Don’t Hold Your Breath Waiting for the Nanobots

Since I was at most a teenager, I’ve considered myself a futurist. Blame it on all the sci-fi I read. I can remember countless conversations, usually with my older brother, about “what happens next,” including the conversation in 2007 in which we predicted the ubiquity of cloud computing and the app economy (we didn’t quite predict tablets, being still smitten with netbooks, but we definitely foresaw the end of powerful personal computers). One of the most exciting trends I was anticipating back then was the end of industrial manufacturing.

A common term used to describe the U.S. and other developed societies is “post-industrial,” meaning that our economy is no longer driven by manufacturing, but by information processing. Others say we’re in the “information age.” Using these terms to describe where we are now is misleading, though, because we have not fundamentally transformed the way things are done; we’ve merely accelerated the division of labor so that entire regions and countries take on specialized roles. In fact, even describing the global economy with these terms is misleading, because some of the most successful national economies (e.g. Germany, Japan) are successful largely because they have managed to integrate both information processing and manufacturing. It’s only from a narrowly US-centric perspective that we live in the “information age.”

It’s a sad truth, really. The promise of an information-based or post-industrial society is rich and transformative, not least because it will overthrow the tyranny of sameness imposed by mass production. To truly move past the industrial age, though, will require manufacturing technologies that achieve the economies of scale of assembly lines without the scale. It will require all-purpose factories that can be reconfigured instantly and freely based on easy information input.Our information technologies are ready – CAD software is powerful, ubiquitous, and (sort of) easy to use. We are just waiting for the manufacturing technology.

I thought for a long time that the only way to usher in the true next revolution was through nanomanufacturing – building anything from molecules up. The matter compilers described by the likes of Eric Drexler and J. Storrs Hall and popularized in novels like Diamond Age offer a factory in a box, producing anything you please by throwing together the right molecular feedstocks. Matter compilers, the end of the industrial age, are the primary reason I’m in this field and the ultimate goal of most of my ambitions. Only now I’m realizing they may not be necessary.

One of the appeals of the matter compiler is its overthrow of the industrial  economic order – once you make one, you can use it to make another for cheaper, and no one can stop them from spreading into the hands of all but the poorest. Wouldn’t Marx be proud? The means of production in the hands of the producers, and all without violent revolution. Nanomanufacturing is just as far off now as it was when it was proposed (which is to say we still have no idea how to do it or if it will even work), and yet people are building self-replicating reconfigurable manufacturing machines. Through incremental advances in rapid prototyping technologies, we’re already approaching several of the requirements of the post-industrial revolution. An open-source 3d printer that can build structures of PLA and ABS can recreate all of its own critical parts so that a new machine can be built for a few hundred dollars. An open-source CNC machine (a subtractive process, basically a robotic router), though it cannot replicate itself, can be built for about $350. Though they are not all open-source or self replicating, various 3d printing technologies can be used to print ceramics, various non-thermoset plastics, and even stainless steel! Laser cutters, while neither self-replicating nor cheap enough for most personal consumers, are versatile and widespread enough that most dedicated “makers” can get access to one for a few dollars per minute. When did the world change and why am I just now realizing it?

Yesterday I took the bus to Metrix Create:Space and printed off a spacer for my bike to replace one that broke a few months ago. I had been planning to go to a hardware store and find a similarly-sized washer to replace it with for a dollar or so, but instead I spent about 15 minutes on a CAD program and about 20 troubleshooting the 3D printer, and got a nearly-perfect replacement part for $1.37. I’m beginning to rethink the steps of my career goals – maybe I should focus on expanding the range of materials available to rapid-prototyping machines rather than pushing the boundaries of molecular-scale control of materials synthesis.

Posted in 3D printing, information age, manufacturing, post-industrialism | 1 Comment

Artistry Across Media or My Three Favorite Film Adaptations

With The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey due out in theaters soon (er or later), a lot of fans are debating the merits and demerits of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of Tolkien’s works – a debate with which I am intimately familiar, having argued the demerits frequently and fervently in my younger, more impassioned days. I’m not going to take up that argument again (I’m getting too old for this sort of thing), but I would like to reply to one of the most common rebuttals to arguments against the films.

