Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Internal combustion engines

If there is one thing that people in 2050 will be laughing out loud at, it is internal combustion engines -- the kind of engines we find now in everything from automobiles to lawn mowers. The reason why they will laugh at them is because they are so very, very sad. Think about how sad they are:
  • The most glaring problem is the waste. Something like 80% of the fuel that goes into an internal combustion engine comes out as heat rather than motion. 80% of the fuel is completely wasted, in other words.

  • Then there is the pollution - nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, soot, hydrocarbons, etc.

  • Don't forget the carbon -- something like 5 pounds of carbon is emitted for every gallon of gas consumed.

  • Then there's the noise.

  • And don't forget idling. Idling! You are sitting at a traffic light not moving at all, but the engine is still running -- still burning fuel, producing heat, making noise and spewing pollution -- for absolutely no reason. When you think about it, idling is insane. Yet every car engine has to idle.
All in all, the internal combustion engine is pathetic. Yet, even with all those problems, it is still the best we've got right now. At this moment, electric cars and fuel cells cannot compete on price, range or reliability. That is amazing, and that is why people in 2050 will be laughing so hard. To people of the future, our internal combustion engines will make us look like cave men chipping stones to make arrow heads. The engine technology that we use today is just as primitive.


Sunday, June 19, 2005


This weekend I got to see Revenge of the Sith in a theater. There were two scenes that struck me as particularly anachronistic -- the two that involved glass.

In one scene, a group of Jedi knights come to the chancellor's office to arrest him. In the office there is a huge floor-to-ceiling panoramic window. It is made of glass. One touch with a light saber and the entire thing completely shatters.

In another scene, on the glass bridge of General Grevious' ship, the General decides to break a window and escape. Apparently this is quite simple, and the window shatters just like normal glass does today.

We have glass all around us. Its advantage is transparency. But think about these important disadvantages:
  • It is incredibly heavy
  • It is fragile and easily breaks
  • When it breaks, it leaves either millions of small bits (in the case of tempered glass) or it leaves lethal shards.
The classic beer bottle knife shows just how sad glass is. You take a beer bottle, hold it by the neck, slam the bottom of the bottle on the table to shatter it, and what you are left with are several lethal shards attached to the neck that make a very effective weapon.

What we need is a transparent material that is lightweight, does not scratch easily and does not shatter. There are certain plastics that have some of these characteristics, but current plastics are not perfect. It seems likely that glass (especially in windows) will be replaced by some new material (in one of the Star Trek movies they talk about transparent aluminum), or it will be replaced in some other way. For example, high-resolution screens will simulate windows, or artificial windows will be implemented virtually through Vertebrane. People in 2050 will look back at glass in the same quaint way we look back at butter churns or wooden barrels.

[There is another thing in this movie that seemed to be particularly anachronistic -- the bed. Padme and Anakin are asleep and Anakin has a bad dream. When he wakes up we can see that they are lying in a traditional bed, complete with a headboard and sheets/blankets.

It feels like we will replace beds with something, because beds are pretty nutty. Anytime you help a friend move, you realize how nutty they are. Just try getting a king size mattress up or down a set of stairs sometime...

In all likelihood, we take up the body-free lifestyle that vite racks allow and we have no need for beds.]


Monday, June 13, 2005

Recall notices

Here is a letter that I received from Microsoft recently:

Click for larger image

Think about how sad this is. We live in one of the most technologically advanced civilizations on earth. And the letter comes from what should be one of the most technologically advanced companies on earth. And yet...
  • The letter is addressed to Kris Bram rather than Marshall Brain. What does that mean? It could mean that Kris Bram has not received his notice at all (and his house will burn down next week when the power cord on his Xbox bursts into flame?), or that Kris is living in Spokane Washington and received a letter addressed to Norman Neebermyer.
  • I have signed up for Xbox live, so Microsoft knows the serial number for my Xbox already. There is no need for Microsoft to send me a letter.
  • The message had to be sent by snail mail. In our society today there is no other "universal" way to send something to me besides using a hand-delivered piece of paper. The letters and their delivery are probably costing tens of millions of dollars -- never mind the cost of manufacturing and mailing the power cords themselves.
  • Because we buy products anonymously, Microsoft can reach only a fraction of the Xbox owners affected by this problem. It is likely that more than half of Xbox owners never registered with Microsoft.
  • Given that this is the "Second Notice", it would appear that the letter has now been sent twice, although I don't recall receiving the first notice. The majority of the mail we receive every day is "junk mail", meaning that more than half of all mail received every day is thrown out without ever opening it. Even if the letter arrived, there is a high likelihood that it looked like "junk" and it got thrown away.
  • The problem the letter discusses is with the power cord -- an unbelievably simple technology that is a century old and consists of two wires in a plastic sheath. Of all the things to fail... it is not the hard drive spinning at 5,000 RPM or the DVD drive with all of its gears and motors or the microprocessor with its 100 million transistors. It's the power cord.
  • If I had moved since I registered my Xbox, Microsoft would have absolutely no way to contact me in the current system. Registration is a one-time event, with no mechanism to update the registration information.
  • If I happen to sell my Xbox at a garage sale, there is no way for Microsoft to discover the new owner unless the new owner happens to sign up for Xbox live.
In other words, Microsoft has a very simple problem: Microsoft wants to send a new power cord to a certain group of Xbox owners. However, Microsoft has no easy way to do that. Microsoft does not know who all the Xbox owners are or where they live, and has no easy way to get a message to these people even if it did.

