goodbye Lockheed), the tankers to get the produce to market already exist, and so on. The really hard parts are electrical synthesis of fuel from water plus CO2 on a large scale, and making it all work cheaply enough. Hell, if chemical synthesis doesn't work, just harness the electricity to provide light and power to run huge floating algae farms which you can then harvest, try out, and ship somewhere to burn in power station. It might be horribly expensive, but at least we can see how to get there from here -- and it's scalable, too: you could start building a small-scale test bed tomorrow, given a couple of million bucks.



    Oh, I'm not arguing for power sats.

    But ...we've had the technology to set up vast wave-power farms for several decades now. They're easier to site, they can be far, far closer to a country (avoiding a lot of the power transmission issues), and they don't have many of the problems big turbines have. We haven't.

    I'm still convinced the medium-term answer is nuclear.


    But ...we've had the technology to set up vast wave-power farms for several decades now.

    Have we?

    The problem with wave power is that waves pack an enormous amount of energy, and things that get in their way tend to break. (Things like ships, and cliffs, and islands. Little things.)

    Wind power looks like it's somewhat less destructive to me.

    (And I'm convinced that the medium term answer is some combination of "all of the above". Monocultures are vulnerable to single points of failure ...)


    I'm thinking someplace like the Kerguelen Islands would be the perfect place to setup a giant windfarm. You might not even need to convert the hydrogen into methane - just upgrade your natural gas tankers to carry liquid hydrogen. Costly, but it saves having to generate CO2. Either that or buy "sequestered" CO2 from coal fired plants and ship it down, convert your hydrogen into methane and ship that back to the mainland.

    How many turbines could you slap up on 7,215 square kilometers? How much power would they generate given the average wind speed on the islands, which I think is in excess of 40mph?

    The French own the Kerguelen Islands. Wouldn't it be ironic if, between their nuclear reactors and their windfarms, France became the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century?

    Fear of a French Planet would make a great title for a novel . . .


    Biofuels are perfectly practical for the US, as a replacement for petroleum as a road-transport fuel.

    Corn based biofuels aren't, of course, but given best available or clearly-going-to-be-soon technology, it would take about 8% of the arable area to produce enough cellulose to convert to ethanol to replace about 85% of current consumption. Much of it marginal land currently not used under set-aside programs.

    Add in that current or soon-to-be available technolgy can drastically increase mileage; up to around 250 mpg for flexfuel plug-in hybrids, and more in the long run.

    Also, note that in most of the US, it's simply impossible to live without a car; the whole infrastructure makes anything else impossible.

    The exceptions are cities that are both old and large. You can live in Boston or NY without a car. You can't in the bulk of the country. Add in that Americans just don't like other forms of transportation. Even NY uses less than a comparable city almost anywhere else.

    This makes really expensive gas a political impossibility. The electorate would simply demand that the government do anything -- anything at all -- necessary to get them the fuel.

    As for carbon, anyone who comes at it from the reducing-output end is fooling themselves. Kyoto and so forth are simply symbolic gestures. It's the usual failing of hair-shirt environmentalism. In point of fact nobody will give up anything, and planning which assumes they will is just silly.

    Eg., the Chinese are now burning more coal than us and the Japanese and the EU combined. And they're burning more every day (8 megawatts, IIRC) and they aren't going to stop. They can't stop and nothing anyone else can or will do will make them stop, or even slow down. The Chinese government's only real sources of legitimacy are economic growth and populist nationalism. The Chinese masses have tasted some of the sweets of consumerism and they aren't going back.

    So if carbon emissions are really a problem, it has to be tackled from the other end -- increasing sequestration. Fertilizing the less productive parts of the oceans looks promising, tho' one would have to be careful. We should certainly be carrying out substantial experiments, rather than wasting time and energy scolding people for flying to the Azores.


    Steve, you've started by suggesting that biofuels could provide transport energy for the US, then spoiled it by saying that reducing carbon output is impossible. But biofuels are effectively carbon neutral. Which argument do you want to make?

