Monday, November 10, 2014

From the Comments

Normally, I don’t take an actual post to respond to comments, but this one for this article is just so vituperous and over-the-top, that I thought I would point it out. It might be instructive on several levels to single it out for dissection and response because it so perfectly illustrates many of the attitudes present in contemporary society.

The commenter is full of hate, spittle, bile and anger. Now as I always say, I don’t mind if you disagree with my positions, as long as 1.) You are actually responding to the arguments I have made, not some imaginary argument in your head, 2.) You have actually taken the time to read what I said, and 3.) You are respectful, and not mean, aggressive, belittling and spiteful, and do not resort to ad hominem attacks.

This commenter managed to violate all three. Let’s look in detail.

The commenter begins by being confrontational and insulting:

“You dont have any clue what you are talking about. None whatsoever.”

And follows up with:

“A. solar panel roadways already exist, water pipes are run under roads and they are used to heat up water.”

Which, although it might be true, has no relevance to what I was discussing. I was discussing a very specific proposal for solar roadways.

“B. No one is saying redoing all the roads that way. That is what is called a strawman argument.”

Fair enough, although those objections were raised by every critical piece I linked to. The inventors seemed to imply that this is their intent, although they don’t state it explicitly.

"C. The electrical grid is old, it is old because it fucking works. A transformer properly designed can have a +100 year lifespan. almost no moving parts, few chemical reactions, low physical stresses, simple design with few parts to fail. Of course you didnt know this because in liberal arts school they didnt teach it."

Yes, some parts may work, but I’ve read any number of articles about how aging electric infrastructure is a very real concern, and is a root cause of an increasing number of blackouts. I’ve also read that maintenance is needed, but not being done to the extent that it could be.  See this article:
Our grid is old. The average substation transformer is 42 years old—two years older than the designed lifespan of a substation transformer. For the most part, our grid hasn’t been modernized—it’s largely mechanical equipment operating a digital world, Clark Gellings said. Perhaps most importantly, the grid isn’t being prepared for the future. 
”From 1995-2000, the electricity sector put less than ⅓ of 1% of net sales into research and development,” Massoud Amin said. “In the following six years, that number dropped to less than 2/10 of 1%. We are harvesting the existing infrastructure more and investing less and less in the future.” 
Phasor networks are a success story in the making. So are new national rules Gellings told me about, which put a much higher penalty on utility companies that don’t keep their trees trimmed. One untrimmed tree can cost $1 million in fines. All of this will help prevent blackouts of the size we had in 2003. But it doesn’t help deal with what’s coming 20-30 years down the road.
Shouldn’t this be a priority rather than rolling out new, unproven and expensive ones? We have limited resources, we must direct them to the most efficient ends. Of course, you didn’t know this because engineering programs apparently don’t teach economics.

And for the record, I do not have a liberal arts degree. And although I am not an electrical engineer, I do need to have a basic understanding of how electricity works as part of my job.

"D. Electrical lines hung above ground suffer from less loses then those underground. Putting wires underground is due to space concerns and because the cost of maintaining them exceeds the expected cost of power losses. In most new communities they are buried underground."

Fair enough, although I had heard that lines are commonly buried in places like Europe. There are both pros and cons to this approach, as this article points out:
After a 2002 storm that knocked out electricity to 2 million customers in North Carolina, regulators there took a look at what it would cost to bury the three major power companies' overhead lines. The state Utilities Commission concluded the project would be "prohibitively expensive."

"Such an undertaking would cost approximately $41 billion, nearly six times the net book value of the utilities' current distribution assets, and would require approximately 25 years to complete," the report states. Customers' rates would have to more than double to pay for the project, the commission' staff found.
If it was “prohibitively expensive” to do this, would it not be “prohibitively expensive” to replace existing roads with solar roadways? Who would pay those costs, especially since gasoline taxes are already inadequate for road maintenance costs right now, and politicians refuse to raise them to maintain popularity? Just sayin’

"E. putting panels on people's roofs means multiple owners vs a road which involves one owner. It also means economies of scale."

Yes, multiple owners is a concern, but this can be dealt with. Various subsidies and incentives have increased the use of the ready-to-go solar panels we have right now, and the price of solar keeps falling. What about the power of the much-vaunted “private sector?” Nothing in the reply responds to the very real comments made not by me, but by others, about the durability of the surface, snow and ice buildup, slipperiness, and position of the panels relative to where they would be most effective. These are all practical concerns which are an essential part of good engineering. Just as it might make more sense to hang electrical wires for maintenance, it might not make sense to put solar panels underground for exactly the same reasons. All of these concerns were raised by the articles I linked to.