“You can’t make a film exactly the same as a book – that’s why they call it an adaptation. Things that work in books don’t work in movies – like you can’t show the characters’ internal monologues on film.”

I’ll agree with your premise, but disagree that the license of adaptation can excuse all of the choices made in the production of the films. What a truly good adaptation does is embodies the spirit of its source in a new medium – it shows a deep knowledge of and respect for its source, and gives its viewers the same feeling upon watching it that the book gives its readers upon reading. With that ideal in mind, I give you an annotated list of my favorite adaptations, which may help to elucidate my expectations.

Sin City
Director Robert Rodriguez refers to his film as a “translation” rather than an adaptation, so it may not be quite fair to admire it as a pinnacle of the art of adaptation, but the translation is really quite impressive. Impressive not because the graphic novels were used as the film’s storyboards, or because nearly every line of dialogue came from the novels. From the casting to the coloring to the set design, every step of production (which often involved groundbreaking production techniques) was calculated to be the graphic novel on film. Some would say it didn’t make a very good film, but I do not think that its failures were due to the failure of the adaptation. I think that watching the film is every bit as good as reading the graphic novel, and if you (like me) have trouble getting your eyes to follow the action from frame to frame on the page, watching the movie will give you fundamentally the same experience.

The Silence of the Lambs
The book was a surprisingly literate crime thriller that developed who should have been a throw-away creepy villain (for that’s about all he was in Harris’s previous novel, Red Dragon) into a truly chilling, memorable character. The film, through skillful directing and impeccable casting, turned it into an unforgettably tense psychological thriller and elevated Hannibal Lecter to the very top of his profession. The increased effectiveness of the film did not come from changing anything significant about the plot or even the characters; I think it had more to do with the ability of film, at its best, to draw out more tension than literature. I estimate the film and the book as perfectly level in terms of artistry – no masterpiece, either of them – but the film strikes me as slightly more effective.

No Country for Old Men
This book was incredible. The film was every bit as good. I do not think it’s a coincidence that the film recreates the book almost scene-for-scene (and occasionally line-for-line), but that fidelity is not its most impressive fear. Somehow the Coen brothers manage to translate McCarthy’s iconic literary style into a visual style that works every bit as well. Most of the book is written in a down-to-earth, simple vocabulary, but the lexicon McCarthy uses to describe the landscapes sent me to a dictionary several times. Much of the film was filled with wide, sweeping vistas saturated with color and texture. In the book, the characters boots garner frequent mention as a sort of representation. . . well, a great many things. In the film, likewise, we have many shots centering on boots, and an entire scene about Llewellyn buying boots. Even the narration from Tommy Lee Jones matches the italicized chapter-openings, if not word-for-word (though, if I recall correctly, it sometimes does) then at least in tone. Once again, I would rank the artistry of these two works as perfectly equal. If I like the film more, it is only because I’ve seen so few films as good, when I’ve read many books as good. If I like the book more, it is only because I generally prefer reading to watching movies.

And those are all the adaptations that I’ve really liked. Adapting a good book can be done faithfully, though faithfulness has more to do with respect for the source material than with actual fidelity. Speaking of respect for source material, one last thought about The Hobbit films: If they really were made out of love and respect for the book, wouldn’t they be subtitled “There and Back Again” and “A Hobbit’s Holiday?” To invent a new subtitle implies that you really split this into two (when you managed to fit The Return of the King into one film) to make more money at the box office.

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A point on political rhetoric

I really hate the cliche “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

In economic terms, GDP growth does, in fact, provide a lot of opportunities all across the economy, but it’s hardly the only economic goal worth pursuing. Specifically, the policies this cliche is often quoted to support are designed to favor yachts over dinghies.

Proposed Alternative: “A rising sea level will give some ocean-front property, and put others underwater.”

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Capital Gains vs. Income

I’m watching the Iowa Republican Presidential Debate right now, and one of the candidates (I believe it was Gingrich, but I was out of the room and my voice recognition isn’t quite that sharp) said he supported 0% capital gains tax. It sounds great from a “let’s get people investing” perspective, but does it really make sense? I don’t think so. In fact, I spent a good bit of time fretting about it this morning in the shower.

