Sunday, January 24, 2010

Urban Planning from the Ruins

In the latest issue of Newsweek, President Barack Obama explains  "Why Haiti Matters," offering reasons -- from moral to pragmatic -- for Americans to care about that unlucky nation. Indeed, were it possible to wave a wand and transform that hellish place into an upward-rising land of hope, health, education, enterprise and opportunity, while re-planting its ravaged hillsides, who wouldn't?

Lacking magic wands, we have another tool -- money -- in limited amounts. That, combined with ingenuity and goodwill, can take care of some short term things.  Stop the dying.  Provide food, shelter and basic sanitation.  Help the Haitians to restore basic utilities and bury their dead. Repair the ports and roads enough to get commerce flowing again. So far, no arguments.

It's when we start talking about longer-term solutions that the discussion gets clouded by preconceptions, dogmas and real world practicalities.  Sixty years after the Marshall Plan proved that foreign assistance can work, some of the time, we still find our best-meant schemes mired by bureaucratic inefficiency, corruption, and unintended consequences. Nor does any political side have a perfect recipe. If the American left has often shown itself to be treacly and naive, the right is already back to its old, cynical sneer, deriding "the failed and discredited utopian fantasy of so-called Nation Building" -- an actual neoconservative mantra, up till the very month that they plunged the U.S. into the most costly, inefficient, corruption-ridden and ill-conceived nation-building exercise ever undertaken.

In contrast to Iraq, Haiti has several traits that make it seem a rather good candidate for national makeover.  It is small, nearby, desperate -- and yet peaceful -- enough to be a possible test case. (Our misadventure in Somalia showed how necessary the "peaceful" component is.)

On the downside, you have a near total lack of infrastructure, education or reliable civil law. Still, despite the challenges, suppose we wanted to really accomplish epochal and effective change in Haiti?

Aside from humanitarian aid, what endeavors would be most helpful over the long run?

1) Cooking. It sounds simple, even banal.  But a major driver of Haiti's tragic deforestation is the chopping of wood for cooking fuel. For years we've seem efforts to offer solar cookers to people in developing nations -- a worthy endeavor, but not very popular among the poor women who need to boil up the rice and bean now -- without spending hours worrying about clouds.

Amore prosaic palliative might be to establish communal kitchen facilities all over the island, where families could not only get food aid, but have access to shared, gas-fired stoves and ovens to prepare it. But whatever approach is chosen, we need to be clear about one unintended consequence of food aid. Distributing uncooked rice is tantamount to killing trees.

2) Reward self organization. Infrastructure projects and jobs should flow toward those neighborhoods that manage to organize themselves to better benefit from the aid. For one thing, this is the simplest way to bypass corrupt national officials, relying instead on simple metrics, right there on the ground.  For another thing, it would leverage upon islands of enthusiasm and competence, without imposing any preconceptions upon HOW the locals organize themselves.  (See an article in the LA Times about such neighborhood committees, already in motion.)

However they do it - via communes or coops or by working with local landowners, those that remove the trash and set up kitchens and have work crews ready for labor every day, and who present a fait accompli structure that can be relied upon, those should get top priority.
    The lesson would spread.

3) Empower law and civil society.  Go look up the work of Hernando de Soto (not the explorer, but the radical economist-reformer). The nation of Peru instituted his plan to get the people  clear title to their land, so they can then improve or borrow against it. The resulting surge in the market economy proved that left and right could work together, when not trapped in idiotic dogma, resulting in a boom in Peru. Peru's reform laws should be instituted in Haiti, with the one proviso that they be translated into French.

Unfotrtunately, right now is the very time when those with property rights in Port-au-Prince are most likely to be bought out, cents on the dollar, by Haiti's own oligarchs. (See a silver lining to this, below.)

4) Take advantage of the quake. Now, with the capital city in ruins, is the time for urban planning in Port-au-Prince.

Sure, those words sound pathetically sixties-ish.  But I am not talking about utopian nit-picking, meddlesome zoning regulations or over-specifying architecture -- (though there are modern alternatives to cinder-block construction that could be cheaper, faster and much more quake resistant... and this would be a good time to start setting up firms over there, trained in these alternative methods.)

No, what I mean by "urban planning" is the very basics.  Core essentials that are utterly pragmatic and that would best be done now, at the very moment that Port-au-Prince lies shattered.

As soon as people are being fed and all the children are safe, even next month, corridors and rights of way should be laid down and razed -- wide swaths stretching from the port to downtown, to the airport, and to the factory zone.

Yes, superficially it sounds horrible -- plowing aside the tottering shops that still stand along such broad paths.  But the benefits -- to all Haitians -- would be overwhelming. If done well, such corridors would allow very cheap installation of the organic elements needed by a modern city, the circulatory, pulmonary, lymphatic, nervous and other systems of a future, healthy metropolis.  I'm talking about mass transit, sewer, water, fiber-optics, gas, electricity, sewers...

ALL of these services are fantastically expensive -- in nations like the U.S. -- primarily due to right-of-way costs and having to insert and maintain them through already-existing streets. The actual conduits themselves (rails, sewer pipe, water pipe, optical fiber) are fairly cheap, if laid down in a linear fashion. (Commuter trolley lines can be established aboveground at first. But if the land-siting is done right, a trenched subway can go in, later, at trivial added expense.)

Combine this with the laying down of several grand boulevards and parks, and you could have the makings of a great and impressive city, rising from the ashes, drawing commerce and (even more important) proud confidence among its citizens.

Note that this needn't be done rapaciously. e.g. imagine if the poor and displaced got shares in the soon-to-be valuable plots that front upon these new boulevards, and first-options at the resulting apartments.  Is such fairness really likely, especially in Haiti?  Of course not.  Already the country's few-dozen elite, oligarchic families are swooping in -- partly to perform beneficent acts of noblesse oblige, and partly to seek opportunities within the chaos.  If my suggestion were undertaken entirely on the oligarchs' terms, with elites owning all the utilities and boulevard frontages, excluding even the people who used to live there, it would be a travesty.

UrbanPlanningHaitiBut travesties are normal for Haiti.  In this case, at least there'd be boulevards, parks, utilities, sanitation, trolleys fiber-broadband, WiFi and commerce.  The elevated people could then engage in politics -- the torts and rights and wrongs -- later.

 Anyway, what if foreign influences leaped onto this project first, with strong intent to insert fairness as a priority? Note that a single billionaire could, right now, offer to do this in Port-au-Prince. His share, downstream, could be worth billions, without incurring any bad karma because, with just a little care to note who lived where, the chief beneficiaries would still be the poorest citizens of Haiti.

And the result... making money by increasing the value of a city that becomes a wonder and source of pride for all... would seem worth pondering.

==See an updated version of this article: Urban Planning Amid the Rubble in Salon


Carl M. said...

A billionaire won't do this because the odds of confiscation after land values go up is large.

This is an area where right and left work together to perpetuate evil.

