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Not a Manifesto

I'm just not that interested in writing science fiction this decade. Nope: instead, I'm veering more and more in the direction of urban fantasy. Here's why.

My personal take on science fiction is that this narrow slice of the literature of the Fantastika (hint: if you haven't met that term of critical art before, follow the link before reading on) is about the study of the human condition under circumstances which might plausibly come to pass. By "plausibly" I thereby try to exclude the implausible (wizards, elves, surrealist intrusions from the subconscious) and to include stuff that doesn't exist but which plausibly might exist (artificial intelligence, aliens).

Now, as various SF and fantasy writers have observed, our baseline definitions of what is plausible and implausible change over time. In part, this is because formerly plausible ideas have shifted gradually into the penumbra of implausibility (the luminiferous aether, for example: phlogiston: the other detritus of discredited scientific hypotheses; arguably time travel and faster than light travel might be heading this way too). In no small part, the Mundane science fiction movement is a response to this: if we have no plausible evidence to support large scale causality violation in the observable universe, doesn't it follow that FTL starships are little more plausible than fire-breathing, flying dragons?

(Meanwhile, some items which would have been pigeon-holed as implausible without an eye-blink a few decades ago are not merely plausible today but are probably sitting in your pocket right now. About which, more later.)

In addition to the redrawing of the plausibility/implausibility frontier, we have other factors to consider: notably, our relationship with technology and science. As Vernor Vinge remarked in his novel Rainbows End many modern technologies come with no user serviceable parts inside. Back in the late 1970s or early 1980s, personal computers were (by modern standards) a bit crap, but they offered an unparalleled opportunity to open the lid and learn by tinkering. For example, the BBC Micro in the UK—which sold by the million—had an analog i/o port, user-accessible DMA ports, and ROM sockets into which users could install additional firmware; it was designed for learning. The Apple II similarly featured a fairly simple expansion port architecture. But today's personal computing devices (with very few exceptions) come as shiny sealed boxes; their expansion options exist but are complex and require considerable expertise to develop: they're not designed for learners and tinkers but for users or highly trained developers.

Similarly, in other fields our technologies have developed in a way that's hostile to monkey-see monkey-do learning. You can't credibly learn to service a modern automobile in your own garage. You can't formulate a new pharmaceutical preparation in the back of your dispensary (which, believe it or not, actually happened right up until the late 1930s: even in the late 1970s/early 1980s it was possible for a medium-sized company with perhaps 20-30 researchers to develop and bring to market new medicines).

In part, this is a side-effect of market globalization: to survive even locally a product has to reach a planetary market, which means competing with large organizations and getting access to huge supply chains, which means you need to be big ... and market regulations are structured to lock out upstart small competitors. But that's not the only reason for it. Lots of our technologies have become so complex that just learning how to use them is a full-time job; understanding the interlocking specialities that go into them is beyond individual comprehension.

As brilliant new fantasy author Max Gladstone notes:

Old-school fantasy is a genre of the unknowable. Magic in Tolkien's works is big and vast and ancient. His characters relate to that magic with awe, with fear, and occasionally with love. No one tries to hack the One Ring. Certainly no one tries to build a new one! People acquire the One Ring, or the Palantir, and use each within its limits.

But consider the smartphone I have in my pocket.

No single human being knows how to make this phone. I acquired the phone, and I use it. People who know more about the phone can tell it to do more things than I can, but they're still bound by the limits of the hardware. A few communities are dedicated to modding and hacking phones like mine, yes, but for most people most of the time a smartphone is a portable magic mirror. We make mystic passes before the glass, address the indwelling spirit with suitably respectful tones, and LEARN THE FUTURE. ("Siri, what will the weather be like tomorrow?") The same thought experiment works for many modern technologies.

Max then goes on to make a point that I might well have made myself if I'd thought to put it so explicitly: while the technologies in our far-future SF now look more and more like numinous magical powers, our daily life is perfused by magical devices that obey relatively predictable rules—utter the right incantation and Siri tells you the weather. Which means we as readers are coming to expect an almost mechanistic causality to inform the magic in our fantasies.

(And if that makes sense to you, go try one of Max's novels. No, seriously: if you like near-future SF there's a rather good chance that this fantasy novel will speak to you. Weird, isn't it? Because he's writing SF set in a world perfused by mechanised, systematized magic. We need a word for this: the standard genre tags are too limiting.)

So here's my next step: we are living in a 21st century that resembles a mutant Shadowrun—by turns a cyberpunk dystopia and a world where everyone has access to certain kinds of magic. And if you want to explore the human condition under circumstances which might plausibly come to pass, these days the human condition is constrained by technologies so predictably inaccessible that they might as well be magic. So magic makes a great metaphor for probing the human condition. We might not have starships, but there's a Palantir in every pocket (and we might not have dragons, but some of our wizards are working on it ).

Over the past few years I've found myself reading less and less far-future SF and more and more urban fantasy. If you view it through the lens of the future we're living in rather than the future we expected in times gone by, that's not so surprising. Starships and galactic empires and aliens are receding into the same misty haze of unreality as dragons and demons: instead we're living in a world with chickens with tails and scales and teeth, magic mirrors with answers to every question (many of them misleading or malicious), dominated by abhuman hive minds.

So it shouldn't be any surprise to discover in the world I'm now living in I can engage better with the subjects of my fiction by writing urban fantasy, rather than by extruding good old-fashioned space opera just like grandpappy wrote. This doesn't mean that I consider traditional space opera to be dead (any more than high fantasy with elves, dwarves and dragons is dead): but it's not something I'm engaging with much, if at all, these days.

And now for one final thought.

Traditionally fantasy works were set in a mythologized past: frequently faux-mediaeval, occasionally classical, sometimes (as is especially the case with the more recent steampunk sub-genre) only 1-2 centuries removed. Some fantasies are set in the present: we often mislabel these urban fantasy, although very often contemporary fantasy is rural/wilderness oriented while it's quite common for urban fantasy settings to be historic (Ankh-Morpork, I'm looking at you). But it's still very rare to find a fantasy that's set in the cities of the near future: and I find this genre blind spot fascinating, because the future of humanity is overwhelmingly urban and magical ...

442 Comments

1:

"No single human being knows how to make this phone"? Well, yes, and I get the point he's making. But one of the classic libertarian essays is Leonard Reed's "I, Pencil," which argues that a simple, ordinary graphite pencil brings together so many different specialized areas of knowledge and skill that no one person commands all of them (http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/rdPncl1.html , if you're curious); only the invisible hand, or in more modern terms the exchange of information through market prices, enables bringing them together in a single productive process. In what specific way is that computer in your pocket different from an object as mundane as a #2 pencil?

2:

I think you did articulate why Gladstone's worldbuilding is SO appealing to me--it scratches an itch by straddling fantasy and SF with its systemic and systematic magic and it all is unfamiliar and familiar at the same time.

Also, your own Merchant Princes novels have this feel as well--the Family's world walking power codes as fantasy, at first, and only as the series progresses does it start to be looked at (by Miriam, particularly) as a form of technology.

3:

Makes _Bone Dance_ by Emma Bull seem prescient...

4:

I agree with some of this, disagree with other bits, and find myself thinking "yes but..." about still others.

For example, my tastes have drifted towards urban fantasy too, but away from "high fantasy" rather than space opera. So I'm agreeing that tastes change, but disagreeing that OGH's issue with space opera is intrinsic to the genre.
My car is a Skoda. I don't presently posess the tools, but with a laptop, a cable and a shareware computer program I could do anything that a servicing garage could.

5:

No single human being knows how to make this phone.

This is true, but it is different from magic, unless you redefine magic to things simply mysterious, instead of inherently so. No single person can make the phone by himself, but every person can, with different degrees of effort, learn everything about any part of the phone, and remove all the mystery from it.

So the phone is not much different from the Egyptian Pyramids. No single human can build a pyramid, but twenty thousand peasants under supervision could and did.

Compare this with the One Ring or the Silmarills. They could be made by a single person and only once.

The really magical things in our universe are the stuff that lies beyond the reach of scientific method. Questions like "why the entire universe exists?", "is there freedom of will?", "are there qualia?" et cetera.

6:

We've passed the point at which humans design modern CPUs unaided; I wonder have we passed the point unaided humans *can't*?

7:

one of the classic libertarian essays is Leonard Reed's "I, Pencil," which argues that ... only the invisible hand, or in more modern terms the exchange of information through market prices, enables bringing them together in a single productive process.

Unfortunately, that's self-evident horseshit. As witness this:

(That's Vostok-1 on the way up, with Yuri Gagarin riding in the hot seat, in case you didn't recognize it. The descendants of that launch stack are still flying to the ISS this year and next, and I think I can pretty much guarantee you that the invisible hand didn't have a hell of a lot to do with it's development. Now, Gosplan would be another matter ...)

NOTE: This is not an invitation to veer off track and explore economic systems and their relative merits. Simply an observation that correlation (the complexity of assembling pencils; pencils being manufactured by capitalist economies) does not equal causation (pencils are a consequence of capitalism).

8:

Unaided humans gave way to aided humans more than a million years ago, when our ancestors started using tools. Your point being?

9:

Ooh, lots to chew on here. I ought to wait and try writing something later, after some thought, but here goes.

I'm just not that interested in writing science fiction this decade. Nope: instead, I'm veering more and more in the direction of urban fantasy...

Yeah, I've been feeling kinda the same lately. I've never been that into Far-Future SF, too far and it often seems like Epic Fantasy to me. I could never get into EF, too often bored the crud out of me. Tolkien is perhaps the only exception.

Another reason is that last year I found myself writing an Urban Fantasy novel, after what I had intended to be a short story passed ten thousand words, and is now more that fifty thousand and not near an end (and really wants to grow into a series*). I'm trying to decide if I want to let it veer into SF, but am afraid it'll end up too like Merchant Princes--though story-wise totally different. One question: How magical should the magic be? Is it supernatural, or magic-pixie-dustAncient Tech? And other things to think about.

Probably doesn't help that I haven't read a lot of UF (well, labelled as such that is). I've read the Laundry books of course, and Stina Leicht's first (will read the second soon), and a few others. I've been buying more lately, but my slow reading gets in the way.

Now to go and reread the post and follow the links.

*The novel I thought I was going to be writing is a Historical Horror story, but could possibly be folded into the series.

10:

Agreed; I've just read a book on the development of Soyuz, and would guarantee that Gagarin would recognise everything below the interstage, and several of the flight control systems.

11:

Charlie wrote: Because he's writing SF set in a world perfused by mechanised, systematized magic. We need a word for this: the standard genre tags are too limiting.

I've seen the word "Magitech" used for a similar concept. E.g. In the gaming world, one example of a world suffused by mechanised & systematized magic is the Gramarie homebrew for D&D, which the author describes as an instance of Magitech.

12:

I'm pretty sure I could make a pencil if I had to. It wouldn't be as good as a Faber-Castell, but I'd be able to write with it. Hell, I even know how to make paper--I've done it, it's not difficult.
Now, I couldn't make all the tools necessary to do that. Never mind making a computer.
But don't want to get off-topic.

13:

The irony is that 100 years ago nobody would recognize a smartphone. 400 years ago it would be recognized as a "Black Mirror" used for scrying.
It's an interesting question as to whether we are collectively recapitulating mythology in our technology. In which case, we can look forward to...

14:

(a) The role of central planning in running the Soviet economy has been much exaggerated. The Soviet industrial system was simply not planned to that level of resolution.

(b) More on topic, do you believe that, say, an iPhone is qualitatively different from a pencil, in such a way that a pencil could perfectly well be made by a centrally planned economy, but an iPhone could only be made by a decentralized market economy? (That would actually be a strange claim, in that a large firm such as Apple is as close to a centrally planned economy as the real world has come, and Apple is notorious for ruthlessly imposed central planning even by corporate standards.) If not, what's the magic of an iPhone that a pencil doesn't also have? I'm not saying you're necessarily wrong, but I'd like to see the exact point pinned down more specifically.

15:

*Puts on sackcloth and ashes*
(Are you worried that I actually do have some of both lying around?)

More seriously, I noticed this a few years ago now with Justina Robson, who after writing some decent SF has veered off onto urban cyber-fantasy stuff involving elves and computers and cyborgs.

As regards this:
"Which means we as readers are coming to expect an almost mechanistic causality to inform the magic in our fantasies."

I started writing a series of short stories a couple of years ago which are based in late 19th century Britain, where magic does exist and does actually follow more mechanistic rules. It's great fun working out who would be thinking about thermodynamics and how that fits with trying to summon dragons or suchlike, or how you can purify water for steam boilers (Which don't explode or leak thanks to magic).
Of course many others have done this sort of writing, and I think it is a lot more common than 10 or 20 years ago.

Regarding the constraints of SF writing, I've been saying for years now that as science advances the field for SF proper (Yes, I know there's boundaries and grey areas etc etc) is narrowed down. 80 years ago you could wibble about FTL and suchlike because it was still rather unknown, but now, forget it. The march of science has restricted our views of the future, as has the actual arrival of the future. THe current world situation is partially a repeat of the 1970's, so is dull and boring, compared to the post war period in which technological marvels really did spread across the planet and everything seemed like it was going to be wonderfully better.

Good point about the blind spot of fantasy set in the future (Not sure Pern counts.....)

16:

Charlie's point -- which I also use in a different setting -- is that the tech is so advanced no one person can know it all. Such was not the case with the pyramids, although traced all the way through there were a lot of things necessary: woodworking, rope making, mining and refining metal for rock-cutting tools, weaving (sails for boats), etc. Still, given a lifetime, a person could probably learn it all.

Today's phones -- heck, just the integrated circuits in them -- sit at the top of an incredible array of technologies: chemical engineering for the high-purity ingredients, mechanical engineering for all of the complex machinery that allows placement measured in nanometers, electrical engineering for the circuitry, software engineering for layout (and many other aspects of the process), etc. Traced all the way back, far more details than a person can learn in a lifetime.

My own use of this involves the question "How big a population does it take to support today's integrated-circuit technology and its applications?" My guess at that number is 30-50 million people minimum. For every IC engineer or medical imaging designer, there's a large web of "support" required: doctors, teachers, police, construction workers, farmers, and on and on. The other reason you need so many people is to create demand for the ICs themselves. Given that a contemporary fab costs several billion dollars, you need to produce tens or hundreds of millions of devices just to recover the capital costs. A lot of SF incorporates "then a miracle occurs" tech at least implicitly to get around the population requirement.

17:

Also, the US space program itself was 100% a command economy project, not produced by some "invisible hand of the market".

I do see what you're getting at Charlie - be interesting to see what your urban fantasy looks like.

Even (most) hackers don't know what they are doing these days - they are either script kiddies or bought and paid for by the Russian/Chinese governments, not unwashed loners sitting in their parents basement.

18:

I've noticed a similar trend in my reading, and of course a writer has to scratch their own specific itch. I'll look forward to your future output.

However ...

If you do find the time and inclination for the novel length version of Palimpsest, I will definitely buy it, in hardback.

19:

It's interesting when you get someone in history like Brunelleschi,who was almost dropped into Florence like a time traveller from the future. He built the (then) world's largest dome without scaffolding, built a hoist with a three-speed gearbox plus reverse and a tower crane with moving counterweight. Urban magic of its day.

20:

It's arguable how "crazy UF" Justina Robson went with the elves and stuff though. She essentially went into a multiverse theory with divergent evolution. The elves were a multiverse parallel Earth with a different "technology" to ours. Yes, it reads like elves with magic. And yes, it requires some convenient leaps in the evolutionary tress along the way. But it's not exactly randomly chucked together without some science, and the elves understand what they're doing in a scientific way, there's laws we'd recognise as equivalent to conservation of energy and the like.

As for the original point - looking forward to seeing what you do with it Charlie. I'm a sucker for UF as well as SF. Will enjoy reading your particular take on it.

21:

we are living in a 21st century that resembles a mutant Shadowrun

and also the world in the backstory of the Eclipse Phase RPG. Existential horror plus technology. That game does have wormhole-like gateways and aliens, which definitely breaks the mundane thing, though the aliens are mostly off-stage.

22:

You're probably right with a smartphone being unrecognisable a hundred years ago, but cathode ray tubes existed and so did voice radio. If we assume all the stuff that actually makes a smartphone work (so it's still networked somehow in October 1914) then if it got into the right laboratory it's just possible that someone really smart might figure out what it is.

Then they would open it up and be extremely puzzled over the interior and it would break. Following which they would not be able to learn anything in time to effect the course of the war.

23:

I remember when I was getting into computers and first had the realization that there were parallels between magic and technology. I couldn't really do a decent job of articulating what I was thinking and then someone else went and did it for me, Vernor Vinge, in True Names.

"In the once upon a time days of the First Age of Magic, the prudent sorcerer regarded his own true name as his most valued possession but also the greatest threat to his continued good health, for—the stories go—once an enemy, even a weak unskilled enemy, learned the sorcerer's true name, then routine and widely known spells could destroy or enslave even the most powerful. As times passed, and we graduated to the Age of Reason and thence to the first and second industrial revolutions, such notions were discredited. Now it seems that the Wheel has turned full circle (even if there never really was a First Age) and we are back to worrying about true names again."

Magic is pretty much what you get when a pre-scientific, intelligent species tries to make sense of the world and find ways to shape and manipulate it to their favor. We smile and nod when we look at how alchemy, after having the impurities of mysticism and bad ideas burned away, basically becomes chemistry. But I would argue that science has pretty much become that. We've always quested for knowledge and have created a lot of useless, worthless cruft along the way. I'd pretty much consign the entirety of religion and theology to that pile. But it was that same inquisitive spirit that also led us to real knowledge, real science.

Because we are all human, all have the same desires, have the same wishes, it's interesting how closely traditional magical artifacts and powers track with what we're actually accomplishing in this day and age. Clothes that never get wet? That's elvish magic right there, only we've got it now with hydrophobic cloth. Flying like a bird? Parasails are pretty impressive. Smartphone as magic mirror, oh yeah. Divining the future to learn whether the next harvest will be good, magic lanterns that can absorb sunlight and then illuminate the night, thank you solar panels and batteries and LEDs. Modern medicine has a lot of administrative trash going along with it but I got to see a fly-through of my girlfriend's spine thanks to the modern MRI.

The racists whinge on about the purity of blood but wouldn't it be interesting to find out that scientifically-advanced but socially-backwards ancestors keyed the major weapons systems to a DNA key and so too much drift from the genetic baseline would prevent access to the weapons? Even if they forgot how the technology, their racial ideas are seemingly confirmed. And how shocked they'll be when the hero just hacks the authentication routines to broaden the accepted keyspace.

There's also the idea of a secret spoken and written language for interfacing with an advanced AI, the same way that priesthoods like to keep access to the divine a proprietary service. The whole golem thing with met and emet, that seemed like a prudent way of keeping your robot in check.

Many inventors were inspired by science fiction. The writer says "Wouldn't it be cool if we could do..." and the inventor says "You, know, actually..." Neil Stephenson gave us a number of things like the term for avatar, Google's Earth project is expressly based on the CIA Earth application from Snowcrash, etc. It would only make sense for the fanciful inventions of storytellers in the fantasy realm to serve a similar purpose.

In terms of the scariest prospect for the future, it has to be the impersonal Peter Watts intelligences, lacking consciousness, just immensely powerful pattern recognition engines that can simulate awareness, that are clearly intelligent while being utterly alien to us. The neural gels, the scrambler aliens, yikes. It's not so much the Eschaton, more like a digital Azathoth.

The comment about corporations being alien invaders is well-taken. It's a better expression of something I've been thinking for a while. Now imagine if you were to integrate a system of legal codes with the panopticon state. Right now it's pretty tough for me if I screw up legally. Lose access to my accounts, cops get an APB on me for whatever, I'm thrown into the legal system and no human component is greater than the Process. Even if judge and jury agree that something went wrong, it can still become impossible to extract myself. What happens when there's no longer even a large human element to the enacting of the process?

In your 20th century police state the rules are still just words on paper. That software must be run on a hardware of human beings organized in the bureaucracy. When much of that hardware becomes real computer hardware, I think the prospects become even scarier.

24:

Not a manifesto, but thought provoking. And it helps me understand why I'm digging Gladstone's Craft sequence so much.

Because he's writing SF set in a world perfused by mechanised, systematized magic.

Now, here's the odd thing - as much as I enjoy near future stuff, I also enjoy far future SF. Either where things have changed (Quantum Thief) or go for really deep time (which I admit is a sort of fantasy). The problem is, there isn't a lot out there with that.

Anyway, thanks for sharing the brain candy Charlie.

25:

I'd like to do the novel of "Palimpsest" one of these days. Trouble is, I've got the middle third, but not the final third, sitting in my head. And I've got at least five books in the pipeline first ...

26:

This goes the other way, too. If you've got a setting where magic behaves according to regular rules and mechanics (and always has), then it seems like you wouldn't really have a concept of "magic" versus "technology". It would all be technology, even if you don't really understand the fundamental mechanisms of magic - just the falsifiable empirical rules that hold up under testing plus everything you learn from trial-and-error.

It's for that reason that I've never been particularly fond of "masquerade" settings.

On topic, the "cloud computing" trend should accelerate the "magical" aspect of smartphones even more, especially if or when we get ubiquitous wi-fi. More and more of how it works disappearing off to mysterious server farms, while the phone draws upon the service as if a conjuring a spell from an unseen god.

I think "augmented reality" stuff will accelerate it as well, especially future descendants of Google Glass that let you overlay what you see with all kinds of generated content. The world would seem magical, with changeable visuals and all kinds of programs speaking to you through visual avatars like so much spirits and fairies.

27:

Going against this trend, William Gibson's new book is supposed to be set further in the future than any of his previous books. He's never walked the same path as the rest of SF though.
Digression, are the Bigend trilogy SF? Urban Fantasy? Non-genre Literary fiction perhaps?
All of the above?

(all I know is I've got wait about a month to read it)

28:

Very, very intriguing! I understand what you mean, too. Are you thinking sort of that future biopunk a la Bacigalupi? Or more of a China Miéville New Crobuzon alternate world? (Of course, the latter does feature "thaumaturgy" as magic.)

Miéville's trajectory is interesting, too, having gone from that borderline-fantasy Bas-Lag to almost-nows, as in The City & The City.

Either way, your deeper science fiction has been an escape valve to me. In this time of near-total disenfranchisement and disempowerment, retrenchment and reactionary forces, to catch glimpses of a future in which big things are once again possible has given me a little bit of hope.

Coincidentally, that's why I have such a hard time reading non-fiction these days, whereas I used to consume it by the bushel.

29:

The Bigend trilogy were individually all set the year before they were published. So in stamp-collector terms they were mainstream novels. Except that if you'd stuck the manuscript of "Pattern Recognition" in a time machine and mailed it to the young William Gibson in 1983, and told him to send it to his editor, his editor would have hailed it as the masterpiece of 21st century cyberpunk he'd been expecting ... except for the one totally implausible angle: that by 2002 the USSR would have collapsed and Moscow would have turned into a hotbed of libertarian capitalist excess! Which just goes to show something or other about how the future doesn't conform to our expectations.

30:
If you've got a setting where magic behaves according to regular rules and mechanics (and always has), then it seems like you wouldn't really have a concept of "magic" versus "technology". It would all be technology, even if you don't really understand the fundamental mechanisms of magic - just the falsifiable empirical rules that hold up under testing plus everything you learn from trial-and-error.
We've already had evidence you're right. As J E Gordon pointed out, this was the state of materials science at least until the inter-war period; tradespeople and engineers knew i.e. not to use concrete in tension, but didn't know why.
31:

I just realized reading that Gladstone essay that Tolkien does have mundane-but-mysterious magic, including in [i]Fellowship of the Ring[/i]. Stuff like elvish cloaks that conceal their wearers amidst the terrain, or bread that sates appetite with only a few bites - it's the type of stuff that the elves would churn out fairly regularly but mostly be at a loss to explain why they work.

32:

Which brings me to why I really hate "alien technology" conspiracy shit where everything weird is attributed to reverse engineered tech from crashed UFOs.
How well would someone 100 years ago get on with reverse engineering an iPhone? And that's *only* 100 years of difference - not 10,000,000

33:

I personally love far future SF, and it's weird cousin, far future fantasy, but occasionally despair at how... local it feels. This may be a function of me getting a lot of my SF kick through games, but still. A lot of FFSF seems to rely far too much on references to contemporary things, or vague extrapolations of contemporary technology. Destiny is a good example of this - it opens in a ruin highway of clear 21st-century (or even late 20th, which is worse!) cars. Why? Why not use that moment to show what Humanity achieved in the golden age we're about to learn about? Or is this really the golden age (in the game, it isn't). And I've not really seen any weapons in it that seem more advanced than ceramic-toned addons for SCAR rifles and SPAS shotguns. Where is the FFSF successors to Gene Wolfe, Moorcock's End of Time books, and Cordwainer Smith? Or am I just not seeing them...

34:

Which means we as readers are coming to expect an almost mechanistic causality to inform the magic in our fantasies.

Well, the question is "Is technology changing the myths, or are the myths shaping the technology?" Or basically "Does Siri work like a magic mirror because that the optimal UI and how things would work, or does Siri work like the magic mirror because the designers were told the story and that's what they expected it should be like?"

I'd lean towards the latter. Consider the topic of libertarian space cadets. They have been fed a myth of colonization that leads them to expect certain things. It has been covered, at length, how those expectations are completely wrong. But because of the myth, you still have Elon Musk trying to go to Mars instead of the asteroid belt. Or consider AI. The popular perception of AI is some cross between a genie and Pinocchio - it is smart enough to effortlessly solve any problem you ask it to solve, and they are as humanlike as possible. But the reality is that real AIs are powerful expert systems that execute high frequency trades and write news stories. Further, identity is not the same as intelligence, a point central to Rule 34 and evident in the fact that the existing systems don't operate on anything close to a conscious basis. But you still have tons of money being poured in to develop "human like AI". The expectation of what AI is is driven by the myths, which drives the funding and development.

This matters for stories because myths change. Brother's Grimm has given way to Walt Disney, and the myths and expectations have changed as a result. In 100 years the Snow Queen went from being a force of nature, to a cruel and ambitious ruler, to a stand in for closeted teenage homosexuality, and is defeated through Thomas Aquinas' "force of reason", falling to death, and acceptance in each as it changes. This has bigger implications the further out you go. Its reasonable to apply a parallel treatment of Siri and the magic mirror now, but what about in 50 years, when the cultural context of the designers and consumers has changed? How will the UI change?

35:

In less meta thinking, it is interesting in this vein that Tolkien's game changers that the forces of darkness had were instantaneous long distance communication (radio) via the Palantir and the "blasting-fire" (gun power). These were the same two objects Vernor Vinge identified as the biggest world changers.

36:

Okay, slightly more awake now.

I've never been that into Far-Future SF, too far and it often seems like Epic Fantasy to me.

Exceptions.
I loved "The Quantum Thief" and look forward to reading the rest. It could certainly be read as fantasy, if one didn't have a clue about nanotech and such. The "Foundation" series perhaps could be, "Dune" definitely. Most of the SF I read growing up was Clarke, "Against the Fall of Night/The City and the Stars" are the only far-future novels he wrote* and they can definitely be read as EF, even down to the lone boy hero on a quest storyline.

Gladstone's novels sound interesting. They almost sound like what I had thought DeBodard's "Obsidian and Blood"** was going to be; A noirish alternate history where the ancient empires still exist and Gods and magic are real. Turned out they were set in the pre-Cortez Aztec world, but still noirish and I'd call it UF; ancient Tenochtitlan is pretty integral to the story.


*I consider Far-Future to be more than a 1000 years, so don't count "3001", and not counting his short stories.

**Loved the first book, looking forward to the rest (I could say that about a few series).

37:

My own favorite answer for settings where magic and technology coexist is that magic does not lend itself well to the scientific method and you cannot industrialize magic -- it simply doesn't scale.

So a wizard can deliver a fireball blast from his hand easily as devastating as a handgun. That's pretty handy but it took him years of study and intense effort to learn how to do this and any mook can be handed a gun and be just as deadly. Give a guy a gun and he can kill just as easily. He might not be as good at it, like comparing a shaky teenager with a gun to a deadeye gunslinger, but guns are cheap, the gunmen to use them are cheaper and wizards are always expensive.

Beyond that, the problem with magic is that it is idiosyncratic and the wizard has to learn much of it for himself, learn how the rules work, and get a sense for all the nonsensical things that happen. Imagine if a chemical reaction depended on the emotional state of the chemist or what he had on his mind, the color of his robe, any number of factors. And much of what a wizard relies on for getting a taste of the work, feeling it, is mystical and internal and no scientific apparatus can measure it, there's no way to quantify any of it.

Magic, when it works, is spectacular, powerful, amazing, and very useful. When it works. And when you can get a wizard to work for you. But it is never something you can really rely on. The engineers and scientists of the world would rather pretend it doesn't even exist.

38:

Speaking of abhuman hive minds, Charlie's "Invaders From Mars" talk four years ago on corporate immortality came out before news from the past eighteen months.

Google acquires Machine Learning startup:
http://techcrunch.com/2014/01/26/google-deepmind/
...and neural net startup headed by Geoffrey Hinton:
http://media.utoronto.ca/media-releases/u-of-t-neural-networks-start-up-acquired-by-google/

Facebook hires artificial intelligence researcher for its AI lab:
https://www.facebook.com/yann.lecun/posts/10151728212367143

Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, joins Baidu to work on Baidu Brain:
http://blog.coursera.org/post/85921942887/a-personal-message-from-co-founder-andrew-ng


I, for one, welcome our new advertising overlords. I'd like to remind them that as a trusted programmer, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground server farms.

39:

On magic: a few years ago I was talking with a younger guy, maybe in his mid to late 20s, about Elon's private space program, and musing "we live in the future". He agreed vehemently:

"If you told me when I was a kid that the knowledge of the world would fit in my pocket, I wouldn't have believed you. Now..." (pulls out iDevice)

It's a hell of a note when even the young'uns are getting future shocked.

40:

Actually, Miéville's Kraken comes pretty close to my ideal of contemporary urban fantasy.

41:

@32: How well would someone 100 years ago get on with reverse engineering an iPhone?
---
That's actually an interesting question; I've considered it in the case of "what if a modern smartphone were dropped into, say, 1945?"

The key part is, in most cases the handset is just a terminal; it can do camera things, and maybe imitate a flashlight, or play back any audio or video that happen to be stored internally... but it's basic function is to talk to *other* machines that don't exist, over a network that doesn't exist either. This is such an inherent part of the design that my phone's only error message appears to be "no signal."

Depending on the software the phone runs, it may not even be apparent that the gadget's root purpose is "telephone"; while the dialing directory and phone numbers would be recognizable, nothing would happen if you selected one. Just an address book of some sort.

42:

FWIW, most Science Fiction, at least good Science Fiction, was written by authors who knew that they were violating "laws of Nature" that they expected would remain valid. This is true even of something as old as "The Skylark of Space". The author explicitly admitted that he just disregarded relativity on purpose for the sake of the story.

So I will assert that Science Fiction has always been a proper subset of Fantasy...with murky boundaries.

That said, it's quite reasonable to adopt the term Urban Fantasy for (a subset of) stories in urban settings. The term Science Fiction is too loaded with images of space ships.

43:

The interesting question is, if it seems like the world we're in has magic-equivalent technology, why add magic?

I suspect that the appeal of magic is that it isn't available for sale. It lets little guys play in the big leagues. Even the parts of the government that have magic are usually tiny groups of beleaguered oddballs.

44:

Ugh. I hated the Gladstone's book exactly because worldbuilding was so vague.

Sure, a phone is a magic mirror, but we know its fundamental limits. It can't grow scales and transform into a Space Shuttle Dragon (conservation of energy and mass!).

In Gladstone's world it _can_.

It gets so bad that you have no idea what the plot elements even are.

45:

I like the implication that Clark's Second Law has, effectively, come to pass. I think that there's merit to this idea.

While it's certainly true that you could make the case that we've been at the stage where Nobody Knows how Built X for some time now, I think that the degree of inscrutability has shot up to the point where a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind. It is certainly the case that for the majority of us, a lot of our tech really is a kind of functional magic.

That said, I think that there's still a need for science fiction. Even if we don't understand our tech, we're still being influenced and affected by it, and it's worth thinking about how the next big tech will change things. I've yet to see the definitive treatment of how wide scale 3D printing will impact the world, for example.

46:

I've yet to see the definitive treatment of how wide scale 3D printing will impact the world

I'm guessing it will make plastic widgets cheap and abundant. Not a huge change, really.

48:

Is magic a form of technology?

Let's see how magic works in different fictional settings:
Homers ancient greeks - magic, yes, but mostly powerful individuals. The whole thing feels magical because the stories are grand.
Grimms Fairytales - no consistency at all about how the world or magic works, mostly the stories end with a child beeing punished for some reason
Judge Dee (not Van Guliks retelling, but at least the one he actually translated) - talking to ghosts is a tool in the investigators toolbox, as is torture or deduction. But it's not treated as a mundane thing (It's been ages since I read that, I hope I'm not grossly misrepresenting Dee).
Tolkien - magic is something the wizards don't touch at a wim, so we don't see that much of it and don't know how consistent it works. The most consistent thing about magic in this universe is that it's morally corrupting.

The whole idea that magic might behave analog to technology is, I think, more recent than the last example on the list. I would suspect that the fact that we live in a technology infused world is one reason, and (roleplaying/computer) games (where there have to be some rules how the stuff works) the other.

So I'd say that not only is our technology by pretty magical, but that fairly recently our perspective on magic is fairly technical.

The confusing part: Magic used to be - not always but often - the way the folks in our stories were punished by the universe for stepping out of line in some way - maybe by beeing angry (Star Wars), wanting more than a simple life in a village by a river (LOTR) not obeying your mother (Grimms fairytales). Then technology was the same stand in for greed or not knowing ones place or whatever. Then technology was neutral, or at least not evil. Now magic is the same - no longer a plotdevice enforcing proper morals, but something with rules that can be understood. And that's why UF works, because it't not a retelling of Grimms fairytales in a modern setting, but a modern setting and story with some fantastical gizmos. Or so I think, I don't read much UF so this rant may completely miss the genre.

49:
I suspect that the appeal of magic is that it isn't available for sale.

That's often not the case. Max Gladstone's setting, for example, everything is based on magic, including the currency ("soulstuff"). Similarly, there's Walter Jon Williams' Metropolitan.

(And, for some reason, I feel compelled to mention Rick Cook's Wizard's Bane and its sequels, and S. Andrew Swann's Broken Crescent, both of which have a programmer attempting to apply rules to magic.)

50:

I'd beg to differ. The level of abstraction is changing, but not so far as to make it impossible.

There are multiple small RISC CPUs that have been designed by individuals; and I'm old enough to have seen an individual drive much of the architecture of an entire processor card.

Now, if you were to insist that the designers had to use the coloured pencils and stick diagrams I was learning with at University in the mid-80s, or the 74 series TTL of the late 1980s, that would be trickier - but still possible. The early HDL of the 90s made things much easier, and I've worked on design tools that raised the abstraction layer well above that (i.e. 100 times smaller line count than HDL for the same outcome).

