« idle pig | Main | MGI suppression watch: Jiaozuo »

August 26, 2012



but since Apollo it has been pointed at enemies within and without, instead of disruptively fun technology. So we got drones but not automated factories

err....pre-Apollo US industry wasn't pointed at enemies? Nuclear rocket that you fly back and forth over target after the bomb drops, how are ya.

Also, we got lots of automated factories. I think Graeber may have read an early1980s essay on how the Japanese 4th Generation AI project was going to rule the world because Western computing was tainted by imperialism.


Also, flying cars. We haven't got flying cars because they are a stupid idea, stupid wasteful, stupid dangerous, stupid complicated, stupid useless in any kind of city. I mean, cars are a stupid enough idea but at least they aren't expected to fly.

Barry Freed

I do have the hots for space exploration, big time.

Yeah, me too. Of course it helps that Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon is one of my earliest and clearest childhood memories and that dad was an engineer* and a Grummanite and worked on the LEM.

*And so was Armstrong - which was another damned good reason why he was such a true Right Stuff hero.

How do you feel about jet packs Alex? Surely you can't be down on jet packs? That's like hating fun.


As for the Graeber piece, I started skimming when he noted with a sense of satisfaction that "all the pieces [were] falling into place" (in my world that's usually a sign that you've got something wrong) and gave up altogether when he segued into a different article about university management culture. I don't think he hasn't got anything there, but a specific or two would have helped. I'd have run the genealogy backwards - why and how were the actually-existing technologies of the 50s and 60s so oversold that people could believe they were going to develop into something Jetson-ish? Flying cars and consumer-grade jetpacks might some day turn out to be possible, but they'd still be an insanely bad idea; teleportation isn't even physically possible.

Surely Graeber isn't old enough to remember the Jetsons, anyway. He would have grown up with Scooby-Doo - he should be asking "Where's my talking dog?".

belle le triste

(Tempted to argue that Graeber's entire politics is shaped by Scooby Doo: disgruntled senior banker pulls of horror mask, while muttering "I would have got away with it too if it wasn't for you occupying kids")


I'll give you talking dog: http://ifyoulikeitsomuchwhydontyougolivethere.com/2008/04/21/talking-dog-ill-give-you-talking-dog/

Martin Wisse

There was a new Jetsons series in the early eighties.

Barry Freed

The Jetsons was in syndicated reruns by the late 60s and early 70s and a basic part of every kids Saturday morning cartoon fare. I remember it fondly.

Of course jet packs are a terrible idea, even if they worked flawlessly - just imagine the number of injuries to the lower extremities - but still fun, fun, fun!

chris williams

Sod jetpacks - we should have had antigravity. Of course, as Bob Shaw noticed, this would also be a massively disruptive tech. Alex, I should have put a 'still' in there, it's in the essay, as for automated factories, check out edgerton on ship-breaking: offshored and de-industrialised. Phil, yes, I agree: 'and this is where causes is always an alarm bell moment. Like I said, the man needs more numbers.


As someone born in the "Blade Runner" and "Neuromancer" 1980s, the future's unfolded almost *exactly* in line with my expectations.

Also, "Back to the Future" came out in 1985.


To be fair, Graeber referred to BTTF 2.


I sort of agree with his main argument about capitalism, while disagreeing with almost all of his examples. So I'm not sure whether that means my instincts are wrong, or whether he's on to something but lacks the data to make the case.


@Phil Ah, yes he does. In my defence, this is the internet, where 1980s pop-culture is Serious Business.

A Different Alex


"teleportation isn't even physically possible"

Depends what you mean by this. Here's IBM:

In 1993 an international group of six scientists, including IBM Fellow Charles H. Bennett, confirmed the intuitions of the majority of science fiction writers by showing that perfect teleportation is indeed possible in principle, but only if the original is destroyed. In subsequent years, other scientists have demonstrated teleportation experimentally in a variety of systems, including single photons, coherent light fields, nuclear spins, and trapped ions. Teleportation promises to be quite useful as an information processing primitive, facilitating long range quantum communication (perhaps unltimately leading to a "quantum internet"), and making it much easier to build a working quantum computer. But science fiction fans will be disappointed to learn that no one expects to be able to teleport people or other macroscopic objects in the foreseeable future, for a variety of engineering reasons, even though it would not violate any fundamental law to do so.


A Different Alex

Incidentally, I don't think they can claim "the majority of science fiction writers" have written about teleportation.

belle le triste

Maybe not directly and by that name, no, but any writer who's depicted the wider colonisation of space has implicitly assumed some sort trans-lightspeed spacetravel, which is indeed in effect teleportation. (I know no non-boring way of working out if this latter group is a "majority" and leave this as an exercise for the unbored reader...)