And you are absolutely right to cite Hernando de Soto. Haiti needs a broad class of landowners with clear title in order to support the notion of property rights. Without that, democracy will continue to be a disaster.

Read that again: democracy without first establishing broad based property rights is a disaster. Democracy failed in Russia under Kerensky and it failed in the U.S. South during Reconstruction, and it has repeatedly failed in much of the Third World.

Peru required a period of dictatorship under Fujimori to get property rights established. Now, stable democracy has a chance.

The rule for U.S. intervention should be justice first, democracy second. Our attempts do reverse this order have been usually disastrous.

Stefan Jones said...

Just so long as the means don't become the end, eh?

* * *

DB, this post *could* be an essay you submit somewhere.

I once wrote on the Worldchanging site that Haiti was the poster child for compassion fatigue. So many disasters, so many interventions . . .

My own interest lies in how the countryside could reinvigorate itself.

RE cooking stoves, there's an organization active in Haiti, with plenty of local involvement, to create low-cost appropriate tech:


Boing Boing ran a series of reports by one of their workers:
Catherine Lainé

The group is building and distributing the "rocket oven." It still burns wood, but at amazing efficiencies.

David Brin said...

Good thoughts Carl. An example of REAL libertarianism.

BTW... what happened to the ReformTheLP site?

balujan25 said...

Thanks for share good post. I like this blog.

SteveO said...

Dr. Brin,

This post seems to have been lost...

I have been contacted by a grad student doing research on what a society can do to prepare for disaster. His mentor on this is an IPCC author, so it might get looked at by policy-makers.

I wanted your thoughts on a distributed network of empowered citizens to be part of what he hears. If you are interested, you can contact me at steven(dot)ouellette( at) colorado (dot )edu and I will pass your contact info along to him.

Also, science-fiction as literature is being taught by the Herbst Humanities program here in CU's College of Engineering and Applied Science - I know you'd like to hear that. :)

--the poster formerly known as SteveO - the nice one :)

Ian said...

approach to both urban planning and establishing property rights which was pioneered in Turkey.

Bull doze the rubble, mark out building lots and mark out rights of way for roads.

Let people claim a building block and homestead - build a house of a specified size and you get title to your block.

Once a certain number of people move into an area, pave the road.

Set up a subscription service - when a specified number of people in a neighborhood have paid a specified amount build electricity and water connection to every block.

Ian said...

There are an estimated 400,000 homeless people while much of the Haitian economy and infrastructure has been destroyed, there's a lot still there and mere day to day survival in Haiti in what passes for normal times requires great ingenuity and enterprise.

So while the great and the good craft their multi-billion dollar reconstruction plans and the various relief agencies struggle to rush in supplies, why not start out by simply giving every displaced person US$100 and a prepaid cell-phone.

Then try to open basic road connections between the refugee camps and the less-damaged areas of the country.

Ian said...

I'm probably going to make several more posts here - hope this isn't too scatter-shot.

Although Haiti has been part o the debt-reduction process since 2005 and although it has reportedly met most of the requirements for debt reduction, even in 2014 at the end of the "adjustment process" Haiti will continue to have a public external debt of over $1 billion.

As part of the emergency assistance the debtors could simply right that off - or suspend it dependent on Haiti continuing to meet economic targets.

While we're at it, how about simply giving Haiti completely tariff-free and quota-free access to US and EU markets.

That one measure would do more for the country in the long term than almost any amount of economic assistance.

Abilard said...

A nice fusion of idealism and pragmatism, right up to the necessary mechanism of implementation: our federal government. It is too bad that the baby boom generation did not follow such approaches over the last 30 years. Had they (as opposed to acting out of idealism alone), we might not be bankrupt and so politically divided that any attempted action by government dissolves in inefficiency if implemented or, more likely, dies on its way through Congress.

What happened in Haiti is horrible. But to be now the people you presuppose in your suggested solutions, we would have to have been better than we were in the 80s, 90s, and aughts. We will do what we can: throw money down a corruption-laced pit. Many who could have been saved will die and Haiti will continue to suffer.

The WWII generation, who implemented the Marshall Plan, could have done what you suggest. We, however, are politically and economically anemic. To be in a position to engage in successful nation-building again we should first put our own house in order. Then, perhaps, the generation we are raising now will be in a position of strength and be able to act on its ideals with pragmatism.

WatchfulBabbler said...

[W]hy not start out by simply giving every displaced person US$100 and a prepaid cell-phone.

Actually, although this would end up a net transfer to disaster profiteers, it also could be a useful way of restarting Haiti's shattered economy (assuming a nonsignificant information lag between disbursement and further price inflation). Unsurprisingly, money velocity is basically zero right now, with prices gone sky-high and people out of cash, so a particularly strong Keynesian jumpstart may be the way to go, using international hard currency. And, of course, as you note, priority right now should be given to moving rubble.

In the short term, the Red Cross is still the best bet outside of the US government. Most charities, including relatively significant ones like MSF, are finding it extremely difficult to get supplies into the country without landing in the Dominican Republic and going overland. Red Cross coordinates closely enough with the UN to be able to consistently move supplies and people into Haiti; few other groups have that luxury.

USG, in particular the active and guard military, really is the only group that has the manpower, air- and sealift capability, and background to handle a crisis of this size.

In the longer term, support for groups like American Jewish World Service, Yele Haiti and World Concern will go a long way to helping with microloans and poverty reduction programs. I won't pretend to have more than a cursory knowledge of the Haitian political and economic situation, but I've seen the effects of such programs in Africa, and they're some of the best ways we can help local communities sustain and improve themselves.

Tim H. said...

Now would be a good time to upgrade building codes, and let inspectors know that looking the other way while substandard work goes into a building will brand them as "babymashers".

gwern said...

> Peru's reform laws should be instituted in Haiti, with the one proviso that they be translated into French.

Ah, yes, let's empower the French-speaking elites even more. If you had said, 'let's translate everything into Creole' (spoken by >80% of the population), then you might have something there.

In general, to do 2-4 you need to bulldozer the elites you identify. To do that, one would need control - military control.

We did that once before, incidentally. Even Wikipedia (notorious as it is for being a revisionist liberal hotbed of anti-colonialism) praises the US occupation of Haiti:

> Shortly afterwards, the United States, responding to complaints to President Woodrow Wilson from American banks to which Haiti was deeply in debt, occupied the country. The occupation of Haiti lasted until 1934. The U.S. occupation was self-interested, sometimes brutal, and caused problems that lasted past its lifetime. Reforms, though, were carried out. The currency was reformed and the debt stabilized. Corruption was reduced, although never eradicated. Public health, education, and agricultural development were greatly improved.

Of course, they were thrilled to kick us out, and 12 years later, the military coup started undoing our work and then itself was followed by François Duvalier...

reason said...

