Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Electrical Tsunami

The Cretaceous Period in media technology began in 1961 with the introduction of the IBM Selectric typewriter, simply the best of its species. When it reached its maturity as the all-around wonderful Selectric II, it ruled the world for a while before the cataclysm of the Computer Age swept it away. Awesome creature in its day, but its day was over forever.
Some things will endure (horseshoe crabs, crabgrass, crocodiles), some will slowly evolve and adapt, and some disappear over the cliff they didn't see. In 1973, as I was enjoying my last months in the Pentagon, we began testing the IBM 2740 "dumb" terminal, connected to a hulking mainframe computer. We had already adapted from typewriters to "word processing" with the installation of IBM MTST machines, and wondered if this was an add-on or a possibly coming replacement. Like a real tsunami, change was coming in a big way but we hardly suspected it.
Heck, a few years previously, I'd been tearing the news off the clattering AP teletype at WFMV-FM, just like in 1940s movies. Fred Flintstone was about to be pulled, dazed and confused, from the Stone to the Electronic Age.
Likewise, I had no idea that little pillbox-size modem I plugged into our first home computer was a hint of something much more spellbinding than the black-and-white text message boards it led one to. A roller coaster ride is fun and challenging; the anticipation, fast changes and surprises are a thrill. But 40 years of roller coaster rides, one right after another? At some point you start to feel woozy, and wonder if your personal bandwidth is being exceeded.
I'm excited, without the seasickness, by technological advances which solve problems instead of those which are just pretty much about entertainment. And a lot of what's coming at us week after week is just that wickedly effective planned obsolesence washing in on waves of hype.
But we're mostly conformists at heart, and don't want to miss out and become irrelevant, so we open wide and swallow, mindlessly, like baby birds.
While advertising and peer pressure flag us ever forward along on this NASCAR oval of life, sometimes you have to dive for the pits and clear your head. I stopped at CDs and DVDs after getting fooled by the cassette fad, and getting stuck with hundreds of them I can't use anymore. Never did fall for the 8-track (clearly a poor technology) or CB crazes, or plastic Crocs shoes, but that doesn't show any particular presience, evidenced by the stack of dead VCRs in the basement. At least I held on to about half the LP records and my now very old audio equipment. There's a fine line between fuddy-duddy and P. Diddy, and I don't want to be either one.
I can fix a standard electric or gas stove, but our new one has an electronic command center like the bridge of Starship Enterprise. I can't even get much out of the instruction manual. It does do amazing things, but it makes you feel pretty thick. I have a "dumb" phone but it's outsmarted me from day one...
If the electricity goes out for a very long time, there are a host of old skills we should, but don't, have to survive. 3-D surround sound entertainment will seem, all of a sudden, pretty irrelevant. Looking up what you want or need to know on the internet is now so fast and easy it's almost as much a part of our nervous system as breathing. It's been quite a trip, but everything ends (except crabgrass).
The roller coaster comes to a hard stop. You're disoriented; reality has changed in a second. It may be, and it's a scary thought, that there's no school like Old School. Hope you still have a pencil sharpener and index cards.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Modest Proposal

The basic layout for gas-to-electric
I recently looked at the Exxon-Mobil website to see what they had to say about the energy crisis that's on our doorstep and is, like the Dire Wolf, going to bust in and eat us. They dismissed any concerns about diminishing supply vs. increasing demand, of course. Don't look behind the curtain, Dorothy.
And yesterday, once again it was revealed that Saudi Arabia has published false estimates of their oil reserves. The stability of that regime and of energy industry stock prices depends on continuing the charade. Think Enron here: when it's over, it's over fast.
What to do? Some urbanites can make it without private transportation and avoid gasoline purchases; a very very few make their own biodiesel or ride electric scooters (or horses!), but with our suburban sprawl and 3,000 mile wide geography, the combination of much higher fuel and food prices will knock the less well-off 2/3 of the nation to the floor and they won't have any way to deal with it.
The challenge is urgent, but don't expect a brilliant energy policy from our corporate nation: while the Republicans are cutting millions from alternative programs this very day, China is investing U.S. $15 billion to initiate an electric car industry there. Girl, you got to do it for yourself.
Let's say you now have a good car, not too big, and are worried that if you wait to trade it in on an electric or nongasoline auto when the going gets really bad it will be worthless and the waiting list for that replacement will be long. Remember, though, that innovation comes up from the bottom and not down from the top: it's the eccentric in his garage who will be your hero, not GM or Uncle Sam. For years, hobbyists, hometown engineers and even racing enthusiasts have been developing the conversion of gasoline cars to electric, unheralded but ahead of the giant manufacturers. You won't see it on the evening (or, heaven help us, the cable) news, but a company called Electro Automotive USA sells a complete, universal conversion package for $6500. It might cost that again to hire someone to install it, but you'll have an almost new, really cheap-to-run car for less than half the cost of a new one. And the better-known companies have over a half-dozen production all-electric models ready to go; they're selling in California, Japan, Australia and Asia right now.
Despite the roadblocks being thrown down by the retrograde Tea/Republican't droolers, recharging station systems are going in all over the western and far northern U.S. We covered North America in gas stations in 1920; we can do the same today, scaling it from the local to the continental.
The tipping point will be when the current state of the art battery, the lithium-ion, is replaced by a cheaper, lighter, more effective one. Some only have a range of 30 - 70 miles, which justifiably induces instant "range anxiety," but the Tesla company (which makes the beautiful Roadster, if you have $100,000) is already using laptop battery cell technology with a 245-mile range. Think dial phones vs. the i-Phone -- we can do it. With their serious investment, the Chinese, however, will probably do it first.
But even with the current technology requiring replacing heavy batteries every 3 - 10 years, once you eliminate gas, liquids, filters, belts, hoses, cooling and exhaust repairs and tune-ups, the electric car is cheaper and easier right now.
Those buildings housing your hometown gas stations might be replaced by your neighbors' own new businesses, converting your current car to one that you could actually afford to drive. And not that most people care, but they'd be quiet and clean (if the electric generating plants, owned unfortunately by the very people who don't give a damn about you, the country or the world moved away from coal). And what if other local people installed a few American-made solar panels or a wind turbine on your home, and you generated your own electric fuel. The energy companies could change their business model from extraction to creation and lease these to you (remember, you just spent $12,000 on your conversion; you're a little tapped out) so they could continue to get into your pocket, in a mutually beneficial way.
Just sayin'.