Chris Williams

My comment to Phil above suffered from using the wrong kind of bracket. Should have read as
"'and this is where (global problem) causes (my own job to be less fun than I'd like it to be right now)' is always an alarm bell moment"


Didn't Larry Niven worked on the basis of sub-light travel, at least in the initial colonisation phase? It would go with the whole space-as-frontier mentality.

belle le triste

It's abt 25 years since I read Neutron Star or Ringworld, but I think both kinds (sub and trans) occur in both -- doesn't the "lucky girl" in the latter hopskip randomly through some kind of transmat system? I pretty much forget the full backstory: is there a thing called a ramscoop, which takes you close to light speed?


pre-Apollo US industry wasn't pointed at enemies? Nuclear rocket that you fly back and forth over target, how are ya

But what could be more disruptive - and more fun! - than that?

There are a few SF writers who have stuck pretty closely to the light barrier rule: Richard Morgan, Stephen Baxter and Alistair Reynolds, to name three.

And I notice Graeber went for the whole "smokestack industries disappear from the West" nonsense: Britain made more cars last year than ever before, most of them in very largely automated factories.


"Britain made more cars last year than ever before, most of them in very largely automated factories."

More cars than in any year since 2007.

But the industry is optimistic of breaking the 1970s record in 2015.



Huh - I honestly thought we had topped the 1970s already at some point in the last few years.


We did have a trade surplus in cars last quarter, first time since 1976, driven by the fact that Chinese nouveau-riches appreciate the Baby Jags' ability to look more expensive than they are. The Obscurer had a surprisingly good piece over the weekend about Halewood:


I quite like the division of labour: Audi-VW sells Audi A-class yachts to Party Secretary Mucho Pomposo, Quattros to his ne'er do well brat (to get totalled in a high-speed crash or else torched in a mass-group incident), and JLR, baby Jags to their traditional market of faintly dodgy social climbers and criminals who appreciate the combination of four goon-sized seats, a boot for the loot, and getaway car performance in an unobtrusively bourgeois package.

Chris Williams

We have automated and semi-automated factories, for a lot of high-end thing. But most of the stuff I see around me is made in human-intensive processes by relatively badly-paid workers. This might be a function of where I live, though.


It's not so much car making which I think disrupts the general 'jetpack' narrative, as car washing.

20 years ago you'd have been hard pushed to get your cash washed (well, by a non family member anyway) unless you used some huge clanking meccano set type washer/dryer combo @ a petrol station. Now you get the vehicle hand serviced by 15 or so of whichever ethnic group of insecurely documented immigrants happens to predominant in your particular district.

Chris Williams

I blame Rose Royce for that.


Surely you can't be down on jet packs?

I just have an in built distrust of a) the strength of my own back muscles as a means of controlling a jet engine, and b) anything that puts a jet exhaust quite so close to my arse. Jetpack-negative.


You can, in fact, have a jetpack: http://www.jetpackinternational.com/

Technically it's a rocketpack, but then, it comes down to "which do you want close to your arse, T-Stoff, extremely corrosive and explosive nazi rocket fuel, or a turbojet main compressor wheel spinning at 100,000 rpm and 750 degrees C with no real containment?"


Incidentally, can one of you bright lads explain in language suitable for a life sciences graduate why we made the switch from piston engines to turbines for ships more than a century ago - more reliable, more efficient etc - but we are still using piston engines rather than turbines in our cars?

Chris Williams

I thought it was about power bands. With a turbine it's more of a power stripe. Also exhaust issues. NB: BA (Hons) Modern History.

Richard J

Space and weight considerations?

Also, I'd guess the torque effects might potentially quite a nasty issue for the average driver...

(Charlie's observation is a good one - that said, your EGoIDI has the fundamental advantage over a machine that they don't have a habit of breaking bits off your car while cleaning it, unless you try to stiff them.

Chris Williams

Is weight a problem? ISTR that it was the superior power-to-weight of turbines over the best piston engines which made helicopters a useful thing rather than a cool toy.


Exhaust issues might be it, thanks Chris. I remember being told that one disadvantage of the turbine-powered M1 tank was that you (being an infantryman under fire) could hide behind an M60 with no problems, but if you hid behind an M1 your hair would catch fire.

Richard J


Following the links around on this (particularly to the BMW turbine racer page) suggests that the need for very very thorough air filtration might be the key blocking point - making sure your filters are clean in a vehicle that needs a completely new engine every thousand miles or so is very different to a vehicle owned by the mass market with their absent-mindedness about oil levels and tyre pressures, especially with their fondness for crashing.

Chris Williams

We need Jakob at this point. Jakob?


"Huh - I honestly thought we had topped the 1970s already at some point in the last few years."

I know what you mean. Maybe (searching google) it's comments such as this, which is technically correct as by the late 1970s production has collapsed.



Well, GTs didn't get into cars way back when, but JLR demonstrated a hybrid car using a tiny gas turbine as the battery charger/range extender. Which makes a lot of sense as the response-to-control and torque problems don't matter if you're just charging a battery, not driving the wheels.

These guys are making the engines:


I like this bit: During their initial research, Rolls-Royce tells the Bladon brothers that the production of a micro gas turbine is not possible.

They said it couldn't be done! But...the sheer grit of our intrepid tinkerers pulls through. or rather, the British willingness to plunge on completely untried whizzology kicks in.