Re Corridores
I've often thought that is a problem with how cities develope spontaneously - they don't leave room for growth in main transport/water/sewerage etc corridores. Those things should be OUTSIDE the built up areas, so their is no limit on their expansion. That is why places like the Randstadt and the Rhein-Main-Gebeit work so well.

sociotard said...

I thought it would be interesting to see what Paul Romer's Charter City idea would look like, applied to either Port au Prince or another city in Haiti (since the whole nations government is basically done now)

Oh, and for long term development, Perhaps the international community should take another look at trade policies. I recently read "Censored 2010", which suggested that Haiti's poverty was a direct result of an unfavorable agricultural trade postition.

Ian said...

"A nice fusion of idealism and pragmatism, right up to the necessary mechanism of implementation: our federal government. It is too bad that the baby boom generation did not follow such approaches over the last 30 years."

Baby boomers haven't been in charge of the federal government for the past 30 years, 30 years ago most boomers were in their twenties.

Carl M. said...

Regarding the web site: I turned it over to others some time back. I am out of the LP. I calculated that it is easier to start from scratch with a new party that it is to fully reform and rebrand the old. (I get more people wanting to join my nonexistent new party than I ever personally got to join the LP.)

Your essay is still up on the web site. It has been moved, along with everything else. The old site with my hand-rolled CMS is down a tree level. The new owners have toyed with an off the shelf CMS but so far haven't done anything with it.

sociotard said...

Kind of an interesting piece addressed to Libertarians:

Five Reasons Why Libertarians Shouldn't Hate Government

David Brin said...

Carl let me know the URLs for my Reform articles, whjen they are clear. No hurry.

The Reason Magazine article was cogent... but only listed half of the reasons why libertarians should be wary but friendly to government. (Unlike the Cato Institute, Reason is sincere and not a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Neo-Feudal Oligarchy.)

I give a number of other reasons at

Among them:

1) 99% of human cultures were oppressed, and their markets ruined, by an enemy other than liberal-bureaucratic government. Moreover, liberal-bureaucratic government was prescribed by the patron saint of capitalism - Adam Smith - and the other pro-market founders of the Enlightenment, precisely in order to serve as a counterbalance to that ancient enemy.

Hence, libertarians should grow suspicious when that old enemy of freedom and markets returns and starts subsidizing propaganda against liberal-bureaucratic government. Yes, liberal-bureaucratic government can also be destructive of freedom. But to simply assume its role as a counterbalance is no longer needed is naive and historically ignorant.

2) Those who want government to work are often the best deregulators. The GOP has only deregulated in order to empower thievery. The Savings and Loan Scandal and the recent Financial Sector Collapse were all results of the deliberate demolition of necessary supervision.

In contrast, the Democratic Party actually eliminated unnecessary regulatory institutions that had been 'captured" by lazy monopolies. The CAB the ICC and the Bell monopoly were all broken up by the democrats, as were competition-squelching rules in trucking, telecommunications, airlines and parcel post.

3) Bad Socialism looks to equalize outcomes. It is stupidity squared. But there is a good version of which even Adam Smith approved. When capitalism is not getting its maximum feed stock of bright, well-fed and educated young people, all ready to leap into joyful competition, then capitalism itself suffers. Certain types of state intervention that maximize that feed stock and minimize waste of human talent, are therefore more justifiable than others. Mass education (for all its faults) created huge new pools of creative talent. Likewise civil rights laws. A nationalized health system that targeted ONLY children would be entirely justifiable, on that basis.

4) Simple gratitude. This mixed system of ours produced more libertarians than any other. That alone suggests it is part of the right path!

I could go on, but frightfully busy. Still, feel free to send this to the authors of that article (someone?)


Carl M. said...

The URLs:

Basically, insert "reformthelp" between domain and the rest of the URL.

P.S. loved the Reason article. Needs to be more such thinking. The metrics should be freedom and justice, not size of government.

Even Murray Rothbard recognized the need for radical land reform in the banana republics. However, he thought that once things were set to rights, standard libertarian property rights theory works from then on, and government is worse than unnecessary.

David Brin said...

Alas, Rothbard et al ignore the programmed in attractor state that is human cheating, aristocratism and the propeling desire to leave advantages to your heirs. Like Marxists, most libertarians know nothing at all about biology or darwin or the power of genetic self-interest.

Marx himself showed glimmers of understanding, when he portrayed capitalists devouring themselves and propelling new oligarchies. But old Karl was caught in his own delusions.

If Libertarians would even glance at the 99% of human history, in which their dream was thwarted, they would realize that market laws are NOT "natural laws." Rather, markets are marvelous Enlightenment MACHINES whose principal purpose is to liberate our creative potential FROM the traps of human nature!

Yes, markets offer promise of another attractor state, different from feudalism. But they must be watched, tuned, repaired, always with that new condition of empowered individual freedom in mind. Other wise -- as is happening right now -- the old enemy will come roaring back.

Carl M. said...

Rothbard had several fundamental errors other than ignoring cheating.

One fundamental error is starting with self-ownership as the sole inalienable right. A state of nature provides rather more than just a body without shackles -- though rather less than a wealthy welfare state.

Henry George comes closer with his idea of distributing ground rents. But George's ideas contain a significant moral hazard: the family/tribe/nation/religion which opts to overbreed gains entitlement. This is a path to environmental destruction. (So is Rothbard's requirement that land must be "improved" to be owned.)

A much more sophisticated system of preserving natural rights can be found in the Old Testament: gleaner rights combined with the land laws in Leviticus 25. The latter makes each family pay the price for overpopulating.


Related error: underestimating the power of positive feedback. Those who have, can buy more. This is a particularly bad problem with land, since the supply is pretty much fixed. This is why ground rights should be made nearly as inalienable as self-ownership.

Capital also has this feedback, but there is a corresponding negative feedback: total accumulated capital reduces the rate of return. Adam Smith pointed this out in 1776. John Maynard Keynes devised a programme to nullify this beneficial negative feedback.

And this is why the paranoid populists consider liberals to be dupes of the Rockefellers,etc. Many liberals (but not Bill Clinton) celebrate Keynes illiberal agenda. It's happening now.

Joe Unlie said...

Another idea for the pot: if I was at State, I'd be on the horn to the Chinese. Why? Who knows how to build infrastructure faster in hostile underdeveloped countries than the Chinese? A cement plant, a refurbished port, some new highways and 50,000 new apartment units would make a great jump-start to rebuild the country; back it with American cash and a few QC engineers to make sure they aren't cutting corners on the integrity of the buildings, and you've got a start for some real change. Haiti gets infrastructure, we get a lower relief bill- and China gets to play the hero for once. Seems like a win all-around.

TwinBeam said...

Instead giving away tons of expensive supplies, we should be selling the stuff at cost.

Loan everyone enough to buy the imported food and water - on the condition that they accept a job paying just enough to afford the expensive imported food and water.

Hire them to do all the things that need to be done anyhow - sanitation, guarding, building temporary housing, clearing roads, etc.