Each of the tool chains involved can be understood by an individual - the tools are complex to be efficient, but could be a lot simpler if you were willing to tolerate the inefficiency involved (say, a design cycle of hours rather than days).

51:

SF vs Urban Fantasy. I think you are travelling by another path, and arriving in a place you think is the same, but isn't. SF, despite what the authors think, is about plausible ideas, developed and used to paint a different, convincing world. Fantasy is about throwing any old sh*t at the wall when you need an out for a plot point.

Both of them tend to end up with the usual human stories/troupes glued to them - but these are pretty much interchangeable (and discardable). It's at this point the authors throw up in their mouths - but if you look at what's distinct and unique, rather than what's not - it's true.

Just because people tend to treat technology as magic, and the complexity of how they are produced is not something one man can understand, doesn't mean one becomes the other. At heart technology runs on rules and the rational universe, and fantasy (in the guise of magic) doesn't.

Technology can be understood, even if you haven't seen it before because it obeys those rules. Fantasy is full of swords that have magical powers that you wouldn't have a clue about if it weren't for a nearby plot exposition device.

FTL spaceships aren't the same as dragons because you could conceivably work out how to build the first (+/- an Einstein), but you aren't ever getting the second to fly no matter how much fake SF you throw at it (cough Pern).

Why does this matter?

Well, go back to what might be considered 'magical fantasy' of the early IT age - "True Names" & "Shockwave Rider". These both take a semi-magical view of a future IT world (where the protagonist is an effective wizard). Yet both are remembered because they did it in SF, and thus dealt with rules and extrapolations of the real world. Thus, give or take a bit, THEY GOT IT RIGHT(ish).

Although authors think the role of SF is to give a backdrop to their human stories ("about the study of the human condition"), as far as society is concerned the main role of SF is to present plausible models of the future that real scientists and engineers can aim towards. That's its main benefit to mankind - target to be aimed at (or avoided).

We all know the smartphone is a mashup of the Star Trek communicator and tricorder. People have been talking to computers in fiction since the days of the typing pool - and despite speech recognition being poor for creating long texts, people keep trying to make that 'typewriter you can talk to'. That's the power of an SF idea.

Why SF is different is that if it's done right, it has to follow the rules closely enough that someone can actually try to make it. Nobody tries to make magic swords.

And it's why we still need SF, not urban fantasy - because we desperately need visions of a future that are better than we have now - to aim towards.

Final adjacent thought - a smartphone isn't like magic in that magic is something hoarded and taking great personal effort to gain. Whereas a smartphone almost comes with the cornflakes. Although a smartphone give potential power, it gives it to everyone.

No, if you want an analogy for magic in the modern world, you are talking about money. Money is the abstract entity that gives tremendous power and is hoarded. Its also the one where we need a vision of something better - since we know the growth based economy we have hits a brick wall (eg Limits to Growth).

52:

Fritz Leiber's "Conjure Wife" 1943 was an early example with his hero's application of symbolic logic to systematise the magic which all women knew and used to protect their men who were ignorant of magic.
Also L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt in "The Incompleat Enchanter" with the syllogismobile which transported to parallel universes.

53:

Both magic and science are rule-based systems, so the stories really depend on which types of rules you want to play with.

Key differences that I tend to pick up on, based on the authors I've read:

Mastery: Magic usually requires some inherent talent; science (ditto technology) anyone can learn and the knowledge is public.
Re-do: Science can un-do individual mistakes; magic usually not.
Reach: Science has broader, deeper, cascading consequences; magic is more localized in time and space.
Time & Limits: Science has no limits and is forward looking and the lesson is often that you can/should always learn more. Magic is usually rooted in some mysterious dim golden age of the distant past. Ancestors were always bigger, braver, smarter - pretty much opposite to evolution.

But, probably the biggest difference between the two is that SF shows you an end-result (gadget or state of being) that you really, really want to make real. Magic ... meah. Plus since you know it ain't real, why even bother thinking about it.

I'm trying to think of which fantasy books really made me think, or go 'wow' with wonder ... not that many.

Anne McCaffrey blended sci-fic and fantasy in at least two different series one of which included modern day elves.


54:

Rick Cook's "Wiz" series blended magic and computer programming. Gave a whole new meaning to the phrase "the dragon book..."

55:

But, probably the biggest difference between the two is that SF shows you an end-result (gadget or state of being) that you really, really want to make real. Magic ... meah. Plus since you know it ain't real, why even bother thinking about it.

I'm trying to think of which fantasy books really made me think, or go 'wow' with wonder ... not that many.

In genre terms I read a lot more SF than fantasy. I would have to strenuously disagree with the bolded part. The most hopeful, wonderful vision of a technologically advanced society ever penned is the Culture of Iain M. Banks. And it is founded on completely unphysical technobabble that is no more realistic than elves and magic swords.

Banks set an unobtainium standard of what we might wish for. Physical limits, if nothing else, would force humans to settle for a bronze version of the same. It is helpful to have an original vision undiminished by contact with physics. I think of it as the difference between a Turing machine, the mathematical abstraction, and actually existing computers. Real machines have limits of space and time that don't apply to thought experiments, but the thought experiment is a better frame for reality than vice versa.

Caterynne M. Valente has adopted the fantasy frame of fairy tales for all her stories, SF and otherwise. I think it works remarkably well. Even when she's telling a hard SF story about staple SF topics like the future history of computing and the creation of AI*, it's a fairy tale. It makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange once again. That's what I read SF for.

I enjoy historical fiction for the same sensation of being a fish lifted out of water. I seek new perspectives in fiction more than imagined inventions. That's why I thought that Rule 34 was an amazing, career-highlight accomplishment. What an astonishing change of perspective!

I don't think fantasy has to embody worn conventions of cramped conservatism and fear of knowledge, any more than SF has to be about futureology and autodidact geniuses. Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and (oh man, perhaps revealing a lapse in taste**) Eliezer Yudkowsky's Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality all manage to thoroughly defy or subvert Extruded Fantasy Product expectations. The difference between EFP and distinctive fantasy is as stark as that between Another Star Trek Episode About Meeting Wrinkled Forehead Aliens and Blindsight.

*Silently and Very Fast
**The hero is every obnoxious Mary Sue genius autodidact from SF dialed up to 11, and it can be very preachy, but somehow that didn't stop me from devouring it at top speed.

56:

SF, despite what the authors think, is about plausible ideas

As has been often remarked, FTL drives as typically depicted in SF have about as much scientific plausibility as the One Ring. Which is to say, none.

57:

Perhaps part of Charlie's current dissatisfaction with SF is the sense that real-life technology is rather stagnant (e.g. space travel) except in information and related technologies. The technologies affected by Moore's Law are, on the other hand, so complicated and change so fast that it's hard to write anything about them that will stay relevant for a publishing cycle, let alone stand the test of time.

58:

A lot of the focus of this conversation with regards to "science fiction" is on the technological aspect of the genre, and comparing this to the "magic" element in fantasy. While these are worthy areas of comparison, doesn't science fiction serve another purpose, and that is to highlight potential cultural and political changes we may be facing in the future due to a variety of trends, not just the technological?

A book that takes place 50 years in the future and deals with, say, the ramifications of climate change, disease pandemics, dwindling global resources, etc. etc. would qualify as science fiction, wouldn't it, and yet could really deemphasize the technological aspects of that future reality. It'd still be "SF," or at least "speculative fiction" (I'm not one to really get anal about those definitions, personally).

Another point is that it's totally possible to write science fiction that takes place in the present, I would argue -- just changing up some minor variables, or making assumptions about things that "could" be going on around us, but that aren't widely accepted. Couldn't you write a SF story that takes place in the present that supposes that aliens actually have discovered Earth, and are quietly manipulating things in the background? That some shadowy group really has created true AI, and it is influencing things via cultural and political processes? That a terrorist group does something really bad to a global population center (or ten) and what shape society takes as a result? Maybe I'm simply not as familiar with writings that fall into these camps, but it strikes me that this might be the type of SF that really ought to exist nowadays, because it lets us think about the existing world in another context.

59:

In what specific way is that computer in your pocket different from an object as mundane as a #2 pencil?

I many of the places where I've lived for the last 60 years I could go outside and within a reasonable walk pick up a soft rock and use it as a pencil. The modern store bought pencil is just a refinement of that.

As to the computer in a pocket, outside of using groups of stones ordered on the ground as a calculator or maybe a big leaf rolled up as a megaphone, there's not much I or anyone else could make from natural resources that do anything the pocket computer does.

60:

Another thing, as I think a few other commenters noted, is that it's essentially possible to write what is essentially science fiction (even "hard" SF) that reads like fantasy. What would life be like as an "informational entity" living inside of a Matrioshka brain? In such a simulated reality, almost anything would be possible. The anime Sword Art Online, as silly as it is (and I fully admit I'm a sucker for anime) gets into this territory. It all takes place in a near-perfectly simulated virtual reality, that happens to be a fantasy massively multiplayer online RPG. I love the idea of the genres hybridizing -- but my personal perspective wants the "core" of the fictional reality to conform to either the laws of physics as they are understood to be, or at least something that as far as we know isn't blatantly outside of what might be physically possible. "Magic" fails this test for me, and for some reason, just the way I'm wired I guess, fails to hold my attention as much. I've always thought that one of the reasons I love near-future sci-fi so much is that it's kind of like "training for the future." And for me, it genuinely has been. Getting so into computers, technology, communications, all the stuff that I utilize as part of my career today, was largely due to my being energized about these things through reading near-future sci-fi. It proved to be genuinely useful! Of course all great literature can be usefully constructive to a developing mind, but all of that near-future sci-fi actually imparted career skills in me quite blatantly, I think.

61:

I don't know where I get off, but I beg to differ about the underlying difference between SF & Fantasy. It's not plausibility—just for a starting example, so much of post-singularity SF is exceedingly implausible and I'm guessing even the authors knew this while writing it. (Like I said, I don't know where I get off. No disrespect intended. Accelerando is one of my favorite stories ever!)

So, instead, consider:

  • A man walks up to a small alcove and commands, "Earl Grey, hot." A door slides open to reveal a steaming cup of tea.

  • A different man walks up to covered serving tray and squinches up his eyes and says, "I wish I had a ham sandwich." He opens his eyes, lifts the lid, and voila, ham sandwich on a silver platter. (If you need to, pretend he was bald, wished for a cup of Earl Grey instead, wore a uniform, and didn't squinch his eyes).
The difference in whether we perceive the scenario as "science fiction" or as "fantasy" doesn't lie in the plausibility of the event. Both above events are equally plausible (and equally implausible). The difference in our characterization comes after we've heard the explanation for this Strange New Phenomenon.

Science Fictional phenomena are explained by science and technology, and Fantastical phenomena by magic. It's got nothing to do with what happens in the story and everything to do with how the author has framed it. This is why "Pattern Recognition" is a science fiction novel—Gibson analyzed the situation still further and realized that certain coded words were all the reader needed to recognize a story as science fiction. In other words, the difference lies in how the story was written.

Consider:

  • A woman dies when she falls (or is pushed) off of a building. An hour later she wakes up in another body.
The difference in whether this mystery is explained using code words that register it to the reader as science fiction (soul chip, backup, data transfer) or words that register as fantasy tropes (zombie, brujo, reanimation spell, transmigration of souls) is the difference between Richard K. Morgan and Kelly Link.


Personally I don't have a huge appetite for systemized, falsifiable, deterministic magic. I appreciate the ingenuity that goes into Rules of Magic, once magic is a technology it might as well be SF, even if the story is set in some analog of medieval Europe. Still, I see the appeal: it makes some stories possible that might otherwise have faded away along with those futures that will never be.

@15: The march of science has restricted our views of the future, as has the actual arrival of the future.
This I think explains why so many people are moved toward fantasy these days. A lot of "plausibility" has gone out of alternate futures. We're most likely to get eco-catastrophe, and something like AI, and something like anthropoid robots, and no obvious reason for genuine canned primates in space for the near term. Even if we could afford them. Exploring the solar system is still exciting (because, Science!) but not the grand mystery it once seemed, and holds so many fewer promises of wonderful surprise than it did in the era of the Space Race.


But people need that something, that juice they used to get from SF. It's not quite escapism, although it is that. It's also the "mirror darkly". We use fiction to understand the world, and while it's been the drug of choice for a few generations now, I think collectively we've built up quite an immunity.

62:

@33 and such: If you showed someone 100 years ago any modern rifle or pistol they'd understand it pretty well. If you showed someone my kitchen, the only really incomprehensible thing is the microwave. Refrigerators were around, just inefficient and industrial-sized. And the stove has a digital clock on it, but that's not important to its function as a stove. (Which is good, because it's broken.)

63:

I'd like to think I more or less understand most of what goes into a cellphone, but at the same time I have a PhD in Computer Engineering with a recent emphasis on embedded systems.

A lot of the current issue with technology is not the advanced technology, but the fact that it's a secret.

Having the fuel mixture to your car controlled by a small computer can actually be easier to understand and fix than if it's controlled by a complex series of mechanical parts... if only the computer involved was well documented and the source code were available.

Same with other things, designing a fairly powerful CPU is a project easily accomplished by a team of undergraduate students for a class project. Actually fabbing such a thing is mostly a matter of having a pile of money and hiring a few chemists. Making it *fast* is where you run into a wall because the companies who build such things do not publish in detail how they do it.

What we need are the technology primers Vinge talks about, used to reboot collapsed civilizations by rapidly building things up by skipping dead ends. If you sent me back to the 1940s and gave me a budget and staff the size of the Manhattan project I could probably have a smartphone built within 10 years, although it would probably be the size of a cinder block and have horrible battery life.

64:

What we need are the technology primers Vinge talks about, used to reboot collapsed civilizations by rapidly building things up by skipping dead ends.

I expect that if our civilization collapses any time soon, it will be from lack of accessible fossil fuels. A technology primer would not help; there's probably no way to compensate for the lack of accessible sources of concentrated energy.

n.b. This comes with a corresponding expectation that, if we somehow manage to get renewable energy up and running on a large enough scale, our civilization probably won't collapse any time soon. A boy can dream.

65:

Hello Charlie,

I loved the article, thank you ! I agree with all of it, though I would like to add that the magic of our modern world has had some interesting side effects....

Committed lovers of cars we can't afford (me) and yet are willing to own (me again), are willing to tinker with them (spotted a pattern yet?)....and the Internet - magic - is our helpmaid.

I have a lovely Alfa Romeo 166 V6 - a monster of a car, with just enough brains to make it fun (literally the best autobox in history, that does a whole repetoire of behaviour in which the 'box says "I'm a manual really!" and proves it by engine braking, dropping a cog on the donwhill, blipping the engine, holding rev in corners, and of course not changing up until the engine is in its sweet spot), but not enough to prevent it being tinkered with....sadly, it blew a head gasket lately, and rather than fork over NZ$4000 for the priviledge of getting my car not to boil all its coolant, I got it analysed (Cylinder 5 - front bank central - head bolts loose - aaarrrgh !) I fixed it myself....and I could not have done it without the internet, and research....and sheer bloody mindedness and a LOT of brute force.....

This gets me thinking...Yes, I do not understand the innards of an iPhone 4, but I get the idea - its a compressed, miniaturised Linux PC, approx Pentium 4 class, in a small case with Gorilla Glass and a touchscreen and a 1080i display...I know its running Linux because my Ubuntu 14.04 Core 2 Duo box can see everything inside it....and it has more power than a Cray XMP....so there's the magic bit.

And I got to grips with my Alfa, and am now a dyed in the wool (a good thing to be in New Zealand, given the proximity of R'lyeh where KThulu sleeps....unless the stars are right...which they are...which is why Bob is not here....too often) bona fide Alfa Romeo expert....

Anyway I am rambling.

I have also recently taken delivery of the mind-blowing 1/32nd scale Tamiya Supermarine Spitfire Mk. IXc - the finest spitfire model kit ever made...have a look at pics and so on online. It'll blow your brains out - it certainly blew out mine ! Glad to have bought it...and astonished its real.

Magic of our time is going to be digital perfection combined with attention to detail. I think this is the future, and maybe an element in a coming singularity...already I make a side living from my work 3D printing Carbonfibre stuff in the Lambo factory....so let us bring it on !

Thanks for all the awesome writing Charlie, long may it continue.

With kindest regards, from the shores of R'lyeh in Auckland

Martin.

66:

I think (I could easily be wrong) that the FTL-limitation may apply only to curved, or sufficently curved paths.
If one was able to travel ftl (the basic premise), but left here, went to, say Kepler 186f in a straight line.
Then came back again, after slowing down & turning round, but, no matter how fast you travelled, you would still arrive back here after you left.
So no paradox.
But, & contrariwise, if you travelled (or tried to travel) in a looped path, so that you returned before you started, then, I suspect something, like the laws of physics) would prevent this from happening.
There are two separate prohibitions operating here, not one.
( I think )

As for the palantir in your pocket, well, yes.
It's quite clear from JRRT's later writings & notes that the technology of Numenor at its height was at least as good as that of late-1950's current Earth & probably a lot better.
There is the distinct possiblity that a grey ship actually looked like this
Um

67:

Lots of talk about the magic, fantasy, technology, near vs far future aspects of this. Not so much about the "Urban" in Urban Fantasy. I'm finding cities increasingly weird and incomprehensible despite spending most of my life living close to London and sometimes working in it daily. So I'd welcome more near future SciFi that explores that. Not just to a backdrop of technology enabled hipster-gentrification spreading through intensely cosmopolitan areas like some kind of meme virus. But also the way places like Sao Paolo or Mumbai or Astana, Kazakhstan are mutating as they absorb near-future tech.

Come on Ian McDonald, Ken Macleod, OGH, pick another city and write another one, dammit! Ah, the essential vampirism of the fan-consumer, "Please make me feel again like I did when I first consumed some of your output"!

68:

Not so sure about smartphone being unrecognisable, actually 130 years back
Try HERE - scroll down to the first illo, "Punch's Almanack for 18xx".
An entirely accurate prediction - just took a little time to implement ....

69:

YEAH!
So another fan of J E Gordon.
You mention his lesser-known work, too.
His other major book is still a classic & should be required reading for any intelligent person:
"Structures - or why things don't fall down"
It also contains warnings for the arrogant & the stupid, too.

70:

... and also @ # 39
Actually, you can tell the people in 1944/5 how to start making a smartphone, by telling thenm how a transistor works, a simple pnp trnasistor - & stand back.

Has anyone else here ever read Alfred Tennyson's Locksley Hall ??

71:

Lots of people, at a time when swords were common, tried to make magic swords.

They went to church and held all night vigils so that god, or in their paradigm God, would bless them.

They bought relics and put them into the hilt of the sword so the power of the saint would aid them.

There are enduring legends about a certain sword belonging to Arthur, you may vaguely remember it's name. Depending on how well versed you are in medieval literature and history, you might have come across other heroes and their named swords that never broke, never saw defeat in battle and so on. Roland and Durendal is probably the next most well known but the list carries on (El Cid and Tizona being probably the next best known). All these swords have powers and properties beyond the norm. Quite a few of them are stories and legends have a clear historical basis and their legendary origins at a time when people routinely carried swords.

Today, granted, we don't try to make magic swords. Except maybe in Japan (watch Kill Bill for example.) But we also don't routinely carry swords. And look at the people that go into church and light a candle for a sick loved one to help them recover or similar. Magical thinking is alive and strong out there for wide swathes of the population.

72:

Matt ...
Magicians.
Err ... Granny Weatherwax?
Tiffany Aching, Ponder STibbons?
All operating according to rules, it seems, perhaps.

Oh, Jay @ #56
have about as much scientific plausibility as the One Ring. Which is to say, none.
And if the One RIng is actually a panopticon device, giving control over all information, including control of quantum states?
Maybe not so unrealistic, now?

73:

We use fiction to understand the world

Really? I'm under the impression we use fiction to gain pleasure by ignoring the world.

74:

Jay
Not a dream
It is beginning to look as if the various forms of energy-capture from renewables, plus electricity storage, plus artififical photosynthesis may/will come together, probably beofre 2025 - 11 years ahead .....
And the world will change, utterly, as the oil in the deserts becomes, comparatively, valueless.
Yes, we will still need "petrochemicals" but they can & will be fabricated, to order under controlled conditions, not pumped out of the ground.
Add a sensible increase in civil nuclear power, which also appears to be happening, & in that respect there's nothing to worry about.

75:

And if the One Ring is actually a panopticon device, giving control over all information, including control of quantum states?

You know, using technobabble infused with the latest fashionable buzzwords ("panopticon", "quantum" etc) is a time-honored SF practice, but it doesn't actually make anything more realistic. It's just a device for inducing suspension of disbelief.

76:

I'm wondering about "Urban" now. Why not Suburban Fantasy, Small Town Fantasy, Backwoods Fantasy?

So that's Buffy, Twin Peaks/Fargo, True Blood/Justified respectively. Maybe not, then.

77:

And it's why we still need SF, not urban fantasy - because we desperately need visions of a future that are better than we have now - to aim towards.

Really?

I tend to think that the "we need visions of a better future" rationale for SF makes about as much sense as the "we can't keep all our eggs in one basket" rationale for colonizing Mars; it's superficially plausible because it provides emotional validation for a desired objective, but it's actually horseshit.

If you want to spread a vision of a better future, go into politics. And if you want me to come up with visions of a better future for you ... I'm not some kind of futurist Goebbels.

78:

A minor point of order of a biological nature (outside of OGH's experience, I'd wager): Monkey see, monkey do doesn't really happen very much. Apes do not ape each other's behaviour; they are actually very poor indeed at copying a sequence of behaviour unless they can work out what is meant to happen at the end.

Humans on the other hand are accomplished mimics; people will copy other people for no readily apparent reason, even if they have not the slightest, foggiest clue what the end result is supposed to be (and I cite the entire fashion industry in support of this notion).

Really, it should read "Hominid see, hominid do".

79:

Actually the One Ring isn't so much an artifact that can only be made once, but rather one so appalling in its powers that one would only be made by an evil overlord with delusions of grandeur.

In the Tolkein world-scenario, there is but the one Evil Great Lord, presumably as such lords tend not to develop very much or very fast, and pretenders to the throne tend to get culled by the current incumbent. Thus once the resident Evil Overlord has made his ring, there is no need to make any more rings.

80:

One Ring is an artifact that can be made only once, as it is basically a vessel holding most of the power of Sauron, who is, in the time of LOTR, the most powerful being in the world. There is only one Sauron and he has a limited amount of power. No one but Sauron could make the One Ring, and even Sauron could only make the One Ring once.

Also, there is no such thing as "Tolkien world-scenario". All fantasy world are different.

81:

re 80: this is "all in the manual", BTW, written by Tolkien himself.

82:

I DID say authors wouldn't like it.

However when you step back, the visions of the future that have been laid out, and that more technical competent people then make happen, are probably the biggest societal plus point for SF.

And as for politics - you wouldn't, I think, dispute the harm done by Ms Rand and her books?

Stories have a power - for good or ill - to engage the focus of dreamers.

83:

Just to add to the fun, theres the common public perception of magic and the actual history of magic, and as such magic turns out to be more a matter of technology, i.e. using the right substance at the right time to get the result you want.
THe actual difference is more subtle, between the natural, i.e. here on earth, and the supernatural, i.e. off earth, or divinely based. Plus there's the basic mutability of word meanings to consider and it's all a big mess.

Suffice to say, magic was for many centuries essentially a means of affecting other people and objects, but believed to work by hidden forces, not obvious visible forces like hot and cold and dry and moist.

84:

Likewise, to the extent that I've never seen a cellphone generate any other error (but don't know any 'app' developers).

85:

There is another reason why future tech might as well be magick. If it is created by AI using something like genetic algorithms it may well be of such convoluted complexity that it rivals or exceeds that of biological life.

86:

For what values of "I understand"? I understand the principles behind all the electronics and coding in a cell handset, but not in sufficient depth to replicate them. I could say the same of a radar for example, or the actual ECUs in a modern car.
In the last case, given a few weeks practice, I can smelt and machine metals well enough to produce a working carburetor engine from ingots once I've got casting patterns.

87:

I'd agree. It's fairly obvious that a lot of subspace drives (Star Trek "warp drive" for example) "work" by allowing you to take a chord through a sphere rather than an arc over its surface. (language is simplified, but I'm trying to explain the concept clearly and concisely).

88:

Today, granted, we don't try to make magic swords. Except maybe in Japan (watch Kill Bill for example.)

Disagree - If you ever get the chance, try how an ancient masterwork katana like a genuine Masamuri blade handles compared with a mass produced WW2 Japanese officer's sword. We understand the metallurgy and balance stuff behind them, but the Masamuri takes a sharper edge, holds it better, and is easier to wield, all common properties of "magic weapons".

89:

...and get arrested! Seriously, early pnp transistors and the cavity magnetron were 2 of the key technologies in later WW2 UK and US radar systems, and as such were highly classified.

90:

However when you step back, the visions of the future that have been laid out, and that more technical competent people then make happen, are probably the biggest societal plus point for SF.

This is not how the universe works. Otherwise we'd have FTL space travel (which a lot of SF authors envisioned), but no internet (which none envisioned).

91:

If you look back to my original comment, I reference how people keep trying to make the typewriter/word processor you can talk to, even though it's a bloody stupid idea.

Nothing says that the SF idea is a good one, or that it's even possible, just that the vision presented tends to energise people to try and make it happen.

Sometimes, quite often, it works out.

92:

Now that you mention it, I think that Saruman was working around the edges of a One Ring program.

In Fellowship, he boasted to a captive Gandalf that he was "Saruman, Ring-Maker" or words to that effect. He just didn't have the stones to do a full-Sauron and put most of his power into the ring he made.

Wait. How did I get so off-topic?

93:

I'm afraid you mix correlation with causality. It all begins with:

A: Scientific discovery.

A inspires:

B: SF authors to write stories.
C: Engineers to work on new technologies based on A.

So, A->B and A->C, does not equal B->C.

94:

I think the technologification of magic in fiction is an inevitable side effect of Sanderson's First Law and RPGs.

A lot of gamers, I think, at some point tried to re-create the kind of wonder they got when first reading Lord Of The Rings, only to discover that players don't act like Tolkien's characters. Give them a magic item of vague but storied power, and they'll try to figure out how it works by experimenting. They'll try to reproduce it so everyone in the party can have one.

Carry that through to its logical conclusion and you end up with Brust's Dragaera, or Gladstone's Craftspersons. And when you look at it in terms of political power approaching magic, and co-opting any new source of physical power for political ends, you get Mieville's New Crobuzon.

Come to think of it, Tolkien's approach to magic was as bizarre as his approach to technology - how long had Middle Earth been wielding swords in chain mail without advancing the level of technology? If elves can make magic bread that sustains life with minimal resources, why aren't starving children in the streets of Minas Tirith eating the stuff?

Hence, "Spellpunk" and "Hard Fantasy", and their newborn genre baby of "stuff like Gladstone is writing and that Charlie wants to write".

95:

@ 65

"I have also recently taken delivery of the mind-blowing 1/32nd scale Tamiya Supermarine Spitfire Mk. IXc - the finest spitfire model kit ever made...have a look at pics and so on online."

Damn you sir - that's another weekend blown. It does indeed look fantastic.

96:

A lot of gamers, I think, at some point tried to re-create the kind of wonder they got when first reading Lord Of The Rings, only to discover that players don't act like Tolkien's characters. Give them a magic item of vague but storied power, and they'll try to figure out how it works by experimenting. They'll try to reproduce it so everyone in the party can have one.

Good GM can solve this problem.

how long had Middle Earth been wielding swords in chain mail without advancing the level of technology?

Ahem. Real-world humanity used bows, swords and armor for thousands of years. Technological revolution is a new phenomenon.

If elves can make magic bread that sustains life with minimal resources, why aren't starving children in the streets of Minas Tirith eating the stuff?

Because lembas is made using intrinsic elf magic, so only elves can make it

97:

Except there's recent evidence of apes mimicking behaviour. One ape swapped a leaf in a leaf pad for collecting water for moss, got more water, and animal behaviourists were able to watch the new behaviour spread through the troop.

98:

Um, sorry, surely that's saying we can still make magic swords - however rarely we do? There are still, as in Kill Bill, master swordsmiths making high quality "magic" swords with better qualities than the mass produced modern ones.

But, in general, people don't try to make swords, let alone magic ones. If you have a sword, you don't take it into church to have it blessed in a vigil. You don't buy a relic to bind it into the hilt. In Japan, you can buy a cheap, mass-produced sword, or you can buy an antique or a modern artisan crafted, expensive sword.

99:

[off topic]

I also really like the looks of the new birdcage Corsair - http://www.tamiya.com/english/products/60324corsair_birdcage/index.htm

100:

Ahem. Real-world humanity used bows, swords and armor for thousands of years. Technological revolution is a new phenomenon.

Sure, but not the same bows, swords and armor - there were constant attempts to come up with better arms and armor. Technological change still happened, just more slowly. The technology of war Isildur had should have been different than that available to Aragorn.

Because lembas is made using intrinsic elf magic, so only elves can make it

So an enterprising elf could make a fortune cornering the market on cheap peasant chow! We know the wood elves, at least, trade with humans (hence the barrels that were turned into the long video game chase scene in the Hobbit movie).

It's possible that the costs of producing lembas or the resources needed are such that a scheme like that wouldn't be cost effective, but that is the sort of question people ask. A world with well-defined magic has answers to these questions, and needs to because there's a pool of contemporary readers that have been conditioned to ask these questions.

101:

I actually did attempt to build a processor from 7400 series TTL gates. It was my senior electronics project in high school. I didn't finish, mostly because I couldn't find any instructional materials, but I was making progress.

And I suppose I ought to throw Lyndon Hardy and Magic, Inc. out there.

On an email list I'm on (for The Fantasy Trip of all things), the term we use is 'industrial magic' for systematized magic. Given how human societies seem to operate, there would be the attempt to industrialize magic. There was a lovely discussion about using Gates to take down a castle by accelerating boulders to terminal velocity...

102:

Writer's gonna write what a writer needs to write, for whatever reason. Time to railroad, etc.

But.

I'm not sure what's so new here, beyond particular writers'/commentators' own takes on and feels for what is engaging in the available workspace. As much as I respect and admire Clute's analytical powers, I find "fantastika" to be a differently-spelled "the fantastic," a term that was leaking into the academic discussion of contra-realistic fiction while I was in grad school forty-plus years ago. The genre spaces indicated by that term are distributed along a number of axes. A couple of the ones that are useful in distinguishing "science fiction" from "fantasy" might be labeled "intelligibility" and "materialism" (though I'd be happy to find something better for the latter). Both of these (somewhat oversimply but necessarily binary) axes apply to the world implied by the fiction. Other axes can apply, but many of them also apply to other genre spaces or to fiction in general (present/past setting, strongly/weakly rulebound).

On the other hand, if the fantastic always trades in metaphorical reimaginings of the world and our place in it, then SF and "fantasy" are different families of metaphor rather than sets of assertions about the, um, literal nature of reality, then SF is not really about prediction any more than fantasy is about the existence of magic. (Recall that when William Gibson wrote Neuromancer he had little operational knowledge of computers.) And Charlie's urge to turn his efforts to X rather than Y metaphor-set is a matter of following his internal compass--his post is, after all, explicitly not a manifesto.

"Urban fantasy" is a relatively recent label for stories that have been around in Anglophone fiction for at least a century--the easiest grab would be work by Fritz Leiber or Heinlein for Campbell's Unknown (as Mike Collins @ 52 has already done), but I can point to relatives from the turn of the previous century (Machen, Blackwood) that place supernatural events in a then-contemporary urban setting. The cultural motives for some of this work feels to me to be of opposite polarity to what generates SF--and in fact both Machen and Blackwood harbored strong anti-materialist sentiments. Just as many "hard" SF writers clearly project a materialist, non-supernaturalist metaphysics. Then there's Walter Joh Williams' Metropolitan sequence. What's *that* about, eh? (Or, to bring this back to our host's work, the Laundryverse.)

Oy, I do go on. Must be backed up. That happens when I'm between columns.

103:

I like the Culture universe too ... as for techno-babble... who knows what can or cannot be done, or how it may be done. According to Wikipedia, our universe (the 4% to 5% that is observable) is made up of 61 known ingredients. So the entire 100%-explained universe could have anywhere from 62 to millions of different particles/forces. Handwavium could be one of them - balanced out by it's symmetric antiparticle, undovium.

"Full particle count

Counting particles by a rule that distinguishes between particles and their corresponding antiparticles, and among the many color states of quarks and gluons, gives a total of 61 elementary particles."


BTW - I'm not bashing fantasy, it's just that few fantasy novels go far enough or take enough risks in world-building. Of course, maybe I just haven't read enough/the right novels.

104:

I (mostly) agree; if a Punch-reading educated man-about-town sees the smartphone in action (presumably in the hands of a time traveler or human-appearing alien visitor) then they will swiftly figure out what's going on (becasue in 1914 the future was already there, just unevenly distributed). On the other hand if it arrived in front of 90% of the planet's population it would clearly be magic or incomprehensible or some crazy foreigner talking into a box.

Also, when it turns up (broken) in the lab, it probably doesn't make any difference to WW1, but it might just change things in time for WW2.

105:

Fantasy often relies on religion. That's troubling - blind acceptance, injunction to not question or look further, stay blissfully ignorant...

106:

@ SFReader

But, probably the biggest difference between the two is that SF shows you an end-result (gadget or state of being) that you really, really want to make real.

Perhaps not quite that. The Hieroglyph project is much more what I like in SF - big ideas that are plausible and a interestingly changed world that results. (The book is very good too).

As others have said, I have to fundamentally disagree with OGH's analogy between tech and magic, and I am somewhat surprised at a science trained author to even suggest it. That is tantamount to suggesting that reading reports in Nature or Science is like reading runes.

I can see that the success of the Laundry novels probably has OGH's agent pushing for more in that direction, rather than the SF direction, and if that is a business decision to make, then go for it. Your audience will no doubt change to reflect that decision and that is OK too. There are new SF authors who are appearing and will fill the demand of readers who want plausible tech SF.

Has science become so difficult to follow that authors can no longer extrapolate from it to develop interesting new stories?

107:

Too bad psionics seems to have finally died. That, for decades (thank you Campbell) was the mainstay of the SF X Magic mashups. See, for instance, The Warlock in Spite of Himself, or James Schmitz's works. Or the Lensmen.

Now, what Charlie's talking about is something different, but, well, new again. And definitely not The Border.

All I've got to say is, here we go again. It's a good thing that we've gotten far enough away from the Baby Boomers that there's a perceived need to reinvent some of old tropes and make them new again.


108:

Has science become so difficult to follow that authors can no longer extrapolate from it to develop interesting new stories?

It has become increasingly difficult to follow subfields of science outside one's own specialty, even for working scientists. I don't think this is the major problem for incorporating hard science into SF.

