Perils of intelligence

>> Tuesday, July 29, 2008

So I'm driving to work the other day, riding down I85 with the top down, and I pass by one of those digital billboards--surely you've seen these, the ones with the giant TV screens instead of the antiquated traditional pasted sheets. All that damn Syd Mead coolness in Blade Runner, and I should have known the one I'd live to see would be the damn billboards--vast urban pyramids, nope; everyone dressed like a postpunk noir character, Maltese Falcon-meets-Nagel, nope; awesome dirigibles everywhere, nah; offworld colonies, nuh-uh; flying cars, are you kidding?; big animated digital billboards... oh yeah, we got those. Philip K. Dick, with his sense that the universe was in an entropic death spiral frequently manifested through the increasing ubiquity of chintzy, garrish crap would have been mortified and proud. I can just hear him: "Oh yeah, all those stories I wrote with flying cars, I mean that was just sci-fi horseshit to sell to the editors... but the stuff about pay toilets and right-wing talking heads on TV 24-7, that was the pink laserbeam talkin'."

But I digressinly digress: I was going to mention a particular Lite-Brite billboard screen beside I85. It read:

Stop funding terrorists. Drill domestic oil.

Just like that, no image, no visuals--the plain statement and attribution, white letters on a black screen, and then on to the next ad in the sequence.

Who the hell is "Anonymous," one momentarily wonders. A concerned citizen? A McCain operative slyly adding a domestic security twist to the campaign's "Blame Obama for gas prices" meme? One of the owners of the clutter of car dealerships just off that stretch of highway, looking at the fleet of increasingly unsalable SUVs? I suppose it doesn't matter.

What matters, I think, is what I was thinking as I rushed past this billboard: that, as so many others have complained, there's no place for intelligence in this soundbite world.

After all, the issue isn't nearly as simple an unnuanced as "drill here." It could be that a case could be made for domestic drilling, mind you. That's not really the issue.

The issue is that energy policy is a tangled, tangled wreck of a mess of a knot, the unentangling of which involves supply-side and demand-side solutions. It wouldn't be enough to simply drill for more oil in the States even if it would be available tomorrow (and not in ten-to-thirty years) and there weren't any concerns about environmental impact: after all, the oil is a finite resource and demand is outpacing any hopes of supply at something like an exponential rate. Factor back in the environmental costs of exposing and transporting toxic, carcinogenic, teratogenic muck that's insoluble in water when spilled, and there's a good case for ending use of oil even if it was more available than water. Drilling is necessarily an incomplete solution on the demand side: you could easily make a billboard saying "Stop funding terrorists, carpool," or (completing the sentence) "support increased funding of mass-transit infrastructure" or "drive electric" or a number of other fill-in-the-blanks options. Make it a Mad-Lib, why not?

And on the supply side, surely any solution to our dependency on foreign oil might as well include alternative energy sources and improved use of resources. Energy-efficient homes and vehicles. Wind and wave farms where geographically feasible. Assorted forms of solar (though it's to be noted that some analysts are becoming worried about world reserves of gallium, used in some types of photovoltaic cell; it's not hard to imagine gallium becoming the petroleum of tomorrow if we're not prudent). And, yes, next-gen nuclear where/when/if feasible--technologies like the pebble-bed reactor show a great deal of promise as far as operational safety goes, although disposal of radioactive waste remains problematic (not insoluble, and some of the problems are political rather than ecological).

So, I'm thinking all this as I drive on down the road, the billboard disappearing in my rearview, and I wonder how much it would cost to buy a few seconds on a billboard to say something along the lines of the above, and that's when my mind shifts to that worse issue, the lack of a place for intelligence in the soundbite world. Because how the fuck do you get all of that on a damn billboard?

Stop funding terrorists: use less power, move into a green home, carpool, ride the yet-to-be-built monorail, support new-tech nuclear, windfarms, solar power, replace your hydrocarbon petrochemical products (i.e. plastics) with alternatives manufactured from soy or other vegetable-based materials, etc....