More to the point, electrical lines run along very large open rights-of-way that are owned by a single owner. These often run parallel to state and interstate highways (I drive next to one that runs for miles quite often) These vast tracts of land where electrical wires run are wide open and could be installed full of panels tilted at the appropriate angle. Remember, solar panels are not benign – they are made of substances that are toxic to mine. Thus, from an environmental standpoint it makes sense to use them were they will be maximally efficient. But then again, I’m not an engineer…

“F. I am not going to even respond at your crap on self-driving cars you are not in any way qualified to talk about. Go out and get a degree in EE or CS and then we shall chat.”

Is this a scholarship offer? I’d happily take you up on it – in fact I was only 6 credits short of a CS minor in college, and have diagrammed chip architectures and worked as a database programmer. But the point to make here is that the criticisms of the self-driving car were not made by me! Have a look at the actual article, they were made by:
  • MIT roboticist John Leonard, and
  • Raj Rajkumar, director of autonomous driving research at Carnegie-Mellon University
Er, let’s see, are they qualified? Perhaps they are worth talking to, hmmm? I bet they don’t have liberal arts degrees (maybe as undergrads). Apparently those of us without STEM degrees are not only a lower form of life, but have no right to participate in discussions about the technologies that affect us all. This is very typical of the arrogance of the technology community – you just shut up and let us do whatever we want. Perhaps rethinking that attitude might lead to better outcomes.

And now here comes the requisite name-calling:

“…people like you are always standing in the way of progress. Your intellectual ancestor was probably busy rambling about how fire doesnt work and eating raw meats huddling for warmth was better. Damn luddites”

Honestly, considering what I write I sometimes wonder why I don’t get more of this. So I’m 'standing in the way of progress' am I? I think this is what anyone who dares question the 'more technology, Gospel of Progress' is expected to get. Notice that all this article does is critique three pieces of experimental technology (solar roadways, self-driving cars and fusion reactors). So raising objections (which were not actually raised by me, but be the authors of the respective pieces, including one in Scientific American) and criticizing the practicality, costs and feasibility of these projects is ‘standing in the way of progress?’ Really? Is any criticism at all standing in the way of progress?

I contend that walkable neighborhoods, bicycling, public transportation and high-speed rail are more intelligent and economical use of resources than self-driving cars (which still need to be powered by gas and electricity) and building yet more roads. I also contend that putting solar panels in rights-of-way and on rooftops is more efficient and cost-effective than putting them under several tons of vehicles. The advantages to these technologies is that they are existing and running right now all over the world, unlike the things discussed in the article. Thus I contend that they are better uses of our limited resources. They are also more efficient. Do you disagree? On what basis, economical, technological or efficiency? But then again, I’m not an engineer, and am apparently unqualified to discuss this without an STEM degree (and even less so if I had a liberal arts degree, apparently).

The condescending tone and over-the-top nature of this comment should tell you something. The failure of technology to bring the promised utopia is starting to make true believers a bit brittle and anyone who raises even the slightest criticism a target of spite.

By the way, there is increasing evidence that the use of fire predates Homo sapiens. But you probably didn’t know that because they don’t teach anthropology in engineering school (sorry, couldn’t resist)

Also, you might want to read up on Luddites. I think you meant to call me a technophobe. Please use the correct term.

“The world isnt falling apart you just cant stand the fact that random brats arent consultant on important decisions so you project your own failures on the world."

"But no worries you will read this and get mad but within an hour you will have forgotten and will resume your posts explaining to the world how you are right about everything and it is the world that is wrong.”

I haven’t forgotten, as this post proves. And I do not claim to be right about everything, and never have. I do claim to be civil, which is more than I can say for this commenter. In fact, I’ll even admit to possibly being a little too critical of solar roadways, as the Dutch are actually installing some solar bike paths in the Netherlands:

So there may be some potential here, otherwise the Dutch wouldn’t be doing it. But, as the article points out, “In bike path form the cells are 30 percent less efficient than they would be placed within a standard solar installation. As a result, when this first test strip is extended to its full 100 meters (328 feet) in 2016, it will provide about enough electricity to power three households.”

Thirty percent less efficient? 100 meters in 2016? Three households??

It’s worth noting that the Dutch are very pressed for space, something the United States is not. The Netherlands is one of the densest and most urbanized countries in the world. It’s also worth noting that the climate is not as harsh as parts of the United States, although other parts of the U.S. have more benign climates. I could see an application for this in, say, Los Angeles or San Francisco, where both prerequisites are there (mild climate and a lack of open space). It also makes sense to use this for new bike paths rather than replacing existing automobile infrastructure. Note also the high taxes, overall excellent state of infrastructure, and widespread deployment of existing green technologies in the Netherlands, none of which are in evidence here in the United States currently.

I don’t get what he (let’s be honest, we know it is a ‘he’) is saying about random brats being consultants (???). Does this make sense to anyone else?