As the local markets in basic food and water quickly recover (since it'll be easy to compete with expensive imports), start to focus on re-building.

Offer to buy property from everyone, at a low fixed price - but with a guarantee that anyone who sells will be allowed to buy an equal amount of property at an even lower price.

Offer great loan deals for re-building - IF they agree to build according to improved construction codes.

Ian Gould said...

How about some higher level thinking about how to fix Haiti's problems in the longer term?

If Haiti (the political entity) were a dog we'd shoot it; if it were a car we'd junk it; if it were a building we'd demolish it and if it were a company we'd liquidate it.

Maybe the time has come (and this would be a decision for the Haitian people ) to end the existence of Haiti as an independent political entity.

There are at least three possible alternatives:

1. Merger Haiti and the Dominican Republic (the Dominicans would need huge amounts of aid to cope but they might appreciate the irony, having fought a 20 year war against Haitian occupation in the 19th century).

2. Integration into the French Republican as an overseas territory similar to New Caledonia (and with a similar provision allowing for regular referenda on independence as an incentive to keep the locals mollified.)This would give Haitians the right of settlement in the EU, access to EU marekts and regional funds from the EU.

The third alternative would be Commonwealth status in free association with the US on similar terms to Puerto Rico.

Ian Gould said...

By themselves, market-based programs are unlikely to result in rapid poverty reduction in Haiti. (Which is not say that they aren't central to any long-term improvement in conditions there.)

Haiti woudl probably benefit greatly from a program long the liens of Brazil's Bolsa Familia (social stipend) which pays a small monthly amount to families conditional on their children attending school on a regular basis.

The Brazilian system uses information technology extensively and has greatly reduced the corruption come in welfare programs in the developing world.

(The funds are transferred via a debit card which can only be used in special government-licensed stores on approved basic items like food and clothing.)

Ian Gould said...

And the last of my stray thoughts for the moment:

1. Haiti is a major cruise ship destination, give the economic slowdown there are probably plenty of empty or mostly empty ships around the Caribbean at the moment - could some of them be used to provide fast accommodation for some of the displaced or for the rescue workers?

2. The US military has rapid reaction forces - planes sitting on the tarmac next to weapons and supplies ready fro immediate despatch to anywhere in the world.

Why don't relief agencies have something similar?

Take a couple of decommissioned aircraft carriers fit them out with heavy-lift helicopters and commonly needed supplies and station one in the Pacific, one in the India Ocean and one in the Atlantic.

Would it cost money? Definitely.

Would it at least potentially be cheaper and faster than the current reactive post hoc sustem?

Acacia H. said...

@Carl M. & Dr. Brin: Here is an interesting quandry then: what happens to the oligarchs if and when we get the dual technologies of inexpensive power and ink jet constructors that most people can afford?

One of the largest problems with society is supply-and-demand. But if we have ink jet construction units that can spit out replacement parts and build new products for people, what would the result be? Would information itself become the ultimate source of power and the center of our economy? (You purchase the "rights" to "build" a product - sort of like the OEMs for Windows or for other computer programs.)

Would we see a collapse of capitalism itself because anyone with the ink jet could get a cell phone or tablet computer or the like with a bare minimum of fuss and effort? Retail and warehouse stores might become a thing of the past if the only thing that is required is raw materials and an adequately-sized constructor unit.

(I kind of suspect we'd not have the Utopian society found in Star Trek, where money "doesn't exist" and all of that bs. But that's just my cynic that finds flaws in the Star Trek dream - and you don't want to know what it does to the Star Wars universe!)

Of course, there is another thing to wonder: would there still be a sizable terrorist faction out there if this technology becomes widespread enough? If there are no more haves and have-nots (outside of the data needed to build things, which no doubt some information pirates will crack easily enough), then would there be enough outcry from repressed poor to build an insurgency? Would faith itself become the staple from which the insane actions of a few hatemongers use for their war of Power?

Would we see national and religious leaders declare these ink jet constructors to be anathema because of the threat that it brings to their own twisted power base? Might terrorists shift their attacks to destroy this source of merchandise that lifts up the very people they abuse so to make themselves feel powerful?

I know this is a shift from the Haiti conversation, but in many ways it also relates to this. There are many Haitis in the world. Places where the people are living in poverty and where corrupt political leaders squander their chances. If we start providing at-cost materials to their citizens... what sort of social upheaval will result? Might the very government of Haiti be destabilized (worse than it is now)? Are Chavez and his cronies right to fear the American presence... not because we are there for power, but because the people of Haiti themselves might ask the U.S. to take them in under the American umbrella, having seen our benevolence and knowing from their own elders that when the Americans were in charge, the trains did run on time? ;)

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

Abilard said...

@Would we see a collapse of capitalism itself because anyone with the ink jet could get a cell phone or tablet computer or the like with a bare minimum of fuss and effort?

It's a finite universe. We would compete for the goods/services/access that remain. Even in Star Trek's future with its replicators, not every one of its vast population could picnic at the same time on the same lawn across from Star Fleet Academy. There will always be some resource circumscription.

It is obviously better for everyone when more of such circumscription occurs higher up Maslow's hierarchy. However, I do not think it necessarily follows that reducing the threat level and stress caused by this circumscription results in a particular (Utopian) social structure. Relative to their neighbors, Romans competed for resources further up Maslow's chart, and yet they still held slaves and answered to an emperor. Polynesians still had kings.

@would there still be a sizable terrorist faction out there if this technology becomes widespread enough?

Al Qaeda was not particularly large on 9/11, and it was made up of Arab elites motivated not by resource circumscription but by religion. The "haves" in the Sons of Liberty had a lot more than their docile peasant ancestors in the Middle Ages, and King George III gave them less cause, but they still rebelled while their tortured, enslaved, benighted forebears rarely had. For every Spartacus or Toussaint Louverture, I suspect there are thousands of complacent Uncle Tom's to be found in the pages of history.

So, at a guess, there isn't an linear relationship between resource circumscription and rebellion, such that if circumscription is high rebellion is high, and low if low. When circumscription is highest, most seem to submit or quietly die. When circumscription is moderate or low, rebellion is much more likely (the people are strong enough to think and to rebel). If anything the relationship is an inverse linear one.

It may be a curve, however. The level of prosperity you describe has, by definition, not been achieved in history. Perhaps at those levels rebellion once again becomes unlikely.

Ilithi Dragon said...


I think then we will see the (probably slow and stubborn) death of 'money' as we know it. There would still be currency, but with clean, cheap, abundant power (commercial fission and fusion plants, wind and solar farms, and private wind and solar generators, plus maybe even private fission generators, if the Bussard pollywell reactor design pans out successfully and is sufficiently miniaturized), and ink-jet 'replicators', the entire economic world as we know it would end.

