Supersonic Man

November 18, 2016

future cars

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future!,thoughtful handwaving,Uncategorized — Supersonic Man @ 7:05 pm

A lot of people who talk about the coming future of post-petroleum vehicles like to pooh-pooh the battery electric car, even though it’s the most successful type so far.  They keep insisting that the real future will belong to hydrogen fuel cells or ethanol or something else exotic.

But consider the following vision for a future car:

It’s an affordable compact or midsize, nothing fancy.  The base model comes with an electric motor for each front wheel, and 25 or 30 kilowatt-hours of batteries layered under the floor.  This arrangement keeps the powertrain out of the way, so it can have a trunk at both ends, like a Tesla.  Its range is at most a hundred miles, so it’s fine for commuting and shopping and local excursions, but very inconvenient for a road trip.

Most people accustomed to gasoline cars would find this a bit disappointing.  But consider the upgrades you could buy for it.  If you want sure-footedness in snow, or more performance, add a pair of rear motors.  (They would be smaller than the front ones, unless you’re doing some aggressive hot-rodding.)  If you want longer range, you could have a second battery pack in place of your front trunk.  And… if you want to drive everywhere and refuel with gasoline, you could replace that front trunk or second battery with a small gasoline engine and a generator.  It could be no bigger than a motorcycle engine, because it would only need to produce fifteen or twenty horsepower to keep your batteries from draining while cruising down a highway.  Ideally it would be a turbine rather than a piston engine, as it would only run at one speed.

Or if gasoline goes out of fashion, you could use that space for a fuel cell and a hydrogen tank.  Again, it would produce only a steady fifteen or twenty horsepower.  Or there could eventually be other alternatives not well known today, such as liquid-fueled batteries which you refill with exotic ion solutions, or metal-air cells fueled with pellets of zinc or aluminum.

These would not have to be options you choose when buying the car, but could just as easily be aftermarket modifications.  They simply bolt in!  Anyone with a hoist could swap them in minutes.  Even the trunk would just be a bolted-in tub.  With a good design, these power options might be interchangeable easily enough that people could just rent such an add-on as needed, rather than buying it.  It might be cheaper than, say, renting another car for a vacation trip.

Another option might be to install stuff from below.  There have been plans to make a network of stations where a machine just unclips your empty battery and slots in a full one, from underneath.  With forethought, this car could be made compatible with such a system.

The point is, once you have the basic platform of a battery-electric car, it can be cheaply adapted to run on any power source.  You could run it with coal, or with thorium, if you’re crazy enough.  Whatever becomes the most economical and abundant power storage medium of the future, your existing car can take it onboard.  All you need is to make sure it has some unused room under the hood.

And the best part?  Even if you don’t add anything, you still have a plug-in car that’s perfectly okay for most everyday uses.  In fact, I suspect a lot of people might come to prefer the car with no add-on, because it’s lighter and quicker and more efficient that way, and it has two trunks.

November 7, 2016

enduring franchises

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 5:48 pm

What are the longest-lasting, most prolific, most enduring entertainment franchises? When it comes to movies, there are two big ones which usually get mentioned above all others: Godzilla, and James Bond. If you include the combination of movies and TV, Star Trek is hard to beat. But these are only the well-known internationally popular ones. If you look at more obscure serieses that aren’t well known outside of their countries of origin, there are many which, for sheer quantity, utterly blow away those big names.

Here are some examples:

franchise origin years films genre
Hopalong Cassidy USA 1935-1948 66 western
The Durango Kid USA 1940-1952 64 western
El Santo Mexico 1958-1982 52 luchador
The Bowery Boys USA 1946-1958 48 comedy
Tora-san Japan 1969-1995 48 romantic comedy
Charlie Chan USA 1926-1949 47 mystery

This list gets plenty longer if you start counting Japanese TV material repackaged as films, in which case Ultraman and Super Sentai are both formidable. Perry Mason and Scooby-Doo are also substantial.

Things get muddier if you look at public-domain characters who have been the subject of different serieses of films made by independent groups. Some characters who have large numbers of films of independent origin include Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Dracula, Frankenstein, and Hercules. Two characters which may be a bit more unified in their origin, and more plausible as having their films constitute a single franchise, include Maciste (Italy) and Wong Fei-hung (China).