There are several ways to imagine this system getting better:
  1. We create a single, nationwide database that contains the name and address of every citizen. When you move, you change that single record. Every magazine subscription, bill, recall notice, etc. automatically reroutes to your new address.

  2. All devices become intelligent. All devices communicate regularly on the Internet with their manufacturers. That way, if there is ever a recall notice, the device automatically knows that there is a problem and communicates the message to its owner.

    Right now it is hard for us to imagine something inert like a baby seat becoming network-enabled. But then when you think about it, why should something as important as a baby seat be inert? Why shouldn't it be smart enough to know that it has been installed correctly, and that the baby has been strapped correctly?

  3. Using the nationwide database, we create a new communication channel that is specifically used to transmit important pieces of information. One problem we have right now is that every communication channel we use is overwhelmed with junk. People's mailboxes overflow with junk mail, their email boxes are full of spam, and their phone lines are jammed by telemarketers. As described in this post, we need some sort of communication channel that is free from junk, is inexpensive like email and has guaranteed delivery and acknowledgement of receipt. Do we have a way to create a communication channel like that?
Or do we have a way to make existing communication channels reliable, to clean out the junk, and to make delivery guaranteed?


Saturday, June 04, 2005


Here is a description of the airbag system in my wife's car:
    The new Grand Caravan's structure is designed for maximum occupant protection, and safety is enhanced by standard front multistage advanced airbags, a driver-side knee blocker, the Occupant Classification System, which determines passenger-side airbag force depending on passenger weight, and available three-row side curtain airbags.
There are five different airbags and quite a bit of technology to support them. All of these airbags added several thousand dollars to the price of the car.

Now think about how sad this is. We need all these airbags because tens of thousands of people die in car accidents on America's roads every year. The reason so many people die is because we have human drivers. As soon as we replace human drivers with robots, accidents will fall rapidly toward zero and we will no longer need airbags in our cars.

In other words, the only reason we need airbags today is because our transportation technology is so primitive -- it requires us to use dangerous human drivers.

Our grandkids in 2050 will look on this period of our history with the same sort of dismay that we reserve for things like the iron lung. Yes, the iron lung was a technology that helped people. But what a terrible stop-gap technology it was. The ultimate solution was to completely eliminate the root problem of polio. Once we did that, iron lungs became irrelevant. Today's airbags are the same sort of stop-gap solution waiting for the elimination of human drivers.



Today in the United States we consume crude oil as though it were water. Our most obvious use of crude oil comes when we pump gasoline into our cars, but we burn petroleum in a hundred other ways as well. For example, every product we buy is transported by truck, train, plane or ship -- all of which burn petroleum products. All of our food is farmed with tractors that burn petroleum. And so on. Life in America would grind to a halt if we were cut off from petroleum today.

Yet, by 2050 (and probably much sooner), petroleum products will play a small role in our economy. We find that hard to imagine. But, if you think about it, whale oil once played a nearly indispensable role in our economy. Today we cannot imagine using whale oil. The same sort of transition will happen with petroleum.

What will replace petroleum in our economy is a long list of other technologies that will all compete with oil as the price of oil continues its rise. The transition to these new technologies will be completely natural -- each one will become viable as the price of oil reaches certain levels. Eventually, oil will be completely replaced by these technologies, most of which will be far better than oil from an environmental standpoint.

See also Peak oil will be a non-event.