With most of our production automated or offshored, the real value in the global economy is increasingly created by investment rather than labor. The role of humans, and especially Americans, is increasingly to provide volition strategy, and discretion to large sums of money. The labor that we can neither offshore nor automate is mostly low-value, low-paying service work. The entire concept of an income tax, though, is based on the foundation of a large, prosperous middle-class of wage employees. They no longer exist.

If our economy is mostly driven by entrepreneurs, investors, and businessmen, why are we still trying to run the government out of the pockets of the non-existent employees?

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The Government is Still in Our Hands

One of the dominant memes in recent political commentary (at least at the popular level) as been the failure of the two-party system. The ongoing (as of July 8th) standoff in congress over the debt ceiling is indicative of a larger trend in which party interests are placed so far ahead of national interests that, in the words of Sen. Chuck Schumer, “the best way to win is hurt the country as much as possible.”
Say what you will about our founders’ intentions, but political parties are a terribly convenient  way to ensure voters that their vote will count — an independent legislator who was elected for his stance on a particular set of issues has almost no way of actually taking action on those issues in a legislative body of hundreds. The system has failed in a number of ways, some almost coincidental and some deeply structural.

Mickey Edwards has some suggestions on how to fix the party system. I have a couple of my own ideas, much more sweeping changes to our voting system intended to ensure the viability of mulitple parties. One of the biggest reasons our national political environment has stabilized in a bi-polar power struggle is the mechanics of one-vote-per-person and winner-take-all districts. No matter how many people vote for a third party, the party will not win any seats unless their voters have a majority in one voting district. Therefore, at least at the national level, very few voters ever bother to vote for third-party candidates. The British parliament, and perhaps many other parliaments, use a proprtional distribution so that the ratio of MPs by political party is equal to the ratio of voters by the same.

Another interesting method of tallying votes could be to give each voter one fewer votes than the number of candidates declared in the race. Under the current system, the only way to vote against a candidate is to vote for her most likely opponent. In the proposed expanded voting technique, which should be familiar to viewers of some reality-TV competitions, voting against a candidate would mean casting one vote for every other candidate. Voters could also vote for two candidates equally, or one preferred and one backup, or any other combination they chose.

All of these reforms seem a long way off and unlikely to ever be passed under our current system. In the meantime, it seems like the only way to break the Tea Party stranglehold on Congress is to vote in a lot more Democrats in 2012, who will proceed to wield their power with impunity until 2014 when the republicans get put back in office. I propose an immediate, powerful fix in the form of a pledge, to be taken by as many voters as possible all across the country:

I pledge to cast no vote for any candidate for any elected position in the federal government from any major political party* until such time as serious measures have been undertaken to correct the shortcomings of the party system.

Will you take the pledge with me?

*”Major political party” can easily be defined as a party which controls at least one third of the seats in any governing body — not that it’s likely that any part other than Democrat and Republican will fit this definition in the foreseeable future.

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More Things That Conventional Engineering Analysis Would Never Tell You

As promised, today I’ll write about our nation’s food supply and how attempts to “engineer” it wound up drastically reducing the quality of our food.

Sometime in the first half of the 20th century (I’m a little fuzzy on exactly when and how it happened, but I expect that the Depression and WWII had a lot to do with it), food production and distribution reached a sort of tipping point and consumers traded fresh, natural products for processed, frozen or canned. The promise of drastically longer shelf life, lower prices, easier preparation, and year-round availability made the choice a simple one. Frozen vegetables and canned fruit replaced fresh, ground (and even instant!) coffee replaced whole beans, Jiffy Pop and later microwave popcorn replaced whole kernel, margarine and other hydrogenated oils replaced butter.

Half a century and more later, many consumers are turning back to the more natural, fresh, locally produced products for a variety of reasons. It has become known that vegetables lose a great deal of their nutritional value rather quickly after picking, and even more quickly upon cooking. Hydrogenated oils have recently been shown to contain trans-fats, practically unknown in the natural world and detrimental to human health. Consumers attitudes and preferences toward food also seem to be changing, with more emphasis being placed on quality than on convenience.