If the people of the "quintessential SF temperament" want more, better, then up through the first half of the 20th century science worked more or less in line with their expectations. New discoveries mostly overturned rather than confirmed old ideas of limits. New discoveries meant new and improved applied technologies. Bohr and Einstein overturned Newton, and they could hope that someone else would overturn Einstein so they could flit about the galaxy. It doesn't look like that will happen. People of the QSFT are cranky and in denial about this.

For most of recorded history it looked like nature was the master of humanity. For some golden decades it looked like humanity was mastering nature through applied science. After about 1950 science cruelly, repeatedly confirmed that nature imposes hard limits on the possible, even if the ceiling is considerably more generous than most would have guessed in 1600. That's hard to accept for people who thought of science primarily as midwife to inventions and only secondarily as a process of uncovering truths about nature. They'll ignore the truths if that's the price of continuing access to imaginary inventions.

109:

“Today, granted, we don't try to make magic swords. Except maybe in Japan (watch Kill Bill for example.) "

Oh. I don’t know about that. If we extend “Today” just a bit back in time then we have the equivalent of swords made from metal given by the god’s type of thing. Lots of swords in fantasy are explained away as being made from Fire from Heaven/ meteorites and yet more made by sticking a suitable sword through a slave during the sword making process or, well...

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

Doesn't take much to create a legend if you have a good story to tell and the customer has Loads Money...oh, and Really, Really, wants to believe.

https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=toledo+steel+swords&client=firefox-a&hs=Mox&rls=org.mozilla:en-GB:official&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=XYI1VOWuHeLQygPolYIw&ved=0CEYQsAQ&biw=1016&bih=543

Not just in " Kill Bill " though. For modern swords? Look here ..

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uL2bpuyTHto


A complement to the Perfect Sword is the Perfect Technique, as revealed by the Secret Masters of the Sword...or of the Sword Equivilant of The Victorian Age...

http://ejmas.com/jnc/jncart_barton-wright_0200.htm


HA!! Stand back you Varlet - and Know Your Place! - For I have read the BOOK and I have my trusty walking stick!

110:

@Matt - I think we are getting inventions, but as Charlie noted in one of his essays(speeches?) that the inventions are not what we were expecting. If the main thrust of inventions is in computation and biology, that simply impacts what are the stories to write.

Heteromeles mentions psionics - well we may have the technological equivalent for a number of these faculties. Now however we understand how they will work and therefore can write stories about how they will impact humans with a plausible underlying scitech.

In the intro to the book "Hieroglyph" someone remarks how SF authors are not providing the ideas any more, which echoes Douglas Adam's point about general literature running out of new ideas.

111:

About the "urban" in UF - I think the most urban-feeling fantasy to me were the Hoduns in Count Zero. This fusing of street smarts with magical thinking impressed me deeply.

Someone asked about the real world impact of Rand. Allow me to quote Dale Carrico (Amor Mundi): "Ayn Rand's Abiding Popularity and Influence Are Far From Inexplicable:
She tells stupid people who think they are superior and privileged people who think they earned their privileges they are right."
Could have done the same with a fairytale.

112:

Magic, when it works, is spectacular, powerful, amazing, and very useful. When it works. And when you can get a wizard to work for you. But it is never something you can really rely on. The engineers and scientists of the world would rather pretend it doesn't even exist.

This is distantly similar to Game of Thrones (the books -- the series did not get that far yet), where Maesters are essentially early scientists, and at least some of them are actively working to destroy magic, as it is basically a competing force.

113:

Alex, I'd suggest looking in a mirror if you're not seeing inventions in SF. If you want to see a plethora of invention, go check out the Orion's Arm project. It got raided (without attribution, I'm afraid) for that Quantum Thief series, which was also wildly inventive.

I think the bigger problem is that we've gotten into a boilerplate idea about what's salable as science fiction. We've also got a large number of writers who are writing to sell, rather than writing to inspire. I can't particularly blame them, but it does mean that we don't get a lot of truly new stuff coming along.

It also means, fortunately, that I suspect we're sitting on the edge of a flock of new books about to come out. If everyone's dissatisfied with the current material, someone's going to write something new and different that blows the lid off and lets in a whole new flock of imitators.

114:

It's interesting that FTL is only one coming to seem implausible in SF. It's not as if anything in particular has changed in the last 70 years in our understanding of FTL - it's always been in pretty strong tension with relativity. If anything, modern developments are (very slightly) more friendly to FTL. If I had to guess, the shift represents increasing physics literacy in the community more than any objective change.

115:

Only NOW, sorry... Blame IOS autocorrect.

116:

Seems to me that politics and religion shade into magic. For politics, consider "Pass this law, and the problem will be solved forever."

117:

**The hero is every obnoxious Mary Sue genius autodidact from SF dialed up to 11, and it can be very preachy, but somehow that didn't stop me from devouring it at top speed.

Interesting. I could not stand "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality" for more than a few pages, but it had nothing to do with the protagonist. I did not even see him as particularly obnoxious. Just the whole story... fell totally flat for me.

118:

I feel that "inventions", or at least "ideas" in SF have muted somewhat compared to the past, although that may be because of rose tinted specs viewing SF's Golden Age. It may be that the "big ideas" have become less common, or not as obvious. Some people have argued that we are seeing the end of major technological innovation (e.g. economist Tyler Cowen) although I don't believe that, I think it's because technology has become less obvious - avionics, rather than new propulsion.

But I grew up when technology was bringing jets to aviation and I am tempered to like those big, obvious changes, and those are probably a little easier to write about than software or gene engineering. For example, Jablokov had an AI as part of his book "Brain Thief" but it was almost a McGuffin as little effort was used to explain it, AFAICS. I read Rajaniemi "Quantum Thief" which I liked a lot, although arguably it was close to magic (in the Clarke's 2nd Law meaning).

Stephenson has been pushing for the "big ideas" again in the Hieroglyph project, and I tend to agree with his aim. Certainly the stories in the book mostly succeed in fulfilling that aim, and they aren't all about mega-engineering.

119:

Buncha interesting stuff in this thread

- urban fantasy? Sure why not. Generally proven to be a problematic switch for sci if authors though. On the other hand, fantasy sells better on average and like so some else said, gotta write what you gotta write.

- Can Science Fiction be an inspiring message/ vision for the world and is Neil Stephneson onto something with the Hieroglyph project. Yes, absolutely , proven by Elon Musk if nothing else. Inspiring people and getting them focused can certainly have an impact and seems to be n short supply lately

Probably not a good play for Charlie though , Hope and Optimism are not exactly his strong suits, he is generally much better at wielding the Fear stick and serving up warnings and dark humor rather then inspiration. I blame this on Too Much Scotland, but it's probably beyond curing at this point. Both are needed, play to your strengths we all got roles to play. Also Charlie is not big on individuals changing the world through personal effort, he puts more faith in large government actions so it's gonna be hard for him to buy in that such things matter

- is technology becoming more magicish. Yes, as it gets more complex it gets harder to understand. This is not a new thing though, hell blacksmiths were almost magicians back in the day. Also there remain important fundamental differences even if you use a modern, techno corrupted ideas of magic.

120:

Heh. I can see the appeal of jets, but things are changing pretty quickly. For instance...

I'm helping an elderly relative sell off a multi-decade set of old science fiction paperbacks, plus a few hardcovers (remember Gnome Press?). Anyone want any old paperback Murray Leinsters? E.E. Smith's d'Alembert series? I'm keeping the old H. Beam Pipers.

Problem is, thanks to Amazon, there are a lot of used books now on sale for a penny, plus shipping. Turns out that charities and libraries are dumping all the surplus books they get. Yes it's understandable, and yes, I can understand that writers get royalties from new ebooks but not resales. Still, it's difficult to look at a big collection and realize that, for me, it's cheaper to throw it out than it is for me to try to find new homes for most of these books.

That's a big technical change, and quite honestly, it's not a welcome one for those of us who like books. But, of course, technical progress cannot be denied. Or something.

121:

Heteromeles,
That bit about the boiler plate idea for SF makes clear an idea I've been trying to articulate for a while. Combine with the fact that a lot of folks want this as their only SF and it gets kind of repetitive.

122:

I agree about the increasingly magical trajectory of technology. This raises the question of whether our societies will begin to mirror those of fantasy, where feudal wizard magocracies and hereditary elites employ arcane technology and elaborate traditions to maintain a stable social order and discourage disruptive innovations that could threaten their power?

Is it such a stretch to imagine a world dominated by techno-sorcerers in tall towers, communicating and surveilling with electronic palantirs, commanding armies of robotic orcs and flying predators, all seeking the One Ring of (AI/nanotech/etc.) Power?

Those old Star Trek futures seem quaintly mid-20th century to me, largely because they seemed to have some rather utopian ideas about human nature. Maybe we should be looking at LOTR, Elric and Conan stories for our models of the future?

123:

Sadly, there's an even worse consensus about what's saleable as Urban Fantasy (and its sluttier twin, Paranormal Romance). There are hundreds of Buffy wannabees with their own series of $2.99 self-published Kindle books. As per Sturgeon's Law, maybe two dozen of them are actually pretty good, but the volume of crap to wade through is incredible. I miss editors.

125:

Transistors were invented in 1948 by Shockley and co. WWII was vacuum tubes all the way.

As for Japanese heirloom swords the really good ones are examples that have survived to this day having passed through a filtering process of use, abuse and wear. On the other hand some of the presentation swords and temple swords still in existence aren't actually that well made in terms of metallurgy despite them being prestigious items, as they were never meant to be wielded ever in a fight.

We, today, can produce steels and other alloys that would astound the tinkerers and pray-and-try (often literally "pray") swordsmiths of past centuries but we don't make swords from such steel. Instead we make blades that endure furnace-heat beyond their actual melting-point for thousands of hours each year, stressing them unmercifully, blasting them with white-hot gases and using them to fly cheap Chinese crap to Western markets in Fedex cargo aircraft -- in case you haven't twigged what I'm talking about, I'm referring to jet engine and gas turbine blades which now need active cooling to prevent them from melting in use. Heirloom blade steel just wouldn't cut the mustard.

126:

But that technology can go backwards, too & become more primitive, as "arts" become lost.
A subject OGH has mentioned before as in: How big a population is needed to support "technology X?"
The Numenoreans in exile had tempered steel bows - a 1960's technology - there's one sitting in the room next door (!)
The late-classical Greeks had [ Reference to J E Gordon again ] Palintonon gut/sinew torsion catapults of very great efficiency, & even a machine-feed version, mounted on ships, operated by a three-man crew ( Two pedalling/cranking, one aiming & loading into the feed hopper.)

128:

Some people have argued that we are seeing the end of major technological innovation
Well, they're asleep at the wheel, then.
Non-fossil-fuel methods of generating large amounts of power + Artificial photosynthesis + efficient electrical storage + the slow, but steady advance of composite ultra-strong materials & ("Reaction Engines Ltd") much-improved drives will create a perfect storm of change, between 5 & 25 years from now.

129:

I actually did attempt to build a processor from 7400 series TTL gates. It was my senior electronics project in high school. I didn't finish, mostly because I couldn't find any instructional materials, but I was making progress.

In the mid to later 70s many of the "mini-" computer companies grew large on 7400 based computers. Wang, Interdata, etc....

130:

Also, when it turns up (broken) in the lab, it probably doesn't make any difference to WW1, but it might just change things in time for WW2.

I don't know. With only one or even a dozen it might be very hard to find the right people and devices to peal back the packaging and then really see what is inside of those ICs. Those things are just flat out small these days.

131:

Transistors were invented in 1948 by Shockley and co. WWII was vacuum tubes all the way.

Visit wikipedia. The basics were discovered in the 20s and 30s. But they didn't have the materials to actually make anything useful. What happened in 48 was actually making the "magic" work. :)

132:

Perhaps you're simplifying for the audience, but turbine blades haven't been made of steel at any time that I am aware of. FOr instance nickel superalloys are used, single crystal, with active cooling, and also some funky grains of carbides and other stuff within them.

133:

If you sent me back to the 1940s and gave me a budget and staff the size of the Manhattan project I could probably have a smartphone built within 10 years, although it would probably be the size of a cinder block and have horrible battery life.

I tend to think the Manhattan project would have been easier.

They got to apply brute force solutions in a war time. Building an Android/iPhone that required 3 rail cards to move doesn't seem to meet the goal.

And that's if you drop the phone aspect of it. Look at inventing a cell phone network from scratch. You really can't do it until you get microprocessors unless, again, you don't mind rail car sized phones and I can't imagine the size of the computers to run a cell tower.

And the reason I think it would be this way is that AT&T and others jumped all over semiconductors. It didn't take AT&T long to realize how it would dramatically reduce their costs and improve their products.. In many ways they did throw Manhattan sized groups at development. And yet we didn't get microprocessors that could work in cell phones until the late 70s. And those were analog. Display technology didn't make it until the late 90s. And all with billions of $$ thrown at the problems.

Based on wikipedia there were only about 3000 or so high tech folks on the project. The other 120,000+ people were military, construction, or plant workers.

The semiconductor industry had more than this many people working hard or better products for many decades.

Sometimes new things just take time to develop.

134:

So an enterprising elf could make a fortune cornering the market on cheap peasant chow! We know the wood elves, at least, trade with humans (hence the barrels that were turned into the long video game chase scene in the Hobbit movie).

It's possible that the costs of producing lembas or the resources needed are such that a scheme like that wouldn't be cost effective, but that is the sort of question people ask.

I'd say that examples demonstrating the lack of such enterprise in fantasy make up about 1/4 of Diana Wynne Jones's book "The Tough Guide to Fantasyland". To summarise her criticisms in a sentence: most (all?) fantasylands have neither functioning economy nor functioning ecology, and their inhabitants all wear the least practical clothing possible (cloaks) and eat the least practical food possible (stew).

135:

"The march of science has restricted our views of the future, as has the actual arrival of the future"

Well, and few people want to tell stories about the views that are still (or even more) plausible. Superintelligent immortals, planetary intellect nets... Stuff like _Saturn's Children_ or _Learning the World_ or _House of Suns_ or Poul Anderson's _Genesis_. Or even Le Guin's _Always Coming Home_, with its weird but stable far future Earth culture, nestled within the expanding City of Mind.

136:

"a world perfused by mechanised, systematized magic"

Heh, reminds me of the Nanoha franchise, which started looking like another magical girl show and then introduced magical Starfleet halfway through.

137:

I was talking to the chaps from Reaction Engines at the Worldcon. The hard part of the job is finding people who are willing to put up the money for something that is a good bet, but not a sure thing. There's just been a court case over some casino betting, a possible £7 million payout. That's crazy large betting, but a nuclear fission reactor, using established technology, as sure a high-tech bet as you can make, is over 2000 times as much money.

Whether it's Dragon's Den or something else entirely, the payoff seems to be in power and status, not money, and the people who make the decisions are unable to make a large number of small bets. Inventions are about taking a chance, and that doesn't appeal on the markets any more.

138:

Susanna Clarke nails the difference between magic-as-technology and wild-magic in 'Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell' and 'The Ladies of Grace Adieu'. We have magic as something you do, following natural laws that can be discovered and exploited. The stuff that Norrell does. Then you have magic as something you participate in, and can easily transform you. The stuff that Norrell hates. The magic of the Raven King.

We haven't yet reached the point where you can be hacked by the glass slab in your pocket. Although, would we know?

139:

It all puts me in mind of the bike shed in "Parkinson's Law". That's something big enough to look significant, but still on a scale comprehensible to the members of a committee. There's so much now where the numbers no longer feel like anything comprehensible, and where we talk about millions and billions and trillions to get something we can talk about.

140:

IIRC Tolkien said (not in LotR itself) that lembas was made with specially blessed wheat grown in clearings in Lorien; Galadriel herself was probably involved. So yeah, non-scalable resources.

Basically, high intensity travel food, like cram, beef jerky, or "Iron Rations", just lighter and tastier.

(Of course, the visual description does strongly resemble a Twinkie...)

141:

Reverse engineering an iphone a century ago would have been virtually impossible in the detail needed to replicate the technology. They would have been able to work out what the circuit board and discrete resistors and capacitors where doing and how they were wired up. Similarly, the chemistry in the battery. Not sure about the display. The various aerials would have been recognised as such. However even seeing the structure of the active layers of any of the integrated circuits would have been beyond them. The feature sizes are at least an order of magnitude below what could be resolved with the optical microscopes available. The first transmission and scanning electron microscopes weren't being experimented with till the '30's and not starting to become practical tools till the '50's. The integrated circuits would have been literal black boxes to them. They could interogate the inputs and outputs, but what was going on inside would be hidden. They could eventually replicate the logic, but not the hardware. Even replicating the logic would have required them to work out pretty much the whole of the last hundred years of computer science to make sense of.

So yes, an iphone a century ago is not far off magic.


142:

I, and I think "Arnold" in #109, both seem to have read your original post as saying "we don't make magic swords any more", and responded by saying that we do still make the "AD&D +2 sword of severing".

Also, I can't remember his DA id, but there's at least one guy in Eastern Europe who's still making Damascus steel items.

143:

I have to fundamentally disagree with OGH's analogy between tech and magic

You fundamentally misunderstood me, because I'm not making an analogy between tech and magic.

The analogy I'm making is between the way most members of the public perceive tech and magic.

Yes, we have some understanding of quantum electrodynamics and how electrons and other fermions behave and we can build structures that channel electron flow and do interesting things with them that fall under the general heading of "electronics". And some of us are even familiar with the underlying theory. But to most folks, "electronics" is a term for shiny gadgets that come wrapped in plastic film and do useful things for them. (And if you do something wrong and let the magic smoke out, they stop working: so obviously they work because of the magic smoke that they keep in.)

As I'm interested in what people do in a human-constructed (non-natural/wilderness) environment full of artefacts it follows that, to get a grip on how humans will behave, you need to attribute magical thinking to their activities.

144:

Ok, I may have jumped the gun slightly on transistors (but see #131), but if you'd been "Ministry of Supply" in, say, 1942 and I'd come to you saying "I've got this idea that needs research, but if it works will make thermionic valves for radio and radar 100 times smaller and lighter, 10_000 times more reliable, and warm up 10 times faster" just how long before I'm in a War Ministry black project?

I accept your point about "presentation swords", but I did cite Masamuri.

Also I've got a copy of Bill Gunston's "Development of Jet and Gas Turbine Aero Engines" so I know about internally cooled blades. Do you want to show me a turbine blade that can hold an edge which can cut a silk scarf when the mass of the scarf pesses on the cutting edge?

145:

I have to say I don't follow the logic of the manifesto. If technology is turning 'magical', then why not write 'fantasy' that revolves around the 'magical' tech[1], rather than around tech-like magic? Get the best of both worlds that way.

If you write something that's undeniably magic, I'd think it's because you want something clearly impossible: conservation or other physical law violations, unrealistic personal power and agency fantasies, etc. "Cell phones are like palantirs" doesn't cut it by itself for me; why use palantirs and not cell phones?

[1] Examples: Vinge's "True Names", as mentioned. Karl Schroeder's thalience novels like _Ventus_. filk: "World Inside the Crystal". Maybe "Gattaca", with its blood-coded access points. Maybe _Halting State_ and _Rule 34_ -- I don't remember them clearly enough to evaluate.

146:

That bit about the boiler plate idea for SF makes clear an idea I've been trying to articulate for a while. Combine with the fact that a lot of folks want this as their only SF and it gets kind of repetitive.

To some extent it's publisher-driven. The immediate response an author gets from their editor to a successful novel is, "write me another one just like the last, only different!" ... Or, "write whatever you like as long as it's a sequel". Because this is of course a much easier sell to the marketing team.

Remember, you might read SF because it's the genre of ideas and inspiration, but most people read it because it's escapist entertainment. If it was too different, it might miss the target -- and that would be bad.

147:

Aside from (lack of) ubiquity, what are the practical differences between palantirs and video phones?

148:

That's a pretty huge difference.

Another one, albeit maybe less relevant to a story, is lack of infrastructure. Palantirs just work as universal scrying devices, as well as communicating to each other. You can go look anywhere -- possibly even inside structures, though that's not clear -- in real time; no satellite updates or government censorship. OTOH, no search function. No texting. No voice mail. No camera. No games. No ebooks. And they're not very portable: even a classic crystal ball is pretty heavy, and I think the biggest palantirs were as tall as an adult human.

Also, don't need to recharge a palantir's batteries.

Frankly, a modern smartphone's user capabilities are *more fantastic* than most things in fantasy. It's a pocket crystal ball/magic mirror *and* all-knowledge genie *and* multipurpose entertainment device (including library) *and* instant picture-maker *and* pocketwatch *and* adjustable starmap/orrery... Being only a pocket magic mirror is, if anything, a massive service downgrade.

149:

Palantirs are also vulnerable to exploits by dark lords, with deleterious consequences (whereas smartphones are vulnerable to everyone and their dog, but with less disastrous effects to the users).

150:

Charlie wrote
"The analogy I'm making is between the way most members of the public perceive tech and magic."

I think there's still a very different reaction when things go wrong. Most of us don't have the faintest idea about how our phones work, but if it stops working we demand a refund. I don't recall say the Elves being hit with a class action lawsuit over the design flaws in their rings :-)

151:

Aren't you ignoring VCs? That is their whole purpose - try to make greater returns by taking risks. And some very big risks have been taken, not always successfully.

In the particular case of RE, they have both technical and market risk. I think that their key technology is now at the stage of low technical risk. The issue for investors is market risk. They need a large market to amortize the reusability of Skylon. Without that, the project may not make sense. To some extent they are relying on the "build it and they will come" mindset, all the while SpaceX is making the project harder as they systematically also move towards reusability and lower prices.

152:

No, they got hit with a few wars, the decline of the race and being forced to abandon their homelands and move to a new continent instead. You could, for once, argue that lawyers are kinder.

153:

But to most folks, "electronics" is a term for shiny gadgets that come wrapped in plastic film and do useful things for them. (And if you do something wrong and let the magic smoke out, they stop working: so obviously they work because of the magic smoke that they keep in.)

You may be right, but I don't get that sense. Maybe Americans have a different view of gadgets? Sure gadgets are complex. So complex and cheap that we no longer fix them, but throw them away instead. But while we might joke that smartphones are "like magic" especially compared to communications and computing in an earlier age (e.g. 1970's), we don't think about or use them, as if they operated on some magical basis. The nearest I can get to your analogy is that the user's mental model of what is happening when buttons are pushed is very different from the actual model, so that the user might say "I don't know how it works, but if I push this sequence of buttons (i.e. incantation), I get the action I want", or "If it doesn't work, I push reset(or remove the power) and start again".

However, as a reader, there is a huge difference to me whether I fly in an airplane that I understand flies because of physical principles and technology I partially understand, compared to a flying carpet which I don't. Even a teleport device appears more conceptually grounded than a flying carpet.

IMO, Bob Howard has very much crossed that divide into flying carpet territory, even though the "magic" is "explained" in the earlier books and an unrelated short story (in Toast?). While I accept Clarke's Law for a far future world, e.g. in "Quantum Thief", I don't accept it in a near contemporary world as there is no obvious development path to account for the tech, unless it is "alien" and has a development path beyond my knowledge. Which is why I like "hard SF", probably because it speaks to my sense of if we can do X, then Y result is logically plausible. Add story. The world today might seem "magical" to an earlier period, but there is no discontinuous development sequence to arrive at where we are. The world is certainly full of things that one doesn't fully understand, but you would have had to avoid most of your schooling to be truly caught up by "magical thinking" when interacting with it.

My thought experiment to test this "magical thinking" idea is this. Do global cultures whose education is poor, have more magical thinking when using electronics than we do in the west? If they do, then your case is possibly proven.

154:
Reverse engineering an iphone a century ago would have been virtually impossible in the detail needed to replicate the technology.

And apart from the issues you point out, producing sufficiently pure substrate would be a problem. The machines used in a fab are designed and built with CAD and CNC so chicken and egg. The Wright brothers could produce an entire aircraft including the engine and propellor given a workshop of tools and refined materials made by others. Nobody could build an Airbus A320 that way. It is on top of a pyramid of millions of man-years of R&D in the multiple technologies that go in to it and tens of thousands of workers with essential experience and institutional knowledge in making the parts.

And so is something like the iPhone. Maybe somebody could bootstrap something like an IBM 360 - but that was introduced 50 years ago in a field with intense constant competition ever since.

155:

Maybe I read it differently, but I thought that Sauron's scrying ability was a factor of being Sauron rather than of using a Palintir.

After all, Galadriel scrys using a basin of water.

156:

Yes, you might be able to find someone who can design a small risc core by themself. You might even be able to get them to lay it out by themself. (If you define having full use of the products of the $4B eda/physical design ip industry as unaided). But i'm left wondering in what context a small risc core is a 'modern cpu'. Maybe 10 years ago, today RISC 'CPU' = big fat multicore ARM (probably 64bit). Those are a different kettle of fish.

157:

Have you read "The Prince of Gosplan" by Viktor Pelevin? It's a day at Gosplan, reimagined as an Infocomm text adventure game. Unless it's vice versa.

158:

>> Reverse engineering an iphone a century ago would have been virtually
>> impossible in the detail needed to replicate the technology.

> And apart from the issues you point out, producing sufficiently pure
> substrate would be a problem.

Especially since "analytical grade" reagents of the period were not much better than bulk industrial feedstock today. Trying to analyse semiconductors using doping of parts per million (or less) when your purest chemicals are only 99% or so will get nowhere.

> Maybe somebody could bootstrap something like an
> IBM 360 - but that was introduced 50 years ago
> in a field with intense constant competition ever
> since.

If they could manage semiconductors, then the 360-era computers are probably just about feasible. Disk/Drum storage might not be possible but magnetic tape is definitely on the cards (excuse pun). I can't remember when ferrites were invented/first used, but probably long enough ago to give them the core store.

159:

"...but if you'd been "Ministry of Supply" in, say, 1942 and I'd come to you saying "I've got this idea that needs research, but if it works will make thermionic valves for radio and radar 100 times smaller and lighter, 10_000 times more reliable, and warm up 10 times faster" just how long before I'm in a War Ministry black project?..."

They probably would have brushed you off. Now, cut things/improve things by a factor of 2, and they might listen (except that you'd have no contacts to vouch for you, and your initial ideas would be crazy to them).

160:

We haven't yet reached the point where you can be hacked by the glass slab in your pocket. Although, would we know?

A good question, addressed by the still-missed John Brunner in: "The Dramaturges of Yan"

161:

You must have missed several crucial trials (by ordeal, in the medieval style, of course), including Isildur v. Sauron, later appealed as Smeagol v. Baggins, and decided by the local equivalent of the Supreme Court as Ring v. Lava.

162:

Reasonable people disagree on how likely our research into renewables is to pay off on the scale we need. If I was going to suggest a "perfect storm of change" coming, I would start with resource exhaustion, infrastructure collapse, and climate change as the main drivers. It's at least partly a question of temperment, though.

163:

Not only do we see old SF predicting our current universe to be wildly wrong, it is not obvious that we could get retro-fit our current universe into SF of my youth and make good stories.

When I was a kid, we had back-yard space ships with dress wearing house wives watching their kids go into space. Or close.

Would it have made good SF stories to show our world of today?

164:
Remember, you might read SF because it's the genre of ideas and inspiration, but most people read it because it's escapist entertainment. If it was too different, it might miss the target -- and that would be bad.

Sigh.
You, my wife and my family keep pointing out that I'm not as average as I like to think I am.

And, yes, it would be bad for the author's and publishers - they can't earn enough to make a living.

This also begins to get to something. I used to really enjoy mil-sf. Particularly David Drake and the like. And as I got older, I discovered I didn't like all of it. And that a lot of Drake's stuff I could take or leave and much more of it I could leave. But since I've been pondering what I like and why I like it, I've noticed the Drake books I keep re-reading are those powered by myth and/or history with a SF shell and tropes.

What I'm getting at is that it appears there are others that have gone there before Charlie. This is not a bad thing. It is a thing.

It also explains why so much of Drake's imitators are so pale - they don't have the backgrounds in history and the classics Drake does. That and the above bits about not alienating the target market.

165:

You are just quibbling numbers, and not arguing the basic appeal of smaller, lighter and more reliable radios and radars.

166:

Would it have made good SF stories to show our world of today?

Are you saying that if authors were given a glimpse of our world today they couldn't make good SF stories for their readers? That seems unlikely. Sure the stories might be very different, but there would be lots of opportunities to thrill and amaze their readers. After all, some futures did pan out - air travel. ("Thrilling Air Stories" catered to that market.) Arguably IBM's Watson is getting closer to Asimov's computer that can answer all questions. "Post-human" stories are going to be realized by genetic engineering. Etc, etc.

167:

When I was a kid, we had back-yard space ships with dress wearing house wives watching their kids go into space. Or close. Would it have made good SF stories to show our world of today?

My immediate reaction was: "Yes, it would have been possible. But the stories might not be suitable for kids."

At least not for the kids in... 1950's? When were you a kid?

168:

Patent for what is effectively a field effect transistor was patented by Lilienfield in 1925.

As for reverse engineering future tech, I suspect that we suffer from the hubris that because we can analyze stuff down to the atomic level we could in theory reverse engineer any future tech. I very much doubt that. For example, try analyzing a device storing multiple qbits per atom. And that's only a decade or so away. [Record for storing information in a single atom is, IIRC, several hundred bits]

And on the conspiracy nut front, there is not a single example of any known technology that does not have a long Human pedigree.

169:

Technology seeming magical has got to be in part a function of how much can you hold in your head at one time. So much of our tech is the product of competing teams over years, there's just too much to hold in any great detail in one cranium. Like the ending of Farenheit 451, where books were reconstituted from many memories, to envision a technology in detail requires a group of people, with deep competence in different aspects of the tech in question.

170:

Dirk, I've been staying out of "what can we reverse engineer?" strands.

The closest I've come is saying that the man in the street can still maintain his own car, a few comments about metallurgy, and the one you're referencing where I talk abuot something that was "about possible" then or thenabouts.

171:

My original thought in the 100-years-ago-smartphone is less that someone would reverse engineer an Integrated Circuit (problematic for reasons discussed) but more that it would push forward research into mobile radios and mobile telephony, which is likely to advance the use of radar and radio controlled vehicles. Perhaps the Red Army could be made up entirely of Teletanks. And then some bright spark figures out how to jam the frequency.

172:

It wouldn't have worked in the UK!

Post-WW1 there was an immense cutback in R&D until the start of the 1930s, with the result (for example) that it was probably just as well that the artillery location equipment (sound ranging for counterbattery work) was virtually all lost at Dunkirk and they had to start again with rather more modern wireless sets that were designed for mass production rather than 'small batch' hand assembly.

The Ten Year Rule seems to have applied to equipment design as well, post-WW1, since there was a "wrap-up" edition of the Signal Training set around 1918-23, then a new series starting around 1930, the whole lot got converted to individual pamphlets starting in 1942 due to the rate of change, then the next set was in the mid 1950s. (Just in time for the "New Range" of radio sets planned by the Royal Armoured Corps and then adopted by the rest of the army as "Larkspur".)

173:

At a push, using basic electronics tools, I *might* be able to fix an iPhone, or at least replace elements of it. By "basic" I mean surface mount workstation tools. However, I can see an end to that already in sight with things like bonded via chips and (probably) wafer scale integration. Then "repair" comes down to replacing whatever is in the case wholesale.

174:

I should point out that there is one area of future tech that authors (and makers) can explore now: the "post-apocalyptic" stuff.

Here's the deal (and I'll make no secret that I'm working on a book on this topic). If we don't stop farting CO2 into the atmosphere soon*, we're going to get a lot of "global weirding" which basically means more and bigger storms. This will play havoc with global shipping and ports, even before sea level rise swamps the ports. Since so much of our tech (PARTICULARLY COMPUTERS) has huge global supply chains, this strongly suggests that all technologies that depend on long supply chains will fall apart. Computers are chief among these, simply because the elements come from so many places in the globe, the chip makers are (in many cases) separated from the computer makers, the designers are separated from the manufacturers, and the markets are separated from the manufacturers as well.

Note that overlong supply changes are a classic problem, first explored in depth in the collapse of the European Bronze Age around 1100 BC. And, as with the collapse of the Bronze Age, people are going to turn to alternative tech. In the Bronze Age, this was iron. I found out (in the 1980 book edited by Wertime, The Coming of The Age of Iron), that the ancients had been making metallic iron for up to 1500 years before the crash. Iron oxide was added to the tin and copper ores as part of the bronze creation process, and metallic iron was a discard product that they occasionally fooled around with. Still, the technology for working with iron is different and more complicated than for working with bronze, so even though iron was much more common, they didn't really get into working with it in high volume until bronze became scarce. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So here's the technology we can explore: local tech. In a post apocalyptic situation, your supply chain is about 500 land miles long. That's about the effective distance for pack animals, for a variety of reasons. If you want trains, you better make them solar or wood powered. And figure out how to make the rails without coal.

This is an interesting challenge, because it focuses on creativity in the general absence of the exotic elements that we've used to get higher performance in technology. To what extent can we replace materials with design?

It's not a stupid challenge either. Up to around 1800 or even later, the fastest boats in the world were made by Micronesians, who built their outriggers out of driftwood and the scant materials on coral atolls, using shell adzes. Some of the most versatile were the Arctic kayaks, which were built out of seal carcasses and driftwood. Good design doesn't necessarily require rare earths, although they certainly help. Ingenuity though--that is priceless.

Current examples include things like rocket stoves and some of the stuff coming out of MIT. Local technologies designers should be working on include health care products (particularly around women's reproductive health and birth control), sanitation, photovoltaics, water purification, food storage, glass production, and (yes) computers and information storage.

While it's sort of Swiss Family Robinson or Gilligan's Island-ish, creative authors could have some real fun figuring out how to make the technologies of the present and predictable future with a much smaller supply chain, and without simply looking at how said technologies were made in the 19th Century. After all, a rocket stove is much more efficient than a 19th Century pot-belly stove. Why go back?

To give one example, in the late Middle Ages, the glass guild of one English town owned a large woodland and managed it quite carefully. They needed the charcoal from that woodland to power their furnaces, so without good forest management, they were out of business. In the future, we may well see the same, with large woodlands ringing industrial towns simply to power the local industries. Or, more equally likely, there will be massive cane fields for fuel, with all the, um, labor issues that implies. Supply chains make for some good scenery in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

*By the way, if you want an even more exotic scenario, imagine what sustainable USA might look like. It would be a truly bizarre place, given how much our of human landscape is built on the premise of abundant fossil fuels.

175:

Galadriel also makes a pseudo-Silmaril out of water; she works with water.

Tolkien wrote a whole essay on the palantiri; they're definitely seeing-stones.
http://www.tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Palant%C3%ADri#Usage for a summary.

176:

Or for an optimistic perfect storm: 10 billion people with a minimum IQ of 140 and life expectancy of 120 [this is barely transhuman, simply duplicating real human traits] living in a global federated democracy that hasn't seen war in 209 years [like Sweden today, at peace since 1805], powered by cheap and abundant solar power [multiple articles on how solar power is today getting cheaper than new coal or gas plants].

