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Archive for the month “April, 2014”

Unintended consequences of seawater fuel – you can afford the drive to dinner, but can’t afford the dinner

Larry Rosenthal shared a Justin Rosario post about how a U.S. Navy technological advance will bring grief to evil Republicans as Big Oil gets smaller and no one cares about the Middle East any more.

But I’m not going to talk about that. First, I’m going to talk about the technological advance itself. Rosario quotes from the International Business Times:

After decades of experiments, U.S. Navy scientists believe they may have solved one of the world’s great challenges: how to turn seawater into fuel….

The new fuel is initially expected to cost around $3 to $6 per gallon, according to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, which has already flown a model aircraft on it.

While the International Business Times focuses on the new technology’s application to U.S. Navy ships, Rosario speculates – correctly – that the technology could also be put to civilian use. While he looks at good things (well, good things from his perspective), it’s wise to remember that everything has unintended consequences.


Let’s assume for the moment that the technology can be expanded from military use to civilian use, and that Big Oil companies and repressive Third World dictatorships disappear overnight, and that a vast network of fueling stations appears around the world, but that the fueling stations are all run by really really nice people who pay their employees $100 an hour while providing fuel at pre-1973 prices of 10 cents a gallon.

Everybody’s happy, right?

“Mom, can we go to Red Lobster tonight?”

“No, son.”

“But Mom, the Red Lobster is only 100 miles away, and it would only cost us a dime to drive there!”

“That’s right, son, but I can’t afford to pay $1,000 for a fish dinner tonight.”

“$1,000? Why do fish dinners cost so much, Mom?”

“Because of all the barges that are going up and down the coastline, converting seawater into fuel.”

“I remember those barges, Mom. They were a lot of them. They looked pretty cool!”

“Well, son, the fish don’t like all of those barges, so they all moved to other waters, and now the fishers aren’t catching that many fish any more. So fish dinners cost a lot more today. Back when I was a kid, I could get a fish dinner for less than it cost to buy two gallons of gas.”

“A fish dinner costing less than two gallons of gas? That’s really weird, Mom.”

Visiting an art museum with Anne

This is another post inspired by something originally shared by Loren Feldman. The article from The Independent tells of an Englishwoman who chose to end her own life:

Anne told the newspaper she felt email had taken the humanity out of human interaction, and said people were “becoming robots” sat in front of screens.

She described her horror at the rows of ready-made meals on sale in supermarkets, and her fears about the environmental impact of overcrowding and pollution.

“I find myself swimming against the current, and you can’t do that,” she said. “If you can’t join them, get off.”

As I began to read the article, I was asking myself: if Anne doesn’t like certain aspects of 21st century life, she doesn’t have to participate them. She can do whatever she wants.

Or can she, when everyone else around her is immersed in 21st century life?

Let’s say that I wanted to accompany Anne, a former art teacher, to a museum. I’d probably grumble if I had to write a letter to Anne, rather than just shooting off an email. Knowing myself, I wouldn’t even send her a letter as she understands the term; since my handwriting is atrocious, I’d just type something on a word processor, find a stamp, stick it in an envelope, and mail it. I would then prepare for my museum visit by consulting numerous online sources, probably including some “for dummies” online material.

Because of a combination of factors – these online inclinations, my cultural background, and my personality – I would treat the trip to the art museum as a goal to be accomplished. Prepare for trip. Check. Meet art expert. Check. Acquire knowledge from art expert. Check.

I obviously never knew Anne, but I suspect that her thoughts of a trip to an art museum would include the verb “savor.”

And I don’t mean “Savor. Check.”

Some of this has nothing to do with the technological revolution, but it all illustrates how we make assumptions about how society should be. You should have a smartphone. You should have an online presence. You should believe certain things if you want to work at certain places.

Farewell, Anne.

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