The basic laws of supply and demand would still exist, as people would still need raw materials, which would need to be harvested, and assuming that true 'replicator' technology as seen in Trek, with the ability to re-arrange sub-atomic particles into almost any desired atomic structure is much further out, the scarcity of the rarer materials would still allow for something similar to the economic models we have today.

There would also probably still be a market for manufacturing of large-scale items, as cars and trucks and planes, etc. would be difficult to manufacture with an ink-jet replicator, and even if they weren't, most people wouldn't have the space for a replicator that big. Massive, centralized factories, though, would probably cease to exist almost entirely, replaced by a distributed network of large 'industrial replicators', with most communities having one or more, either as part of a privately-owned 'replicator company', or as a communally-owned 'town replicator' (with jokes about the town horse being replaced with jokes about the town replicator). Massive, centralized manufacturing plants would probably still exist for those huge industrial projects, such as ship building, and industrial replicators would probably cluster together around resource distribution nodes in larger population centers, though market forces would encourage privately-owned industrial replicators to spread out across large population centers for the same reasons that gas stations, grocery stores, etc. aren't all built in the same area in large population centers. Similar distribution would be done with communally-owned replicators by even semi-intelligent bureaucrats.

There would probably be a call for large-scale manufacturing jobs, but the small-scale manufacturing industry would collapse, as all that would be needed for manufacture on the small scale would be assembly, which the consumer could do just fine themselves for an individual product (especially if the inkjet product is designed for ease of consumer assembly of the inkjetted parts).

Information, knowledge, and specialized expertise would probably become the prominent currencies, though rarer raw materials would also still carry significant value.

How would the oligarchs handle that? 'Money' would no longer be a real source of power, as most everything would be dirt-cheap (and probably literally in some cases). The effect on wallstreet would be rather interesting, I think. How much of Wallstreet's business is driven by large-scale manufacturing and harvesting of raw materials? Probably not a whole lot, I would wager. As this tech became wide-spread, and economists realized what it would do to the entire market, there would probably be a mass surge towards large-scale manufacturing, raw material harvesting, mass recycling start-ups, and a huge drive towards information copyrighting, as inkjet programs would be a very hot commodity in the new market. The increasingly free exchange and availability of information could throw a wrench into that, too, and even if this tech becomes wide-spread while copyright still exists as we know it, and DRM programming is still used, there is still no real way to protect data and control its use and distribution while still making it available to the public.

Ilithi Dragon said...

I suspect that, with the advent of such technology, we would see the shift of our economy towards a focus on the harvesting (and recycling) of raw materials, as the demand for raw materials would be the primary driving force in the new economy. Next after that, and possibly construction and maintenance of infrastructure, would be data and service industries, everything from R&D of new tech and toys, to pure research, to artistic expression, to tech support for the myriad of our new toys and gadgets. Currency would still exist, and some form of 'money' would probably still exist as well, but most everything would be so dirt-cheap that it would not be money as we know it.

People would probably still have jobs, with compensation for them, but as inkjet replicator technology, and other automated technologies take over old manual tasks, the demand for workers, especially grunt-level factory workers, shovel-holders, etc. will decrease. What happens then, when most of the manufacturing and industrial jobs have been taken over by automated machinery and inkjet replicators? Sure, there will still be overseer and administrative positions, and maintenance technicians for all the new automated equipment will be required, but most of those jobs already exist and are filled, and the few that would be created would not cover the vast majority of workers displaced. Stores, too, would be replaced by inkjet replicators. There would likely still be raw-materials 'stores', and specialty/novelty stores for those items beyond the capabilities of an inkjet replicator, or for luxury 'hand-made' items, etc., but most stores would be put out of business.

What would happen then? We would have mass cuts in unemployment, with minor increases in employee demand in the new critical fields (resource harvesting and recycling would be highly automated processes, after all). Would there be other, new job opportunities to fill the massive cuts in jobs from industry, to distribution, to sales? If not, what would be the best way to deal with such a massively unemployed population (both with a gradual transition, and with a rapid transition)?

Massive government programs to provide free education, and encourage the rapid development of a highly-educated mass population would certainly help to a degree, but what do you do with 300+ million college graduates who are massively unemployed? A rise of the amateur, perhaps? People will invariably look to take care of themselves, for sure, but will it be constructive or destructive, in such an environment? How can we ensure that they would tend towards constructive actions?

Ilithi Dragon said...

Another interesting thought... If people were freed from the need to work 40+ hours a week, with basic energy and raw materials needs provided for them, and high automation and inkjet replicators making most everything they need cheap and easy to get or make, what would people do? Sure, many would just sit at home doing nothing, but how long can you play WoW all day before you go stir-crazy?

If I didn't have to work, had basic living requirements provided (but only a basic level, say government 'credits' for basic food, energy, housing, bandwidth (THAT would be a good one there) and raw materials needs on a monthly basis), with anything beyond the 'basic' level requiring me to get a job at a company or government agency, or provide a service of my own (i.e. write or play music, write books, act, make hand-made furniture, jewelry, etc.), I would probably spend a lot of time at home on various hobbies, but I would still need to get out and do things now and then, and I would want to get out and do things. There are so many things that I would do, constructive and even productive for me (in that they could be a means of income), that I can't because I don't have the time and/or money (more often than not, 'and'), let alone access to the equipment, training and expertise necessary.

Add in a heavy emphasis on bettering oneself, and striving to try and achieve new, different, and better things, along with a heavy emphasis on the importance of truth, fairness and justice throughout our education program, that is provided free as a basic right (with the only requirement being that the student meet the minimum grade requirements), and you have a reasonably-motivated population, with a lot of resources, a lot of time, and no worries about keeping a roof over their heads and keeping themselves and their children fed and clothed, just earning extra resource/energy 'credits' to get the luxury items, and to fund their various enterprises, hobbies and projects.

Isn't that Star Trek?

P.S. I still despise character limits...
} > : = 8 |

Acacia H. said...

It would depend on what the limits of the ink jet manufacturing abilities. I believe that an ink jet printer can build a working monkey wrench in one piece (but with moving parts). Thus fully-assembled-and-working car doors, for instance, could be created from a medium-large ink jet assembler. If, however, the ink jet assemblers can also create food... then things change significantly.

I'm not just talking meat, mind you. Agriculture is a huge industry and we have a massive chemical industry that keeps our crops growing. So what happens when someone designs a program that "grows" a synthetic but edible (and nutritious!) carrot? Or potato?

Some service industries will continue. Ink jet assemblers will not create cooked foods at the proper temperature and with all the proper seasonings (at least, not for a while). But if we have the ability to "print" food... then instances of food-borne illness will decline. Land that is needed for growing crops may end up used for housing... or allowed to go back to the wild. (And what organic materials would be needed to "grow" a carrot? Might we end up growing some form of "weed" that doesn't need much in the way of nutrients to flourish? Would we have algae farms that provide that organic base? Do we NEED an organic base, or would simple hydrocarbons suffice? for "building" food?)