It's still pretty easy to come up with thrilling (or terrifying) and plausible visions of the future. Whether it's easy to tell stories in those visions is another matter.

@174: "an even more exotic scenario, imagine what sustainable USA might look like" Less exotic to me, as I'm an American who's lived my life in public transit cities, and has visited Japan and Europe. Denser cities and more electric trains. Or, if Tesla wins their bet, electric cars subbing in for gasoline cars.

177:

we're going to get a lot of "global weirding" which basically means more and bigger storms. This will play havoc with global shipping and ports, even before sea level rise swamps the ports. Since so much of our tech (PARTICULARLY COMPUTERS) has huge global supply chains, this strongly suggests that all technologies that depend on long supply chains will fall apart.

Maybe not. We will still have hi-tech to predict storms etc, so flights might get more spotty, but they won't disappear. Similarly large ships are pretty robust in storms. Shipping costs will be higher because those container ships will have to pack them in the hold only and losses may be more frequent, but I don't see why we would fall back below C18/19thth shipping. Remember that river and canal barges could easily transport goods slowly across the system. The Mississippi alone is navigable for how many miles? Supply chains won't be as tight as they are today (and a good thing too, as they are brittle), but I don't see why we would fall back to land travel by animal power. A worse case scenario might result in limited fossil fuel production and more renewables, all supporting a much smaller population. Industry is smart and adaptable. A post-apocalyptic world would have to be the result of something really devastating to knock us back on our heels where we couldn't even make steel rails. I'm not convinced global warming is enough. Is there a plan B scenario to justify the world you are building?


178:

I wonder just how many of the "we could reverse engineer this X years ago threads" are actually true.

There's the old adage that knowing something is possible makes it easier to achieve, but if you take your smartphone back, just how far do you have to take it before it's functionally useless for ANY of the parts. I am NOT an engineer, my academic background is in microbiology, immunology and education. I can add to that years of programming and website design.

If I've travelled with my phone I can't tell you which of the connectors let you put power in and which do other things. Get it wrong and you've just, to the best of my knowledge (and to use OGH's phrase) "let the magic smoke out." OK, I do know better than that about the magic smoke but I can't actually explain it in precise technical language. I certainly don't know without the internet which connector is which and what the voltage required is, although I do know there's a transformer between the mains and the phone. Without that basic information, and remember, get it wrong and you might well fry your phone, you've got your remaining battery life to get it sorted.

If someone on this list knows which "pins" are the power supply and the correct voltage to supply, do they know anything about the correct frequency for the radio bits for the phone to talk to the towers? We can go back a fair way and have a radio pick up the transmissions and transmit back I think. Except I'm guessing there's a fair amount of digital packing going on so my call and my partner's call don't interfere with each other. I don't know for sure though - I could look it up but I've never actually needed to know. If I'm right on that, we can pick up the signals but probably not actually decode them.

I know the touch screen used to be a capacitative screen. Maybe it still is. Maybe that's enough information to duplicate it. But I'm old enough to remember the switch from rotary diallers to touch-dialing telephones for home phones. I think touch-screens with a sheet of glass will be a real stretch. Do you really remember just how disruptive they were? Every phone before the iPhone had buttons that you dialled on, and mostly that you clicked lots of times to send a text message. If you know how either of the other bits work, can you tell me how to make one of those without looking it up, or are you going to plug your rotary dialler in? They'll fit comfortably into a pocket.

It's easy enough to look the information up today, I hit the right keys on the old computer and Wikipedia will tell me all of this, but without that I'm stuffed.

I can actually write apps. My smart phone is an iPhone, which I'm sure won't shock regular readers. The downside of writing iPhone apps is you really need something that runs xCode. Even for Swift. There are ways to get your code onto your iPhone not through the App Store though, if you've got your Mac there running xCode. I don't know enough about Android to say if you can hack an Android phone sufficiently to write apps for the phone ON the phone. But, all the apps on my dock will be useless - they all rely on the internet to work. Most of the apps I keep on my desktop (rather than tucked away in folders) will be likewise useless. iBooks, Calendar and Calendar won't be, although adding new books will be hard.

I don't have the faintest clue how to create a server, how to create the internet. I use it all day every day, but rebuilding it? No way. I can't explain enough about how it works to make sense of it to anyone trying to recreate it.

I could possibly convince someone that this box really is a phone and with a crazy amount of time, effort and expenditure they could make one similar to it.

Some things, yes. If I went back 100 years I can beat Fleming to the discovery of penicillin for sure. But a lot of modern technology? Without planning for and taking reference books? I'm not sure even my specialist technology from immunology and microbiology to be honest. I know what books I'd take for the microbiology references but I couldn't do it off the top of my head.

179:

...if you'd been "Ministry of Supply" in, say, 1942 and I'd come to you saying "I've got this idea that needs research, but if it works will make thermionic valves for radio and radar 100 times smaller and lighter, 10_000 times more reliable, and warm up 10 times faster" just how long before I'm in a War Ministry black project?

Analogous (though less extreme) situations did occur, and weren't always met with enthusiasm. Tommy Flowers had to look hard for support for his proposed improvements to the Bletchley Park Heath Robinson machine, which eventually became the Colossus computers, built to break Lorenz machines -- a different, and harder, cryptosystem than Enigma, which was used only for much more secure traffic.

(By the by, there's now a replica Colossus installed at Bletchley park, in one of two museums on the site. The day I visited, I heard a docent claim the existence of the Colossi was kept secret into the '90s because the Russians were still using Lorenz derivatives, having never been told that they'd been cracked during the war. Not sure I buy it, but that's their story...)

180:

It's interesting that while most cultures have swords in their origin mythology, the Vietnamese myths have a crossbow.

A sword is basically a stick, used for hitting things. But a crossbow is an actual machine, with levers and moving parts and an energy storage system. The crossbow is a long, long step up from the sword, or even the bow.

181:

> jet engine and gas turbine blades which now
> need active cooling to prevent them from
> melting in use.

Tech from the dawn of the jet age; there are papers in the NACA archive (and the British mirror at MAGIC) on cooled turbine blades from the 1950s.

HM Government, unfortunately, has not seen fit to scan and post the basic research done by the Admiralty and Air Ministry.

182:

> I'm not sure even my specialist technology
> from immunology and microbiology to be
> honest.

Take your GP. Move him to 1900. Watch how he performs without his diagnostic labs, ultrasound, CAT scanner, MRI, X-days, antibiotics, or the rest of the medical infrastructure.

He wouldn't be a "doctor" in any meaningful 1900 sense.

183:

Actually Alex, the most vulnerable part of our current global transport system are the weather satellites, particularly the US weather satellites. This isn't just because they're launched from Cape Canaveral (at sea level), but because the US Congress is so mind-bogglingly stupid about funding every next generation of weather satellites.

Every time a new satellite needs to be launched, it's backs seem to have to go on a multi-year campaign to convince the congress-critters that this isn't just science (which is BAD, for some reason), but without the weather satellites, we lose our ability to track storms, which screws up global trade. The ability to accurately predict storm tracks is the key to cheap bulk movement of goods. Without the satellites, many more ships get lost, costs go way up, and the system falls apart.

It's also worth noting that, at the depths of the Great Recession, fuel prices were so high, and goods demand was so low, that cargo ships were running at around 11 knots, or basically clipper ship speed. Given that the IMF is predicting that fuel prices will double in the next decade, I predict that global trade will change dramatically. We might see the resurgence of sailing ships for bulk goods where timeliness is not required, but these will work best when there's a satellite above them telling them what's going on with the weather. Lose that capability, and global trade takes a huge hit.

I agree that global shipping won't disappear. After all, people were trading in spices for over 1000 years, taking risks that we consider unacceptable today. Thing is, those spices were luxury goods and medicines, not commodities like computer chips and the materials needed to make them. I really don't see how we can keep running a global internet if, as you note, we keep depending on brittle supply chains that stretch all the way around the world, not just to deliver the finished products, but to acquire the minerals needed to make them.

Anyway, the 500 mile limit is somewhat arbitrary, but I'm throwing that in as a design limitation. Anyone can draw a 500 mile circle on a map and try to build something using only materials found within that circle. Add in ocean travel, river travel (which becomes problematic on the Mississippi during drought), and it becomes less a question of ingenious design, and more a question of lawyering the source of raw materials.

184:

I'm not very familiar with Tolkien's dark lords, but smart phones seem pretty disastrous to their users when exploited by today's dark lords who have access to Predator drones and Hellfire missiles.

185:

"This is a bit of a long shot, but it could replace a vacuum tube with something that's solid, works from a flashlight battery, and is about the size of your fingernail. The raw materials should be fairly common, but will likely need special processing. It would be good for a radio receiver, less good for a transmitter."

I write stories set in an alternative history 1930s, and in the real history we already had solid-stage rectifiers. The semiconductor diode was close. When you look at the military radio tech of the fifties and sixties, there were still a lot of vacuum tubes. They were still used for the RF power amplifiers at least, and the Sidewinder air-to-air missile relied on vacuum tubes until about 1970. Radio transceivers, such as the AN/PRC-25 were using a vacuum tube power amplifier in the transmitter.

Bit of a sidetrack here: British tanks used the Number 19 set, which combined two radios with the intercom system. A lot of them were built in Canada. Everyone could talk on the intercom, and the tank commander only needed to press the right button and he was transmitting to either the rest of the platoon or on the company/battalion net. It would be fairly easy to use a transistor module for the intercom circuit, feeding all the crew microphones and earphones, and that would make a big difference to power consumption.

Essentially, you're aiming for the transistor radio, with discrete low-power components. Although once you have FETs it's possible to wire up a solid-state plug-in replacement for a vacuum tube. And you're presenting the idea as something that needn't consume a lot of resources.

Heck, if you can make cheap transistor radios and scatter them across Europe, all tuned to Radio London, think what that might do.

186:

Actually, the bottleneck on cheap transistor radios would be the tuning capacitors. And you still need those for all the important radio gear.

187:
Take your GP. Move him to 1900. Watch how he performs without his diagnostic labs, ultrasound, CAT scanner, MRI, X-days, antibiotics, or the rest of the medical infrastructure.

He wouldn't be a "doctor" in any meaningful 1900 sense.

It depends on the doctor honestly. I can think of two for sure (oddly, both were engineering majors and worked outside medicine before going to med school) and one who might. In all three cases, they trust their senses, their training (ongoing) and their brains.

188:

Don't you think that the onset of AGW will be slow enough to allow us to obviate the weather satellite problem? Industry could fund the birds and fly them, bypassing the government if it means protecting their profits. It is possible they might even be privately owned by a company and you pay for access. Or they could be replaced by Chinese or Russian birds. They are a weak link to be sure, but I just don't see them disappearing without a struggle. It isn't as though they cannot be built and launched without the US govt.

Look at the existing option diversity. List of Earth observation satellites. As the crisis mounts, won't there be more, rather than less, if the service is crucial?

189:

I don't think so. GW causes more storms and more rain. If you want to protect against tornados or plan your harvest, you need detailed weather information which is not provided by satellites only. While it's no problem to identify a hurricane from a satellite photo, it's not so easy to tell if a storm front will produce tornados. Weather also depends very much on the vertical temperature and humidity distribution which you don't get from Chinese or Russian birds.

AFAIK the results of modern weather forecasts rely on huge databases of small scale weather data. If you don't have the current small scale data to match against, they are not much use.

190:

"Thing is, those spices were luxury goods and medicines, not commodities like computer chips "

I'm guessing computer chips are far more valuable per kg than spices ever were.

191:

In totting up global warming socioeconomic impact, will you also be discussing:

.. productivity losses (hours/days lost) attributable to weather over the decades
.. direct mortality, and indirect health effects (diseases, medical conditions)

This would be in addition to the massive rebuilding and re-outfitting of housing, commercial/business, institutional edifices, as well as roads, bridges and other civil infrastructure costs.

And a particular nit for me ... cost/energy effectiveness of online vs. brick-and-mortar retail. I just find it hard to accept that direct-to-consumer shipping a la Amazon model is actually good for anyone other than Amazon.

How far can 3D printing be adapted for providing ordinary day-to-day single-use products? If you could 3D print using a very small list of inventory items/ ingredients, this would greatly reduce your reliance on /cost of transportation. I'm imagining that we're likely to stay a disposables society .. and there's probably quite a lot that can be done with recycled/reprocessed timber/paper provided you don't over-engineer such 3D printed products. There might even be a point when you would grow your own 3D supplies in your own back yard -- buy the right vegetation for your climate and likeliest 3D printer usage/products.

192:

Sorry, I wrote this thinking about weather balloons.

Still, satellite images for weather forecasts are produced by satellites in geostationary orbits. So why should any country from another continent launch an expensive satellite to monitor America's weather?

193:

How far can 3D printing be adapted for providing ordinary day-to-day single-use products?

Not. 3D printing is much slower and much more expensive than mass production.

194:

Current prices for saffron are in the range of $15,000-$18,000 per kg. I'm guessing it used to be more expensive.

As another benchmark on how things used to be different, pineapples were something like 5000 pounds in 18th-century London; by contrast, 10 pounds would have been a pretty nice annual income for someone in the working class. (And no, when you were paying that much for a pineapple, you didn't eat it; they were status symbols. There was a rental market for social climbers who wanted to show them off at parties.)

195:

So why should any country from another continent launch an expensive satellite to monitor America's weather?

European MetSats watch the Caribbean and western Atlantic because that's where a lot of the weather across Europe originates. Eavesdropping on them would give some short term forecasting for the eastern US. There are also MetSats in lower orbits, usually sun-synchronous, that could be used with suitable agreement.

196:

Would it have made good SF stories to show our world of today?

Bearing in mind OGH @146 about "escapist entertainment", I've just finished the latest Toby Frost (the "Space Captain Smith" series, sort of a cross between Dan Dare, Biggles, and Johnny English).

Full appreciation of the latest book relies upon an awareness of the films Zulu, Predator, Apocalypse Now, and Brief Encounter, as well as My Little Pony...

197:

Usually my way to distinguish between Fantasy and Science Fiction was the development of technology. If it had been in decline during the story or before, it is Fantasy. If it is still developing, going "up", it's SF. I'll have to ponder if I need to revise that criterium...

198:

results of modern weather forecasts rely on huge databases of small scale weather data. If you don't have the current small scale data to match against, they are not much use.

That is an very astute point. Weather forecasting does rely on historic knowledge as well as models. If GW results in weather patterns that are different from the past, possibly drastically so in some places, weather forecasting might become very difficult.

Farming in California requires adequate water (which you can measure on the the ground in the Sierra snowpack, aquifer levels, and when to harvest - cotton must be before it rains I believe. Hopefully we can still grow food as we did before the space age. But selling pecans and almonds to China, that may be more difficult without good weather forecasting. The question is how much worse would it be compared to the pre-computer and satellite age of the mid C20th, even with worsening weather?

199:

AFAIK most of the weather at the US east coast originates in West/central US and Canada. I doubt that European and Caribbean data will be any use to the US states where most of the farming happens.

200:

People transported much lower value-per-mass items like wheat and wine by sail, so I'm confident that sail could also work for high value non-perishable items like microelectronics. Important but rare elements like indium and gallium only have a few hundred tons of annual world production each. Transport by sail is again no biggie. Rising transport costs hit everything with lower value per mass/bulk first, so microelectronics and their components would be among the last items to succumb to increasing transport difficulty.

I think that the world of 2014 would seem plenty exotic and interesting (if rather frightening) if authors knew what it was going to be like in 1954. In the next decade 2014 still looks interesting, less exotic, and considerably less frightening, at least from the vantage point of people who were reading the latest SF in the 1960s. I went back to the old Hugo awards prepared to spot lots of material that has aged badly, but even in the early 1960s I recognize quite a lot that is still worth a read today. I was also mistaken in thinking of Stand on Zanzibar as an early 1970s novel rather than late 1960s. The people who recognized those books at those times could probably read about actual-2014 without recoiling at the social changes, and could probably absorb the technological changes well enough if they had a few infodumps to bring them up to speed. That WW III never came but the USSR ended anyway might be more surprising to SF readers than the changes in social conventions or the absence of lunar colonies.

201:

If the problem of shipping in the future is going to be serious storms that will sink ships, how feasible would it be to make those cargo ships submersibles? I recall that is was considered an approach back in the last century.

202:

I need to point out that there's a difference between weather forecasting and shipping forecasting. Both are, of course, critical, but today's shipping works because they know where the storms are and can avoid them. So far as I know, they depend on weather satellites for that information.

Of course, you can run shipping without weather satellites. Unfortunately, that means that just-in-time manufacturing and minimal inventory simply won't work. Additionally, since the storms will be bigger on average with climate change, there will be more losses, hence more unpredictability in supply chains. Large inventories will be necessary simply to buffer the increased uncertainty of shipping. This plays out in some good and bad ways. The good part is that larger inventories will make people more resilient to natural disasters. For example, many grocery chains in the US now run on just-in-time stocking and have much less in storage than they did 20 years ago. This makes urbanites much more vulnerable to things like earthquakes, since there are no longer warehouses of food on which emergency workers can draw. On the bad side, the businesses that control the warehouses can control society, and if they use their warehouses for financial leverage to get poor people into debt (as has happened in some places and times), they can cause a lot of civil unrest.

One other thing I'd note is that I'm not sure this will increase the manufacture of disposable items. One way to illustrate this is the collection of century-old screwdrivers I'm acquiring from my uncle. The tools belonged to his father and grandfather. The odd thing is, they're mostly in better shape than tools my uncle purchased 10 or 20 years ago. Back when those screwdrivers were made, there was much less global trade. Granted, iron and wood were cheaper than they are now, but there wasn't a need for planned obsolescence either. Tools were sold and bought on the presumption that you didn't need new ones every 10 years unless you were really careless. I've seen similar durability in things like Nepalese kukris, which were made for people who were so poor that they could only afford to buy one or two knives during their lifetimes. Those knives are made to last for two generations. It's a very different economic logic than the cheap machetes that are sold in the hardware store.

I think it's worth considering that, with limited global trade and increased uncertainty in supply chains, planned obsolescence may be a real liability. Under such circumstances, truly durable goods may be better sellers.

203:

I see $140/oz at Monteray Spice, which is under $5000/kg. I paid $40/oz for powdered saffron several years ago, that's $1410/kg.

What's a microchip, $100 for 2 grams? That's $50,000/kg, up there with gold.

204:

I think it's worth considering that, with limited global trade and increased uncertainty in supply chains, planned obsolescence may be a real liability. Under such circumstances, truly durable goods may be better sellers.

I agree. But rather than an apocalyptic scenario, we are looking at one more like the first half of the C20th, and international trade was huge then. The main difference GW makes is the possibility of worsened weather that would make shipping more vulnerable to losses. OTOH, we will have more technology to help compensate - better ships, a variety of weather tools, etc. JIT supply chain inventory is just part of the cost reduction process. When its brittleness is exposed, businesses will adjust - warehousing may become more important again. From a cost standpoint, manufacturing may become more local if shipping transport costs become high or shipping becomes unreliable. Materials substitution will occur if materials become difficult or costly to obtain. To a large extent, this is just economics, a subject that OGH was getting into with the MP series.

205:

I think the object lesson is imho the finest three prophetic Books of the last century
Heavy Weather, Holy Fire and Distraction. There isn't a week go by where something in one of those three books triggers a match to the future we live in.
Sadly Sterling didn't become a millionaire or win a lot of prizes for them. He seems to have moved on to things that pay more and aren't such hard work.
Predicting the future was always hard, it's getting harder and it doesn't have a huge readership.

206:

I almost certainly have too many 19 sets, but despite the advances in technology the hardware does not get any smaller or lighter. (Just a lot more capable, without necessarily increasing the output power or decreasing the power consumption.) The space exists in the vehicle (because the previous kit fitted in it), so they just add more features.

The (UK/Commonwealth) vehicular HF radio progression goes something like:

WS No.9 - The "first cut" and something of a monster, really a 4 man lift.
WS No.19 - second generation, half the power, a quarter of the size/weight.
WS No.29 - third generation, radioactive front panel and economics blocked it.
SR C12 - a stopgap by Pye because the C13 wasn't ready in time.
SR C13 - 4th generation, still valves, same size weight, etc. but more robust, and frequency stable.
SR C11/R210 4th generation, higher power set, partially solid state
UK/VRC-321 5th generation, solid state, synthesized frequency generation.

After the WS9, everything was of similar weight and size. Post-WW2 they went from unsealed to splashproof to fully sealed cases; variable frequency (unstable) to variable with built-in calibrator, to fully synthesized (crystal) control, and from AM (steam radio) to single sideband modulation.

The hardware weighed the same but was a lot more reliable and easier to use.

I shall draw a kindly veil over BOWMAN, the 6th generation kit, which due to mergers within the UK electronics industry, feature creep, incompetent project management and politics ended up being scrapped and an American solution being bought in under the same project name. This was not liked by the troops who had to make it work in the field, resulting in it being acronymed as Better Off With Map And Nokia. One problem is that it was simply Too Heavy: the vehicle installation being intended for US kit tended to break springs and axles on Land Rovers.

Being well off topic at this point, I shall now go to bed.

Good night.

207:

AFAIK most of the weather at the US east coast originates in West/central US and Canada. I doubt that European and Caribbean data will be any use to the US states where most of the farming happens.

Much of the US weather east of the Mississippi River and south of the Ohio river is heavily influenced by the Carribian weather. Especially west of I85. (I85 follows the natural valleys and passes from Atlanta to Petersburg VA and it's still strange to see how different the weather is 20 miles each side of it.)

Anyway there's a LOT of agriculture in this area. And importantly is doesn't depend on pumping aquifers dry or diverting rivers 100s of miles like out west.

208:

3D printing also depends on consistency in feedstock properties, which makes using it on recycled material particularly difficult.

209:

I think progress is being made. E.g. http://www.appropedia.org/Recyclebot

210:

In a post apocalyptic situation, your supply chain is about 500 land miles long. That's about the effective distance for pack animals,
But not for canals, even with animal power ......

( Also Jay @ #162 - Yes, your worrying about climate & resource collapse is valid, it's just that I am of the opinion, seeing what is happening, that the cavalry - in the form of the changes I described - will arrive first. )

211:

Especially west of I85.

Nuts. EAST of I85.

212:

And a huge amount of the entire planet's weather is, if not "governed" at least very strongly influenced by the cold S Pacific currents (e.g. "El nino") & the course of the Gulf-Stream & N ATlantic drift.

213:

"Sailing Ships" for reliable delivery.

I'm still not sure why Flettner Rotor ships have not made a comeback, given how cheap they are to operate?

214:

It's worth pointing out that although Diane Wynn Jones' Tough Guide to Fantasy Land is an excellent read, there's plenty of historical cultures where large sections of the community wore cloaks and capes.

If you can make them vaguely weather-proof, which more or less means making them greasy, which isn't that hard, and/or warm and you live somewhere with 'interesting' weather then a cloak can be really useful if you're more than an hour from home, with less travel time the more extreme your interesting weather gets. You probably wouldn't wear one out of the house to collect eggs if the hens are just outside, unless the weather is already terrible, and you might not work the fields in one at harvest time, but you might wear it out to collect nuts and berries in the woods, even if you take it off once you're there. You'd probably wear it going to market, or take it at least, just in case.

Even a relatively thin cloak can make a surprising amount of difference in keeping you warm on cold, wet, windy day. You get that nice layer of air caught between you and it and keep that warm. You choose how you open the cloak to work so don't let the cold and wet in if you can avoid it. Yes, heavy manual labour is out, at least while staying nicely wrapped up, but you can do a surprising amount and stay pretty warm and dry.

215:

As another benchmark on how things used to be different, pineapples were something like 5000 pounds in 18th-century London; by contrast, 10 pounds would have been a pretty nice annual income for someone in the working class. (And no, when you were paying that much for a pineapple, you didn't eat it; they were status symbols. There was a rental market for social climbers who wanted to show them off at parties.)

A rental market for pineapples? Wow. OK, Googling "renting pineapples" confirms this. According to Hoag Levins's Social History of the Pineapple, Charles II posed for a portrait receiving a pineapple as a gift. Also confirms that the status value of pineapples is why there are so many pineapple gate posts. I expect every reader of this has seen at least one in their home town.

216:

I think it's worth considering that, with limited global trade and increased uncertainty in supply chains, planned obsolescence may be a real liability. Under such circumstances, truly durable goods may be better sellers.

I think it's a Larry Niven future history — perhaps the near-future parts of the Known Space timeline — in which built-in obsolescence has become a crime. Probably punishable by forced disassembly into the organ banks.

If only that were true today. Every time I shave, I think of the obsolescence which Gillette planned into his razor blades. To quote from Wikipedia:

While working as a salesman for the Crown Cork and Seal Company in the 1890s, Gillette saw bottle caps, with the cork seal he sold, thrown away after the bottle was opened. This made him recognize the value in basing a business on a product that was used a few times, then discarded. Men shaved with straight razors that needed sharpening every day using a leather strop. As existing, relatively expensive, razor blades dulled quickly and needed continuous sharpening, a razor whose blade could be thrown away when it dulled would meet a real need and likely be profitable.
Such disregard for both the customer and the environment.

Speaking of goods being more durable in the past, a friend of mine who runs a vintage-clothes shop in Oxford says that clothes from the 50s and 60s — shirts, for example, and jackets — are better made and much longer-lasting than similar items today.

217:

I was going to say that the nearest thing to a cloak I've ever worn was an Oxford B.A. gown, but then I remembered that I used to have a woollen poncho. It was surprisingly warm, more so than a woollen jersey, just the thing to slip on during chilly nights. So OK, I was being unfair to cloaks.

And if you do classify ponchos as cloaks, it's not only historical cultures that wear them.

218:

Never worn a poncho but it strikes me as similar enough, so yes, I'll stretch the point.

219:

Ah cool. So the US can just limit its agriculture to the East where they have weather satellite coverage and water.

220:

I'm not sure that does anything to contradict my arguments:-
1) Scrying was possible without using a Palantir.
2) The powers of a Palantir are at least partly a reflection of the powers of the user.

221:

I think I missed the Brief Encounter refs, although the others are pretty obvious.

222:

There's likely a selection effect operating in favour of the durability of the vintage clothing your friend encounters, no?

Regards
Luke

223:

There's a similar status thing going with watermelons in Japan. What in the UK is something you buy at the grocery store and eat, and which costs about as much per kilogram as bananas, is in Japan something that department store boutiques sell as an exotic gift, costing around US $70-100 per kilogram. (No, I don't get it. But to some extent it's an ongoing thing: because watermelons are exotic and rare status symbols nobody thinks to start growing them in bulk and selling them as random fruit because that would cannibalize the fruitiers' market.)


224:

Incidentally I believe the worst trade/supply chain prognostications on this thread are junk.

We're not going to lose weathersats for the same reason we're not going to lose satphone service for shipping: quite possibly we'll end up with Inmarsat and relatives sending up the weather birds and making the feeds available as an [expensive] service, but shipping co's will pay for accurate weather forecasting if the alternative is raised insurance premiums or hull losses.

Rocketry ... relies on tech developed in the 1930s and 1940s; today the cost of fuel in a launch is probably the smallest constraint, and as SpaceX are currently demonstrating, you can make most of the components of a commercial satellite launcher in a single factory (as they do, precisely because they don't want to deal with the existing defense/NASA contract oriented aerospace supply chain, which is grotesquely slow and unresponsive as well as over-priced).

Power ... the price curve for photovoltaic has it competitive with coal next year. No, it doesn't do base load -- but if it gets even cheaper (which is by no means impossible) we should be able to divert power during peak sunlight into synthesizing hydrogen to use for fuel cells overnight. As Japan alone installed more solar capacity in 2013 than exists in Spain in total -- over 7.1Gw, which if you do the sums means double digit square kilometers of photovoltaic cells -- I see no fundamental obstacle to scaling this stuff up further.

(So no, I don't see a catastrophic collapse of global supply chains, international communications, energy, and so on. Although now might be a good time to buy shares in Tesla Motors for the long haul.)

225:

Oh, and another thing: those warehouseless just-in-time supply chains for distribution outfits like Walmart? They're surprisingly resilient and come in handy in event of a disaster -- there may be no warehouses near a flood-stricken city, but in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, for example, Walmart anticipated a demand spike and got trucks -- laden with necessities -- rolling towards where they were going to be needed ahead of time. Let us remember that an articulated truck with a 2-TEU payload is basically a small (40 ton capacity) rolling warehouse in its own right, that can go where it's needed: a thousand of them converging on a disaster zone from all points of the compass are probably more likely to deliver the goods where they're needed than a warehouse that was in the zone when the disaster hit. Warehouses, after all, are a potential single point of failure!

226:

The concept of a WalMart GSV hurt my brain. I blame the insomnia mostly.

227:

Ferrite core storage was introduced in the early 50's and by 1960 cost around $5,000,000 Mbyte. So the GB of RAM for an iPhone would cost about 5 billion dollars and fit in a building. Hard drives cost about $3600/Mbyte in 1960 so the base 16GB of flash in an iPhone could be replaced for a mere $60,000,000 or so and fit in another building and a generator plant and a cooling plant. Core cost so much because it was threaded together by hand (latterly in sweatshops).

From Memory Prices (1957-2014)

228:

If I remember correctly, the first ever SSD (solid state drive) was a 32Mb model manufactured by Cray, as an add-on for the Cray-1M supercomputer in 1982. They cost around $2.5M each.

Today, an entry-level iPhone 5S comes with 32Gb of SSD, so, conservatively, $2.5Bn of storage in 1982 dollars. Of course, the Cray-1M could do around 200MFlops, but the iPhone's A7 processor GPU -- the equivalent of the Cray's vector processor -- can do around 115GFlops, so call it 500 Cray-1M equivalents.

229:

Thanks; Like I needed the image of a General Service Vessel named "ASsociated DAiries". ;-)

230:


Note that overlong supply changes are a classic problem, first explored in depth in the collapse of the European Bronze Age around 1100 BC. And, as with the collapse of the Bronze Age, people are going to turn to alternative tech. In the Bronze Age, this was iron. I found out (in the 1980 book edited by Wertime, The Coming of The Age of Iron), that the ancients had been making metallic iron for up to 1500 years before the crash. Iron oxide was added to the tin and copper ores as part of the bronze creation process, and metallic iron was a discard product that they occasionally fooled around with. Still, the technology for working with iron is different and more complicated than for working with bronze, so even though iron was much more common, they didn't really get into working with it in high volume until bronze became scarce. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I think you might have that backwards.The Bronze Age didn't end because bronze became scarce. In fact, we have found hoards of unused bronze axe heads, apparently used as a defacto currency and dumped when the bottom fell out of the British economy circa 800BC, at the start of a 300 year recession, possible linked to a rapidly cooling climate.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12989605

"Results suggest that around the time of the bronze being dumped, there was a sharp decline in temperature, all revealed by the midge population.

"Different midge species are happiest at different temperatures, so when it suits them they're going to be extremely abundant," says Stephen Brooks, of the Natural History Museum.
A steel worker works in front of giant iron melting pot in Kardemir Iron and Steel Factory in Karabuk The onset of the Iron Age meant stronger, sharper and more versatile tools could be manufactured

"We find there's a big change in the midges in a very short period of time - maybe over 50 years or so. "

... so a silver lining for our ancestors then

231:

I'm not sure that does anything to contradict my arguments:-
1) Scrying was possible without using a Palantir.
2) The powers of a Palantir are at least partly a reflection of the powers of the user.

To clarify.

Galadriel could scry because she was one of the most powerful elves (who have intrinsic magic) AND had a Ring of Power.

Palantirs, on the other hand, could be used by regular humans. But then again, they were possibly made by Feanor, the most powerful elf ever.

232:

Power ... the price curve for photovoltaic has it competitive with coal next year. No, it doesn't do base load -- but if it gets even cheaper (which is by no means impossible) we should be able to divert power during peak sunlight into synthesizing hydrogen to use for fuel cells overnight.

In all the warm places, peak power demand (for air-conditioning) is just happens to coincide with peak solar power. This could have a sudden and positive influence on the productivity of African economies. No storage needed.

233:

"In all the warm places, peak power demand (for air-conditioning) is just happens to coincide with peak solar power. This could have a sudden and positive influence on the productivity of African economies. No storage needed."

The Ford plant I worked at had to shut down a couple of times each summer, from 1-5, because they had a discount with the electric company which was due to the plant not using the 99.5%+ peak power.

234:

In the short term, the most likely cause of massive supply chain breakdowns is political. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan, for example, could easily result in the near-complete cessation of trade between the US and China and all sorts of knock-on effects. The US and China are both big countries with big egos; it really wouldn't take much to start that war.

As for PV, renewable energy has been coming any day now since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I'll believe it when I see it.

235:

You've got the dates wrong. The crash of the European Bronze Age was in the 11th Century BC. There's even a book titled 1177 BC where the author rather cheekily tries to nail down the date (although he admits it's a bit silly in his introduction). You're talking about 300 years later. The second thing to realize is that Britain was on the periphery of the Bronze world. Yes, the Cornish tin mines were part of the international bronze "ecosystem," but the crash in "1177" started in the Middle East, from Mycenae through the Fertile Crescent down to Egypt. This area was the heart of the international trading network of the era, and it did crash in the 11th Century BC, for reasons that are still controversial, but may have included bad weather, the mysterious 'Sea People" who were either immigrants or terrorists or both, and some crappy political choices. The results of the crash did stretch all the way to the Baltic on the European side of the trading network (see Kristiansen, Europe Before History).

I'm not disputing that there were problems around 800 BC in Britain, but what we have here is the equivalent of you saying that the American Revolution didn't happen in 1776, because, well, look at what was happening in Los Angeles in 2014.

I'd also suggest that the possible causes of the crash of the European Bronze Age bear absolutely no resemblance to the problems we're looking at today. Really.

236:

As for PV, renewable energy has been coming any day now since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I'll believe it when I see it.

In the SW US, solar even on rooftops is becoming so common that the power companies are trying to make it more expensive to use and to change their requirements over net metering. At teh last North American Intersolar exhibition,it is my understanding that the focus has shifted to energy storage as the next important step in solar power. It may be expensive in the UK and many parts of the US, but solar is definitely becoming a major element in the SW US.

237:

Let us remember that an articulated truck with a 2-TEU payload is basically a small (40 ton capacity) rolling warehouse in its own right, that can go where it's needed: a thousand of them converging on a disaster zone from all points of the compass are probably more likely to deliver the goods where they're needed than a warehouse that was in the zone when the disaster hit.

That is a good point. However, it will only apply if the apocalyptic scenario is absolutely wrong, or that Wallmart-like entities even exist in a GW weakened US economy (note even Dollar General and Dollar Stores are struggling, and Wallmart has seen its growth decline as inequality worsens). This will all depend on the technical and physical infrastructure remaining intact. I think it will, simply because businesses will have time to adapt to the slow onset of the effects of GW (assuming we don't do much to avert the worst of it). But things can go wrong. WWI brought an end to the growth in global trade that didn't recover until the 1970's, IIRC. If US trade with China stopped tomorrow, how long would it take the US to recover with domestic manufacture? Any idea?