(Oh, and if we're still struggling, let's have a reasonable discussion about whether the risks inherent in drilling and the limits of the untapped oil reserves, if there really is oil down there, are worth the costs and benefits of procuring said oil. I don't think they are, myself, but I'm willing to talk it through and maybe there's some kind of ground we can agree upon--maybe not.)

Assuming the billboard people don't charge by the letter, like some kind of telegram (kids: telegrams were kind of like text messages before cell phones... like in old movies, when... look, never mind), you'd still have to deal with a pile of cars by the highway as people drove off the side of the road while trying to read your damn message.

How do you compete with six words? Six words is a simple message. Too simple: got no nuance, boys'n'girls. But it's no wonder intelligent folks fail to make their case so much of the time. "Intelligence" may seem a bit snide or arrogant--there are intelligent but thoughtless people, so you can substitute "thoughtless" if you'd like. No matter: the point is there's no way to compete with the message. Sure, you could put up a similarly unnuanced, thoughtless billboard: "Stop funding terrorists, carpool," but let's face it: that's no better (four words versus six, 'tis true, but it's just as dumb a statement).

This is why we're losing, isn't it? All of us.


John the Scientist Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 3:50:00 PM EDT  

"This is why we're losing, isn't it? All of us."

Yes. Yes, it is. That and the fact that our educational system isn't producing adults who can see beyond this crap.

One minor quibble- gallium won't become the petroleum of the future. In order for that to happen, we'd have to have a high reliance on solar energy right now, and then have that jeopardized by shrinking supplies. The gallium crisis won't happen becuase the shortages will cause solar to be stillborn as an energy source, whereas entire societies grew up around petroleum.

John the Scientist Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 4:05:00 PM EDT  

I had to come back to this one:

vast urban pyramids - yeah, you want to live in a triangular-shaped room with a sloped wall?

everyone dressed like a postpunk noir character - there's enough common sense yet in the world to keep THAT from happening :D

Maltese Falcon-meets-Nagel - huh? Although if it brings back Bogart, I'm all for it.

awesome dirigibles everywhere - helium's too expensive and hydrogen's too Hindenburg

offworld colonies - once we get rid of NASA, dude

flying cars - have you SEEN how these fuckwits drive when they HAVE lines to follow? No roads or lines? Keep me on the ground, dude.

big animated digital billboards - Japan has had those since 1992

I think you could have predicted that's the one you would see back when you were in your 20s.


Eric Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 5:28:00 PM EDT  

Don't break my heart on the dirigibles!

Seriously, though: there are advantages to the dirigible that make me one of those starry-eyed fans. Yeah, helium production is currently expensive, but once you get past that you have a relatively efficient vehicle, particularly when compared to helicopters. Or, for that matter, when compared to planes' low-priority air freight (the airplane is irreplaceable for "get-it-there-now" freight--kidneys, for instance--but a number of things could be de-prioritized to the more leisurely airspeeds of lighter-than-air craft).

You may be right about the gallium; shortages have been discussed by smarter and wiser people than myself, but an outright crisis probably is unlikely. You cite one reason, but I'd also add that "solar" is a broad category: gallium is only needed for (current tech) photovoltaic cells. Unfortunately, some critics (not you, John) equate solar with solar panels--the photovoltaic cells--seemingly without realizing that "solar" includes solar boiler/turbine systems and assorted methods of heating and cooling buildings using sun-heated water or air. It's a problem, for instance, when the oil lobby uses criticisms of cell tech to kill incentives that would encourage the building of passive-heated homes or offices.

Oh, one more thing: that triangular shaped room improves mental acuity and sharpens razor blades.


vince Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 10:28:00 PM EDT  

Sound bites are easy to spew and easy to chew. No intelligence involved, move to the left, exact change only.

MWT Wednesday, July 30, 2008 at 2:54:00 AM EDT  

If they can come up with a dirigible that was actually COMFY to the passenger, AND affordable, THEN you can start talking about making air travel more "leisurely." Until then, I want to get where I'm going as fast as possible so I can reinflate.