Bladon brothers identify the breakthrough solution – use of Electric Discharge Machining (EDM) to create ultra-high-precision turbine components.


(that means scraping the shape out of a billet of tool-grade steel by ZAPPING IT WITH HUGE ELECTRIC SPARKS!!! btw)


the British willingness to plunge on completely untried whizzology kicks in

Someone's been reading David Edgerton...

Chris Williams

Sticking with the HUGE ELECTRIC SPARKS, I was struck last year during Teh Occupy that among the several new (to me) batshit crazy conspiracy theories floating around it was the one about Tesla's Secret Books having been covered up by Edison, but one day they would be exposed, promising nicetech for all, for ever. My reaction, aside from blinking back tears, was to fume jigistically that they weren't Heaviside's secret books, and note the massive resemblence to Joanna Southcott.

Still - how much of the modern geeks' Tesla cult, which is more than just the looneytunes mentioned above, is to do with the failure of actually-existing technology to match our expectations?


Depressingly, I heard an apparently sane man on the train last night explaining US Sovereign Citizen theory to another apparently sane man ("you see, if they write your name in block capitals it means you are a Person, which is a legal corporate fiction...") He'd read it all on the internet by way of the Fathers' Rights movement.

Charlie W

From Wikipedia:

MIT started its millimeter size turbine engine project in the middle of the 1990s when Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Alan H. Epstein considered the possibility of creating a personal turbine which will be able to meet all the demands of a modern person's electrical needs ...

I'm guessing that means laptops and stuff. The Bladon stuff looks interesting, and I hope it works out. Can't see what happens with the exhaust, but these are 25kW engines, or something like that, so the heat output looks to be comparable to the ordinary sort of engine. I imagine you could run the car's space heater with it, or else just dump the heat via a radiator. Or maybe it just switches off when not moving.

Charlie W

Also, I suppose turbine-powered cars could be fitted with sensors to detect dirty filters. Boringly, and relatedly, I neglected to clean the air filter on the household video projector. Actually, I didn't even know it had an air filter. It over-heated, and we now have a scorched something or other: brown patch in the middle of the screen and a large-ish repair bill. I'd have been much happier if a warning light had lit up.

Barry Freed

I was struck last year during Teh Occupy that among the several new (to me) batshit crazy conspiracy theories floating around it was the one about Tesla's...

They've clearly forgotten to change the air filter in their orgone accumulators.


There's some good points in the comments here http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2008/06/whatever-happened-to-the-gas-turbine-engine/ about the drawbacks of turbine engines in cars.

Charlie W

Ok, I read the Graeber after getting the air filter thing off my chest, and I sort of want to agree with him, but there are just so many objections:

- Where is the energy going to come from for all these whizzy transportation devices?

- Where does efficiency come in? Environmental considerations?

- Travelling more energetically suggests greater risk (call this the exploding jetpack problem);

- Don't we in fact do much more in the way of long-distance leisure travel, and more safely? Are we looking for innovation here, or the best set of trade-offs?

- Who in fact wants to make more use of the everyday sort of mechanised transportation? Wouldn't we prefer to de-surburbanise?

- Didn't Carter start off the Star Wars stuff?

- Perhaps many of us actually do have greater leisure, only it's getting expressed as presentee-ism (in the way that I'm present at the office as I type this).

Charlie W

For instance, work happens here? I think not.


You rang? Interestingly, I was having a similar discussion very recently with my mate Andy the micro-turbine compressor engineer. There are a number of issues with car-sized gas turbines; they're most efficient when running flat out, and tend to have poor throttle response when compared to piston engines. As Alex notes, the best solution is then to turn them into the powerplant for a hybrid vehicle. However, for a hybrid you don't need more than a couple of hundred HP at most, and small gas turbines tend to be less efficient. At smaller sizes you get all kinds of weird and wonderful boundary layer effects; this is why most micro designs use a radial compressor, which is less sensitive to these. I wouldn't have thought that whizzy manufacturing techniques would have made that much difference, but clearly Bladon thought otherwise.

Andy's take on it was that at useful car powers the Diesel would probably always be superior, unless you could find some way to use the waste heat of the gas turbine (which is what he was investigating for home boiler use.)

As to ships, my impression is that diesels are also still fairly widely used, and may even be making a comeback compared to steam. I've only looked at the technical debates of the 40s and 50s in detail, but it seems that one of the factors against Diesels was that at higher powers they were somewhat temperamental and required lots of maintenance; cf. BR's experience with its first generation of Diesel locos.

Charlie W

Engine dead weight (and the lightness of a turbine) seems to feature quite a bit on the Bladon web site. Cars tend to be accelerated often, and are also made to go up hills, so maybe that counts for quite a lot.


I am foolishly hoping that at some point in the development of the gas turbine car there was a fairly serious but non-life-threatening industrial accident, just so that in later life a plant worker could reminisce that he got two black eyes and a broken nose on the way to Bladon's racers.

The comments to this entry are closed.

friends blogs


Blog powered by Typepad

my former home