238:

A few years ago I was at a lecture where the speaker suggested the cause was a super earthquake in Turkey. Correlation but not causation, probably.

239:

Regarding the brittleness of global supply chains. Last year when I was getting a new pair of spectacles, I was told that the primary manufacturer of frames was still recovering from the 2008 tsunami. Maybe that was BS, but if true, single points of failure can disrupt pieces of the supply chain.

I don't see why the supply chain should be considered so robust. The same was thought of financial risk management, and then 2008 happened. Do we really know that the supply chain isn't brittle or vulnerable at key points?

240:

Actually, there were "Magic" swords, and Technology in General; Every now and then Mechanical Process creates an "Above Average" Specimen. I recall an article discussing this in regards to Internal Combustion Aero Engines, WW II Vintage "High Tech"; Every now and then you would find one that works perfectly all the time, every time. 100 Hour Check? No Problems.

Watching a PBS show about "Secrets of the Samurai Sword", after the blank has been forged & Folded, One Third (!) fail their final heat treatment,

S. M. Stirling pointed out long ago that every Auto Boneyard (That hasn't been cleaned out for Scrap for China) contains Auto Leaf Springs that are far superior (metallurgicaly) than any sword blank an average craftsman can create.

Until the 1950's, steel chemistry was still a "Cookbook" matter (a shovel of this, a carload of that); Can't be too dependent on those pesky unionized foremen, Scientific analysis and understanding (Electron Microscopy?) came about then.

And the Chinese STILL can't manufacture acceptable copies (Or derivatives) of Russian Jet Engines for their Fighter aircraft. Basically there are Three (?) (Western) Sources of this bit of kit; Everyone else is a licensee or copying them.

And not as good as the GE, P&W or Rolls Royce item.

241:

That's certainly a "magic sword" in one sense, agreed. But it's not quite the same as taking your sword into the chapel and praying over it all night, or binding a relic into the hilt for extra blessings. it would be the logical explanation for the legends arising of course.

I'm reminded more of a picture from a documentary I saw a while ago of someone travelling around India. The three-wheeler vehicle taxi-thing had a little statue to a Hindu deity on the dashboard, presumably to bring it luck. I've similarly seen St. Christopher medallions hanging from the mirrors in cars, although that wouldn't have occurred to me because i haven't seen one in a long time (I hang around with a lot of atheist types).

And I guess that is probably something to remember. We're a pretty skeptical, self-selecting bunch that comment here. Although we are a sub-set of Charlie's readers too. I'm pretty certain that none of the regular readers here think hanging a piece of metal from the mirror or putting a piece of plastic on the dashboard reduces the likelihood of crashes. But in the wider population? It happens enough that I'm far less sanguine about it.

Despite the protests of those above, do I trust Charlie to write stories I want to read set in world not that dissimilar to our own where they'd be right and I'd be wrong? Hell, yeah.

242:

Stirling's not quite right: auto leaf springs are commonly used for swords, but the quality varies substantially by source. For example, the Nepalese khukris I have (sold by Himalayan Imports, which is a cool little company in the US with a good online store) are made IIRC, from the leaf springs of large trucks, preferably Mercedes trucks. The Nepali smiths travel to Indian junk yards to find them.

They like the old leaf springs because they've been tested for weakness (e.g. they haven't broken), and they've been work hardened by all that pounding. Other smiths use old railroad rails for the same reason, and about a century ago, sword smiths in Thailand preferred links of anchor chain from large ships. The advantage of using these preworked bits of steel is that most of the smith's work thereafter is shaping the steel. He doesn't have to pound the bits of spongy steel into hard metal, because the car maker and the road already did the work for him.

You can read more about this kind of sword making at http://www.himalayan-imports.com/kami.html.

243:

But there are well worked out technologies called "Steam Engines" that can operate the Railroads if we really wanted to (And provide lots of Well Paying, craftsman type employment); America is littered with Museum Specimens and actual operating samples, mostly late stage (1940s) Oil and Coal Fired, but the principles are well known.

The Southern Railways were entirely wood fired until after the Treasonous Slaveholders Revolt was wound up.

And there is always electrification, obviously the Railway would receive priority access to Nuclear/Hydro etc power.

Some of the 100 odd "Operating" specimens (Cumbres & Toltec, Strasburg RR, etc, etc._tend to fall victim to the unreasonable Federal Requirement for a Total Tear Down and Boiler Inspection every fifteen years...

The oil taps are not just going to be suddenly turned off, it is a matter of not getting cheap toys and T-Shirts at Walmart from China, Sailing Ships can still deliver our Coffee (or tea) and Microchips.

Of course, the Czar MAY turn off the Natural Gas on you Europeans this winter, in which case things could get VERY interesting.

Gasoline prices are falling around here, $2.91 a gallon at Walmart #1 last night.

244:

Oh Goody.

Walmart is so big, even Chapter 11 (Bankruptcy reorganization) is at least twenty years out. Unless the aforementioned Political Crisis with China, but they are heavily into Grocery these days (The only growth they are seeing). Neighborhood Markets (Walmart Grocery Stores) all over the place, trying to climb the value chain. Latest quarterly report emphasized the sales growth at the Neighborhood Markets, soft pedaling the continued weakness of their core business.

Locally (Hometown, remember) they are experimenting (Encouraging?) the yuppies to order their groceries online and drive thru to pickup. One location for pickup, over in Bentonville.

I've been saying Sears is Doomed for Fifteen years. Even Yoked to K-Mart (Chapter 11, what, ten years ago?), there will still be Sears and JC Penney's in the Malls for the next fifteen years.

Illegal Immigrant construction workers don't buy Craftsman tools, or Washer/Dryers for their wives.

I always thought that any proper post-apocalyptic novel ought to include a reference to the Burned out shell of a looted Walmart.

245:

Re: PV advancements ... and the growth/benefits of disposable products.

Although the first summary below says consumer electronics and aircraft, there's probably no reason why this material can't be used on buildings, etc. Energy storage is also improving as per the second article. The major costs would be switching (removing old materials) - labor intensive and/or hazardous - depending on the materials being removed.

The third/last article describes a novel medical disposable technology and has lots of espionage potential and sounds 'green' besides.


http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141009210442.htm

Electrically conductive plastics promising for batteries, transparent solar cells

Summary: An emerging class of electrically conductive plastics called 'radical polymers' may bring low-cost, transparent solar cells, flexible and lightweight batteries and ultra-thin antistatic coatings for consumer electronics and aircraft.


http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140108154238.htm

Organic mega flow battery promises breakthrough for renewable energy

Summary: Scientists and engineers have demonstrated a new type of battery that could fundamentally transform the way electricity is stored on the grid, making power from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar far more economical and reliable.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141009153809.htm

Dissolvable silicon circuits and sensors

Summary: Electronic devices that dissolve completely in water, leaving behind only harmless end products, are part of a rapidly emerging class of technology. This technology suggest a new era of devices that range from green consumer electronics to ‘electroceutical’ therapies, to biomedical sensor systems that do their work and then disappear.

246:

I doubt that European and Caribbean data will be any use to the US states where most of the farming happens.

I did say "short term". 24 hours if you're lucky but probably less.

247:

The high-value watermelons are perfect specimens meant as ritual gifts to prospective parents, bosses and the like. There are also peaches at twenty quid a shot, bunches of grapes costing 7000 yen a kilo and even boxes of sushi for the price of a small car that fit the same purpose.

Regular shops sell less perfect watermelons, peaches, grapes etc. at recognisable prices and if you wait for the flash sale special (1 hour only!) they're even cheaper than Tesco's.

248:

There are a surprising number of single points of failure for many industries. Two I can think of from the top of my head where a local event nearly stopped a global supply chain.

There were floods in Thailand a couple of years ago that caused problems for the global IT industry. A large percentage of the worlds hard disk drives were made in a relatively small and low lying area. After the floods they had to work very hard to recomission the factories.

Around twenty years ago there was one factory in Japan that made the very high purity epoxy resin used to encapsulate the majority of the worlds integrated circuits. There were many companies making plastic moulding compounds, but it turned out they all bought their base resin from this one factory. The epoxy resin needed to be made with very low levels of ionic contamination to prevent corrosion of the integrated circuits. No problem, until the factory exploded. Fortunately, it was rebuilt in double quick time, but the shortage was a big concern at the time.

249:

Until the 1950's, steel chemistry was still a "Cookbook" matter (a shovel of this, a carload of that)

The 1950s saw the advent of Basic Oxygen Steelmaking, which had a lot to do with it.

Interesting fact you have there about the Chinese jet engine industry, which I wasn't aware

250:

Yes you were a little unfair to cloaks, but only a little. As a medieval and tudor re-enactor, I a intimately familiar with them, I've got 3 of them*, as well as normal clothing.

They are great for plodding in the rain, but not much else. If you want to work, have to work, have to fight etc, they are pretty useless. You see them less and less in the later medieval period because people got better and better at cutting and sewing and making fitted garments, and as such a fitted gown is warmer than a cloak and doesn't need to be held shut. So you see more people with gowns and jackets and suchlike and fewer cloaks.

* one is a 2/1 twill for circa early 1300's, another is a double layer that is colourful on the inside, not realy accurate but handy at very wet events, and the third is for my Dominican outfit.

251:

There's likely a selection effect operating in favour of the durability of the vintage clothing your friend encounters, no?

Perhaps not if she's comparing how a brand is made now with how the same brand was made in earlier times. Is your stuff falling apart? Thank Walmart suggests that newer Levis are worse made.

And Why vintage clothing was made better — the economics of durability seems to me to argue pretty persuasively that old jeans were better made, though it is talking about earlier times (late 19th to early 20th) than my friend was. The third comment to the article, by "RanchHand", mentions some manufacturing methods that have been ditched in favour of lower costs. Does anyone here know enough about the technicalities (selvage vs. non-selvage denim, hand felling vs. automatic felling) to comment?

252:

"AFAIK the results of modern weather forecasts rely on huge databases of small scale weather data. If you don't have the current small scale data to match against, they are not much use."

No. We used to use such "analogue" forecasting, it was pretty much the human method until the 1970s-1980s, but today its all Numerical and analysis: we calculate from first principles based on physics.

This works well enough that we even got correct forecasts of the first S. hemisphere hurricanes off of Brazil before they actually happened, i.e. no human analogues to compare with.

253:

"...but if it gets even cheaper (which is by no means impossible)..."

Google Perovskites.
PV cells have been made from these that rival the efficiency of Silicon. The major benefit is that they do not need vacuums or high temperature precision processing, and can be a water based process. Expect a factor of 3 fall in price for the panels within 5 years when they get into production. People are talking about a manufacturing cost of $0.20 per peak Watt

254:

We were promised printed solar cells back in 2006 or 2007, a dollar a watt installed, efficiency comparable to vapour deposition cells. Solartopia! You couldn't buy them immediately though, the entire first year's production run had already been sold to a German company, we were told. A while later when the investors started asking "where's our money?" the prospectus was updated with pictures of an anonymous printing plant somewhere that was apparently churning these solar cells out like, well, best-selling hardbacks by a popular mid-list author.

Since then, crickets.

The nuclear business has a lot of Powerpoint Warriors too, the thorium-breeder molten-salt Second Coming types although they've started to eat each other's children as they compete for research bucks in a tightening market, and don't get me started on the fusion nutters with their "and then a miracle occurs!" scams and endless begging for credulous suckers to Kickstart their moonbeams-in-a-jar schemes.

Meanwhile the only pouring concrete and bending metal construction that's going on in the nuclear business today (apart from ITER) is nearly all for conventional PWR and BWR designs based on 70 years and more of operation of previous generation steam-generating reactors. There are a few Hail Marys going on like the Russian BN-800 fast reactor and the Chinese pebble-bed modular design but conventional nuclear is being built now to keep the lights on over the next few decades.

255:

Wrong. CIGS Thin film printed PV is the cheapest available but unfortunately uses Indium and Gallium. Last I heard, manufacturing cost was around $0.6 per Watt. Produced by:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_CIGS_companies


256:

http://www.solarbuzz.com/news/recent-findings/solar-pv-industry-transition-supply-driven-market-2014-according-npd-solarbuzz

"Santa Clara, Calif., March 4, 2014—Over the past three years, solar photovoltaic (PV) installed system prices, module prices, and module production costs have all fallen by more than 50%..."

257:

All I heard was "I want to write more stuff like the early parts of Accelerando and The Laundry Files" and all I can do is steeple my fingertips and nod to avoid squealing like a little girl.

258:

Has the price of a freestanding house roof come down in price by a similar amount, or is Solartopia only for rich people who can afford a mortgage on a three-bedroom 2-car-garage suburban McMansion?

Lots of folks in the US and other Western nations live in dense urban housing, people like Charlie and me who share our roof with four or more other families and a shop at street level. Of course where we live, 56 deg North the sun stays low in the sky during winter, that is when it's not cloudy or raining. Luckily we've got a pair of nuclear reactors about 50km to our east[1] so we don't freeze to death in the dark every winter.

[1]See the sidebar story on this site of Charlie's visit to Torness a while back ("Nothing like this will be built again"). The bad news is that the AGRs like Torness constructed in the 1970s are reaching end-of-life with the carbon fuel channels in the core developing cracks at an accelerating rate meaning they probably won't be operational ten years from now.

259:

That's great, but take a look at the estimated energy budget for the US, as of last year:

https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/content/energy/energy_archive/energy_flow_2013/2013USEnergy.png

Solar's growing rapidly, but from a tiny baseline. It would have to grow by a factor of >200 to replace fossil fuels. And usually exponential growth levels off pretty rapidly due to diminishing returns. In this case, solar seems to be doing relatively well in the American southwest, but not so well in the north (less sunlight) or the southeast (hurricanes are a big disincentive to putting expensive stuff on your roof).

260:

Gotta say though, surprised the solar road thing hasn't been brought up, even if not used for roads, I want those on the sidewalks here, and my driveway as well!

261:

I am rather shocked that Michael Swanwick has never come up in this discussion.

The Iron Dragon's Daughter

Jack Faust

...

262:

"And usually exponential growth levels off pretty rapidly due to diminishing returns."

But sometimes they level off only due to saturation of the potential market. Electricity use in general, phone, TVs, cell phones...

If we had a sane carbon tax we could probably drive switchover pretty easily.

263:

While I'm sad to hear our host will be eschewing science fiction completely (fanboy frown) his existing work in other genres makes me more than confident that he'll deliver quality fiction in vivid settings with clever characters and the characteristic wry humor we've come to expect from him. And dammit, I'll read it.

264:

Most of the cost of solar, as seen by a householder, is installation and regulation costs. You can buy, right now one off retail, a panel at less than $1 per Watt.

Then you pay tax, getting expensive labour to put it on your roof, then even more skilled and certified labour to wire it up to your supply. By the time you have finished the price of the system has quadrupled. Here is how much it would cost if you could do it all yourself:

http://wavechronicle.com/wave/?p=571

As for exponential growth, it is still there. According to the report I posted, the last year or two installation has been limited by supply ie manufacturers cannot make enough of them fast enough to fully satisfy demand. If exponential growth continues for another 10 years PV will supply 30x what it does now, which is around 150GW per annum installation. In other words, in 10 years PV will be adding around 5% capacity to the global supply *every year*.

Most of this will probably not be in the West.

265:

Correction - that 150GW is total installed capacity. Installation last year was around 50GW IIRC. The 5% figure still stands though.

266:

Here in the UK we also seem to have some very dodgy telephone sales operations in the solar business. This residence is a semi with a north-facing roof. That's a huge difference in the incoming energy it can capture, but the salesmen seem to think it doesn't matter at all.

What I see of new building, and there doesn't seem to be much, the whole set-up isn't paying enough attention to solar energy, with things such as roof alignment not getting any attention. With good design, to take advantage of what solar-heating there is in winter, and that's more than just insulation, new-build housing could be a lot better, even before you add solar-panels.

Perhaps most obviously, why are roofs still symmetrical?

267:

Most of the expense of a home solar installation involves purchasing the home (and accompanying roof) the solar panels are installed on. Rich people with homes and mortgages have been getting tax breaks and subsidies to allow them to save money, poor folks without a home they can install solar panels on don't. Sucks, doesn't it?

268:

A few of us might remember a TV series shown in the mid-1970s, showing how an old building could be converted into a comfortable, energy-efficient, house. House for the future (PDF) is a good summary of what they did, and what worked. The tech has changed, and I suspect that these days, instead of the solar heating system using the roof, off-the-shelf solar panels would be used.

A lot of elements would be more-or-less routine now, though finding out just what the current standards are seems like a maze of twisted documents, all alike. In 1975, things such as double-glazing and insulation were rather exotic.

It seems rather obvious to me that an electric storage radiator is something that could be connected to a solar PV system during the day in winter, and could be a useful way of storing energy. You need some heat, and a lot of the inefficiencies of energy storage show up as things getting hot anyway. Or is that something totally crazy?

269:

We have a substantial PV installation on a roof which points the right direction to get good use out of it.

We have a generation meter fitted which means that feed-in credits are paid on the basis of (IIRC) half of what we generate being deemed to have been fed into the grid so we can use as much of the electricity we generate as we like and still get credit for the same amount.

We also have a nifty little box which measures the actual current flow at the meter and directs any surplus into the immersion heater. We don't pay much for hot water :-)

270:

The most cost effective system of them all is solar water heating. Again, massive cost savings if you do the installation and plumbing yourself.

BTW, the ultimate in cost effective PV in hot places eg Southern USA, is to drive the aircon direct from PV. The more the sun shines, the cooler you get. Do people sell that as a self contained combination?

271:

Do you ever get sub-zero temperatures outside your insulated residence bubble? That might mess up a cheap and simple solar water heater.

272:

The outside temperature doesn't matter a great deal when vacuum water heaters are used. As long as there is sunlight the water will get quite hot.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FEkjgF11bbg

273:

At about 2 min 50s into the video, after showing the heat exchanger, he observes that the water running through the solar collector has anti-freeze in it. The system also uses pumps for both the circuits, hot-side through the collector and the household heating. So I wouldn't call that a cheap and simple system. And the solar collector is running about 95 degrees hotter than ambient, in what is apparently winter. I am not sure what would be happening in summer.

There's nothing obviously wrong with the system, but I am not sure the guy quite knows what he's talking about.

274:

Steam engines are, indeed, wonderful things, but it's worth looking at the history of steamboats to realize what the problem is with running them on wood.

Where I am in California, and I think along the Mississippi, wood-fired steamboats got into trouble after some time, because all the wood within easy reach of the river had been cut down, either for farms or to power the boats. They had to switch to coal.

Basically, wood has less energy/kg than charcoal, and both often have less energy/kg than coal (depending on the type of coal), and all have less energy/kg than petroleum or nuclear. I'm sure you already know this, but you have to think about the reverse as well, which is that it takes a lot of land to run a solar-powered, biomass-burning, steam engine.

Steam locomotives are more useful than steam-powered automobiles, simply because tracks can be laid to have less friction than roads. Still, it's an interesting logistical puzzle to figure out how much forest or sugar-cane field would need to be owned by something like a railroad, just to keep its engines running. That's the medieval logistical challenge I alluded to above, where the glass-making guild owned a large woodland just to keep their furnaces fed with charcoal.

In a post-oil world, every industry is going to have to do things like this, just to keep themselves supplied with energy and materials from near at hand. That's why the local technology challenge, that of making everything from materials within 500 miles of the manufacturing center, is such a useful idea.

If you want a biomass-burning train, you're going to have to have plantations and woodlands within easy distance of the track, and they're going to have to be able to supply sufficient biomass to keep the train running continually. That's not an easy management problem, especially if we're dealing with a changing climate. It's far from impossible, of course, but for it to work, the farmers or foresters have to be at least as skilled as the train engineers.

If we're talking about a post-oil future, I'd be interested to find out whether it's possible to design a solar-powered train, where every car could basically power its own movement from the PV cells in its skin (so that every time you add a car, you also add more power to the engine(s) moving the train). Unless there were some really good batteries, such a train couldn't run at night or in winter, but at least it would be able to run some of the time.

275:

If we're talking about a post-oil future, I'd be interested to find out whether it's possible to design a solar-powered train, where every car could basically power its own movement from the PV cells in its skin

That's as utterly bonkers as designing a nuclear-powered train!

As it happens, we have trains powered by nuclear reactors -- they're the French TGV network (85% of France's electricity is nuclear), but of course, they don't put highly pressurized tanks full of radioisotopes in locomotives running at 350km/h -- that would be madness! Instead, they feed the trains via overhead electrification.

The same should go for solar. If you allow 8 metres width per track, a two track stretch of railway that's roofed over with photovoltaics should have an area of 8000 m^2 per kilometer. That's enough to provide about 1-3MW of power in direct sunlight (peak insolation is around 1kW/m^2 at the equator at noon; in reality you won't get better than 0.25kW/m^2 out of that). If you run your TGVs no less than 10km apart -- the braking distance of a TGV at speed is around 10km -- then that gives you the 10-15 megawatts it takes to run a high speed rail network ... or a low speed freight line.

As for nighttime running, you could in principle take the same area again and use the PV panels to charge up batteries ... then run slow freight cargo at night. IIRC the power draw of a train rises as the cube of its speed, so if you limit freight to under 100 km/h (possibly as low as 50 km/h) you can shift it quite cheaply.

276:

Getting back to the idea of near-future magic, one small problem I'd suggest with it is that it would have a shelf-life comparable to fresh produce and artisanal bread.

Unless one is very lucky, it's going to take a lot of work to come up with the near future scenario. And the magic, because one of the fantasy rules is that magic has to be new and different, but still recognizable. So that's a double workload of worldbuilding, and even with that, you've got to make sure that real events don't overtake your world before the book comes out.

That's a lot of work for a book.

I'd suggest it might be more useful to do near future alt-history plus magic. For example: Jimmy Carter somehow won a second term in 1980, Reagan never made it to office, and the US somehow got onto the renewables path 30 years early. Then the hippies found real magic. Or perhaps the communists did. Or perhaps some shaman in Siberia taught both sides, first to the communists under duress, then to the Portlandians after he escaped the USSR. Or whatever.

Seeing what we know now about world politics and about PV and wind requirements for rare earths and such, how would something like that play out now?

I wouldn't back it up too far, because then you get into the world of Heinlein's Waldo or Poul Anderson's Operation Luna and its predecessors (or Turtledove's Case of the Toxic Spell Dump). Still, the nice thing about an alt-history bifurcating from our own back 40 or 50 years is that it doesn't have the reality pressures that setting something in our real near future would have. That would (hopefully) keep it in print longer.

277:

Using algal biomass, a newer bio fuel technology, should allow a lot less land area to be required. I suspect a train cannot use PV to run for the same reason a car cannot unless it has a large surface area and is extremely lightweight. Airships however, might work with PV. I think that PV will be used to generate the energy that can be converted into a high density fuel or stored in batteries. We can also use solar thermal systems in cloudless areas to generate power, which can use pretty basic technology to work.

If Bronze Age people could manage some sort of supply chain for 1000's of miles by some sort of bucket brigade trading, then it isn't clear to me why a 500 mile range makes much sense, except for perishables. If a continent wide transportation system can be maintained, e.g. C19th Europe and US train systems), then this should be maintainable in even a seriously degraded economic system. We're not assuming a "Mad Max" Australia.

278:

Photosynthesis is terribly inefficient; 1% of sunlight being converted to biomass is the common figure. Cheap PV is 15% sunlight->electricity. I'd guess solar thermal power can do better and with lower tech, though it needs direct sunlight, not diffuse.

Sugar cane is said to be at 8%, oddly, which is why cane ethanol makes sense when corn doesn't.

Electricity practically is magic. 'Mana', delivered on man-made "ley-lines". There's lots of ways to make it: solar, other solar, wind, hydro, more. And once you have it, it's really versatile. Not so good for non-train vehicles but can be used to make fuel for those even without biofuel; expensive, but you can ship the stuff you need to, even if you can't have a car-centric lifestyle. Or use electricity to make hydrogen that you hydrogen biomass carbon with.

279:

I'm not sure airships are any more energy efficient than airplanes, unless you run them much slower than even their 200 kph top cruising speed. They get to stay up for free, but they're much bigger than a plane of similar capacity, and pushing a giant sausage through the air at speed will cost you. For freight they're competing with cheaper and more efficient ships and trains, for passenger travel they're competing with either those or the much faster and capital-efficient planes (faster means more trips means more passengers to amortize the construction and port cost over.)

280:

Steam locomotives are more useful than steam-powered automobiles, simply because tracks can be laid to have less friction than roads.

This makes no sense as it stands. Both cars and trains have wheels – there is no relative motion between the road/track and the part of the wheel it's in contact with. In fact, the more friction the better – it reduces the risk of skids (the problem with "leaves on the line" is that wet leaves reduce friction between the train wheels and the track).

The energy loss mechanism for wheeled vehicles is internal friction (e.g. in the axle bearings) and energy loss by deformation of the wheel when it meets the road. This is indeed less for trains, but not because of the way the tracks are laid – just because steel wheels on steel rails deform far less than rubber tyres on asphalt.

I'm not an expert, but I think the main advantage of train tracks over roads is that the former are designed with lower gradients. In an inefficient system, you always lose more energy going uphill than you gain back going downhill, so the flatter the better.

281:

In an inefficient system, you always lose more energy going uphill than you gain back going downhill, so the flatter the better.

Not necessarily. Regenerative braking will recover much of the energy in a hybrid vehicle for instance. I've tested this with my Prius and the mpg is almost invariant between flat and hilly driving.

282:

PV is better than photosynthesis, although don't forget the conversion to fuel inefficiencies. However, algal growth is so fast that it has been calculated that the area required for algal biofuels is a fraction of that needed by terrestrial plants. Even better, it doesn't require useful farmland.

At this point it still isn't cost competitive with other carbon based fuels and so projects have been kept at pilot and experimental levels.

Airships are not efficient. However, because the lift is "free", you can push them through the air with the electricity that their large surfaces covered in PV cells. Aircraft by contrast cannot do that, but they can be electric. However, as you say, the economics doom airships because they are so slow compared to aircraft, that their capital cost cannot be amortized as quickly as flights are far fewer, keeping ticket or cargo prices high. David Brin is a big fan of traction driven airships - railed engines dragging the airships. I think they are impractical (tunnels? high crosswinds?) but they are another option and the PV can then largely power the electrified rails for the engine.

One way to handle the electric power transmission to aircraft is to beam the power to them via microwaves and convert it back to electricity. This would be the wireless equivalent of electrified rails or catenaries.

283:

I'm not sure airships are any more energy efficient than airplanes, unless you run them much slower than even their 200 kph top cruising speed. They get to stay up for free, but they're much bigger than a plane of similar capacity, and pushing a giant sausage through the air at speed will cost you.

A possibly more interesting technology might be ground-effect vehicles, like the Soviet Ekranoplans, which fly at extremely low altitudes and airplane speed, and spend less fuel than conventional aircraft because (thanks the ground effect) they need a lot less energy just to stay airborne.

The main problem with these is that they are constrained to fly at low altitude over fairly flat surfaces; so far, this has confined them to operate mostly over water. In practice, they might function more as really, really, really fast ships...

284:

The answer is simple. Those nations with lots of sunlight get converted into PV deserts and fuel synthesis plants. Business as usual.

285:

The problem with photosynthesis as a solution, whether it's algae (C3), trees (C3), sugar beets (C3), or sugar cane (C4 photosynthesis) is that, to a very good first approximation, you can calculate the rate of photosynthesis as if the surface is a single leaf. It doesn't matter whether it's a corn field, a tropical rain forest, or the green soup in a polluted pond, the maximum rate of photosynthesis will be the same. That's why algae's not a better answer than sugar cane, in an area that'll grow both--you're going to get the same amount of carbon fixed, no matter what the system is.

That's the simple model. Reality, of course, gets more complex. The difference between C3 and C4 is that C3 tops out at about 20% of full sunlight. Add too much light, and the photosystems degrade (this is called photorespiration and is one of those non-intuitive results from how chloroplasts evolved over the last 2 billion years). C4 plants sacrifice a bunch of their photosynthesizing surface to basically turbo-charge the rest of the photosynthesizing cells. They can keep photosynthesizing at much higher levels of light. The problem is, they're crappy in low light conditions, because they've sacrificed a chunk of their overall capacity to keeping the rest working at high light. levels. That's why C4 crops tend to do better in warmer and drier conditions, while C3 crops do better in cooler and wetter conditions. You can get a bit more carbon fixed in C4, but only under high light conditions. Absent that, they're equivalent.

Sugar cane ethanol beats corn kernel ethanol for a very simple reason: they use more of the plant to make the alcohol. If they could figure out how to make corn stalk ethanol, it would be equivalent to sugar cane as a fuel source. Unfortunately, there's not enough sugar in a corn stalk to make it worthwhile, and I don't think they've come up with an efficient enough enzyme system to break down plant cell walls into sugars to make it work.

Basically, algae biofuels work best where you've got a lot of light and a lot of salty water (think the shores of the Persian Gulf, for instance). There's no point in wasting potable water on them. Worse, in terms of nitrogen efficiency (and possibly phosphorus efficiency), they're radically inefficient as fuel sources. One study suggested you'd have to divert the world's entire supply of fixed nitrogen to algae tanks to meet far less than the world's demand for diesel, for example.

As for trees, they photosynthesize at the same rate as algae or corn, but they store their surplus carbon in wood. You get more fuel out of a woodlot than out of a cornfield because you harvest the corn every year, but you harvest the wood every 20 years or more. If you do it right, you should get about 20 times the fuel, but to use a woodlot based fuel system with a 20 year rotation, you've got to have 20 times the woodland, so that you can cut enough fuel (1/20th of the woodland) each year to keep yourself in business. So far as I know, this solution was used in England back at least to the Celts, so it's quite doable, at least for a non-industrial society (and it may be one reason druids worshiped under trees--they were literally wealth and power). Still, there's a reason England switched to coal at the start of the industrial revolution.

286:

Thanks Susan. I stand corrected.

287:

The one potential advantage airships have is that they don't need huge runways. That is the cool part about the "Dragon Dream" zeppelin. It had a reversible hovercraft system instead of wheels, so it could glide along the ground (props pushing down through a skirt), or, alternately, it could stick itself to the ground by reversing the hoverprops and using the skirt as something akin to a suction cup. This overcame the big weakness of conventional airships, which is that you need a big crew to land the things by grabbing lines, and screwups on landing can be lethal, as some newsreel clips have shown.

Still, airports are a huge expense and limitation for airplanes, so in a world that can't afford to lay out and maintain miles of concrete for planes to land on, airships may be viable, simply because their primary need is for hanger space, which, even though enormous, is smaller than the runway a comparably sized plane needs.

288:

I've always had a sweet spot for novels in the complimentary genre: ones that seem like fantasy, but turn out to be science fiction. If urban fantasy reacquaints us with the strangeness of the mundane by transforming it slightly, then SF psuedo-fantasy (there's gotta be a decent name for this) reacquaints us with the mundanity of the fantastical by allowing it to be, eventually, understood.

Rosemary Kirstein's "Steerswoman" novels are an excellent example of this. The scene where the lead character is able to understand what seemed to be vast magic destruction by grasping the idea of orbital mechanics is quite beautiful.

289:

I was thinking about that. Lining or roofing the tracks with PV is a good solution, absent the occasional train crash. Maintenance, however, is a huge headache, even without crashes. Panels need to replaced every few decades and kept clean all the time. There may be some issues with running them through crowded neighborhoods, unless the panels are non-reflective. I've heard a lot of complaints from those living near existing PV plants. The panels are so reflective that, for those at the wrong angle, it's like having someone reflecting the sun into their windows every single day. It gets old, fast.

The idea behind the solar powered train, silly as it is, is that it's self contained, more than a diesel-powered train is. All you have to maintain are the train cars themselves the track. If you're resource and energy limited, that's not stupid.

A good recent example is the Congolese railroad line that Anthony Bourdain showed last season in Kinsangani. They've got real problems keeping any engines working, most of the staff are unpaid volunteers, and they've only got a few miles of track still working. They are, of course, using conventional diesel trains. Their problems won't be solved by switching to an electric train and running it with PV panels along the tracks. If nothing else, they'd be constantly combating people stealing power from the train panels to light their own homes and businesses. Having trains that power themselves might make their lives a bit better, though.

290:

While algae use the same photosynthetic system and this puts a limit on energy fixation as carbon, that does not mean that the fuel output need be the same. Algae have been engineered to excrete oils directly,
thus reducing the metabolic use of fixed carbon.

For example fig 4.1. illustrates the point for terrestrial plants showing wood is very inefficient as a way to generate energy per unit area.
http://unctad.org/en/docs/ditcted200710_en.pdf

Algal biofuel has a smaller footprint required than terrestrial plants
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algae_fuel Note that to provide a full petroleum replacement requires 1/7th the land area of corn currently grown for both food and ethanol production.

291:

The thing about 500 miles is that's approximately the range that you can move grain. Actually, it's a lot less, depending on what you're using. In general, if you start with a cart full of grain and some draft animals hauling it and eating the grain to feed themselves, after 500 miles they're out of grain.

In the pre-industrial world, and notably, ignoring water transport, that 500 mile limit had some important implications for how big cities could be: they had to be fed by fields within a few hundred miles of them. Fewer fields, smaller city, and concurrently, less ability to control the surrounding countryside. Sociologists like James C. Scott use such transportation limits as a way to understand the limits of civilization in a pre-industrial setting.

Rome slipped this noose with its empire, primarily by using the Mediterranean Sea and rivers as major transportation routes. The City of Rome managed to get up to something like 1,250,000 people in the reign of Augustus (reference), but they were getting one-third of their grain from Egypt and two-thirds from North Africa. Maintaining Rome at that size was only possible due to over-water transport, and during the early Medieval period, the population fell to 50,000 when forced to rely on local resources. If you look at the Roman cities throughout the empire, all of the big cities (AFAIK) were close to harbors or navigable rivers.

So you're right: you can base your technology on resources that move thousands of miles. The problem is, those technologies disappear when the supply chains break. At the end of the Bronze Age, bronze was recycled for centuries rather than made out of new tin or copper ore. When Rome fell, people didn't go back to using bronze, copper, or chipping flint. Rather, they kept using iron at sharply reduced rates, because they could make iron locally, because there were many more sources for iron than there ever were for copper or tin.

That's the point of looking at what you can make locally. In our world, a PV technology that depends on a global supply chain (say for rare earths) will disappear when the supply chain breaks. If someone figures out how to make local PV without the supply chain issues, the technology may well stay around after the global supply chains crash. Certainly, solar water heating will stay around, because that's quite easy to do locally. All you have to do is paint a metal bucket black and leave it in the sun, if nothing else.

292:

Not sure about that. One complaint I've heard from algae people, and I know a number of them, is that it's a nightmare and a labor problem to keep algae tanks sufficiently single species to grow the oil-producing algae (stramenopiles, if I remember right).