So we'll still have restaurants, waitstaff, hotels and hotel staff, a thriving tourism industry. We may also see a new growth in the arts and in writing as people now have the spare time to actually follow their dreams instead of work to make ends meet.

Real estate will also become a prime commodity. After all, if you can grow building materials from a "fabber" (ink jet fabricator) then all you need is property and some people to build the house. Who would want to live in an apartment building when they can have an actual home of their own? So the industries that cater to homes will also grow.

And of course, we'll still need people to build power plants and upkeep them. ;)

Might crime decline? I'm unsure. We may still see domestic crime and hate crimes... but petty theft will become a matter of wanting to deprive someone of something instead of wanting something for yourself. In short... theft becomes a hate crime, in and of itself. (Or a sign of mental illness, such as kleptomania.)

The education fields may also flourish. If you have more spare time and don't need to struggle to survive... well, wouldn't learning become something people indulge in as a hobby? The courses will shift to include a wide range of introductory courses to help ease people into new fields. I'm unsure if the internet will overtake education or not, because while it's easier to just open up a website and read... there is something about the social interaction on the classroom level, and the ability of peers to help in the learning process, that makes me think that classroom education will never truly die out.

Industry will shift. But I think it will continue. There will still be jobs. The construction industry will remain, as will custom manufacturing. But the era of mass manufacturing will fade, while craftsmen will once again start to thrive.

Rob H.

Abilard said...


Hunter-gatherers who were doing well in fertile Europe and America had no incentive to invent agriculture. Having achieved prosperity, what did they do? They socialized and reproduced. Polynesia? Same. Bantu speakers in Sub-Saharan Africa prior to desertification? Same.

A couple of years ago, before the economy went to hell, I achieved the kind of independence you describe and I used it for self-improvement, as you describe. Most readers of this blog would probably have done the same and aim toward that Star Trek future. Judging from history, almost everyone else in such circumstances would spend all their time and resources socializing and reproducing.

Not Star Trek: Facebook.

Ilithi Dragon said...

@Abilard: I don't know... Despite all the horror stories of Facebook (many of which are taken out of context, extreme rare cases, exaggerated, or just untrue entirely), how many people on Facebook actually spend the majority of their spare time socializing?

Sure, we would see a lot of socializing, and probably a much higher percentage of people's time than is spent on it today, but how many people out there can just socialize all day, day-in and day-out? Eventually, most people have to do something, and all that socializing will also lead to mass exchanges of information and ideas, as well as collaboration and cooperation (and probably competition, as well).

If nothing else, the human tendency to get bored, especially in its magnified present-day form, will keep most people from falling into a rut of go-nowhere, effective vegetation in social networks. Add in incentives to do more, achieve more, both in the form of a limited basic living stipend so that people have to work or produce something to get more than the basic resources to live and interact with society, and in the teaching and reinforcement of enlightenment ideals in our education systems, and I think that an active, reasonably motivated population would be more likely than a semi-stagnant mass social network.

Abilard said...


I would like to think so. A world populated by geeks (defined as individuals with a strong self-motivating interest in an area of knowledge) would be wonderful.

But look at our history. The periods of intellectual advancement have been periods of competition, resource circumscription, and strife. The more tranquil abundance prevails the less intellectual advancement seems to occur.

I think, therefore, that you are too optimistic about human nature, just as I think Brin is too optimistic about what Washington is capable of regarding Haiti.

You may be right for reasons other than those you lay out, however. Even if humans are, on the whole, as unintellectual as I suspect, our high population levels and communication technology can lead to a far different outcome than the idleness that has come before. The odd self-motivated intellect can now communicate with others of his or her kind, and, even if they only represent 0.01% of the population, that is still a lot. The 99.99% might happily eat bon bons and watch Jersey Shore while the rest move us toward your Star Trek world.

Ilithi Dragon said...


Again, I'm not so sure. Competition, certainly, has been a key driving force in technological advancement, and primarily competition for resources and wealth, but the periods of intellectual advancement have not always been periods of strife and hardship. Intellectual and scientific advancement have thrived more when resources were more widely distributed or easily accessed, and information flowed freely, than through the circumscription of resources and periods of strife/hardship.

I look at the greatest periods of intellectual and scientific advancement in our history, the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, and then the Industrial Revolution, leading into the modern era, and I see an explosion of intellectual and scientific progress at the end of a great period of strife (the Dark Ages), with the building (and rebuilding, in many cases) of infrastructure, the spread of education and knowledge, and the restoration of old lines of communication, along with the development of new lines and new methods of communication, along with new and more advanced means of production. The Renaissance started this, which lead into the Age of Enlightenment, a period of intellectual advancement that built the foundations of the intellectualism and ideals upon which we stand today. Both periods spawned the Industrial Revolution, which took the increasingly rapid advances in industrial technology and capacity and set them on an exponential curve, while simultaneously helping to widely distribute wealth, education, and self-empowerment to the masses. Entering the modern era, those foundations are propelling us to even greater heights and capacities, all thanks to the increase of education, production capacity, and empowerment of the individual, and the increased distribution of wealth across the masses instead of concentrated at the top.

Much of that was marked by fierce competition, hardship and strife, and it brought with it its own set of new problems even as it helped solve many of the old, but the hardship, strife and new problems are not driving forces of that advancement.

No, not everyone is set on bettering themselves or the world around them, and yes, many people would seek the semi-stagnant social network once their basic needs and sufficient wants were met, but I think the percentage of people who are driven to do more, achieve more, and not just out of a desire to have more or boredom, but out of an honest desire to be better, is much higher than you seem to be, and I suspect that those people actually constitute a significant percentage of the population, but just lack the resources and empowerment to follow that drive. And even if I'm wrong, as you said, it would not take very many people with that kind of drive, coupled with strong motivation, to become a huge driving force in such an individual-empowering civilization.

Abilard said...


Ah, but what is that magic number? A government that tinkered in Smithian fashion to encourage meritocracy would have the best chance of reaching it, regardless. Tribe, chiefdom, state... would we need a new word to describe the results of the emergent properties of hitting that number? This hyperstate could certainly out-compete its traditional predecessors.

Competition, mostly intra-state or intra-oligarch competition, is IMHO what what drove those earlier periods of innovation as well as the Hellenistic tech boom, China's innovations during the era of the warring states, etc. With the oligarchs ascendant such competition may be the only font of intellectual freedom we have left to us.

Stefan Jones said...

"If people were freed from the need to work 40+ hours a week, with basic energy and raw materials needs provided for them, and high automation and inkjet replicators making most everything they need cheap and easy to get or make, what would people do? Sure, many would just sit at home doing nothing, but how long can you play WoW all day before you go stir-crazy?"

I can think of two pieces of SF that made a stab at answering this:

"Riders of the Purple Wage" by Farmer.

The Beggars in Spain novels by Nancy Kress. Particularly the second book.