    (Me, I think we need nuclear reactors. Lots of reactors. The Chinese government think that, too: their PBMR plans are best described as "epic", and if they can actually make those plans work, their brown coal burning phase isn't going to last forever. They're also concerned about pollution; it's killing half a million of them a year, and making countless millions more sick, to the point where people have begun rioting over air pollution.)

    The fix we're in is way beyond any hippyish back-to-nature let's-minimize-our-carbon-footprint nonsense: we need technological remediation. Which, if you think about it, could easily be turned into a profit centre and a growth area for the economy. So what we need to start with is a change to accounting and taxation practice to make active carbon sequestration profitable. Once that happens, the rest will begin to follow.


    Charlie, the way I read it was that Steve was saying a political solution to carbon emissions won't work, at least on a global scale (which is what really matters).

    A technological solution might work, but you'd be looking at decades before existing facilities and systems were replaced, especially in poorer countries or large ones like China.

    So in the mean time, the best solution is sequestration. Maybe in 2050 we won't need to do it anymore, once most of our current systems are replaced.


    Dan Flanery, Kerguelen, right.

    Do you know what would happen once you removed a major seabird and penguin nesting center? They are important in the ecoweb, across a very, very large area indeed. Doing things like that tend to lead to very unpleasent knock-on effects.


    Is he proposing to concrete over the whole thing? I smell strawmen.


    Alex, even a moderate sized wind farm would quite seriously disrupt the bird colonies. They are, after all, there for the same reasons - to use the wind - and the prime locations overlap.

    In any case, the figures I've seen for wind vs wave power favour wave because of maintenance and far greater flexibility in positioning.


    Wave devices - in the sea - won't need maintenance? Are you out of your mind?

    BTW, the "woo! birds!" thing is a tad overstated.


    I said advantages. Not that it wouldn't need maintenance. (Quite apart from anything else, losing part of an array does not do some of the really nasty things a damaged wind turbine can)

    And yes, migrating birds. But this isn't a migration site, it's a nesting one. And as they note, they've noticed effects on the resident bird population in the vicinity of turbines.


    South Sandwich Islands look like a cracker for this one.


    Alex, even a moderate sized wind farm would quite seriously disrupt the bird colonies.

    We don't know that. It's my understanding the birds don't go terribly far inland, sticking to the sea where they hunt a bit. The islands also make a great place to raise their young, as until the arrival of feral cats aboard sailing ships there were no land predators.

    Massive wind turbines tend to turn so slowly they represent little threat to birds - arguably none during the day, and using modern technology like LEDs they could conceivably be illuminated at night.

    I'm sure there would be some impact on the birds, but I doubt it would lead to a massive decline. It certainly wouldn't have to. Anyhow, we nearly wiped out a whole bird species just to make hats, and completely exterminated the passenger pigeon just for cheap meat. I doubt in the long run we'll avoid exploiting wind power simply because a few - or even a lot - of birds will end up being killed in the process.


    179: Or the Falklands. Think of all those rolling uplands. The sheep won't mind - they don't in Yorkshire.

    All together now: Don't cry for me, Argentina..


    Dan, sure, and in every case there's been expensive, unforeseen knock-on effects (as a note, evidence suggests the Dodo was in deep decline before Man ever got round to studying them, so that's not a good counter-example).

    And you know what? Those coastal regions are precisely where the best wind is. Again for the same reasons the birds are there (and "birds hitting blades" is only the start of the litany of issues). And LED's? now we're adding light pollution to the mix.


    Here's a question regarding biofuels for anyone who might be able to enlighten me: Are coconut palms a good source for biofuel? It would seem that they must eat up a good deal of CO2 so they can produce oil-rich coconuts. It just seems that any tree that produces a very oily fruit or nut would be a good source for biofuel. And with coconuts, the first several stages for refinement could support local small farms and labor. Water is probably a concern.




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    This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on June 22, 2007 3:17 PM.

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