Keeping pure cultures is one of the general problems with working with algae and fungi (and with bacteria, for that matter). If you keep algae in an open tank, wild algal species are basically raining out of the sky on you all the time. Keeping the growing tanks clean involves use of a lot of toxic chemicals, which is why it's both a logistical nightmare and a labor nightmare. People cleaning the tanks tend not to stay on that job for very long, and keeping your precious fuel algae from getting poisoned by the cleaning process is also a chore.

I haven't been paying much attention to the algae biofuels folks recently, but all the designs I saw were open tank designs, so they've got contamination issues. Ideally, you want a sealed tank, but that comes at the expense of light inefficiency through the glass, and it doesn't necessarily get rid of all your contamination issues.

Now, tree farms are not necessarily much more pleasant workplaces than algae tank farms, and cane fields are notoriously miserable places to work. The old English woodlot system worked a lot better because it produced a lot more than just firewood or charcoal, and it required less maintenance, because nature was doing a lot of the pest control and other work. The downside of such woodlots is that they don't produce large and consistent amounts of fuel on demand, so they're horrible for running large and competitive industries. They're the kind of system where (as with the Spanish dehesa) everyone gets by, but no one gets rich.

So far as I can tell, if you want to be a manufacturing magnate and fuel your business with biomass, a lot of people are going to have to suffer to keep your furnaces stoked, whatever kind of biomass you use to fuel them. This has been an impetus for what I'll euphemistically call "unfree labor" for a very long time, and it's likely to be a chronic problem in a post-industrial future too.

293:

Ancient Rome is a great "existence proof" of what can be done with pre-industrial tech and minimized banditry. So it becomes more about political organization than technology. In the USA between the Mississippi and the Rockies, it might be hard to maintain supply chains without at least railroads or their road equivalent. So if the western and eastern states can maintain supply chains, then it should be possible to maintain enough technology to keep these plains states running. Like the European middle ages, banditry could become the factor that creates your apocalyptic scenario. Whether it is rogue police jurisdictions as we are seeing today, or full fledged warlords (HG Well's "Things to Come", Brin's "The Postman", US tv show "Revolution"), that might be the tipping point that turns GW impacts on food production, water shortages, etc into a full fledged apocalypse scenario for your book.

294:

If the tech to make plastic bags still exists, then the algal farms using "bags" mostly solves the contamination problem. How viable economically it is, I have no idea. However my point was not about these details, but simply that photosynthetic efficiency does not determine net productivity. And we still have plenty of time to engineer even more productive strains that create the finished fuels directly.

Just as in movie depictions, I'm sure we will have a variety of technologies repurposed in unfamiliar ways to suit local conditions. My expectation is that GW will have impacts that will be unpleasant, but not sufficient to completely disrupt the planet, even if we do start abandoning low lying coastal cities (or adapting to rising water like Venice).

295:

Problem I see with writing today's world as sf in 1950's is improbabilities: The USSR fell apart with relatively little violence. The more conservative US states called "The Red States." Magazines for teen girls taking it for granted that many readers are Having Sex (sometimes with other girls) and not preaching against it. Missionaries coming to first world countries to spread Christianity. The UK converting to decimal currency -- under a Conservative Prime Minister....

296:

Thanks Alex. The book I'm working on is more about the big processes for the next 400,000 years, and the constraints they place on what's humanly possible, more than on a particular scenario. Incidentally, I'm assuming we blow 4,000-5,000 GtC into the atmosphere over the next 100 years, burn up all usable fossil fuel supplies, and then deal with the consequences without fossil fuels for the next 400,000 years or so, until the level of atmospheric carbon returns to where it is now.

So for North America, what that means is that, in the next 200-1500 years or so, the biomes shift dramatically. Much of the southeastern US will be uninhabitable for part of the summer, basically because it will get over 95 degrees F and over 95% humidity, what the US Marines call "black flag weather." During these conditions (which, incidentally, Shanghai is getting quite close to already), humans can't cool themselves off through sweating and die without high mountains, or living deep in caves is mandatory to stay alive in such weather. Given that this will affect other large mammals just as much, the lowland southeast will be uninhabitable for parts of the summer. Nomads may go in there during the cooler months, but they'll have to have some other place to go (like the Great Lakes) for the rest of the year.

We already have some idea what North American vegetation will look like in this kind of weather, because it's very similar to the PETM, 55.8 mya. During the PETM, there were tropical forests to 40oN. This will likely persist even in "Black flag weather," as there are fossils from Cerrejon, Colombia from this period, and the weather regime was thought to be comparable. In the Southwest, the deserts will also grow, but they will be tropical deserts more like Hawaii (which is the same latitude as the Sahara) than what we have today. Peaks that can catch the clouds will support pockets of really lush forests on their western and northern edges, but the lowland deserts will be quite hot and fairly barren in many places.

From 40oN to 50oN (in the continental interior, or Winnipeg) or to 65oN (on the coasts) there will be paratropical forest, which is what we currently see in Florida and along the Gulf Coast. These will probably be more open savannas in the continental interior and more gallery forests along the coasts. Think of the Canadian bayous, if you will. Between 50oN and 70oN there will be broadleaf forests akin to what we see in the American Southeast (note that the Arctic circle is at 66.7oN), and poleward of that there will be a weird deciduous forest that's akin to what is currently seen in, say, New York's central park and the cypress swamps of the northern Mississippi basin.

That's the climatic picture. The coasts will be rather messed up by continually rising seas (they'll hit 65 m sometime in the next 2,000 years, depending on how fast the East Antarctic Ice Sheet melts).

My guess is that the Great Lakes area will become a political crossroads for the continent. The Southeast lowlands will be depopulated, but people may hang on in the high Appalachians, around extensive cave systems, and in similar places where they can shelter from Black Flag weather. The Arctic and subarctic will be lands that migrants colonize, and I suspect there will be new polities (or transformed old polities) contending around the Arctic sea, as they used to around the Mediterranean.

The Southwest will look a bit like the Middle East does today, with California in the place of Syria (e.g. massively mixed coastal populations torn apart by loss of resources and the accompanying strife), the headwaters of the Colorado River in the Kurdistan role (where the Euphrates and Tigris, among others are born), acting as the "water tower" supplying the rest of the West, Nevada largely depopulated, and Arizona in the current role of Iraq or Saudi Arabia. In other words, without a unified US government holding things together, water wars are quite possible. It's also possible that, as the Rockies become warmer and more like the Andes, we may see Andean-style settlements in the high Rockies, with terraced fields and such.

I'm not sure what will happen in the Pacific Northwest and around Hudson's Bay, but it will be a lot more habitable than most of the continent, so I suspect that's where most of the people are going to be. The forests will look more like those of subtropical Mexico than like they do today though. Given that there won't be any fossil fuels, an easy guess is that they'll be growing corn, beans, and squash in summer milpas straight out of Central America. Wheat will be an Arctic crop more than a temperate one.

As for politics and polities, I'm guessing that the Arctic ocean will be the center of contests between states, Canada will have a fairly large peasant population, the Great Lakes will be the cross-roads of the continent, while the Southeast and Southwest will be largely depopulated compared to where they are today. In fact, the major reason anyone would want to venture into the Southeast is to loot the ancient and abandoned cities of whatever they can trade north.

That's my first take, anyway. I'm still working it out.

297:

but in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, for example, Walmart anticipated a demand spike and got trucks -- laden with necessities -- rolling towards where they were going to be needed ahead of time.

Happens with other businesses also. When hurricanes are predicted in an area Home Depot and Lowes start removing inventory from area stores and getting ready to truck it into affected areas. Don't even think of buying a generator or chain saw if you're in the area but not in the strike zone in the few days before a hurricane hits. (For those not from the US these two stores chains are the Walmarts of the builder/home improvement worlds. Need 50 sheets of plywood, they stock it locally.)

298:

Perhaps most obviously, why are roofs still symmetrical?

Cost and style. That's what the people buy.

299:

"They are great for plodding in the rain, but not much else."

and you're being too hard on cloaks again. When traveling (which seems to happen sometimes in fantasy literature) they're a makeshift shelter, blanket or pillow depending on need. Wrapped round the arm a makeshift buckler (no good for something big but better than nothing against a knife) and they can be thrown as a distraction in a fight or while running away. They're also a lot easier to make and repair than fitted clothing and fit better over bulky armour if you're trying to keep the rain off.

300:

The most cost effective system of them all is solar water heating. Again, massive cost savings if you do the installation and plumbing yourself.

Maybe in theory but in the US there are a lot more codes on such things in most areas since the disasters of the 70s.

I'd estimate that only 1/2 or so of roofs in the US can handle the load or PV or solar water. I know I'd not trust mine even without consulting an engineer. Rafter framing just don't give enough support. Newer truss built systems are a different matter.

Plus just getting some copper or steel pipe at Home Depot doesn't cut it either. PEX (sp?) fixes most of that but most DIY folks don't know how to deal with it yet.

And even if you get the plumbing and structure right you really needs trades to deal with doing things in a way so your shingled roof doesn't leak and can be replaced at the end of it's life without dismantling the panels.

301:

The Highland plaid or "great kilt" is a variant of the Fantasyland cloak that never seems to get an outing in fiction. A universal garment that converts into a blanket for sleeping in, made from raw wool so it's loaded with lanolin (at least to begin with) and hence somewhat waterproof. It's commonly assumed that it was the teuchter's only garment although that's debatable, if nothing else it didn't have pockets for his bawbees.

302:

a few points

a) People relate to tech as magick

I once fixed a printer with witchcraft. The PEBKAC made them expect failure, which ensured it. Enough rubber-chicken-waving changed user behaviour, success.

b) shippers do more than 'avoid storms'.

A metalumberjack in Riga explained to me over a beer that the problem is to reballast a boat that loads at A, then unloads portions of cargo at B and C, all the while saving fuel by reballasting in port to optimise center of bouancy and moments of inertia in pitch/roll/yaw based on the expected direction of wind and swell ....

c) supply chains

Efficiency (and the resultant economic growth) involves removing or minimising redundancy and resilience.
This brings a global system which is ever more stretched, fragile, brittle, and has ever-more-catastrophic failure modes ...

303:

[energy algae]

We already have a billion-years-optimized system of automated sunlight harvesting, micro-, meso- and mega- accumulators, and conversion to long-chain hydrocarbons.

Whales.

304:

We almost killed them off from overhunting, unless ... could whale liposuction be a thing?

305:

Not quite: The basic trophic cascade calculation is that you lost 90% of the energy every time something eats something else. So if you start with 100,000 calories in the algae, you get 1000 calories in the krill, shrimp, etc. that eat it, and 10 calories in the whales that eat the planktivores. Contrary to rumor, whales are all carnivorous.

So even if you could turn whales into energy with 100% efficiency, you'd only capture about 1 percent of the energy that was captured by the algae originally. Farming algae is a bit more efficient than that.

306:

Whale blubber is pretty tough stuff. I'm not sure it would be practical to remove it via a suction tube... but you never know until you try.

I imagine the whales might object to the procedure unless you had a way keep them from swimming off.

"Okay, Trevor, this one's still wiggling. Throw another barrel of Thorazine out..."

307:

It will be a hell of a landscape. I was at an econ lecture earlier this year where an economist was modeling the impact of AGW on populations, farming and industry. It was rather "assume a round cow" type of analysis, but the interesting point was that while farming would move north with the climate, industry would not necessarily move with it. Clearly no apocalyptic scenario attached in that analysis :)

You have assumed an open landscape, which will force the population to move north. But would that necessarily happen? What if local and urban farming was enough to fed the city population? Might we not create domes to create local climates instead? Climate controlled cities is what O'Neill was suggesting for northern cities in his "2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future". Fuller was suggesting a dome over Manhattan in the 1960's. If cost is reasonable, perhaps that is the future, rather than the current open sky model. Coastal cities would be partially flooded and become like Venice, but at least climate controlled with local food production inside the enclosures. If the population is going to be mostly in cities anyway, perhaps that is one way to mitigate the huge problems of GW on the economy?

308:

There's an awful lot of hand-wavy 'farming will just move north' form the warming is no problem crowd but there's three problems with it. First most of northern Siberia and Canada is basically frozen swamp and when it thaws heavy machinery just sinks (not to mention the trouble with infrastructure) you might be able to get some farming done there if you made a massive investment in drainage, dikes and so on but; secondly, there's almost no infrastructure so you better be prepared for a huge government investment in road and rail or the food isn't going anywhere. Thirdly making the world hotter doesn't increase the sunlight to the far north so you still only get a short growing season and smaller yields.

Also worth noting that her Mercator projection distorts the size of the northern hemisphere, its not as big as it looks on the map.

And of course the southern hemisphere is just out of luck, its ocean all the way to Antarctica and Antarctica doesn't have any soil.

In short we're not going to be feeding the world, or anyone much from the (currently)frozen north.

309:

Technical point in agreement.
The closes together Brit high(ish) speed trains run aoart is 3 minutes ...
Which @ 125 mph = 200 kph (approx) & are therefore 6 - 6.5 miles apart = 8 - 10 km.
All perfectly reasonable.
More generally, the problems with PV & distributed generation are:
!. As Dirk points out, the installation costs & niggles
2. Vested interests, the power companies etc, deliberately screwing around
3. Efficient storage, though it looks as though that is solvable.

Sorry, Nojay, your historical scepticism is justified, but it really does look different this time - follow the money!

310:

The City of Rome managed to get up to something like 1,250,000 people in the reign of Augustus
Utter cobblers
How big was the ground-extent of Augustan Rome?
How big was the ground-extent of Rome in the 1930's when it really did exceed 1 million people?

Sorry, this is a persistent "academic" urban myth.
Augustus was a conventional dictator - how many people did he claim were living in Rome?
Because bigger = better in that sort of book.
Please, I don't want to see this one again ....

311:

Didn't read far enough
That figure of 50 000 for medieval Rome is also a gross over-estimate ... at the very lowest point, IIRC it was below 20 000 or even less.

312:

THAT is an ultra-pessimistic scenario?
Surely ,as thing obviously get worse, people will, actually cahnge their behaviours & operations to allieveate the problem?
Your assumption is that the Koch Bros will be in charge everywhere ...
Ain't going to happen.

313:

If global warming really melts the permafrost, it's going to be really wet for while, for sure. But how long until those warmer temperatures dry out the swamps? Not completely, but to the point you can usefully get semi-heavy machinery (agricultural weight machinery at least) in over most of it?

I don't have an answer, but I'd guess not an incredibly long time.

And, of course, all the water's got to go somewhere. I'd expect to see some areas that are going to get hotter also get wetter. We might get tropical growing conditions elsewhere, further North than the current tropics and pick up some slack that way. Grow across the Gobi (purely picked because it's a great sounding slogan you understand) but I really wouldn't like to guess exactly where will turn out to be nice and wet with the new climate.

314:

The existance of lots more liquid-phase H2O in the earth system will do a number on the existing rainfall patterns, so the ex-permafrost might dry out or it might remain a swamp depending on the precipitation levels it experiences under the new regime.

Whatever happens however it is lack of topsoil that will be the main issue up north - the boreal latitudes were pretty much scraped clean by glaciers a few thousand years ago and haven't built up much soil in the intervening period. The bits that dry up enough to make access roads and heavy plant feasible aren't going to be very agriculturally productive without a lot of work.

One of the things climatologists *do* expect to happen is for the hydrological cycle to become more extreme as things warm up - so dry places will be drier, wet places will be wetter and rainfall events will cluster closer to the 'sudden torrential downpour' end of things rather than the 'prolonged gentle drizzle' end. If that expectation does pan out I suspect it will severely degrade a lot of farmland (or potential farmland) even if a superficial review of the projected annual precipitation numbers for those areas might suggest things shouldn't be too bad.

Regards
Luke

315:

Ahem: if you can't afford to lay out the miles of concrete for planes to land and take off on, you certainly can't afford to lay the many, many more miles of foundation material and concrete for trains to run on. The amount of concrete you need to pour for a runway isn't that much greater than for a high speed railway -- those things need deep foundations -- and it's distance-invariant; you only need runways at endpoints, be they 100 or 1000 miles apart, whereas railways require the entire intervening distance to be paved.

I'm inclined to believe we'll end up keeping airliners, even as we move to a post-fossil-carbon economy: they're simply too damn convenient. (They're also far more energy-efficient than most people realize, and consume less resources than other forms of long-range transport; much less fuel per passenger-mile than powered shipping, and much less concrete than railways.)

316:

Maintenance, however, is a huge headache, even without crashes. Panels need to replaced every few decades and kept clean all the time.

Maintenance is already part of the job for any railway; 2.5-5% of any operating railway network has to be replaced and relayed every year, and overhead cables have to be checked and retensioned much more frequently than that.

If it's a question of regularly cleaning overhead PV panels, that's probably going to be easier if they're all lined up above a railway track: you can run a maintenance train down the track and blast air/water/detergent from underneath.

Grade separation is generally a good idea for railways, and it should be possible -- in many cases -- to run tracks along a cutting and line the side walls with PV cells that are invisible from ground level unless you're peering over the side of the trench.

Alternatively, roofing the track with PV panels can, if done properly, be a noise mitigation measure: use them to deflect sound and vibration from the trains away from the neighbours.

Yes, this is a developed world solution -- it won't work if there's no existing infrastructure, nobody gets paid, and everybody else has an incentive to steal what infrastructure you lay down. But it points out that the real problem is: how do you maintain and protect your infrastructure? This is to some extent an economic/rule of law question, not a technological one.

317:

PV panels are heading for the price point where a 200W panel goes from (retail, one off) $200 to $20. At that price even in the Third World anyone who wants one will have one. Theft would not be a big problem. And the power conversion units would be too big to steal. Which leaves copper cables. It's not so good, but use Aluminium or steel at high voltage.
[There are more mobile phones than people in the world, and they cost more than $20 each. 7 billion 200W panels would represent an installed capacity of about 5% of world demand]

318:

Purely by coincidence, I was listening to BBC World Service last night and caught a very interesting program about economics, business, and the global energy future. The talking heads from the gas and oil industry were discussing how long it would be until solar became an "existential threat" to gas (which would then substitute for oil as portable fuel) ... the argument was whether it was 5 years away or 10, not "if". Also noted: China has quietly made a strategic decision to go solar as the solution to their smog problem and they're churning PV cells out like there's no tomorrow.

A key point that came up was that the effect of fracking in the mid-west and shale oil in Canada has been to buffer the investment markets from oil price fluctuations. Investors no longer take fright if a civil war breaks out in the ME. So the political leverage of middle eastern regimes is sharply reduced, thereby also reducing the likelihood of the USA (and the rest of the west) being willing to go to war in that part of the world.

But as to the rest of the program ... when you've got investment analysts prognosticating that Tony Abbot is screwing the Australian economy in the near future by backing big coal over renewables, you know that change is in the air.

319:

http://cleantechnica.com/2014/05/17/ubs-says-10-global-electricity-capacity-come-solar-2020/

"Global investment bank UBS says solar is likely to account for 10 per cent of global electricity capacity by 2020
...
UBS notes that US solar group SunEdison predicts that solar can maintain a 16 per cent compound annual growth rate over the next five years. That will take annual installations to around 100GW by 2019."

That is around 5 years away.
I would suggest that Perovskite cells will be in their mass production phase at that point and PV installations by 2025 will dominate all energy sectors, none of which will be able to compete on price.

320:

Well, I didn't mention the drop in population from around 10 billion to less than one billion over the course of a century. That's based on the overall loss of industrial farming and food transportation, coupled with overall food production declining as the weather makes crops less predictable and less productive, coupled with massive numbers of refugees moving to find food, rather than growing it themselves.

Here's the point everyone seems to be missing: to get to that level of extreme climate change, you've got to blow all the fossil fuels into the air. That's it. One of the things that's likely to get lost is industrial nitrogen fixation. That's currently 1% of our fossil fuel use, but unlike transportation (the biggest use segment), it's a hard number, as in lots of people starve and wars start when the amount of fuel given to nitrogen fixation starts to go down.

I'd also point out that the sunlight doesn't change, only the air temperature. So while it may be warm during the summer in the Arctic, there's not a lot of light for solar power of any sort. More stuff gets burned up there, such as peat.

I'm also quite aware of how bad Arctic soils are for farming. There are ways to improve them, but turning former boglands into farmlands isn't the easiest thing in the world. Ask the Irish. And it will all have to be done by hand.

Once the Antarctic melts, it won't have much soil. What it will have is a lot of blowing dust (aka glacial flour), which will make loess. If you know anything about farming in the upper Midwestern US or on the Loess Plateau in China, you'll hopefully realize that this is, potentially, a bonanza for farmers, if they can turn the dust into soil fast enough. It's also a potential dust bowl if they screw up.

While I agree that we seem to be moving to a solar economy at long last, one place we're not likely to see a change is in our warfighting industry. As I and others have pointed out before, while you can power the electronics in a forward base with solar panels or whatever, it's pretty impossible to run an aircraft carrier or a fighter plane on solar power. Some of it we can do with nuclear, but most of our big weapons will remain on oil. We're also not good on using solar energy for a bunch of other things, like heavy construction or even making more solar panels. We'll decrease our use of oil to be sure, but it's not going away anytime soon. Unfortunately.

321:

That's what I've heard.

The one problem you didn't mention (ref: Bill McKibben's Eaarth) is that, in some, perhaps many, parts of the globe, as climate changes, rains become less predictable and growing seasons become less predictable. McKibben reports this is a problem in parts of Africa. Where before they had predictable wet and dry seasons, so that they knew what to plant, when to plant it, and could organize their lives around a somewhat predictable harvest, now it's unpredictable. They're planting all the time, hoping that some crop will come in occasionally. This is a mess, because they're having to use far more seed to plant, losing much more of it to the unpredictable weather, often getting smaller yields when they do get a crop, and spending all their time tending their fields. Before, with predictable crops, they had time for other activities, including ones that made some money. They don't have time for those any more, so poverty is increasing as well.

I tend to think this is a hint of things to come for much of the world.

322:

"Global investment bank UBS says solar is likely to account for 10 per cent of global electricity capacity by 2020

That is the good news. The bad news is that total energy consumption is growing and fossil fuel use will remain high. If the Chinese and Indians are building coal plants at a rapid clip today, each of which has a useful economic life of 30+ years, that means that they will be in operation while solar is growing. I find it hard to believe that they will be shut down before the end of their lives. So while solar hopefully will be rapidly gaining energy share, absolute fossil fuel consumption and hence carbon emissions may not be declining. We will need aggressive declines to prevent the serious warming with a business as usual scenario.

323:

There is good and bad news for Africa. The population is increasing fairly rapidly. However their current crop productivity is very low by our standards, primarily due to low fertilizer use (IIRC). So there is a lot of potential for Africa to increase its yields.

This may be very important in offsetting unreliable farming conditions due to GW.

324:

Check the reference cited, which is:

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/CP/29/2/Population_of_Rome*.html

There are several estimates, but the one I chose was based on reported food imports to Rome from Egypt and North Africa, which I don't think anyone disputes. Feel free to support your opinion with a model that gives lower numbers.

That, of course, misses the original point, which is that the ability to transport food to a city determines the city's ultimate size. If you're transporting grain in an oxcart, you can take it something like 250 km before the oxen have eaten all the grain in the cart. If that's your only mode of transportation, your city's size is constrained by how much grain you can grow within about 250 km. If you have better means of transportation, you can increase the "food-shed" for the city and increase it's size, but it appears that around 500 miles is the upper limit for this kind of transport.

Imperial Rome slipped that population limit by transporting grain overwater from all around the Mediterranean, just as today we slip that limit by transporting food across oceans. If climate change radically curtails shipping due to bigger and less predictable storms, and if it radically decreases crop production due to unpredictable weather and people moving to where there are worse soils, it also curtails the size of cities and the size of the global human population.

325:

If climate change radically curtails shipping due to bigger and less predictable storms, and if it radically decreases crop production due to unpredictable weather and people moving to where there are worse soils, it also curtails the size of cities and the size of the global human population.

North America is perhaps in a much better position than elsewhere. People can move north and the population density low enough that continental food production may work, global imports are not vital. Europe has nowhere to go, except Russia, but will be competing with other Asian populations. The southern hemisphere definitely runs out of land very quickly. I can just imagine the national barriers being strengthened to prevent large scale population movements, especially from the south. It will make current actions look very benign, small scale. [Caveat - if Arctic ice melting makes Northern Europe colder, will the population shift southwards, and can we farm the Sahara instead?]

Given the rise of the locavore movement and ideas for vertical farming and backyard gardening, I wonder if population patterns, especially in the US will not be as mobile as we think. Looking at California today, the state is in a long term drought. The Central Valley aquifer is declining at rates faster than originally thought. Logic would suggest that the population start moving north. Yet the state has a proposition on the ballot to increase available water. That will no doubt include better recycling, and maybe even some coastal desalination plants. There are plans to scale up ag water recycling which still uses most of the state's water. I'm actually optimistic that California won't dry up and blow away in the face of GW.

326:

Logic would suggest that the population start moving north.

Except that every place north of California is already pretty crowded, until you go so far north that it's almost uninhabitable. The idea that we can screw up our environment and then, somehow, just move someplace else is, at best, a recipe for protracted conflict. The migrants and the locals are likely to get on about as well as Israelis and Palestinians, for pretty much the same reasons.

327:

Except that every place north of California is already pretty crowded

We must have very different concepts of "pretty crowded". Oregon is almost empty and Washington, particularly in the east, is similarly relatively uncrowded. Mind you, I grew up in Britain, so almost anywhere outside of LA looks like wide open country to me :)

328:

Seconded. Oregon: land area 255,000 km^2, population 3.9 million. The UK: 243,600 km^2, population 64 million. The UK's population density is nearly 16 times as high as Oregon's; if the continental USA was populated as densely as the UK there'd be about 1.01 billion people there rather than 316 million.

329:

Let's put it this way: I lived in Idaho Falls for a couple of years. It seems pretty uncrowded, desolate even, but there was a significant sentiment among the locals that, if you weren't born there, you should go the hell home. I remember a particular billboard saying "Idaho for Idahoans" (which I didn't even know was a word) associated with some candidate or other. And that was mainly in response to a relative few (probably less than 1,000) people from (mainly) California in town (total pop. about 50,000).

tl;dr: Migration causes conflict, fairly predictably.

330:

Oregonians were similarly aggressive to Californian's after the '89 quake. Just traveling in Oregon with California plates was likely to get you some unpleasant driver behavior. I also gather there were complaints about rich Californians bidding up Seattle house prices at the same time, although presumably not too many from the sellers.

Did the original Idaho settlers show any concern when they displaced the native populations?

331:

" .. I remember a particular billboard saying "Idaho for Idahoans" (which I didn't even know was a word)...”


Here is the SUM TOTAL of Knowledge of Idaho possessed by One of the Inhabitants of North Eastern Zone of the English Area of the U.K - and who was from time to time subjected to the attentions of colleagues/clients who would scream up his nostrils...But YOU MUST know That !! YOU know everything!! And also... " You will Speak UP for US wont you?!! "

http://idahopotatomuseum.com/

Sorry, but, WE Mages get used to our limitations even as we drift towards Madness.

Right, back to monitoring the Twilight Zone.

332:

I'd note you're responding to a post that was comparing airships to airplanes, not trains to airplanes.

"They're also far more energy-efficient than most people realize, and consume less resources than other forms of long-range transport; much less fuel per passenger-mile than powered shipping"

But a lot more fuel per passenger than trains, and a lot *lot* more fuel per cargo than powered shipping.

I'm not sure concrete's a limiting factor, especially for trains; I think of intercity trains as rails on gravel, not concrete.

Agreed that we'd probably keep planes unless things were truly disastrous. I'd expect a shift in intracontinental travel to trains though, if energy costs go up and up.

Numbers: http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/c20/page_128.shtml
http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/c15/page_92.shtml

333:

"That's currently 1% of our fossil fuel use, but unlike transportation (the biggest use segment), it's a hard number, as in lots of people starve and wars start when the amount of fuel given to nitrogen fixation starts to go down."

Or we use other energy sources to drive nitrogen fixation. There's nothing magical about fossil fuels. Methane's convenient, as it provides both energy and hydrogen, and is otherwise more expensive to transport (so fixation is a good use of stranded methane) but it's not irreplaceable. Making fertilizer is probably a good use of intermittent renewable energy: instead of batteries, fertilizer. You'll need water or some other hydrogen source but that's not terribly hard.

334:

Yeah, I've got a lot of family in Oregon, so I know the drill pretty well. Similarly, in Wisconsin, they call people driving north from Illinois FIBs (F***ing Illinois B*tards). Similarly, the Canadians, wonderfully civil people that they are, will undoubtedly remember how they kicked US butt in the War of 1812 if northward migration becomes a problem.

But yes, the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes regions are, at first glance anyway, the areas best situated for climate change in the US. That's good news for Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and Portland, bad news for Atlanta and LA. I'm not sure Seattle's the safest place, long term, because being downslope from an active volcano (Mt. Rainier) isn't always the best place to be. Then again, Portland's across the river from Mt. St. Helens.

As for California, we'll see how the drought goes. California's water laws weren't a lot better than those of Syria, but we're learning from watching what is happening in the Middle East. It's an open question whether the next year will get us serious about water storage, and how much people will start moving (to Detroit, perhaps?) to find stable water. Regardless, I suspect that California agriculture is going to take a nasty hit next year, and that's going to suck.

335:

But a lot more fuel per passenger than trains, and a lot *lot* more fuel per cargo than powered shipping.

Mmph. Fuel per passenger: you'd be astonished how much energy high speed rail takes per passenger! (Once you get a train up to 200mph it's not much more efficient than an airliner -- for one thing, a 40-ton Boeing 737 can carry 180 passengers, while a 50 ton carriage on a train holds perhaps 40-50.) Shipping: well yes, we don't want to ship TEU containers by air because the cost of doing so would be silly ... but at the same time, we don't want to ship human passengers by sea at container freight speeds, because that way it would take 10-12 days just to make a short Atlantic crossing: the opportunity cost of the wasted work time per person vastly exceeds the cost of energy.

If you look into high speed rail, TGVs et al run on concrete sleepers bolted to prestressed concrete track beds on top of deep pile-driven supports and more concrete. (You do not want loose ballast to get thrown up against train undercarriages when two trains may pass a metre apart at a closing speed of over 400mph.)

The figures I've seen suggest that high speed rail has the edge over aviation on energy and travel across distances of less than 500km, and is competitive at up to 1000km. Over 1000km, however, planes are not only faster but probably cheaper (when you factor in all the infrastructure costs the HSR network requires).

Low speed rail (under 100mph) consumes vastly less electricity, but it also consumes considerably more time (cough, Amtrak, cough -- everything Amtrak runs except the Acela service on the east coast is slower than a British regional commuter train). You can run at low speeds on longer routes if you have sleeper trains -- and, these days, decent mobile internet access -- but it's still a barrier to travel.

336:

All other things being equal, a commercial jet flying at 10k m is pushing air out the way at about 30% of sea level density. That must make a significant impact on fuel consumption for any given velocity.

And if storms in the troposphere do get worse, travel in the stratosphere is one way to largely avoid the problem.

337:

I suspect that California agriculture is going to take a nasty hit next year, and that's going to suck.

It's pretty bad already. I see a lot of bare fields right now. I believe the almond growers are just able to keep the trees alive if they don't have aquifer water supplies. Next year is going to be horrible, even if we get those El Nino winter rains.

Perhaps a good time to think about buying farmland for potential development?

338:

I wish I'd known about that museum when I lived ~20 minutes north of it.

339:

Yeah, I'm sure that developing the central valley more will work. It's not like that hasn't been tried dozens of times already. If there aren't any jobs or public infrastructure, building houses in place of orchards isn't going to do much. There are already lots of empty fields in the southern valley that haven't been filled up anyway. They're just salt-crusted wastelands at the moment.

Anyway, the current forecast is another year of drought for California next year. Any effect from the very weak El Nino will be felt around San Diego and Baja.

The fun part will be the water revolt if San Diego gets something resembling a normal winter, the rest of California stays stuck in drought, and San Diego asks for water to be transported south for it, as happens every year (for everyone else, a normal year in San Diego is around 14 inches of rain, which is nowhere near enough to keep the city watered).

340:

I've seen people say Detroit is awesome for the future. High above sea level, gets plenty of rain, lots of cheap land, blizzards but no hurricanes...

341:

Did you look at the links? Dave MacKay has a full electric HSR using maybe 1/14th the energy of a full 747. Even a diesel HSR is using 1/5th the energy. The plane's only advantage overland is pure speed.

"Over 1000km, however, planes are not only faster but probably cheaper (when you factor in all the infrastructure costs the HSR network requires)."

If you were talking about building HSR just to connect across 1000 km, maybe (granted, that kind of fits much of the western US, Canada, or Australia). If you've got stops every 50-100 km then you've got justification for that infrastructure.

Granted, I've seen people say HSR is kind of inherently a subsidized boondoggle, too, but I don't know the truth of that. Also, depends on fuel costs. When oil for jet fuel price doubles or triples yet again, vs. solar powered trains of whatever speed...

(People, including me, complain about cramped airline seats. But jet fuel something like quadrupled in price over the past 15 years, as crude went from $25 to $100; it's a miracle airfares haven't soared. A miracle accomplished by filling all the seats that used to be vacant, then shrinking the seats. If crude goes to $200 or $300...)

342:

When oil for jet fuel price doubles or triples yet again, vs. solar powered trains of whatever speed...

Not gonna happen.

Firstly, only a third of the operating costs of an airliner is reflected in the fuel burn -- the rest is personnel and maintenance and airframe depreciation. So a doubling of fuel prices only results in about a 20-30% rise in running costs for airliners.

Secondly, If you push oil prices much over $200/barrel synthesis becomes economically viable -- Fischer-Tropsch, or biofuel, or extraction of fossil fuel from exotic sources. (ISTR Virgin demo'd a 747 flying on 200% biofuel a year or two ago.) And you can't easily substitute energy stores other than oil in aviation. Crude going to $200/Barrel would certainly drive electrification of surface transport -- but what oil is left is going to end up being earmarked for air travel.

343:

Huh, still only 30-40%, indeed. (Up from maybe 12% not long ago.) So yeah, hard to price out air travel. Not much protecting US drivers from another doubling of gas costs, though. Even Europeans would see a 50% rise at the pump, unless gas taxes got cut to compensate.

344:

It isn't that bad. See how taxes on gas are computed in the UK for example:


United Kingdom
Main article: Hydrocarbon oil duty

From 23 March 2011 the UK duty rate for the road fuels unleaded petrol, diesel, biodiesel and bioethanol is GB£0.5795 per litre (£2.63 per imperial gallon or £2.19 per U.S. gallon).[9]

Value Added Tax at 20% is also charged on the price of the fuel and on the duty. An additional vehicle excise duty, depending on a vehicle's CO2 production per kilometre, which depends directly on fuel consumption, is also levied.

Diesel for use by farmers and construction vehicles is coloured red (Red Diesel) and has a much reduced tax, currently GB£0.1133 per litre (£0.52 per imperial gallon or £0.43 per U.S. gallon).[9]

Jet fuel used for international aviation attracts no duty, and no VAT.[10]

src: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_tax

345:

doesn't a fair amount of the current world population, including most if India, live in areas that get > 95 degrees Fahrenheit and > 95 % humidity?

what exactly about that makes everyone die? My guess would be people go nocturnal?