But the picture brightens up if you look at franchises which include the longest span of years. Then the mass-produced comedies and westerns centered around particular actors mostly drop away. The most enduring I can find by this measure are:

Godzilla Japan monster 62 years and counting
Perry Mason USA mystery 61 years including TV movies
James Bond UK spy 54 years and counting
Doctor Who UK SF 53 years on TV, and counting
Ultraman Japan SF/kids 50 years on TV with spinoff films, and counting
Star Trek USA SF 50 years on TV, 37 on film, and counting
Zatoichi Japan samurai 48 years
Bulldog Drummond UK/USA action 44 years
Mil Máscaras Mexico luchador 44 years
Looney Tunes USA comedy 41 years and counting, without including shorts
Super Sentai Japan SF/kids 41 years on TV with spinoff films, and counting
Apartment Wife Japan erotica 40 years
Star Wars USA SF 39 years and counting
The Cisco Kid USA western 36 years, then rebooted in 1994 after 44 years off

But these all dwindle into insignificance if you count the short cartoons of characters like Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. I have no doubt that those guys will hit the century mark in due time… though the effects of their early works going into the public domain (if lobbyists ever even allow that to happen) may be difficult to estimate.

November 6, 2016

the obsolescence of labor

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 5:29 am

A few years ago I wrote about how artificial intelligence is going to make it impossible to plan any long-term career because there’s no safe way to pick a job skill that won’t become obsolete.  A few weeks ago I wrote about how Trump took over the Republican party, and may end up leaving it in ruins.  These two topics may not seem related, but they are.  They’re both about the value of labor.

Three days before the election, I was in an argument with a left wing Trump supporter — yes, they exist — and we disagreed about many things, such as whether Trump is a racist, but we totally agreed that the major split in this election — at least among swing voters — is about class.  Hillary represents white collar voters and Trump represents blue collar workers.  We agreed that the interests of the latter are largely unrepresented by either political party nowadays.  But I’m not here today to write about electoral politics.  Today I’m taking a much longer term view.

It may seem odd to refer to people as being in different classes just because they have different kinds of jobs.  This is not the proletariat vs the bourgeoisie anymore.  White collar workers are in many ways in the same position as blue collar ones: often stuck in jobs with little prospect for advancement, working for employers who view them as disposable, facing an uncertain and unstable financial future, and sometimes having to meekly submit to demeaning crap for fear of the consequences if they protest.  Both are often seeing their prospects of having as good a life as their parents had dwindle away.  The overall experience of working for a living is similar, and you’d think the two groups would have a lot more common ground than differences.  But despite that, the classes are quite distinct in practice, with some dramatic differences in culture and values.

The main influence on this differing outlook is probably college education.  But just as important is the attitude toward learning and intellectualism that one grew up with.  I personally never attended a real college, and spent a fairly large part of my working life doing the kind of semiskilled outdoor work that needs no such education.  Nevertheless, culturally I am 100℅ a member of the white collar class, because of how I grew up.  Similarly, there are those who can be educated yet remain members of the blue collar class.  (The guy I was arguing with has also lived both sides: he does have a degree, but due to personal issues is now stuck in the crappiest of jobs.)

Politically, the first obvious thing you notice about blue collar America nowadays is how angry it has become, and how under the anger it’s not hard to find despair.  And it’s very clear why that is: for the last fifty years, their economic condition has gotten steadily weaker, until nowadays many of them are being ground into outright poverty.  Though exacerbated by many factors, such as union-busting and trickle-down tax policies, and all the other regressive abuses that come from special interest corruption, the inexorable underlying force is one that I am not hearing people discuss: that increasing mechanization and automation are steadily reducing the economic value of their labor.

Though ruling classes and employers throughout history have usually been quite good at keeping workers in line so their work can be had cheaply, for most of history the real value of that labor was high — it was essential and there was no substitute for it.  This is why labor unions were able to succeed, once they finally got organized.  (One further distinction between the blue collar and white collar classes is how the latter never managed to organize this way.)  Early mechanization reduced the value of the crudest forms of muscular labor, but balanced that by increasing the economic output of other kinds.  Automation and basic computerization continued that trend, trading worthlessness in some skill areas for higher productivity in others.  This tradeoff mostly works fine, as long as human hands remain essential to the overall process.

But every time we make such a trade, the skills required by the human worker get a little more difficult and demanding, and move a little bit more into the realm of specialists and experts, away from the range of tasks that an ordinary person can learn to do in reasonable time.  And this means that at each step, there are a few more people who no longer have any good path to learning an economically valuable skill.  The more skill we require, the larger the percentage of people who fall short in some way, and who therefore have economic value only to the degree that they can work more cheaply than what it would cost to automate their jobs — a cost which keeps moving downward.

