Category Archives: Technology and Society

Life In The Twenty-First Century

Nanotube capacitors.

Using nanotube structures, the LEES invention promises a significant increase on the storage capacity of existing commercial ultracapacitors by storing electrical fields at an atomic level. The new LEES ultracapacitors could replace the conventional battery in everything from the smallest MP3 players through to electric automobiles and beyond, yielding batteries with a lifetime equivalent to the product they power and recharging times inside a minute. Most significantly, they promise a much smaller and lighter

Goliaths Beware

I read Glenn’s new book on the plane back from California on Friday night (it was a red eye, but I have trouble sleeping on planes unless I’m very, very tired).

There won’t be a lot new here to anyone (like, for instance, me) who has been reading the TCS columns on which much of this is based, over the past few years. The basic theme flows throughout–how new technologies are empowering individuals, disempowering the large companies and bureaucracies that have been viewed as the future for the past couple centuries, disintermediating goods and services, and making cottage industries more economically viable.

Examples presented (among many others) are blogs taking down big media (Rathergate is cited), musicians marketing and selling music without big record-company contracts, passengers fighting back on September 11th and the “American Dunkirk“–the spontaneous evacuation of lower Manhattan using private vessels to ferry people across the rivers. He also talks about upcoming revolutions in technology, such as life (and in fact, youth) extension.

Even if you are familiar with much of this through reading Instapundit, it remains worthwhile to pull it all together in one place. Interestingly, the one part of the book in which the theme seems to be subsumed, at least to me, was the section on space (already reviewed by Jesse Londin). It starts off very promising, with the chapter titled “Space: It’s Not Just For Governments Any More.” And he does discuss the need for tourism and private activities, and prizes. But his obvious interest in the general topic of the future of space pulls him astray from the general message of the book, as he wanders off into terraforming, space elevators, etc. While these are interesting topics (at least to me, and many readers of this web site), it’s not clear how they relate to empowerment of individuals through advancing technology. They’re certainly unlikely to be achieved through a grass-roots, disintermediation approach–it will take a Goliath of some kind to construct them, one suspects. Perhaps the point is that they’re technologies which, once developed, whether by Davids or Goliath, in themselves might ultimately empower individuals to become space colonists.

If that was the point, I suppose that it’s a useful one, but we’re a long way from either of those kinds of capabilities (though space elevators are probably more feasible in the next few decades than terraforming Mars). I would have liked to see more discussion of the near term, and how we can do more with existing technologies, as space-enthusiast Davids, to slay (or at least get the attention of) the Goliath that is the federal space policy establishment (and yes, the problem is much bigger than NASA).

There’s also one technical error (in my opinion). In the section on Orion, he claims that chemical rockets don’t scale up well, whereas Orion does. I suspect that this guy would be surprised to learn that large chemical rockets are harder to build (though they’re certainly harder to raise the money to build). In fact, I’ll shock many long-time readers by saying that heavy-lift vehicles do make sense, with this caveat–they must have a large market (the failure of ability to imagine one on the part of investors, whether government or private, was Sea Dragon’s downfall). Larger vehicles have less proportion of their weight as “overhead” (e.g., avionics, controllers, valves and plumbing, etc).

That quibble noted, though, I do highly recommend the book. It is indeed thought provoking (and I’m sure that my thoughts would have been far more provoked had I not already been thinking about these things for the entire young millennium). Those who are unfamiliar with these topics will find some interesting linkages between seemingly disparate trends, and much to ponder about the future directions of those trends. For only seventeen bucks plus shipping, as a valuable glimpse of the future, it’s a bargain. But it could be an even better deal–Amazon should bundle it with a slingshot.

Tomorrow, Today

The latest, year-end Carnival of Tomorrow is up, and has a number of very interesting links (of which mine is undoubtedly the least interesting). Hard to believe that we’re already almost four years into the new century, and millennium, and while we don’t yet have flying cars, in many other ways, we’re living in the science-fiction future of our childhoods, at least for those baby boomers among us.