346:

Yep. I've worked in such weather on construction. In my youth. It wasn't the most fun thing to do but it was doable if you kept water about and drank it a lot. Bathroom breaks weren't needed all that much but when taken it was definitely more yellow than clear.

Anyway I suspect the marine reference is talking about combat patrol operations. Carrying 100+ pounds of gear wearing armored vests and such with a helmet and yet 95/95 would be bad. Or doing maintenance on a tank engine from inside the tank.

When we moved into the house we built in the fall of 67 my dad provisioned the HVAC ducting for AC but didn't install it right away to save costs. Next summer was a bit hotter than normal and after one night when it was 95/95 at 3AM.... Well we put the AC system in the next week.

347:

Google Black Flag weather (such as http://www.med.navy.mil/sites/nhrota/explPopup.htm) or 35 degree wet bulb temperature, although the military definition isn't quite what I put here.

The basic issue is that, when it is hot enough and humid enough, human sweat doesn't evaporate, so humans can't cool themselves by sweating. Absent some external source of cooling (air conditioning, lots of cold water, or similar), people die. Since humans are better at cooling themselves by sweat than most other large mammals, it's probable that most large mammals will be killed by this weather.

Currently, the top general wet bulb temperature is 32oC. Last year, Shanghai got close to 35oC, and reportedly parts of India have been getting that hot. You can see some reporting on the future projections of this weather at http://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/research/2010/100504HuberLimits.html, and the paper's available too through PNAS. There's also mention of this in IPCC5, although they don't model it explicitly.

And it's not a matter of working at night. Absent cooling, people die in black flag weather, whether they're awake or asleep.

348:

This: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wet-bulb_temperature#Wet-bulb_temperature_and_health

In a nutshell, if it gets too hot, we cool ourselves by evaporation (sweat). If it's too hot and too humid, we overheat and die.

349:

re: Oregon.

Then problem with this kind of basic analysis is that Oregon has most of it's population next between the Pacific ocean and the mountains. (Cascades?) The vast majority of the state is inland desert. Unless GW change brings water to the desert it will remain thinly populated. Very thinly. I'm guessing if you just look at the ocean strip the population density is closer to that of the UK.

It's really interesting to fly into Portland in 60F with rain, drive south then west through a snow storm with tire chain warning in the passes then stunningly clear skies for hours soon after you cross the highest point in the pass.

350:

The problem is the absolute amount of energy available. Right now, nitrogen fixation takes 1% of current energy use. If we get rid of petroleum and substitute it with solar power, we're going to take huge cut in the amount of energy we use. Right now, it would be something like a 90% reduction, although hopefully we can get it to 80% or 70%. We waste a lot of petroleum and coal on making and moving stuff, and (IIRC), we use more energy every year than we could capture from the sun (noting, in passing, the 90% or so of solar energy hitting the Earth keeps the air from freezing, the winds blowing, and the plants spewing oxygen. Total incident sunlight isn't available even in theory).

Anyway, the point is, if we go with pure solar power, all of a sudden, nitrogen fixation isn't 1% of our energy needs, it's 5-10% of our energy needs, or people starve. That means, proportionally, we need to spend a lot less energy on something else, like transportation or industry, proportionally even more than a simple scaling back of proportional energy use would require. Proportional energy use means that, if we currently use 30% of global energy on the transportation sector (and I'm pulling this number out of the air), then we'll use 30% of our renewable energy on transportation. In this example, due to the need for nitrogen fixation to avert starvation and to provide munitions, we'll have to cut back transportation even further, use 20-25% of our renewable energy on transportation. That's going to be hard on global trade.

And note that methane counts as petroleum in this calculation. It blows carbon into the air, and it's something we're trying to get away from.

Part of going to a society based on renewables isn't simply substituting sources and going about business as usual. It also involves getting a lot more energy efficient, because we're going to have to make do with a lot less energy. This, in turn, requires rebuilding a lot of cities, particularly in the US where cities were built for cars rather than humans. This transformation is almost certainly going to require a lot of fossil fuels to implement, since as I noted above, we don't use much renewable energy in heavy construction equipment at this point.

351:

We waste a lot of petroleum and coal on making and moving stuff, and (IIRC), we use more energy every year than we could capture from the sun (noting, in passing, the 90% or so of solar energy hitting the Earth keeps the air from freezing, the winds blowing, and the plants spewing oxygen. Total incident sunlight isn't available even in theory).

Not even close. All human energy use amounts to less than 600 exajoules per year, while the Earth absorbs about 3.85 million exajoules from the sun each year.

You can convert about 20% of solar energy to electricity from reasonably affordable ordinary silicon PV modules. If you are grouping modules together in utility-size projects by the hectare, cut the overall conversion rate down by a factor of 2 or 3 to account for all the empty space left between modules to avoid self-shadowing.

The wind will still blow and the air will stay gaseous no matter how much PV you install, because all* that electricity turns back to heat in the end. Photosynthesis would stop if you paved over all the plants, but there is plenty of space that doesn't force that tradeoff. You can use rooftops, parking lot shade structures, old landfills, brownfield industrial sites, degraded farmland... You can even put PV modules up over pasture lands, because the modules don't cast dense enough shadows to kill the grass. Animals can continue to graze between and underneath the rows of modules.

*Some tiny fraction, not enough to matter, is lost to space as light and radio waves when we use electricity to produce electromagnetic radiation.

352:

(Lovely MovableType, making me login in several times a day... what's with this blog?)

Yeah, no. To use different units from Matt, the Earth intercepts 2e17 Watts of sunlight. Humanity currently uses 18e12 Watts of energy, not counting food/structural wood photosynthesis or rainfall. One percent of the land is 1.5e12 m2, which at 30 W/m2 average output would generate 45e12 Watts. What I call First World World (FWW) of 10 billion people using 10,000 Watts each (like modern Americans) would need 100e12 Watts, which is still 1 thousandth of what reaches the surface. Solar power is an abundant resource even without being smarter about using it.

Now, if we tried living like Americans, with cars running on air-synthesized gasoline, that could be hard, depending on the effiency of synthesis. I figure conservative guess is 30%, so e.g. Americans burning 1 terawatt of gasoline would need 3 TW of solar power dedicated to synthesis, on top of our other power use. OTOH, if we go to electrified transit, our power need naturally collapses, since much of our energy use is waste heat from heat engines or power reactors.

(Crude sketch of US power use: 1 TW going into power plants to make 300 GW of electricity; 1 TW burned for heat; 1 TW burned for transportation, probably providing about 300 GW of work. If you're generating electricity directly, and use resistive heating and electric cars, you need .3+1+.3 TW=1.6 TW. If you use heat pumps and mass transit, you need .3+.3+epsilon =0.7? TW; epsilon probably gets dominated by synfuel for planes and ships. Heat pumps probably work better for domestic/industrial heating than industrial processes; still, with enough investment in infrastructure, there's no need for a reduction in standard of living or energy poverty.

https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/content/energy/energy_archive/energy_flow_2013/2013USEnergy.png
)

353:

These wet bulb conditions don't seem to actually occur anywhere in the world today from a quick browse?

The only time you reach that level of humidity (+95%) seems to be at sea level near the equator during massive rainy seasons, even in the equatorial regions those cities don't get that hot and that wet at the same time.

At some point there seems to be an inverse relationship to humidity and temperature and elevation which prevents it due to relative humidity. And also might says something about why mammals run at the body temperatures they do

354:

Which is why, of course, we're having so much trouble getting it going, and so many of the big PV projects are turning into boondoggles rather than productive systems.

I think the problem starts here when someone takes the theoretical approach that there's 1% of land available, not being otherwise used for anything, that could be turned into solar panel space. That space basically doesn't exist.

Oh, and it has to be flat, because steep slopes are algebraically tricky for people installing power plants (I've heard this one from power companies, for why they wanted to build on the flood plain of a normally dry river, on the assumption that the desert never has flash floods). Yes, I know it's bollocks, but apparently algebra and trigonometry are hard for engineers, or something. Slopes are supposedly out.

And you have to own the land, or the roof, or whatever that you're using for power generation. This is where it gets tricky. For example, I don't own the roof over my head, although we own some part of the building. This is normally the case in commercial spaces and shared residential spaces, which is why it can be really hard for businesses to go solar.

A great example of the ownership problem was the Ivanpah plant in California, which is currently frying birds out of the sky. It was built on wilderness land, because of the peculiarity in US law (dating back to homestead days) wherein wilderness is the cheapest class of land, and any "improvement" (say, bulldozing it), and adding rights to it increases the price. These days it's a bit of an absurd premise, because it says that a toxic waste dump has a higher inherent value (because it's been developed) than a piece of wilderness full of rare species does. Unfortunately, that law partially underpins property law all over the US, so if you want to change it, you're monkeying with the property rights of all landowners. So a lot of the early developments focused on government wilderness land, rather than on privately owned plots near roads that were seen as more expensive and therefore not worthwhile.

Then there's the problem of matching up all the current outflows from dispersed and various PV panels to power the grid. This is partially an engineering problem (matching voltages, frequencies, loads, etc), partially a legal problem, and mostly a social problem: if you're roof is part of the power grid, exactly how much control are you ceding over your home and your land? Do your neighbors get to nix your remodeling because you're all part of the grid together? Does the power company who's buying your power now own some inalienable right to your house? Can they come in whenever they want, on the excuse of working on your part of the grid? If you don't like or don't trust your neighbors, do you want to be part of the same power company with them?

As Damien and Matt carelessly demonstrated, it's easy to hand-wave the math and make it seem like it's no big deal to go solar and have your cake and eat it too. Unfortunately, what it looks like on the ground is a real mess. So no, I don't think we've got 1% of land free to go solar. In fact, we could use 10% more arable land to grow sufficient food, and we don't have that either.

I'm going to stick to my guns on this: we're going to have to transform society to deal with solar, it's going to take a lot of (probably fossil fuel) energy to rebuild everything, along with a lot of lawsuits and people standing around waiting for someone else to take the plunge first and show them how to do it. My guess is, we're going to do a fairly crappy job. Personally, I hope I'm wrong, but so far as I've seen, the hand-waving math has essentially nothing to do with the reality of getting these things working in reality.

355:

EWrr .. Charlie.
High Speed Rail is emophatically NOT laid on a concrete bed.
It is laid "conventinally (* note) - just very carefully.
Concrete is much too inflexible for really high-speed running, actually.
* note} Graded, compacted soil, with drainage inserted, followed by increasing size of "particles" untii the granite (usually) "Chippings" semi-encasing the very massive concrete sleepers to which the long-welded rails are then clipped ...

356:

I'm not disputing the marine conveyor model which brought food to Rome, & certainly allowed it to be bigger than anywhere else at the time ( Peking? )
But, the actual physical size ( Ground Area ) of the city was such that even with multiple insulae you simply could not have fitted 1 million people living & working inside that area.

357:

Charlie!
while a 50 ton carriage on a train holds perhaps 40-50..
NO
Average mass for an inter-city rail coach is 35-40 tonnes, & "weights" are coming down again, & seating between 65 & 80 people, more on the new i.e.p. trains ....
20-year old example the BR Mk 4
So, a 9-coach train (some are now 10) will carry, say 700 people.
I was in one like this on Saturday ....

358:

So
You are saying, in short (i.e. TL:DR) that the entire problem is down to USA Lawyers?
Well, there's an easy way to solve that one!
Cough

359:

You do not want loose ballast to get thrown up against train undercarriages when two trains may pass a metre apart at a closing speed of over 400mph.

Err, I think you don't want two trains pass a metre apart at a closing speed of over 400 Mph at all.
Unless it's in near vacuum.

360:

Hi,

I know you don't see a lot of me. I generally prefer to lurk. However, I thought I may have some information to help with part of this discussion.

"As for California, we'll see how the drought goes. California's water laws weren't a lot better than those of Syria, but we're learning from watching what is happening in the Middle East. It's an open question whether the next year will get us serious about water storage, and how much people will start moving (to Detroit, perhaps?) to find stable water. Regardless, I suspect that California agriculture is going to take a nasty hit next year, and that's going to suck."

I think California's drought problem is far worse than people realize.

"Farmers called on Congress to lift protections for endangered fish species. Urbanites pointed out that an average of 41 percent of California’s water is used for agriculture, while less than 11 percent goes to cities (nearly 49 percent stays in the rivers). Sound bites prevailed, and any sign of rain silenced the conversation entirely."
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/west-snow-fail/

Now, there are 2 ways around this: acquifer drilling and desalination (water recycling can be considered a third, but I'm not that familiar with it). Agriculture in California has been bone-dry enough such that even with the farmers using up 41% of the state's surface water, they relied on acquifers to maintain agricultural production. Everybody here knows the problem of acquifers, though: they're not sustainable.

I know that the following is a republican-party sympathetic site. Keep that in mind. However, it is the best chart showing the groundwater level in Central Valley:
http://calwatchdog.com/2014/07/27/groundwater-war-breaks-out/

As the water level declines, farmers are digging deeper for groundwater. They're now using oil drilling equipment. Bloomberg confirms this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wzhmjxrlkas
The video states that some wells are in excess of 12,000 ft (~3.7 km) deep.

Before mentioning desalination, I would like to point out that farmers have suggested another solution: reduce the 49% of the surface water allocated to the environment for themselves and the city. However, that would result in the death of several estuaries and land subsistence in the largest river delta in California: the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta.
http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/7xd4x0xw#page-1

The most famous protected species in the delta is the delta smelt, which would go extinct should this happen.

I am not as familiar with desalination as I am with the other issues. I also don't have many citations for it. My apologies. From what I've read, the biggest roadblock to desalination are wealthy landowners and environmental groups. From memory, the state of California owns about a third of the coast, which is protected as state parks. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club are insistent that no plants be built there. The remaining coast is mostly owned by wealthy landowners who would object to the plant on visual grounds alone.

I'm not familiar with the cost of desalination. I don't know how much more expensive water would be from desalination plants compared to the cost of transporting water via the aqueducts shown in the National Geographic article.

Note that those issues existed even before the drought. Now that things are getting worse, any ideas?

361:
Err, I think you don't want two trains pass a metre apart at a closing speed of over 400 Mph at all.
According to the table here in Germany tracks are 4 m apart for speeds of up to 250 km/h and 4.5 m apart for speeds of up to 300 km/h. The width of an ICE 3 is about 3 m, thus two of them do pass almost exactly a metre apart in the first track category (closing speed of up to 500 km/h), and 1.5 metres apart in the second category (closing speed of up to 600 km/h, roughly 400 mph). The table also says that in this very high speed range in France the tracks are closer together (4.2 m), but the TGV may also be narrower.

Also, about tracks on concrete vs. gravel: Here's a page from German Wikipedia explaining the "Feste Fahrbahn" which is nowadays used for all high speed rail tracks. Unfortunately there's no counterpage in English, except for this very brief description: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Track_(rail_transport)#Ballastless_track

362:

OK, I hereby declare this discussion thread to be off-topic.

As in: we have veered from a not-a-manifesto about urban fantasy to the usual strange attractors (future transport tech) and thence to a discussion of Californian aquapolitics!

A new blog entry will be along just as soon as I can think of one ...

363:

How about "Future Energy" - since our entire future depends upon it

364:

Off topic? This thread has become too silly.

365:

Okay, trying to get back on topic, because I have a question for you which may be worth another blog entry.

You've explained to us how SF doesn't currently hold much attraction for you, and that you're more veering towards UF. On the way you offered your definition of what distinguishes the genres, and people agreed or disagreed or offered their own definitions, and were either happy or unhappy about your new direction, or didn't care so much.

So here's my question: How important is genre anyway? I mean, I get that it's important for you from a marketing perspective: depending on which genre a novel is assumed to be in, it's going to be placed at a different shelf in the book shop, and thus going to get more or less exposure to potential buyers. I also understand that by your distinction between the genres, they're important for your mindset, because different genres imply different rules of world-building.

But other than that? I guess that, as far as plotting of a story goes, the genre it's in is a factor, but not a major factor in that. And as far as your stylistic "fingerprint" and also your point of view as an author are concerned, I believe that it's visible in all your stories, irrespective of genre. Myself, for instance, I read Charles Stross stories because I like your writing, not because of some genre label.

For me, another distinction is much more important, which you have also mentioned at various points: literature can be pure escapism, or it can be interesting and intriguing because it tells us something relevant about ourselves and the world we're living in. The latter I can find in science fiction, in fantasy (urban or not), in thrillers or crime novels (as an example that's quite old now but still impresses me and is still relevant I'll cite Sjöwall/Wahlöö's "The Story of a Crime"), in the Great American Novel, in historic novels, in a Gesellschaftsroman, in an Entwicklungs- or Bildungsroman (sorry, I don't know the English terms, or even whether they exist), in a satirical novel, in a philosophical novel etc., etc. And consequently, I'm reading in all these genres. (Perhaps the only genre that offers only escapism may be the pink romance, and even there may be exceptions.) You strike me as an author who does tell us something about ourselves and the world we're living in, and I don't really care which sub-sub-genre of fantastika you're using for that.

So, in that context, what relevance has genre anyway?

366:

Genre is important if you want to market at new readers, and don't have a sufficiently distinctive brand identity of your own.

(Parenthetically: the phrase "big name author" denotes an author whose name is printed on the cover of their books in a typeface larger than the title -- indicating that what sells the book is the author's name, rather than the genre signifiers in the title and pull quotes. If you want to check the validity of this idea, just go into a bookstore and start comparing title and author name typeface sizes between midlist novels and bestsellers. (Subsequent parenthetical note: Over the past year Orbit have reissued the UK Laundry Files books with new covers on which my name is the largest typographical element. And the Merchant Princes omnibuses are similarly styled. So it looks like I'm finally getting to the point when I am what sells my books, rather than their perceived genre.))

"Pink romance" is no more immune to relevance and informativity than any other genre -- there's just a lot of it out there, and to those of us who don't habitually read it, identifying the good stuff is difficult.

Incidentally, now we're past comment 350, I feel safe explaining what I spent the original essay not talking about. Which is that I'm theorising about the novel I haven't been working on since last March, when it downloaded itself fully formed into my brain and started screaming WRITE ME! WRITE ME! The thing is, I'm under contract to turn in three Merchant Princes and two Laundry Files novels before I get any free time to work on another book; my editors will be justifiably angry if I do something else instead of hitting the deadlines for which they're paying me. So I'm bottling it in until I get through my contracted workload and get a spare month or two, in which it will eat my brain and bleed out all over the keyboard.

(As for what it is, it's not a sequel to -- or remotely like -- anything I've ever written before. While it could be pigeon-holed under urban fantasy, there's not much urban fantasy out there that's set in the year 2030 and deals with the pressing issue of Pikkety's work on capital formation and the growth of wealth inequality, in the context of mortgage anxiety among the millennials. Oh, and oneiromancy. I guess you say I've been studying the genre conventions of urban fantasy because I intend to pervert them, and leave it at that for now.)

367:

So here's my next step: we are living in a 21st century that resembles a mutant Shadowrun—by turns a cyberpunk dystopia and a world where everyone has access to certain kinds of magic.

I seem to remember that there was a Cyberpunk 2020 source book in which the characters were street children and had basically magic tech which they didn't understand, but which they could use. I think this is kind of what you describe. I don't remember the name of the book, and if it was done explicitly for CP 2020 (and if it was by R. Talsorian games), but I think it was somehow related to that more famous game. I tried looking for it on Wikipedia but no success.

I somehow want to run Shadowrun, as it was circa 1993, but I haven't found the time. There are a lot of good, new rpgs to run, and cyberpunk is a bit, hm, outdated as a genre. It would need much conscious blindness to most idiocies in the genre, but with RPGs that's the usual way of things anyway.

368:

I believe you're thinking of CyberGeneration.

369:

Yes, thank you! CyberGeneration (urgh for the capitalization) is the one I was thinking of.

370:

It wouldn't surprise me if places like Death Valley or the Sahara get wet bulb temperatures over 95 C routinely (the hotter it gets, the less humid it has to be for a constant wet bulb temperature). Obviously places that reach these temperatures are not going to be populated.

371:

I wish it was just the lawyers. Someone (and sorry, I can't remember who), pointed out that when you've linked everyone's roofs into a common power grid, all sorts of local politics come into play, regarding who has what say over which part of whose roof. It makes fights over where the tree is between two yards look trivial.

Lawyers play a part in this, but the bigger problem is that there's not yet a good, tested model for how this kind of many-to-many power-sharing relationship works, especially if we want to hook hundreds of thousands of buildings together. A city in Florida is trying it, as is Marin County, and presumably other communities are trying it as well, but most communities and power companies are waiting to see how these turn out, rather than experimenting on their own.

That's just one example. The more fundamental issue is that many engineers and physicists seem to think that the engineering part of the problem (or the physical constraints of the situation) are the hardest part of the problem, and that once they are solved, the rest of it is just silly people being silly. I used to think this way too. Bitter experience has taught me that, in fact, the political, social, and interpersonal issues are by far the hardest part of these problems, and that the engineering is generally the easiest part of the project.

It's not that people are generally stupid, it's that finding a common basis for communication and trust takes work and time. Just as it's hard for a computer to emulate a human brain, it's kind of hard for people to understand each other enough to trust each other. This process takes time, because it's honestly a hard computational problem, even for a human brain that is evolved to do it. However, it's a necessary part of negotiating any of these difficult problems like switching society over to renewables.

My pessimism comes from the fact that we don't seem to be seriously doing that negotiating. Instead, we keep hoping that the engineers will come up with an easy solution.

372:

Well, who's got the magic in 2030.

One could argue that, in the real world, there are three kinds of "magic," in the medieval sense that gets at words like spell, enchant, glamor, and ritual.

One is the magic of Big Names, that sell stuff based on who produced it. This is the magic we tend to call advertising and marketing, but it's also the reason why kings used to kill people who insulted their name. There's power in names. There is also power in ritual forms, too.

Then there's the magic of the skilled, those who are so good that they get "in the zone," and do things that we mere mortals cannot.

Then there's the magic of the poor, because when things get dire enough, people turn to ritual magic and millennial religion as a last resort. This is one of those patterns that's never noticed enough, but magic is a refuge for the poor and desperate, rather than the rich. The poor will put the lucky charm on before going into battle, while the rich will invest in the "magic" of the most advanced weapon system and armor available, which, for many centuries, was a bow and arrow. The poor will pray for good luck, while the rich will have clerks and lawyers (who can spell and know their grammarie) around to write down how reality worked so that they could enforce it.

So whose magic are we talking about here? Are we going with the magic of the poor suddenly starting to work, or are we going with the rich and powerful having secret powers up their sleeves? Is it a matter of profound skill? Or is it something else entirely?

373:

"SF set in a world perfused by mechanised, systematized magic"

The term I use, and am trying to spread around, is "municipal fantasy". "Urban" fantasy is just an environment, but "municipal" fantasy implies a whole array of infrastructure and dependent businesses and regulations and humans being clever and figuring out how to exploit and use and adapt things, the way we have always done. In 'Men in Black', Agent J said that "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it." But panic doesn't last, and when presented with new facts about the universe, people use them.

Key to the genre of municipal fantasy is that everyone knows about magic. Everyone knows about it, and it has become integrated into the stuff of modern life. There are no 'muggles'. I was once at an urban fantasy panel at a con in Montreal, where first we discussed the 'fantasy' aspect', and then the 'urban' aspect, and then the panelists said "wow, that's everything, I guess we're finished ten minutes early?"

and I realized that, no, there's one other aspect crucial to urban fantasy and implicit in the name "urban fantasy". There's the urban, and there's the fantasy, and there's the space between them. In urban fantasy, the urban environment and the magical system are forcibly separated and held apart from each other. They have developed separately over the years (which is typically shown as leading to a certain degree of stagnation in the magic). The magic is hidden from the science and technology, and so it does not advance while they do.

If magic is real, and people know about it, then ultimately they will treat it as any other resource. Lord Darcy was municipal fantasy. So was Ghostbusters, and the Anita Blake stories, and the Southern Vampire stories, and Robin McKinley's "Sunshine".

All taxonomy is ultimately arbitrary, of course, and literary taxonomy more so (hard to make a dichotomous key when your subject has no particular physical existence!). That said, municipal fantasy requires more than just "everyone knows about magic", otherwise we'd have to include stuff like Tolkien. I think another important trait is progress: that the society has had magic long enough, and/or understands it well enough, that they've actually made technology which uses it. Their society has gone beyond the crude imitation-medieval of the stereotypical fantasy novel. (Case in point: the later Discworld novels.)

So that's my suggestion for what to name this subgenre. "Municipal fantasy".

374:

Turtledove's The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump (and, in some senses, his Between the Rivers, even though that one's set in a Bronze Age setting) could fit into this area: it's not just that everyone knows about magic, it's that everyone has access to magic in some way, even if they don't use it themselves, with magic items, or calling an exorcist to drive out the plague demon that's afflicted you, and what have you. Anderson's Operation Chaos and Operation Luna is another example of "more or less universally adapted magic".

375:

The "interpretation of dreams" huh?
Will there be any references to the Anglo-Irish inventor, aeronautical engineer & mystic J W Dunne?
( If not why not? )

376:

"... that gets at words like spell, enchant, glamor, and ritual."

As an occultist, the etymology of these words is interesting.
"Spell" - to play
"Enchant" - to sing
"Glamour" - illusion
"Ritual" - to count or number

and, of course, being disillusioned is supposed to be bad, while we are encourage to chase our "dreams". The meanings of many of these words have been inverted by the Holy Wood.

377:

"That's just one example. The more fundamental issue is that many engineers and physicists seem to think that the engineering part of the problem (or the physical constraints of the situation) are the hardest part of the problem, and that once they are solved, the rest of it is just silly people being silly. I used to think this way too. Bitter experience has taught me that, in fact, the political, social, and interpersonal issues are by far the hardest part of these problems, and that the engineering is generally the easiest part of the project."

Just because it is a (relatively) hard problem does not mean it won't get solved. Especially given that the alternative you are envisioning is a 90% die off

If nothing else, some strong man would eventually come to power and just machine gun anyone who got in the way. A tried and true method of accomplishing drastic and rid social change

378:

Someplace way upthread (I think this thread) I say that I think a mile inside a lump of granite or Lewisian Gneiss with some water traps on the access is a safe place for long-term storage of high level nuclear waste.

Given that I live on top of a lump of Lewisian Gneiss, can you see why I think that if we do the design right "what if it leaks?" type complaints are "silly people being silly?" I mean, if I trust the design enough to live on it...

379:

We have a very good existence proof that weather over 95F and 95 percent humidity isn't uninhabitable. It's called coastal Texas, and it's been inhabited for time out of mind. I grew up there, and my ancestors survived quite well for a little over a hundred years before air conditioning. Before them, the Karankawa survived for no one knows how long. The heat of the day is not very pleasant, but if you stay in the shade, and make bodily contact with the ground, you're fine.

380:

Live underground and work at night/dawn/dusk.
Throw in PV driven aircon and no problems

381:

On the subject of books, I expect I'll happily read anything you write, though I hope its something your humor can show in, like the Laundry series.

California could be out of the drought in a month or two, though that would have it's own issues: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Flood_of_1862

382:

Yup, east texas wins

8/22/1980, 105 degree, 94% humidity, and mysteriously, not everyone died. Course you cannot really tell whether the humidity exactly co-occured with the temperature during the course of the day, but seems like a good bet it did

http://www.wunderground.com/history/airport/KIAH/1980/8/22/DailyHistory.html?req_city=NA&req_state=NA&req_statename=NA

383:

Actually, if you scroll down, they do have hourly measurements. The 94% humidity was measured at 6 and 7 am (77 deg F both times); at 4:00 the temperature was 105.1 but the humidity was 30%.

Texans at that time and place probably had and used air conditioning, but healthy ones didn't need it to survive.

384:

"Magic in Tolkien's works is big and vast and ancient. His characters relate to that magic with awe, with fear, and occasionally with love. No one tries to hack the One Ring. Certainly no one tries to build a new one! People acquire the One Ring, or the Palantir, and use each within its limits."

On the other hand, in the real world some necromantic magic was, arguably, the result of hacking the Catholic rite of exorcism.

If an exorcism gives you the power to command demons, well, why not put it to more profitable use?

385:

Yup you are right it looks like there has never been a recorded case of 95/95 anywhere in the world

There was a 93/83 in Minnesota of all places which seems to be the US record and an 88/94 in Saudi Arabia

http://www.wunderground.com/blog/weatherhistorian/record-dew-point-temperatures

386:

AIUI the main threat for habilitability on Earth due to rising temperatures will be high night-time temperatures. While its expected there will be places where "95/95" gets reached, more problematic is above 30/35C at night.

From a physiological perspective we can cope with 35C heat but require periods to cool down, ie. night. This is a more immediate threat - that we lack cool nights to recover. The pure physiological limit won't be reached in Europe anytime soon, but > 35C at nights are expected by 2050 in a high-warming scenario for S. Europe. While humans can shelter with aircon, in practice this means goodbye to large animals - cows, horses, etc. unless people are willing to add aircon to stables.

387:

Sure?
Places like Singapore & Malaya & Indonesia would seem to be good for qualification, ditto some parts of the central Americas & the area round the Bight of Benin.

Please, btw, can we always use rational ISU measures here? So that if mph are quoted as speeds, the kph is also quoted & the humidity /temp balance becomes: 95/35.
Thnks to those people who are already doing so, incidentally!

388:

For once, the American style is memorable, though maybe it depends on age in our part of the world. I tend to first think of body temperature in Fahrenheit, and switching to Celcius is a complication for me. I remember the switch in what weather forecasts routinely used.


389:

In the main I'm sort of bi-numerate on units; it depends on what I'm measuring and why which units I'll choose in any specific case.

390:

I may be wrong, but there are reports of Indian field workers dying in the fields during heat waves. So yes, I agree that cooling down is critical, but I also think that being out in the noon-day sun can be equally deadly.

There are two other things that's missing from the "Black Flag Weather" discussion (whether it's 95oF/95% humidity or 35oF/95% humidity).

One that I'm really glad amckinstry pointed out is the damage to animals. I think we're pretty sure about large animals, but it's less clear what animals can survive black flag weather. Hummingbirds can, almost certainly, but can, say, goats or camels survive? I think there's some research, but I haven't dived into it yet.

Along this line, and critically: what does black flag weather do to crops? The plants may survive, but if the weather stresses them to the point where they don't produce seeds, that can be really bad. The general idea of becoming mole people and only working at night only works if there are crops growing, or if you can grow enough during other times of year to get yourself through the hot season. Otherwise, famine's as big a problem as heat. And remember, the weather outside will be at maximum global weirdness levels, so it won't just be killer heat waves, it will be droughts followed by floods, and really unpredictable, severe weather. Sheltering underground in an area wracked by regular hurricanes may not be practical, unless you have gills.

Finally, David Archer's prediction (and he's one of the few who's looking at long term climate trends), is that the worst heat comes 100-200 years after we've passed peak emissions. In other words, our adaptation to this weather will be powered by renewables (and possibly nuclear), like it or not. If people are serious about digging in and living underground to survive black flag weather, they'll be digging in by hand or using solar powered equipment, not using petroleum-powered equipment as they could now. If we build shelters now, they'll have to last at least 200 years before they get used to save people from the weather. I should note parenthetically that our current reinforced concrete lasts 50-100 years, but that's another issue.

391:

But not everyone is bi-numerate. Personally, I'd highly appreciate to read measurements in metric units (including Celsius), because I'm not.

I have a rough idea about the temperature conversions, but only to the point that I'd guess 95 degrees Fahrenheit to be somewhere in the 30-40 Celsius range or roundabouts. However, there's a difference between 30 and 40 degrees Celsius, and I would need to go and look up the exact equivalent.

It's much worse with volumes of liquids, by the way. I have absolutely no intuitive idea how much a "gallon" is. Even worse, there appear to be two of them, imperial and american. Combine that with another unfamiliar and unintuitive (for me, because of lack of training) unit like a mile, and I'm totally lost when fuel consumption is given in "miles per gallon". You could attach any number to that, I wouldn't know whether it's good or bad without a lot of painful conversion by hand. It doesn't help that it's backwards to the (for me) familiar "litres per 100 km".

392:

I should note parenthetically that our current reinforced concrete lasts 50-100 years, but that's another issue.
2 issues:-
1) A pre-stressed bunker built today won't be there in 200 years.
2) Making the concrete and steel generates CO2.

393:

I've heard that the Navy sometimes runs into high wet bulb temperatures. On a ship near the Equator, in a confined space near a hot engine, that kind of thing.

It's also worth emphasizing that shade and shelter won't solve the problem. Active cooling (air conditioning) is required. Digging in might help a little bit if the ground is cool, but a burrow full of mammals will heat it pretty quickly. Fans also won't help; the air is too humid to cool people.

394:

Thanks for posting that, Ioan. You're right, it is worse than it looks.

One thing I think you forgot is that the water rights issues are horribly tangled in California. They go back 150 years, and have to do with who gets to take water out of a river first, second, third, etc. Since the rights were given before there were any hydrological studies done, indeed before any of the farmers had lived in the state long enough to understand variation in river flows, some rivers actually have more than 100% of their normal capacity subscribed to, which leads to fights. In the Klamath and some other rivers, no one could get their full rights, and some may not get enough even during normal years. The water rights mess is one of the things that has led to so much groundwater drilling.

The Delta Smelt is the canary in the coal mine, and getting rid of the canary because it's having problems is generally a bad idea (assuming you know what the canary is for). The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is the confluence of those two river systems east and upstream from San Francisco Bay. It would be pretty easy for farmers to de-water the Delta. The rivers flow through a bunch of dams, and they could all easily divert enough water to make the rivers run dry. What would happen then is that salt water from the Pacific would come up into the delta, kill off the Delta Smelt, and then flow into pumps that send fresh water throughout the San Joaquin Valley, a major farming area, and thence south to cities of Southern California.

In other words, get rid of the Delta Smelt, and you'll have a tens of millions of Angelenos drinking salt water as the San Joaquin Valley goes out of business, all to support a relative handful of farmers. Politically, that probably won't work very well.

Or we can keep the Delta Smelt.

I should point out that the Delta itself is a major farming area, and I don't think they could survive on ocean water either.

395:

The problem with 10 billion people is that we don't seem to have enough food, clean water, or sanitation for them, and depending on legacy fuels like oil and coal to keep that many people fed and watered just makes the food and water supplies less secure. I totally agree that it's not just about numbers, that the US especially uses way more resources than it should, and that if the average American used as many resources as the average Bangladeshi, we'd have a different set of environmental concerns.

Still, my best guess (and it is a guess) is that without industrial fixed nitrogen alone and the infrastructure to move that nitrogen and the resulting food, the Earth can hold about 1 billion people. If we want the population to be over 1 billion, we really need to insure that we can use renewable energy to fix nitrogen on an industrial and global scale. We also need to make sure that our food distribution network can run efficiently on renewables. That's why it's worth thinking about what climate change does to things like ammonia plants, bulk shipping, and freight-hauling railroads. It's also worth paying attention to the politics around these issues, because not a lot of people do so.