And Marshall McLuhan. The last two pages of Understanding Media ponder this question. I can't quote just a sentence or two. I'm sure the Amazon "look inside" will show you the pages.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Drat. Now I want my own replicator even more than usual...
} : = 8 /

Stefan Jones said...

Ah. I had this bit typed in:

"All that we had previously achieved mechanically by great exertion and coordination can now be done electronically without effort. Hence the specter of joblessness and propertylessness in the electronic age. Wealth and work become information factors, and totally new structures are needed to run a business or relate it to social needs and markets. With electronic technology, the new kinds of instant interdependence and interprocess that take over production also enter the market and social organizations. For this reason, markets and education designed to cope with the products of servile toil and mechanical production are no longer adequate. Our education has long ago acquired the fragmentary and piece-meal character of mechanization. It isn ow under increasing pressure to acquire the depth and interrelation that are indispensible in the all-at-once world of electronic organization.

Paradoxically, automation makes liberal education mandatory. The electric age of servomechanisms suddenly releases men from the mechanical and specialist servitude of the preceding machine age. As the machine and the motorcar released the horse and projected it onto the plane of entertainment, so does audomation with men. We are suddenly threatened with a liberation that taxes our inner resources of self-employment and imaginative participation in society." -- Marshal McLuhan, 1963

LarryHart said...

I can think of two pieces of SF that made a stab at answering this:

"Riders of the Purple Wage" by Farmer.

In one of those bizarre "Twilight Zone" moments, I was trying to figure out what I had just recently read that made liberal use of the "purple wage" phrase...until realizing that I was thinking of David Brin's "Kiln People".

Ian Gould said...

"It's a finite universe. We would compete for the goods/services/access that remain. Even in Star Trek's future with its replicators, not every one of its vast population could picnic at the same time on the same lawn across from Star Fleet Academy. There will always be some resource circumscription."

True, some would have to settle for the holodeck representation of it.

Ian Gould said...

"Hunter-gatherers who were doing well in fertile Europe and America had no incentive to invent agriculture. Having achieved prosperity, what did they do? They socialized and reproduced. Polynesia? Same. Bantu speakers in Sub-Saharan Africa prior to desertification? Same."

In the fertile crescent at the end of the last ice age, conditions were a lot wetter than now - aided in part by lots of run-off from glaciers.

People learned how to harvest the wild grain that drew in swamps and on river banks and since you can't really remain nomadic when you have half a ton of flour to carry, set up the first permanent settlements.

Agriculture as invented in a fit of desperation when the climate dried out and people realised the grain no longer grew by itself and that there was no way to go back to the old hunter-gather lifestyle and keep all their new toys (and without half the population starving).

Similar things happened in East Asia and Meso-America.

Civilization is really an aberration in the norm of human societies.

Abilard said...

"Agriculture as invented in a fit of desperation when the climate dried out and people realised the grain no longer grew by itself and that there was no way to go back to the old hunter-gather lifestyle and keep all their new toys (and without half the population starving)."

Applying the logic of the peak oil folks, such adaptation at the last minute could never occur. I therefore must dispute this and assert that they all died before inventing civilization.

[tongue firmly planted in cheek]

Ilithi Dragon said...

And maybe they did. For all we know, this is just an elaborate simulation of a speculative projection of a potential human civilization, running on a little machine sitting on the corner of an alien desk somewhere halfway across the galaxy from where we think we are...

Parsimony would suggest otherwise, but it doesn't rule out the possibility.
} ; = 8 P

Also, just a nit-pick, but it is only the most fatalistic doomsayers of the peak oil crowd who insist that change/adaptation at the last minute is doomed to failure and that it will lead to our complete and total destruction. Most everyone agrees that people and civilization will survive after we exhaust our fossil fuel resources, it's just that it probably won't turn out like anything we know today, and the process will likely be traumatic, with a heavy cost in lives and treasure.

Ian Gould said...

On a different note: in the next few years this new turbine design should reduce the cost of wind power to parity with coal or even lower:

sociotard said...

Has anybody here read "An Edible History of Humanity"? He makes the case that Hunter gatherer societies were the exact opposite of the "powerful few ruling the many" archtype that Dr. Brin talks about so much. Actually, he kind of makes it look like Ayn Rand's personal Hell. Everybody has pretty much the same stuff, and they don't have much at all since they have to carry everything they do own.

The most intersting part, for me, was the disincentives to do anything exceptional. If someone hunts an kill a big tasty animal, for example, his compatriots will lambast him for bringing home such a nasty diseased piece of shoe leather. They explain that they have to, or the good hunters get a big head. Anyway, the hunter lets everybody eat whatever they want and then avoids hunting for a few days so other people get a chance to bring something back for the group. The examples he gave were all from modern-day stone age peoples. Like I said, Ayn Rand's personal Hell.

It was a good book and I recomend it.

David Brin said...

Polynesians were a queer case. Lavish but small living spaces. Frequent malthusian boom-busts. Solution? A style of warfare that was entirely male-vs-male. Women and children lived in paradise, assuming they didn't weep much when their entire island male population was wiped out by invaders, who then settled down.

Hence males became BIG.

To see ink-jet fabricators portrayed... in a silly and boring Corey Doctorow novel, go to and see MAKERS. Good topic. Wretchedly disappointing fiction.

replicators that build more than simple mixtures of standardized metal and plastic are a LONG way off. We'll make some cool things at home. Replace that toggle that broke off your camera. Maybe even your cell phone recharger. Not the phone itself. Not for a while.

Later? Well, Marx described capitalism ending when the "means of production are completed." He envisioned Dickensian steel mills, and he was clueless. But these things might make him relevant.

Ian Gould said...

"The most intersting part, for me, was the disincentives to do anything exceptional. If someone hunts an kill a big tasty animal, for example, his compatriots will lambast him for bringing home such a nasty diseased piece of shoe leather. They explain that they have to, or the good hunters get a big head. Anyway, the hunter lets everybody eat whatever they want and then avoids hunting for a few days so other people get a chance to bring something back for the group."

Two points:

1. The criticism isn't so much aimed at stopping hunters "getting a big head" as it is at preventing overhunting of a scarce resource.

2. You can only eat so much meat yourself before it goes off.

Without the means to preserve and transport large amounts of meat, sharing it with the rest of the group makes sense.

It's also a smart thign ot do when the prey in question is relatively scarce, today's mighty hunter might go a couple of week's without another kill - and in that time he'll need the reciprocal generosity of others.

Contrast this with the Native Aemrican tribes of the Pacific North West who exploited te salmon migrations.

You could catch a year's supply of food in a few weeks and once the preserving technology was worked out, it made sense to hoard a surplus, trade it to the less fortunate and hire a coupe of guys to guard your storehouse.

Becasue there was no short-term risk of overfishing, the potlatch ritual represented the exact opposite of the attitude you describe - giving away or even destroying vast amounts of goods to establish one's wealth and prestige.

David Brin said...