Yes, my life is a failure, guilty as charged. I guess the commenter means to imply that this means that all my criticisms are merely me projecting my failures upon the wider world, and that everything is actually hunky-dory for everyone else.

Perhaps, but I’m willing to bet that a lot of people feel the same way I do about the state of things. Just look at popular culture. Are they all failures too? I’m willing to bet there are more people questioning “progress” who would take issue with your statement that “the world isn’t falling apart.” Take a look around. But I leave that to individual readers to decide.

I’ve written multiple times criticizing the chicken little complex that some people have, but at the same time, to simply accept that everything is fine seems to me to be just as delusional. We have serious problems, and yes things are getting worse. You can disagree with that statement, of course, but by my reckoning, increasing numbers of people would agree with me, not you. They may not express it in the same way, but is clearly in evidence.

I don’t know if trying to inject an alternative view than the mainstream media is a prophet complex. Can’t the same be said about the Cornucopians like Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis, who keep insisting that everything is getting better for everyone and will continue to do so in perpetuity despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Certainly things are getting better for them and their class, but less so for the rest of us.

The vituperousness displayed in the comment tells you something. One, the hostility, condescension, and arrogance of the technophile crowd and the extreme hatred of anyone who dares question the prevailing belief system of our times. John Michael Greer frequently writes about how belief in progress and technology is a belief system akin to a religion, and I never really got it until now. It’s as if this person were Christian and I had insulted Christianity. It pushes the same emotional buttons and gives the same hyperemotional response which goes way beyond any reasonable rational objections. You can clearly see it in the tone of the comment. I presume the author of the comment is a “success,” but normally successful people are less full of bile and hatred.

My argument is not so much anti-technology, but the fact that we are using technology as a distraction to prevent us from seriously dealing with our problems. We are thinking that “technology is the solution” rather than well, actually solving our problems, because that might upset the status quo. We are also prevented from considering solutions that are more cost effective and will produce better results in favor of high-tech solutions because technical solutions will add more wealth and power to the already rich and powerful, whereas other, simpler solutions will not contribute to their wealth or power but will make us average people better off.

Technology can solve certain technical problems, but it will not solve our increasing social, economic and environmental problems. Instead we are made passive and foisted off by the “someday” argument about some future (often imaginary) technology instead of responding to pressing problems right now.

It is also designed to keep us from considering the underlying assumptions of our society – productivism, infinite growth, structuring society to cater to the needs of business for profit, debt based money, imagining away waste and environmental destruction, trickle-down distribution, unquestioning trust in the anarchic “free” market to deliver ideal outcomes, and so forth.

That is my argument. But I guess I have no idea what I'm talking about. None whatsoever.

Have a nice day.


  1. Is there a way to drop you a private message in appreciation of your work? Thanks!

    1. Aside from here, I don't think so. My real address is my real name, so I don't want to give it out here. If you want to leave yours I can reply.

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I think that JMG deals with rude people who don't get the "attack the argument, not the person" injunction by deleting their comments and sending them a message to reword things if they want to be published. Responding to their content when their process sucks only encourages them. (re Don't feed the trolls.)

    On the other hand, I enjoyed your rejoinder. It's good to see indiscriminate technophiles moving to the defensive.

    As for solar freaking roadways, seems like a good way to melt the ice off bike paths, only installing a panel every so often to accomplish that, plus some night lights maybe. :-)

    1. Yeah, I thought I might be sending the wrong message - be a jerk and get a post, but I figured I would do it *once*. I'm not going to make it a habit.

      We actually have heated sidewalks on the project I'm working on now. The slipperiness is a bigger deal - if people slip, everybody gets sued. In fact, you need to have a certain amount of slip resistance for walking surfaces by law. I don't know about roads, but most new ones I see have grooves in them to improve traction. Fancy glass seems expensive to me - fire-rated glass is so expensive that we do everything possible to avoid having to use it, especially for exterior applications. The Dutch version seems to be an actual concrete surface. I'm not sure how they do it.

      If we're going to redo roadways, I've seen some impressive coatings that can repel water. There are also admixtures that can purify air like titanium dioxide. I think those would make more sense. Even more impressive is concrete that uses bacteria to heal itself.

    2. "Even more impressive is concrete that uses bacteria to heal itself."

      No freaking way! :-) Please do a post on stuff like that sometime?

  3. Human responses on blogs are a spectrum from bad to good, so perhaps trolls are not only unavoidable, they simply must show up as the readership grows to some sort of mystical "hundredth monkey" level. It's a sign of success.

    (Not at all sure why escapefromwisconsin would classify himself as a failure, by the way. If one is employed, reasonably healthy, educated, intelligent, possesses good critical thinking skills, and is a lifelong autodidact, I might pull a muscle straining to find the failure in there somewhere.)


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