Also, completely unrelated, I finally got around to blathering a reply to your last set of Wikipedia questions - if you're still interested in that conversation. Sorry to be slow.

Eric Wednesday, July 30, 2008 at 2:55:00 PM EDT  

We've calibrated ourselves to the idea that you can get anywhere in the world in something like 20 hours or less so therefore you have to get everywhere at passenger jet speeds. But the state of the airline industry suggests that maybe airline travel really isn't a feasible business model. I'm not sure there's any way to make money selling plane tickets without being so abusive to the customers they stop buying tickets--which is one of the (several) factors that's leading to the present state of the industry: constant teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and sometimes falling in.

The thing is, most of the time folks don't need to arrive at their destination the same day except for social reasons that have been created by the availability of air travel. What I mean is: if your work was willing to let you have a longer vacation or to take more time for a business trip, taking two or three days to get somewhere probably wouldn't be the end of the world--it might even be nicer. Trips are planned the way they are because airlines are the de facto mode of travel now, not because people always have to be somewhere now.

Let's say as a lark--I don't think it will happen, but let's have fun--let's say a company set up an airship fleet for passenger travel. Presumably a trip overseas takes a few days each way: so we're not talking about cabins set up the way coach is set up on a jet, with everyone crammed into tiny seats and told to shut up and not go anywhere. We would have to be talking about a mode of travel akin to long-distance rail or even cruise ship: single and double sleeper cabins, a cafeteria, etc.

Comfort we've got. Price? To be determined, and that's the tricky part, isn't it?

As nice as the above lark is, however, I don't really expect people to get their minds around the notion that maybe employees should get more time off so they can take longer to travel, or if they did that people wouldn't prefer to cram themselves into a coach seat and have nothing but a pack of crackers and 6-oz. Coke for eight hours just so they can "use" the extra vacation time instead of "wasting" it on the trip itself (never mind that they'll end up "using" the extra days to recover from jet lag). When I wrote about "leisurely" transport speeds, I primarily meant freight, because I think that's one of the places lighter-than-air travel has a real chance to shine. Passenger airships would be nice, but I don't think they're likely to be accepted.

Depending on how efficient the propulsion engines are and how low the price of helium could be be brought if someone was willing to take the initial hit on startup (the public, perhaps?), I have to wonder if airship might even be an appropriate replacement or supplement for ground freight....

I love airships with a passion, but I think history conspired against the technology to an extent that I don't think they'll be embraced. Which is sad, because I do think there are merits to the technology. But it's still fun to think about, no?

Eric Wednesday, July 30, 2008 at 2:59:00 PM EDT  

An addendum to my previous comment: by way of reference, the Hindenburg took two-to-three days to cross the Atlantic each way. I'm not in a position to say how long such a trip might take in an airship built with modern aerodynamics and modern engines, so I'm assuming a two-to-three day Atlantic crossing, and maybe a three-to-four day Pacific crossing? Fudge these numbers as you'd like per your own knowledge and assumptions....

MWT Wednesday, July 30, 2008 at 6:02:00 PM EDT  

Having looked into alternate modes of transport to planes - namely, Amtrak - it IS possible to do a leisurely trip cross-country with comfort. The problem is that it costs A LOT of money. You can also do it without the comfort for less money (Greyhound), but it takes the same amount of time as the train, so if you're going to get crammed into a tiny space, you might as well go with the shorter time that planes offer.

Mostly I've tried to drive (not feasible from coast to coast in the allotted amount of vacation time). With gas going way up though, airfare sometimes costs less now. (Which will last until all the airlines go bankrupt, I expect.)

If airships are going to fit into the set of realistic options, I'd say for starters it can't cost MORE than Amtrak.

Stepping back to the big picture... I don't think you can realistically expect people to go back to slower travel times. We're all too used to the way things are now.

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