McLuhan was amazing. Like Aldous Huxley, he wasn't relevant till long after death, when we caught up.

Se also Bernal

Romanticization of hunter-gatherer life is silly. They were few because their children nearly all died. Oh. And men competed for women. To impress them or monopolize them. There was status and hierarchy and cruelty, you better believe it.

Acacia H. said...

Someone sent me an interesting article concerning the carbon footprint of algae-based biofuels. Seems on the short term, it's quite high - higher than corn-based ethanol. But they're researching methods of dealing with that... and I must admit, I find some of these alternatives to be fascinating.

I must admit that I was clueless about algae-based biofuels. I figured that algae just needed sunlight to grow. But it seems it also needs fertilizer... and the best current fertilizers for that job are petroleum-based. So you end up not getting off oil after all. However, they're researching if wastewater could be used to provide the nutrients the algae needs.

Eventually, we may see a mating of algae-based biofuels, carbon-capture of coal-fired or natural gas-fired power plants, and wastewaters from farms and the like combined to wean us from petroleum... at least, until battery-powered vehicles become truly viable.

Rob H.

Ian Gould said...

"Polynesians were a queer case. Lavish but small living spaces. Frequent malthusian boom-busts. Solution? A style of warfare that was entirely male-vs-male. Women and children lived in paradise, assuming they didn't weep much when their entire island male population was wiped out by invaders, who then settled down.

Hence males became BIG."

Or in the case of Tahiti, the people avoided the internicine warfare by developing cultural customs that promoted homosexuality and religiously-sanctioned infanticide.

It's interesting to compare Polynesia and Melanesia (inclduing Papua New Guinea).

In Polynesia, the islands were spaced well apart, picking up and leaving was risky and difficult.

In Melanesia, the islands are a lot closer together (and in the case of New Guinea there's always spare land for shifting agriculture because diseases keep the population down.

In Polynesia it was hard to run away from the big bastard with the club and a few followers. Hence: kingdoms.

In Melanesia it was much easier to run away, hence you get "Big Men", leaders whose position is based on prestige, persuasion and rhetorical eloquence.

The Polynesian king makes you build a temple or die.

The Melanesian big man, saves for years to have a massive feast and gives a big speech about how the island NEEDS a temple - and anyone who doesn't help build it won't be invited to the next feast.

Ian Gould said...

When you stop and think abotu it, the !Kung customer of sharing meat yo ucan't preserve and probably couldn't carry or prtoect from theft if you could preserve it, is no more irrational than utilities selling off-peak electricty cheaply or airliens offering last minute fare deals.

David Brin said...

Saw the algae article. All of the objections it contained were problems that should be fixable.

1) Site the algae farms next to coal plants for huge source of CO2. (free)

2) Site both where agricultural run-off currently goes into the Mississippi, sending (and wasting) huge amounts of nitrates and phosporous to create algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico.

In fact, tax the runoff so that farmers will WANT to give their waste runoff to alage farms....

David Brin said...

Gotta repost this:

How many quants does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Using ten racks of co-located blade servers, one quant can detect a janitorial inefficiency, step in between janitor and light fixture, and screw in 49,500 bulbs in less than a millisecond, keeping five hundred lightbulbs of profit.

Two quants competing with each other can screw in 99,998 bulbs in a millisecond, with each quant retaining a profit of one lightbulb.

When ten quant firms try to screw in a light bulb, the bulb explodes, the light fixture gets ripped from the ceiling, the building falls down, the entire electrical grid of the city of Greenwich shuts down, innocent civilians all over the world have their retirement accounts electrocuted, and the Federal Reserve has to give the counterparties of each quant firm five hundred million light bulbs to maintain the stability of the system.

Afterward, each of the ten quant firms subjects its strategies to a probing and relentless critique, hires fifteen additional Ph.D.’s from MIT, Cal Tech, Harvard, and the Indian Institutes of Technology, buys four new supercomputers, and searches for new arbitrage techniques and algorithms. Independently of each other, each of the ten firms develops the same brilliant and innovative strategy of “Knock knock, who’s there?” arbitrage.

Matthew Greenfield
StoneWork Capital

TwinBeam said...

I believe algae directly yields a hydrocarbon - mostly carbon and hydrogen - so any nitrogen fixed in the algae should still be fixed after extracting the oil, so the processed algae could be dumped back into the algae ponds to decay and provide needed nitrogen compounds?

Perhaps it's not that easy, but I don't notice the article mentioning the idea of recycling the algae... they just seem to assume it needs to use fertilizer.

Tim H. said...

Put the algae ponds next to natural gas fueled powerplants to simplify post-processing the flue gasses. Coal has so many little extras in it.

Tim H. said...

This could increase the utility of wind power:

Nanocapacitor battery

David Brin said...

cool. i allude to stuff like this. Greg Bear is more specific in VITALS.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Guys,

Couple of comments
(1) four times more efficient wind generators
Ain't gonna happen current units get over 80% of the available energy,
You can't take all of the energy the air has to still go somewhere
You want more you need more AREA
Longer blades!
Even if the physics was not so clear those things in the article have a lot more materials / area
Which means COST
Wind turbines are about
Cost per area
Get up high
Low maintenance costs

(2) Hunter gatherers and agriculturalists
A given area can support a lot more people using agriculture
The individuals tend not to be as big and strong but ten wimps beats one hunter
As soon as any local society went for farming the hunters had to move on

Tony Fisk said...

Pondering solar/wind energy, it occurs to me that a lot of the efficiency loss arises from DC-AC inverters to make the power mains compatible. Then again, how many modern appliances have an internal AC-DC conversion as well?

That recent comment about shipping NASA administrators to Russia strikes a chord with the announcement that Spirit's roving days are over. There are pragmatic reasons for it. Still, it seems a shame, just when they had actually started making progress.

feeleds: the emotional rapport one can develop for a heap of electronic equipment with a lame wheel or two.

Tim H. said...

Tony, if you don't mind small appliances, RVs have DC power. Only two major appliances come to mind as using AC directly, refrigerators and electric ranges. Remember that one of the reasons AC power caught on was enhanced transmission efficiency. You may be amused by: Wincharger
Pre REA small wind power units.

Lewis Bannon said...

Above is a link from a sceptic currently doing the rounds in my backyard (Australia). I thought you might find it interesting viewing Mr Brin. If nothing else to formulate a response to these sorts of notions (both in regard to Climate Change and 3rd World country infrastructure)

David Brin said...

Wish I had the time... having atiff over at the Sigma site over the utter gall of the Denial Movement, for making the inherent assumption that 100% of atmospheric scientists... the people who actually know stuff about the actual matter at hand... must be all corrupt cowards. All at the same time.

Of, and the Denial Movement, propelled by Rupert Murdoch and Saudi princes, has NO corrupt agenda, of course.


An updated version of my Haiti article is now featured on at:

Spread the word! So it gets great traffic..

David Brin said...

on to next posting