As automation advances and begins to approach artificial intelligence, it becomes less and less an essential necessity to include human work.  A little more every year, employing human beings becomes an optional choice for soneone developing a business.  Human labor, which used to be (despite how poorly it might be paid) an absolute requirement for production, is now useful but not always mandatory.  As Bill Maher said to Trump voters, the worker who’s going to take your job isn’t growing up in China or Mexico, it’s being built in Palo Alto.  Quite a few of those Chinese and Mexican workers are themselves in the situation I mentioned, of being employed only while their cost stays below that of automation to replace them.  Protectionist measures to block overseas competition will not stop the ongoing erosion — it will at best just delay it.

That is a big part of why rural and blue collar America feels desperate enough to elect a Trump, above and beyond shorter term abuses from the likes of Wall Street pirates and crooked lobbyists and anti-union ideologues: because their labor is losing its value.  They have to compete with workers poorer than themselves, who in turn have to compete with robots, which get more capable every year.

And to the extent that members of the blue collar and white collar classes think about this problem, they tacitly agree on one thing: they see it as a blue collar issue.  For semiskilled workers, the loss of labor value is an immediate personal threat, but in the white collar world it’s usually seen as at most a distant tragedy, like a famine on the far side of the world.

Most people who consider this issue do so with a strong unstated assumption: that there’s a separation between jobs vulnerable to automation — essentially, those that involve manual tasks — and those that are generally safe, which depend on verbal or intellectual skills.  In other words, they are assuming that some jobs are too difficult and subtle to mechanize  — that there is an upper limit on the level of complexity, skill, and human judgment which can be automated.

I am here today to tell my readers, particularly those in the white collar class, a single awful truth: there is no such upper limit.  We are limited in how much we can automate so far, but there is nothing to stop that limit from continuing to rise beyond anything we can imagine today.  The falling value of labor is not a blue collar issue — before the robots finish taking over the blue collar jobs, they’re going to start in on the white collar jobs, including mine.  Once AI starts to develop seriously, there is not a single white-collar job anywhere, from customer service to CEO, which will be immune from automation.  All human labor is losing its economic value.  Some types are losing it quickly and others much more slowly, but it’s disappearing for everyone in the end.  Each of us has abilities of which we can say “I can _____ better than any machine”, but the list gets shorter and shorter, until it’s down to skills no one pays money for.

We have built our whole way of life around trading labor for sustenance.  We are approaching a time when such trades will no longer function.  Society will need a new basis.  When the goods we depend on remain abundant, but job skills no longer suffice to buy a share of them, we’ll need to start allocating the necessities of life in some other way.

And that means we face a tremendous choice.  We are coming to a time when we’ll be redesigning our whole way of life, and as yet we have no way to know what the available options will even be.  We’ll have to get creative and think them up, once we see what we’ve got.  We can’t really preplan it now — we know too little in advance.

Of course, for a long time the most popular answer will be to try to cling to the old way.  Free-market believers will be especially insistent.  But as the erosion continues, taking away the economic value not just of particular job skills, but of human work in general, free-market thinking would demand that those with little or no economic value should receive little or no economic benefit.  And as that group becomes an increasing majority of the population, the only endpoint such a path can have would be for the whole species to be reduced to poverty and slavery, accepting scraps from an ever-shrinking class of privileged owners, until finally the owners themselves are replaced, because there is no need for human beings to fill their roles either.  Such a course would be suicide, and we will not follow it, no matter how many ideologues might insist (as long as they have not yet succumbed themselves) that we have to.  We can and will choose a better path — any path we like.

My pro-Trump acquaintance fully expects this dire capitalist outcome if labor in general is lost to automation, opining that “the idea of a leisure society is bullshit”.  But I say that it (or some similarly implausible new way of life) can happen, simply because it must.  This doomed type of capitalism will end.  What will replace it, no one can yet say.

What I can say, today, is that if letting insufficiently valuable workers starve is going to be wrong then, it’s also wrong now.  In addition to the clear need to support fairer wages and more financial security for those who are working today (instead of our current policy of seeing how much we can fatten up Wall Street speculators before they burst), we also need to start thinking of options for supporting some kind of decent and dignified path of life for those among us who have limited employability.  And we need those ideas now, not in another generation.  The severe economic shock of mass unemployability may be decades away, but the pain it will bring has already begun.

What you are willing to do for your impoverished fellow citizens today, you will quite literally be doing for yourself later.

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