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Tag Archives: transportation
BOOK REVIEW: Invention and Innovation by Vaclav Smil
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Release Date: February 14, 2023
This book is about technological failures, the various ways in which technologies fail, and what lessons can be learned from these failures when hearing about new “world-changing breakthroughs.” The author explores nine technologies in depth, three for each of three varieties of technology failure.
The first group are those technologies that came online as promised, fixing a major problem, only to later be discovered to have side-effects deemed disastrous. The examples used are: leaded gasoline, DDT pesticide, and CFC (Chlorofluorocarbon) refrigerant. These technologies have come to be associated with health defects, air pollution, ecological collapse, and ozone depletion.
The second group (like the first) came online, but then never became competitive with existing technologies. The technologies presented as examples are: airships, nuclear fission for power production, and supersonic flight. Airships died out not only because of the Hindenburg disaster, but also because people preferred airplanes to a craft with the combined slowness of a boat and the crash potential of a plane. Nuclear fission became untenable for new commercial power plants due to a risk premium on build costs even though it doesn’t contribute to global warming and (once powerplants are paid for) is exceedingly cheap per kilowatt-hour. Supersonic flight was just too costly and short-ranged to compete with subsonic flight.
The final group are those technologies that failed to come online at all, despite intense efforts. These include travel by vacuum tube (i.e. Hyperloop, and, yes, like at the bank but with people inside) nitrogen-fixing grains (negating the need for fertilizer,) and nuclear fusion. Despite the celebrity billionaire love of Elon Musk and Richard Branson, hyperloop isn’t advancing because of challenges of maintaining vacuum over large distances. Making cereal grains that feature the nitrogen-fixing capabilities of legumes has also proven more difficult than expected. Nuclear fusion recently experienced a moment in the sun when, for the first time, they got more energy out of it than was needed to achieve it. (This wasn’t written about in the review copy I read, but I suspect will be mentioned in the finished book. At any rate, it doesn’t negate the author’s point as it’s still just one breakthrough of several that would be needed for the technology to be commercially viable.)
In the last chapter, the author gets into a number of other technologies with shorter discussions that are meant to illustrate specific issues with excessive technological optimism. He also investigates some technologies that he believes need to come down the pike, given our present and expected future challenges.
I found this book fascinating. The author seems to love being contrarian (he not only contests popular optimism by those overestimating technological progress but also contests the pessimism regarding the first group of failed technologies, so it appears that he enjoys pointing out how mass opinion [or the opinion of another smart person] is wrong.) That said, there’s a great deal of thought-provoking information in the book. And, I think it can help people more critically consider claims about up-and-coming technologies.
View all my reviews
DAILY PHOTO: Mass Transit in Manipur
DAILY PHOTO: Jeepney: Public Transport Filipino Style
DAILY PHOTO: Port of Singapore
I’ve been posting pics of Singapore’s tourist haunts, but it’s time for a glimpse into work-a-day Singapore.
The Port of Singapore is the world’s busiest transshipment port. Transshipment refers to a port that is neither the origin nor the destination of goods, but rather where they get shuffled between ships. And 20% of the world’s containers and half of the world’s crude oil travel through this port. It’s the second busiest port in the world by tonnage (FYI- Shanghai is #1, but at least in 2005 Singapore beat out Shanghai.)
I don’t have the best pics of this important aspect of the city because they were shots of opportunity. One shot that I didn’t even get a poor picture of was the ship-strewn seas viewed on descent into the airport. I’ve never seen such a high density of ships at anchor. Phenomenal.
DAILY PHOTO: Old School Rickshaw
You don’t really see bicycle rickshaws in Bengaluru, but up north they’re common enough. This was taken in Agra, the town most famous for being home of the Taj Mahal. In some places these are called pedicabs. That best distinguishes them from autorickshaws (in India often called “auto” and in many other places called by the presumably onomatopoeic Thai designation of tuk-tuk) as well as from the original pulled rickshaw (where the puller walks or runs to propel the vehicle.) I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen a pulled rickshaw being used as a real means of transportation anywhere I’ve been in the world (though maybe in Cambodia.) You do see them as tourist photo ops in the same way one sees Hansom cabs and horse-drawn coaches in many US and Canadian cities.
DAILY PHOTO: Inside Hua Lamphong Station
Also known as Krungthep Station. This is Bangkok’s main railway station, and is located in Pathum Wan District.
Lies My Tuk-Tuk Driver Told Me
Tuk-tuks or Autorickshaws are the ubiquitous three-wheeled vehicles-for-hire seen throughout South and Southeast Asia. (Note: Owing to their evolution from walking or pedal rickshaws, they’re sometimes just called “rickshaw” for short, or even “pedicab” or “petty cab”–the latter likely a corruption of the former.) They’re an essential way to get around in the big cities of Mega-Asia, but almost everyone has a bad experience with one at some point.
Let me point out that I’m not suggesting that most tuk-tuk drivers are amoral liars, but as a tourist (or someone who looks like one) the drivers that approach you probably will be. The vast majority of drivers are honest, hard-working men (and the elusive woman) just trying to put food on the table. That’s why my key advice to people on the subject is, “Pick your driver, and don’t ride with the ones who pick you. Then always negotiate your fare–or make sure they will use the meter– before you get in.” The drivers who pick you often have rationalized that it’s alright to treat foreigners like crap. And I’m not so much talking about charging you a little more money (which I personally don’t mind), but more that it’s alright to waste your time or take you places you didn’t ask to go [and potentially much worse.]
Well, without further ado, I’ll share some of my interactions with drivers. This is inspired by a whooper I was told yesterday.
1.) Driver: “The Temple is closed.”
Me: “But there’s a line of Caucasians and Japanese people with cameras going into the place right this moment. I can see them as we speak.”
Driver: “Uhh, monks and nuns.”
2.) Driver: “That road closed. Big protests. Throwing stones. Very dangerous!”
Me: “But I can see all the way to the corner where we need to turn, there’s nobody there.”
Driver: “They hide. [Pantomiming popping up over a wall] Throw rocks.”
3.) Driver: “Meter[ed fare is] 200 Rupee, but I’ll take– only 150 Rupee.”
Me: “I just took a trip yesterday that was 50% farther and took twice as long, and the metered fare was 50 Rupee.”
4.) Driver: “But traffic very bad, VERY BAD. Premium rate time.”
Me: “But it’s Sunday morning at 8:00am. I haven’t heard a horn for half an hour, and I happen to know that there’s no such thing as ‘premium rate time.'”
Driver: “It’s new.”
5.) Driver: “You can’t get from here to there, except go past travel office.”
Me: “Sure you can. It’s one block over and then a straight shot of five kilometers. The travel office is four kilometers out-of-the-way.”
Driver: See lie #2
DAILY PHOTO: Moon Over Incheon Airport, Seoul
Sitting in the terminal at twilight, waiting to catch a flight to Phnom Penh, I watched the moon rise.