At thanksgiving last year, my grandfather was recounting the process behind a cup of coffee in his childhood: buying whole beans, roasting them, grinding them by hand at the beginning of the week, brewing them in a mesh sack in a pot. When I told him that I had begun grinding my own beans, he was mystified. Why go through so much effort when  I could just buy coffee grounds? A new generation of coffee drinkers is finally realizing that coffee loses its flavor very quickly after grinding, and opting to buy whole beans again and grind them ourselves just before drinking. Some even choose to roast their own. Improvements in “kitchen gadgets” — countertop electric coffee grinders — has made the process much easier and quicker than it was 70 years ago.

The case of coffee is illustrative of a much larger trend: that of decentralization or even deindustrialization. The cost and convenience benefits of mass production came at the cost of drastically reduced quality and utterly no individuality, but now these benefits are being realized at smaller scales that return some of the humanity to our products. The beauty in coffee is in the complexity of the organic molecules produced upon roasting of the beans. Their very complexity ensures them a short lifespan. Mid-century attempts to industrialize coffee roasting and grinding robbed coffee of the very thing that made it appealing to humans’ complex sensory system, and the same case could be made for a wide range of food products. Now that we have tried the industrial strength approach and found its limitations, we are free to return to an older model that offers more value. When we bring back the old habits, though, we bring them back with a modern expertise and fewer of the hassles that led us away from them in the first place.

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Experience Tells Us What Engineering Cannot

Here at the beginning of the 21st century, as our society struggles to move beyond the information revolution into a more complete, holistic post-industrial society, I notice a regressive trend in many areas of society. Now that we have applied several different levels of technology to some of our problems, we are capable of comparing the results and making informed decisions about their relative effectiveness. In many cases, technologies and techniques that were once prematurely considered obsolete are now being reintroduced (often with modern improvements) because they have proven superior to their supposed successors. Some good examples:

  1. Streetcars
  2. Whole bean coffee
  3. Popcorn
  4. Fresh produce
  5. Windows
  6. Sidewalks

In the late 19th and early 20th century, every town that could manage it was installing an electric streetcar system. These streetcars generally ran on rails embedded in existing roads and received power either through the rails or from and overhead power grid. Electric streetcars reshaped American cities, leading to the development of some of the first real suburbs. In the 1930s and ’40s, however, practically all of these streetcar lines shut down (except for those in New Orleans and San Francisco). Their demise is closely tied to the rise of the automobile, though government tax incentives and oil company takeovers contributed. Electric streetcars were generally replaced by diesel busses that ran directly on the roads. Busses required a smaller initial investment (because they did not require the laying of rail) and their routes were more flexible. They seemed to have no downside.

In very few cases did bus systems ever come close to providing functional mass transit to their cities, and most analysts assumed that their failure was due to the popularity of private autos. In 2001, however, Portland built the first modern streetcar line in the country, and its success surpassed the expectations of its most optimistic supporters. In its first year of operation, Portland’s new streetcar attracted 1.4 million riders, and the numbers increased steadily until 2009, topping out at over 4 million per year. Property values along the lines increased more than enough to pay for the initial construction. Following Portland’s lead, several other cities across the country have rushed to reinstall electric streetcars in their city cores that should have already been served by bus.

What makes streetcars so much more attractive than busses?  To be sure, their historical charm contributes to their popularity. Streetcars evoke an era before the the politics of racism and drug violence destroyed our inner cities and the reputations of their bus systems. But busses also smell like diesel, generally have high beds, and offer a rough ride on their rubber tires. In the subtle details like engine vibrations and noise, streetcars offer a much more comfortable ride. In addition, the visibility and relative permanence of streetcar rails make trip planning less daunting to riders and reassure property owners of the value of their location. An engineering analysis of the two systems would almost always favor busses, but humans are not disinterested rational decision-making commodities that need to be carted from place to place. We want a good experience; we want to enjoy what we do, even if what we do is travel to a destination. Streetcars offer a better riding experience, and that small difference seems to be just enough to convince us to get on a public transportation system instead of driving our own car.

More analysis to come on the other list items, but probably with much less narrative.

Posted in cars, design, engineering, society, transportation | Leave a comment