The simplest answer to not having 10 billion people die horribly is population control, having fewer babies and giving them the resources they need to have happy lives. The best birth control strategy anyone has come up with involves (among other things) empowering women to take control of how many children they have and increasing peoples' standard of living so that the children that are born will almost certainly live to adulthood. On a technical level, this is a no-brainer, but it's a remarkably hard sell on the social and political levels, even among some engineers who otherwise love to implement simple technical solutions.

396:

I did some spot checking through Malaysia and India and the equator in general, it's actually less extreme then you would think, it's hot and muggy sure but more like 85/85 kind of stuff. In general I noticed a trend that when temperature spikes up humidity went down, not enough of a meteorologist to know why. However the article I linked to suggests you need extremely hot, shallow bodies of water to maintain that kind if humidity level during extreme heat.

The places I found that got the most extreme were the Persian gulf/ Red Sea and the North American Midwest.

That site I linked can show data for the past 50 years but doesn't seem to support cross location querying so it is hard to be sure


397:

Hetermeles you can't make any kid of statement about the long term carrying capacity of the planet without a lot of assumptions about the rate of technological advance. The number could be 1 billion or 10 billion or 50 billion. Or 0.

It's not just ecology, it's engineering and physics all acting in a complex relationship, none of the variables are fixed

Also, is you look at general trends over time. the trend is that the current time is the best time ever with regards to standard or living for humanity, despite the fact that the population is also at an all time high. To believe there is an inflection point in our near future you have to believe that we won't solve one of a handful of serious issues (global warming, energy, nuclear proliferation). A scenrio where we actually solve these issues is far more likely then one where we don't, especially, again, if you look at our track record.

We are clever little monkeys and we can solves physical world problems. The only thing we really suck at is getting along with each other

Renewables seem to be on a great trend and should naturally displace fossil fuels as soon as they become cheap enough. Which they will, since in essence, sucking sunlight out of the air and then moving electricity around regionally is a heck of a lot easier from an engineering perspective then slurping what oil and coal still exist and shipping them halfway around the world physically. I'm pretty confident that problem is gonna fix itself in 50 years or so

That leaves global warming and cleaning up the mess of the last couple hundred years. This is more difficult but it is also on a pretty long time frame. There are really three scenrios. One is, the engineering solve remains hard, we do nothing, and live with a hotter planet. The second is we find an easy engineering solve and we solve it. The third is the engineering solve remains hard, but we do it anyway

Then compare that with a crash program to reduce global population

As you pointed out, getting the political alignment especially for long term plans with no short term political payout is super tough. Even with incredible success in that arena it is going to take a long time (100 years? 200.) to reduce the world population meaningfully, given that each generation has to be large enough to sustain the generation before it

398:

IIRC it's simple physics rather than meteorology that controls the relationship between temperature and RH.

As T/\ so the mass of water which can be held in a given volume of air without condensing out /\ and hence RH \/ .

399:

http://www.electronics-eetimes.com/en/ec-puts-true-cost-of-energy-in-the-spotlight.html?cmp_id=7&news_id=222922680

Entitled 'Energy subsidies and costs in the EU' the study proves that solar energy is cost effective today, and is improving competitiveness at a rate that conventional technologies will never be able to achieve.
The European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) says the EC study's finding should be a wakeup call for policymakers to prioritise the most cost effective energies. The EPIA has called upon the policymakers to stop protecting the past and begin to shape the future, which is clearly based on renewable energies on the evidence of the report.
"Despite decades of heavy subsidies, mature coal and nuclear energy technologies still rely on similar levels of public support as innovative solar energy is getting today. However, support to solar electricity is already coming down, in line with the rapid technology cost reduction, as opposed to coal and nuclear energy which remain locked into subsidies as they have been for the last 40 years," commented Frauke Thies, EPIA Policy Director. "With its increasing cost-effectiveness, solar is set to overtake conventional technologies in the short term".

400:

Think that there is a dip ex relationship between temperature and humidity, more so then just condensation thresholds. A lot of those data sets seem to show an inverse relationship, as humidity goes up,temp goes down and vice versa. Not sure if that is rain or clouds or day/night cycle or what

401:

To believe there is an inflection point in our near future you have to believe that we won't solve one of a handful of serious issues

Many of us do believe this, mainly because the history of the past 40 years is one of completely failing to solve, or even seriously attempt to solve, those issues.

402:

I'm with Jay on this. We've known that the gas would run out since it was first pumped out of the ground. Indeed, there was a shipping captain (Gustaf Erikson )who had a small fleet of sailing cargo ships up until he died in 1947. He knew the oil would run out, and he wanted to be the first in the windjammer fleet when it did. Of course, he died before the oil ran out, but the point is that oil running out is not a new problem. Nor is climate change: it was predicted back in the 19th Century. What is new are the millions, if not billions, of dollars in stalling tactics that are being used to keep legacy fuels in our supply chain longer than they need to be, plus our built-in infrastructure that depends on the stuff.

Now personally, I'd love to be wrong, and see climate change go away. I do a lot of conservation work, and I'm really not enjoying our current mass extinction. The scenario I'm working on started, in part, to help convince me that, even if the worst happens with climate change, it's still worth pursuing conservation now. That's a totally different topic that I'm not going to get into here, but I did convince myself that it's still worthwhile. What I'm trying to do, in modeling a 5000 GtC emission future, is to give people a way to look at the consequences, because, basically, no one else is trying to, even though right now we're going there.

403:

Humanity does not solve problems by anticipating them a hundred years in advance and solving them proactively. That is because Humanity's ability to predict shit a hundred years in advance is complete shit

After all, we ran out of whale oil too. And the idiot with the windjammer

Humanity solves problems by waiting until the absolute last second, till the pain becomes real, then Humanity says "oh shit this one is real" and completely freaks out, loses it's shits and then pulls something brilliant out if it's ass

Like maybe this

http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/15/us-lockheed-fusion-idUSKCN0I41EM20141015

or of not that, then just cheap solar cells

The disadvantage of this approach is it is heavily dependent on the ability to pull something brilliant out of your ass, and that may well catch us someday

However the approach has worked very well over the last 5000 years because technology still advances

It's very easy to underestimate what can be accomplished if you get the best and brightest really focused and remove all obstacles. It's also impossible to anticipate what wonder technology may uncover

404:

Yeah Unholyguy,

The problem with climate change is that the worst pain starts a century after we stop burning oil.

Then it continues for 400,000 years until climate returns to where it is today.

Then, at some point (probably about 100,000 years thereafter), we go into another ice age. Without any fossil fuels to burn (they take at least 10,000,000 years to re-form even at the crudest level). And since we've lost all our cryosphere species (everything from polar bears to cold-adapted fish and plants, along with birds that migrate), we lose a good chunk of the globe to icy wasteland.

By your logic, we're screwed, and we should be praying for a wizard to save us at the last minute.

I should point out that a couple of early mass extinction events (the end-Ordovician and the end-Devonian) appear to have played out this way, with two bursts of extinction and possibly a glaciation hundreds of thousands to million years apart, so this is nothing new for the Earth.

It's even possible that the end-Devonian extinction was caused by Archaeopteris the first tree species (or possibly genus, it's not clear) to form huge forests all over the world. This particular theory (and note that it's not a mainstream theory) holds that Archaeopteris screwed up biogeochemical cycles by sucking large amounts of carbon out of the air and sequestering it in a strange polymer (wood) that no bacteria or fungi were able to digest, and thereby triggered an ice age, as well as forming the first coal deposits and big anoxic ocean zones that now show up as shales. I point this out only because, if it's true, we're not the first species to cause a mass extinction, but the second, and we're using some of the same methods (low diversity ecosystems, novel polymers, anoxic zones) that Archeopteris pioneered 374,000,000 years ago.

But, of course, it's just a heterodox theory at this point. Who'd want to think that anything humans do trees did long ago?

Incidentally, a guy who invested in windjammers when no one knows how much oil there was wasn't a crank. He was just a contrarian investor. And ahead of his time, given that his ships were sometimes sailing faster than cargo ships do now.

405:

Nope, that's rather a misrepresentation of technological progress. Pulling things out of asses is for novels, not for actual real world technology. Moreover there are many societies in history which died or withered due to changes in their circumstances; predicting the next century on the basis of a few occurences in the last century and ignoring thousands of years more history is a rather foolish way of approaching reality.

As for the best and brightest, even if you accept such a definition, as far as I am aware most of them are nowadays deployed trying to do such useful inventive work as shaving milliseconds off money trading systems or coming up with bright ideas to invest in mortgages or weasel their way around laws. They aren't so much in labs and workshops actually researching the very things you need for your technological wonderland.

Oh yeah, cheap solar cells. The reason they put the lie to your view of how humans approach things is simple - the basic research was publicly funded decades ago. In the preivous 20 years various governments and such realised that they needed to fund alternative energy. Fast forwards and the market that has been created (in advance of the crisis) is operating to encourage innovation actually when we need it. In no way can this be described as

""oh shit this one is real" and completely freaks out, loses it's shits and then pulls something brilliant out if it's ass"

As for impossible to anticipate technological wonders, are you sure you are on the correct blog?

406:

Of course if we want to sustain human numbers on earth without culling/ murders/ sterilisation, we're going to need technology, but at this stage being overoptimistic about the possibilities is unhelpful.

407:

Oh don't get me wrong, I enjoy a good fictional dystopia as much as the next person, but I realize I am suspending disbelief. The idea that such a thing might actually happen is a pit as likely as a real zombie apocalypse

Barring war. Even though everyone seems to have forgotten about it, I am quite worried about war

Whenever the pain starts is when people really seriously start trying to fix it. Not much before

There are actually remarkably few cultures in history, at least not Iron Age + cultures that were killed off by anything other then other cultures. Even massive ecological shifts tended to just weaken the culture enough so it was eaten by its enemies and a few years later you end up with more humans not less! just speaking different languages. Even the Black Death barely put a dent in world population

Recorded history has only lasted for 8k years, and you are talkig about 100k, 400k, if we are still alive as a species after 100k years there is no way we are operating in the same rule set.

Consider the solar power thing. How much effort have we really, as a species, put into that? Even the government programs were minuscule compared to GDP. Imagine what would happen if those governments got really seriously scared and made clean energy a priority equal to say defense spending? You think they will just suffer a 90% die off rather then do that?

Even if you believe in the face of all past expense that technology has ground to a halt and nothing material will change in the next thousand years with the tools we have and a significant portion of the GDP of the world, it's quite possible to convert over to clean sources of power and move everyone away from slowly rising oceans

Similarly,for sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere or cooling the planet in other ways. If we became really worried about that, had a hundred years to fix it and lots of clean power?

408:

It's worth reading James C. Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed. It's about what might be called (with apologies) the Galapagos Island system of societal crash: south east Asia. The combination of mostly smallish plains, some of the more impenetrable mountains in the world, and political systems based on labor-intensive paddy rice meant that, over the last few thousand years, civilizations have boomed and busted in remarkable profusion. AFAIK this included Angkor, which was one of the biggest (if not the biggest) city in the world in the 13th Century CE.

One big problem the SE Asian rulers faced was that, when they tried to crack down on the peasants and force out more labor, said peasants could run for the hills (which Scott calls "Zomia," a lovely term that's even in Wikipedia). Scott studied how this continual formation and crash of kingdoms shaped Zomia and was shaped by Zomia, and it's quite a complex interaction. In the process, I personally think he said quite a lot about how cultures crash, even though that wasn't his primary topic.

409:

Most of the big problems are, ultimately, some form of the Prisoner's Dilemma. If everyone continues to use fossil fuels, horrible things happen. If everyone backs off of fossil fuel use quickly enough, fewer horrible things happen. But if some nations abandon fossil fuels before others, the ones who keep using fossil fuels longest will have an extreme advantage over the others, so nobody's volunteering to go first.

The textbook solution is for all sides to find a way to credibly commit to using fewer fossil fuels, but that hasn't happened and probably can't; any government that tried to reduce fossil fuel usage on the necessary scale within the necessary timeline would most likely find its members swinging from lampposts within a month.

So we're on track for the "everyone defaults" scenario. It won't be the first time ecological damage brought a human civilization low, but it's likely to be the biggest.

410:

And paws @ 389
I was first intoduced to what is now called the ISU in 1960-61, at school
I'm quite easy (usually) in either system & can do most (back-of-enevlope) conversions in my head.
What gets my goat is the presistent use of fake imperial units by the USA ( Their PINTS are small! ) and the apparent complete inabilty of most people, or the press to be able to handle ISU - after (now)50+ years use in the Brit educational system
Pathetic

411:

Fahrenheit / Centigrade
32 / 0
41 / 5
50 / 10
59 / 15
68 / 20
77 / 25
86 / 30
95 / 35
One true imperial Gallon = 4.45 litres
But "a pint of pure water weighs a pound-&-a-quarter"
& a true imperial gallon weighs 10 lbs
A real pint - 568 ml IIRC
[ Note "Lined" German 500 ml steins are usually brim-measure Pints, which tells you something! ]
A mile is 8/5 km
so 80 kph = 50 mph
And a "chain" = 22 yards, the length of a cricket pitch = 20 metres.

Take it away - no charge....

412:

*cough*
You forgot one simple method for getting proper population control:
Kill all the "priests"
*cough*
[ How do I draw a smiley here? ]

Or at least, get people to stop listening to then, ever .....

413:

EXCEPT it looks as though the biggest "villains" in this area - the Chinese - are themselves realising that even they can't go on like this.
Similarly, in spite of their propaganda & spending, the Kochs don't appear to be getting their way in the USA, do they?

Can I also remark on # 403 - unholyguy's link to the Lockeed fusion announcement?
This has also surfaced on the "Metacommentary" thread.
It will need careful watching.

But 100MW in a space 7x10 feet ( no mention of depth, so I assume 7x10x10 ( call it 2.2x3x3 metres? )
That's one hell of a power-density output!

414:

There are now more than half a dozen small scale fusion efforts that look plausible, and none are based on Tokamak design. The latter will never supply electricity at an economic price - it's an engineering nightmare.

I just wonder what will happen to ITER and friends when one of those small scale initiatives reaches breakeven? Do multi-billion Euro projects just get stopped because their rivals look like being the future?

415:

Save us the effort & give us a list of the other small-scale non-Tokamak "promising projects" please?

I'm assuming that the "Lockheed" one is furthest along? (??)

416:

The places I found that got the most extreme were the Persian gulf/ Red Sea and the North American Midwest.

As someone who grew up near Paducah Ky I can agree with this. From St. Louis south to the Mississippi delta summers could be, well, brutal. But we lived. And worked outdoors. Laying concrete block when it's over 100F (37+C) and humid is an "interesting" experience. Yet two of the guys doing it were in their 60s. And in the 4 years they worked with us there was only one day we all decided to bag it at lunch. It was 105F that day. (40+C)

Use Google Maps to see just how much water surrounds the Paducah area. It's always humid there in the summer.

I'm still not sure I agree with the 35/95 death comments as a general rule. I can see it true for marines in full combat gear. But most of us don't walk around with 120+ pounds (55kg) of gear as a normal matter.

417:

What does that have to do with topic at hand? If you were responding to Unholyguy's claim that "There are actually remarkably few cultures in history, at least not Iron Age + cultures that were killed off by anything other then other cultures", then SE Asian crashes are not really a counterexample. When peasants ran for the hills, government would fall, but total population (which was mostly peasants) barely decreased.

Besides, I do not see any parallel with modern world. Should US (or any other) government decide to make a massive and short-term-painful push for renewables, there aren't many hills for taxpayers to run to.

418:

Ilya, might I suggest you're confused.

Yes, the point is that Unholyguy doesn't know his history, even ignoring the rather huge example of Rome (remember the Antikythera mechanism? People had analog computers back before the Middle Ages).

If we manage to come up with the political will to do a massive push for renewables, I suspect a fair number of people will breathe a sigh of relief and run with it. It won't be the death of civilization. In my local circle of friends, I'm very far from alone in wishing that solar panels were just a bit cheaper, and the legal issues were just a bit less complex, because we'd go solar in a heartbeat if we could afford it and didn't face a multi-year regulatory mess in getting it installed. The problem is that under Obama, renewables meant huge solar and wind farms that are causing a lot of problems. These are still happening, but I think a lot of people would just as soon put up panels on their roofs and get away from the grid as much as possible.

No, if you want to crash society, you keep burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon. Mechanisms for doing this include maintaining the current global shipping network and just-in-time stocking, maintaining the US and other militaries, which, despite their very real pushes on renewable power, are among the biggest consumers of fossil fuels in the world, and rebuild all the reinforced concrete infrastructure, which has a lifespan of 50-100 years, and much of which is beyond its lifespan even now (I'm thinking in particular of bridges in the US, but you can expand that list indefinitely). In addition to that, population expands to 10 billion while arable land and fresh water supplies shrink.

As Alex pointed out above, what you're left with, in this case, is a world where there are fewer resources to go around, more mouths to feed, energy supplies are going away, the weather is increasingly unstable, and supply lines are all very brittle, meaning that when they are disrupted, a lot of bad things happen, it takes awhile to rebuild them, and there are few or no substitutes. At that point, you've got the setup for perfect storm after perfect storm. Huge coastal slums get swamped by typhoons. Disease breaks out in the ruins. Supply lines, based in part on labor from those slums, collapse. War breaks out, but there's not enough oil left for something like the US to get there and squelch it, even a little bit, so the descendents of ISIS and similar groups get to run wild. Or a drought happens (exacerbated by crappy water policy), water runs out, and that leads to social breakdown, migration, and war. Here in the US, in Europe, and especially in Canada, we're sheltered a bit, because we've got some local resources, and because we've been siphoning resources out of poorer countries for centuries. Still, we're going to be hurting when our supply chains break, and we'll be a promised land for a lot of desperate migrants. We're having trouble dealing with migration issues now, and it's only going to get worse, especially for the migrants.

Run that out over decades, and that's how you lose nine billion people. I probably won't be alive to see it, but I think it's very much worth working to make sure it doesn't happen in the first place.

419:

Rome assuming to mean the western empire, did not collapse because of ecological effects it collapsed because of various flavors of "barbarians" sweeping thru and taking the place over. Those various flavors of barbarians were mostly on the move due to being displaced by other tribes

Also reminder a great majority of the population of the Roman Empire lived in the Eastern Empire. The West was in decline long before the city of Rome fell mostly due to the constant military pressure of migrating tribes and economic factors

During the time of the final fall of the a Western a Empire, human population in the Mediterranean increased not decreased.

It wasn't until,the plagues of the 6th century AD where population took a hit

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population

During all, of recorded history there is generally only one period where the total number of humans on the planet actually may have decreased and that was the Black Death

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population_estimates

If you take current trends and extrapolate them there is no reason to believe that human population will ever decline. You need a black swan to change the trends in order to believe that.

You can believe that global warming is that black swan, but that is conjecture not certainty and had a lot of assumptions built into it. There are at least two trends racing, one is technology and the other is global warming

420:

Thinking more about trends in Fantasy vs trends in Science Fiction, I wanted to mention the concept of "progress" as something that at least formerly heralded a distinction between the two genres: namely, that in the optimistic 1950's (then to a lesser degree in the 60's, and progressively less so over the decades) there was an unspoken belief that the March of Science would lead to improvements in our life. This belief was often referred to as "progress".

High fantasy scenarios didn't (and often still don't) emphasize progress, in fact they often went out of their way to depict static and backward societies (usually codified as being similar in tone to Europe's Middle Ages), for whom the March of Progress was at best a dim dream.

I'm thinking that perhaps in recent decades we've become less trusting in the idea that advances in technology will automatically improve our lives, especially as we have evidence that progress is often harnessed to make money for The Few and can easily create big problems for the rest of us--and that lack of trust is reflected in the shift from Science Fiction to Fantasy.

This isn't an airtight argument but it's not meant to be. But I think it might be a contributing factor to rise in popularity of fantasy stories in recent decades.

421:

Try again. The biggest recent loss in population was when the population of the western hemisphere shrank drastically in the 16th and 17th centuries as a result of virgin ground plagues released (generally unintentionally) by the conquistadors and colonists on the local Indians. The exact numbers are not known, but two empires collapsed, taking down at least one of the biggest cities of the time (Tenochtitlan, at between 150,000 and 200,000 people, was bigger than most European cities). Some climate scientists speculate that the Little Ice Age between 1550 and 1850 was caused in part by the regrowth of plants in the Americas after the people farming and burning them disappeared. Charles Mann's 1491 talks about the numbers involved at some length.

As for the Mediterranean population, you might want to read the articles linked to http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population, which you cited, in particular https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_demography#Demography_of_the_Roman_Empire.

According to the demographic estimate quoted, the Roman Empire went from 46,900,000 million people overall in 1 AD to 39,300,000 people in 350 AD, with declines throughout the Empire, but primarily in Europe and, notably, North Africa. It looks like there were population declines of somewhere around 20-40% in the Mediterranean Basin over that time, even before the Roman Empire fell.

To cherry-pick one other set of numbers from people who also did censuses, China (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_China#Historical_population) generally showed a rising population, but it shows drops between 2 AD and 290 AD (58 million to 24 million) and between 1200 AD and 1290 AD (105 million to 77 million).

I don't think the evidence shows what you think it shows.

I'd also point out what the turkey fallacy. Being a free-range turkey is a great life, because some human takes care of you, feeds you, and keeps you safe from predators. It's a nice life until the day you go to the butcher, and then you have a very bad day. Past trends aren't, unfortunately, a guarantee of future growth.

422:

See those and raise the 1918 H1N1 pandemic http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1918_flu_pandemic at a conservative estimate of 50 million dead.

423:

There have been precipitous population declines in the past, the best Documented is the Native American one, post contact; The actuall decline is subject to manipulation for propaganda purposes, if we (Generic European "White People") Accidently killed more Native Americans, it shows how evil White People inherintly are. Or something like that.

But there were easy to document population crashes, somehow the Southeastern US ("Mound Builder") civilization disappeared between intitial contact (De Soto, etc, 1540's) and Anglo (Coastal) and French (Mississipi Basin) Colonization in 1700 or so, when the historical record picks up. A clear break in the archeological record, not helped by intensive farming in from 1850 onwards...

But there are simlar breaks in other archeological records, there seems to have been one in Great Britain in the late Neolithic, the early griculturalists filed every posible space and then crashed.

And I woul offer for consideration Geofrey Parker's "Global risis: War Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century" (2013, new in Paper in the US Next week)

http://www.amazon.com/Global-Crisis-Climate-Catastrophe-Seventeenth/dp/0300208634/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1413559275&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Global+Crisis+Parker

We all should be aware of the horrible example of Germany in the Thirty Years war, (Anothter case where people argue the exact numbers for ideological purposes); Parker makes a pretty good case that world population may have fallen in the worst areas by as much as a third; And the failure of the North American Mound Builder and contraction of the Soutwestern Pueblo's (Hey, I attended the University of New Mexico, so it was all around me), which he does NOT mention, would tend to confirm the existence of a general crisis.

Some things to cosider.

424:

There is some interesting info on the Roman empire at http://archive.org/stream/municipaladminis032553mbp/municipaladminis032553mbp_djvu.txt. The following points to both dysfunctional dictatorship decisions and agricultural resource exhaustion:

..forced Diocletian
to make contributions in kind a fixed part of the tribute
from the provinces. This heavy demand, coming as it
did at a time when the amount of cultivated land was de-
creasing, and the productivity of the soil declining, called
for higher rentals than tenants were willing to pay. Their
only recourse was to abandon their holdings, but this
would have made matters still worse. It must be pre-
vented at all hazards, and Constantine made it illegal for
tenants to leave their farms.

The capitalist west, at least, knows better than to go for forced serfdom as an attempt to increase agricultural productivity. I do worry that a society that regards a stall in GDP growth as a catastrophic outlier may not manage declines arising from running out of fossil fuels well. (As in riots).

425:

The Capitalists are going for economic serfdom, at least that is the effect in the US. Student Loans, Medical Debt (Medicaid for the Nursing Home is recoverable from the estate when you die, so no inheritence for the Proles), usurious payday lenders.

They are counting on Machines and Low Wage immigrant labor for agricultural productivity, I knew a small scale rancher who talked about our farming practices being "Mining the Soil" thirty years ago.

To stray into the political, the "Red States" have overwhelmingly denied the Health Care expanison (Federal Medicaid Expansion) which targeted the working poor. You poor people can go die in the ditches seems to be the Right Wing plan.

426:

True, but in absolute terms, that was 50 million out of a billion, while the Chinese population declines are on order of 50% of population over a couple of centuries. Hard to tell which is worse, I guess.

However, I will concede the point that there's no historical precedent for a 90% population drop, other than presumed virgin ground plagues in the New World and a few similar documented cases (Polar eskimos, Easter Island, and similar).

When I'm suggesting a drop from 10 billion to 1 billion, I'm looking at what we think we can support with modern infrastructure, and without modern infrastructure. That's the only reason for the prediction. We could, of course, get hit by a virgin ground plague (fruitbat hemorrhagic flu du jour?) at pretty much any time, but that's not my assumption. I'm just looking at loss of capacity to provide food and water to most people.

427:

On the other hand I wouldn't expect to lose all modern infrastructure etc. So I don't think 9 billion would die off, rather millions here and there. Of course it depends how bad things get, some people have suggested all the starving folk would invade the less hungry areas for instance, and indeed war would damage a lot of the infrastructure.

428:

It's a reasonable argument. I'm assuming that there's a bunch of brittle global supply chains, and when some of the critical ones break or become unreliable, problems start to cascade. An example would be a typhoon hitting the Philippines, just to pick on a place that has a lot of people living a sea level. What Supertyphoon Haiyan did to Tacloban was bad enough, but imagine it without any aid coming from the rest of the world, due to a combination of poor crops, little fuel for shipping, and less safe shipping routes. Combine that with a lack of concrete to rebuild the roads and equipment to rebuild the power plants, and you've got a humanitarian nightmare. At that point, something like cholera could easily take hold. How far the cholera epidemic spreads depends in part on how far the survivors get, but if there are insufficient medical supplies and no way to get more, it could get very bad indeed.

Now, I don't think the whole globe will go down all at once, but rather over the course of decades to a century. My guess is that global infrastructure falls apart a disaster at a time. If the aqueducts don't get rebuilt after the big quake in LA, a lot of people will become refugees. If Shanghai becomes too hot to live in due to a lack of AC, a lot of people become refugees. And so on, around the world. It's unlikely that the US or Europe will be hit first or even worst, but we will face a migrant issue that dwarfs the problems we're having now, at the same time as our crops are declining, our power grids are faltering, and we're having trouble keeping ourselves supplied with things like medicine, clean water, and ammunition.

Personally, I prefer your projection, and I think it's one we should aim for. However, we also need to consider the result of business as usual.

429:

Just heard on the radio this morning, that total Brit gen capacity is approx 60GW ...
( Should be more, but that's the wonder of privatisation for you )
So, @ 100MW a pop, we need 600 of Lockeheed's sunshine-in-a-box modules.
Plus the odd wind, or much better, huge tidal turbines, & two or three "black start" stations, like Dinorwic.
Somehow, in 10-15 years, I don't think we are going to have a power-generation problem, as, even without the abovementioned, as also heard on the radio, & as we know, there's an awful lot of ongoing work in the "pipeline". ( Err, did I mean that last word? )

430:

Bless your enthusiasm, but allow other people to be rather more skeptical.

If your tidal turbines etc. are supposed to generate power in 10-15 years, they should be being built (or at least be in the last stages of planning) right now. Pray, tell me, where are they?

And as for Lockheed's miracle box, let's continue this conversation in a couple of years (or even months), when they have turned out to be vaporware.

431:

You could at least show sufficient respect to realise that you're not comparing like with like. I'd presumed that you were just comparing documented numbers of fatalities.

Based on present day figures, ~1/5 of the World population are Chinese, so if we presume that was the case then, ignore undocumented effects on the rest of the World then, and take the other documented extreme for the 1918 flu at 100million, both represent 1/10 of the World population.

Either way, the percentages aren't reducing 7 to 10 billion by an order of magnitude.

432:

Perhaps NG should stop charging generators more for "not being in London"?

433:

Are you sure you said what you thought you were saying?

As I'll say, for the third time, I'm looking at resources. Back before 1900, the Earth supported very approximately a billion people without the massive use of fossil fuels. In this model (not the word model. I will repeat it again: model), we use fossil fuels, get our population up to ten billion, then run out of fossil fuels.

What stops our population from falling back to one billion or less?

Most of the complaints about this model are along the lines of: you're not defining a precise path that I can criticize in detail, so therefore you must be wrong. And personally, I agree. I hope I am wrong.

However, the central question remains: without those fossil fuels, what stops our global population from falling back to one billion or even lower?

Right now, the answer is nothing. We couldn't stop the slide if it started today, although it would take decades to play out. That question is an enormous challenge, the biggest of the 21st Century. Failing to engage with it even on a superficial and intellectual level is cowardice, pure and simple.

434:

I don't think you've broken down the survival resources in the late 19th century versus the early 21st as well as would be useful.
For instance:

Food
19th C - some fertiliser from guano etc, and it's amazing what a century of land improvement can do, but yes, definite limits there.
21st - yes, we use gas etc for fertiliser, so a bit stuffed there in 50 or 60 years, but we also have improved crops. IN theory possible to recycle a lot of P, NH3 etc from sewage, but that is a decades long project to set up.

Travel:
19th - railways and ship for long distance, foot, horse, bicycle for shorter.
21st - the same, and with cars, except they can be electrified. Except air travel. So definite structural changes required, but not so much affecting numbers. And I'm pretty sure you can run the tractors on electric or biodiesel.

Clothing:
19th- all grown or harvested, definite yearly limits
21st - fine until oil runs out, which will take a long time, especially if we stop burning it. Nevertheless, some limits due to amount of fertiliser and water and suchlike needed, which boils down to a large degree to fossil fuels, so some problems there.

So basically I don't see a billion as the carrying capacity unless you also adopt late 19th century lifestyles and farming practises. On the other hand, without a great deal more technological innovation, I can see supporting 9 or 10 billion as being a major problem.

And we need that research just when governments are cutting scientific research and investment or using the scientists as cheap labour for the corporations who take what they want, and less basic research gets done.

435:

All valid points, and worth considering.

One correction on the fertilizer front, that's what started me thinking about the impact of industrially fixed nitrogen and how many people can live without it. The push to fix atmospheric nitrogen started when the Europeans started worrying about world-wide famine back around 1900, because the world supply of guano was running out and they knew that nitrogen-fixing legumes wouldn't meet the projected population increase. There's a great book, Hager's Alchemy of the Air, on the history of nitrogen fixation, and how it transformed both warfare and human populations.

As for recycling sewage, it's being done right now, it was done until around the 1920s (or later) in eastern Asia (see King's classic Farmers of Forty Centuries). The problem with recycling sewage now isn't infrastructure, it's contamination. I know for a fact that LA would recycle it's sewage onto central valley farmland if it could (it actually does, at a controversial site in Kern County, but that land doesn't grow crops). However, there's enough industrial waste in urban sewage (principally industrial metals) that no amount of treatment can make it safe for farmland under current American health standards.

Reportedly, in the Third World it's common to use untreated sewage on suburban truck gardens. That's one reason I'd never eat a raw vegetable in Bangkok, based on what I've read. The farmers reportedly know that the sewage is contaminated, but they figure that the rich (expletives) who won't pay for proper sewage treatment deserve the cheap vegetables they want to buy fresh and local.

As for cars, the big issue is what you build a road out of that doesn't require carbon emission. Conventional concrete emits a lot of carbon, and blacktop is a petroleum product. Long-lasting roads whose manufacture is carbon-neutral is one of those technologies we really need. Not that rails are any better, to be fair.

436:

Good news & bad news
Typically contrasting the scientists, engineers, medics & technologists improving things & the greedy & stupid politicians fucking things over.
The good news is:
HERE ( Similar articles in other papers, too)
Note that the stem cells used are from the patient, so no rejection problems. Radio interview this morning - "We're going to try it on 10 more patients as soon as we can". What an acheievement.

The bad news is - entirely down to the list above: When our electricty supply was privatised we had 22-25% spare capacity, and we are down, now, to 2%, thanks to two fires & short-term greed coupled with religious anti-nuclear insanity in the Lemocrats, influenced by the watermelons. We could, temporarily have held the line with coal-fired, fitted with sulphur-scrubbers, especially if we'd started on nuclear 10 years ago.
But no, our fuckwit politicians have waited until it is probably too late. And we'll get power cuts. Watching them try to shift the blame is going to be amusing, in a "black" sort of way. ( pun! )

P.S.
MSB & paws @ 430/431
As you say, we will soon see if Lockheed really have something - if they have, the rush of money & innovation will be impressive to behold.
But I don't understand: Perhaps NG should stop charging generators more for "not being in London"?
No comprende senor.
Explain, please?

437:

I foresse a health epidemic in Bangkok, of whatevr variety consuming heavy metals, a cocktail of drugs and other things on your food. If it affects only the rich, that is a start. In 19th century Britain, the owning class in general didn't start paying attention until they were affected by smells and diseases.

The roads is a difficult one. THey are as they are just now in part because they have to take 2 tonne cars and 48 tonne lorries, millions of them. If cars were a quarter the weight I think we could get by, even with the sheer volume, with something more like the early 20th century roads, which didn't use much concrete or tar. But not with all the lorries moving stuff about. Of course a strong nanotech would obviate much of the need to move stuff about except for some food and raw materials, but that would also make road repairs trivially easy.

Or you can try limecrete, which has the advantage that it absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere when drying (Of course you make some when you make it, but at least it's more of a cycle than a one way system)

438:

NG - National Grid (company). They have an actual charging policy for connecting generating plant to the national grid (distribution network) which means that a generating plant of $capacity is charged a higher connection fee the further it is from Trafalgar Square.

439:

I still think I said what I thought I was saying. I now realise that you were not saying what I thought you were saying, which is functionally the same thing because it makes my statement inaccurate or irrelevant in respect of yours.

440:

"Save us the effort & give us a list of the other small-scale non-Tokamak "promising projects" please?"


Dense Plasma Focus, Helion Energy, plus these
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/skeptical-look-3-wild-fusion-energy-schemes/

Lockheed are nowhere in sight

442:

late to the party ho-ho...
I just wanted to say that a least part of what Charlie's talking about struck me while I was subjecting myself to the movie Quantum of Solace, and was part of a small complaint I heard about the film:
"There were no nifty gadgets!" went the complaint...and there weren't. As such. The nifty gadgetry on display amounted to Bond using a smartphone (in 2007 or 08) in much the way we in 2014 might find absolutely normal: he takes a photo, it gets uploaded to the Ministry's computer network, a shit tonne of blade computers do their thing, and boink! the facial recognition software figures out who's in the picture. This would have been science fiction in the 90s, even, but today, Facebook and Instagram and Google+ are already doing that FOR me...

just, you know, $0.02...

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