Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Nation of Mad Scientists

"I'm not a Mad Scientist, I'm an Angry Scientist!" (Young Frankenstein, I think) According to the Wikipedia article on "Mad Scientist," these guys "often work with fictional technology..." Hence the title here.

Just this week, I got a data call from a friend who needed a geek to tell him what was up with Brown's Gas, burning water and stuff to make a 10 Mpg pickup truck do 22 Mpg. OK, I looked it up, I reviewed it. There was even some heavyweight research done on it. But, in the end, it reminded me of "the secret carburetor," the "gas-enhancing packet," and X-Ray Vision glasses that every red-blooded pre-teen prayed would let him see his homeroom angel naked.

Wake up!!! For heaven's sake, people, why does it always come down to another episode of The Rain Maker? Only now, some clown in a plaid jacket comes to town and claims his secret invention will eliminate your reliance on the $4-a-gallon pump. Now, everyone is believing in perpetual motion machines and water-powered cars, every sort of nonsense that we were supposed to have outgrown oh, back in 1945???

So much for the Founding Fathers' dream of universal education making a strong Republic. It would seem that fact, scientific fact, may be conveniently ignored in the vain hope that the fuel we so wantonly wasted over the past 50 years may be returned to us (at 25 cents a gallon while you are at it, please, God?).

Wishing you can have unlimited sources of energy will not make it so. While Volkswagen may indeed have created a 70Mpg bio-diesel roller skate, your Ford 450 Megaton Pickup is not going to get 35 mpg without driving it off of the proverbial cliff.

There are certain laws of physics that dominate this game. Way back when the only conveyances were horses and sailboats, the "laws of physics" were discovered by homo sapiens and various simple experiments have proven them out year after year in high schools and even elementary schools throughout the nation. In much the same way as 2 + 2 is always equal to 4 (even for very large values of 2), the energy you can get from a system is always equal to or less than what you put in.

Yet, once again, in a manner similar to what occurred in the gas crisis of 1972, magic additives and pills abound. Engines that run on compressed air, engines that run on water, cars that run on gravity. Like drowning swimmers, we grasp every pointless bit of flotsam around us in hopes that it will somehow float both itself and us.

True energy efficiency comes from not wasting energy. I'm no Kung Fu master, but isn't this what the old guy says to "Writtow Gwasshoppah" every time The True Knowledge is being imparted to the young pip on the Path of Enlightenment? Apparently, we treat this knowledge as a fiction only for books and movies. We don't really buy it, do we?

Way back in 1962, Arthur C. Clarke postulated that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It seems there is an opposite (contrapositive?) effect at work here. Dave Lebling states that "Any sufficiently arcane magic is indistinguishable from technology." Strangely enough, this seems to be the more oft-repeated version. This must be why these scams never seem to go away.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Join the Neo-Amish Movement

No disrespect at all intended. The idea "Neo-Amish" came to me when I was thinking about what our ultimate goal(s) must be if we are to work towards a sufficient "renewable energy technology" in the future. I fully understand that there is a critical spiritual element of Amish & Mennonite faiths. "Neo-Amish" is intended only to refer to the essential "green" aspect of the lifestyle which (according to the Wikipedia entry) has been a direct result of their avoidance of "worldly" things.

On the surface, it appears that Amish morality shuns extensive use of energy as a form of vanity. If this is so, our Western energy-consuming lifestyle could really use an overhaul. If we called it "sin," we would all find ourselves contemplating suicide as the best way to reduce the burden on the planet. I cannot make a move without acknowledging overuse of energy! Our predicament reminds me of Nikos Kazantzakis' St. Francis. In the story, St. Francis "saves" an entire village of people, who all renounce the world and wish to follow a contemplative life. However, there is no one to do any of the daily tasks that make the village go, so he has to tell everyone a new angle on salvation. As I recall, they all get mad at him and drive him out of town.

We cannot let this wall of habit keep us from making some changes as soon as possible, and at least trying some more things.

We have so many conveniences (not the least of which is the computer I am typing on and the one you are reading from) which are "convenient" at a fairly significant energy cost. A few weeks ago, I was reading an article about computer time donations to "Folding@home," a major grid supercomputing effort, that talked about having ~1 million PS3s donating 8 hours per day at about 220 watts. Something like 1.6 billion watt-hours per day are required to make inroads against protein-folding related diseases! Perhaps, for my daily work, I can use the One-Laptop Per Child unit, which runs at a LOT lower energy cost, and is hand-cranked. I think that organization has a new, valid market for the OLPC that should not be overlooked.

As I look at every aspect of my own lifestyle, I realize what a long way I have to go. I need to put up a clothesline, begin to wash dishes by hand in lukewarm water, do a MAJOR planning effort into how & when we use the family autos, make sure all lights in the house are LED or fluorescent, cook less, bathe less, turn more things off, walk more, turn up the thermostat in summer (and turn it down in the winter), watch less TV/video DVD, break out the old Monopoly and jigsaw puzzles, learn how to play cards with real cards again, the list goes ON and On and on.

I bet the Amish don't play cards. But, they drive horse & buggy for local transport and usually don't use phones (the heart clutches in fear at the thought). We are not going to get 300 million Americans back to a farm/subsistence lifestyle. We can turn off a few million streetlights, go to a four-day work week, and try to get to know our neighbors better.

Some technology ought to save energy. I think cell phones are essential, and the internet must be cheaper than driving, is it not? I gotta re-think those 1.6 BILLION watt-hours per day on a single project, though, don't I?