Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 22, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

WHERE'S MY FLYING CAR?....Paul Krugman suggests that energy technology hasn't advanced much in recent decades and then adds this:

I'd actually suggest that this is true not just for energy but for our ability to manipulate the physical world in general: 2001 didn't look much like 2001, and in general material life has been relatively static. (How do the changes in the way we live between 1958 and 2008 compare with the changes between 1908 and 1958? I think the answer is obvious.)

I agree — though I'd mention the biotech revolution as an exception. (And note that Krugman isn't talking about computers here, only technologies that "manipulate the physical world.") I think it's because we haven't had another big breakthrough since the electrification revolution in the early 20th century.


Kevin Drum 9:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (114)

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What about the Segway?????

Posted by: calling all toasters on April 22, 2008 at 10:01 PM | PERMALINK

Just one word: plastics.
Okay, there are LOTS more words to add to that: aluminum, titanium, magnesium alloys. A wide variety of steels. Superalloys (which, incidentally, has helped in energy efficiency). Shape memory alloys. Those are just the metals.
If you add in plastics and composites, there are many things to look at.
Krugman's point is idiotic--he needs to go talk with a mechanical engineer and/or a material scientist if he wants a real answer to his question of "what's changed."

Posted by: dallas on April 22, 2008 at 10:04 PM | PERMALINK

I made this argument a few weeks ago on a Forbes blog; everyone else of course thought that everything during and after the Reagan years were 'teh greatest' and, like, totally eclipsed the early 20th century.

Posted by: eightnine2718281828mu5 on April 22, 2008 at 10:05 PM | PERMALINK

Remember that in the 50's and early 60's, when the future depicted in SF was at its brightest, and many of our expectations were set (although I might be showing my age here) "real-world" scientists were predicting that nuclear power would be so cheap that meters would be obsolete.

In 1984, when Neuromancer turned the SF world upside down (and rightly so) I seem to remember someone smuggling a megabyte of stolen RAM. So while Gibson certainly envisioned the shape of things better than many of his predecessors, even he was hazy on the details.

As a side note, I guess you're as enthralled by the Pa. Primary as I am.

Posted by: thersites on April 22, 2008 at 10:05 PM | PERMALINK

Certain eras are better for certain technological improvements. Unlike 1958, we can now send people to the Moon, though Krugman is correct overall. How much did information technology change our everyday lives between 1908 and 1958?

Posted by: reino on April 22, 2008 at 10:07 PM | PERMALINK

Bullshit. The Green Revolution was an incredible change.

Part of that was learning how to convert fossil fuels and their derivatives into food, but another large part of it was learning how to better breed plants to do a better job of converting solar energy into food.

Posted by: anonymiss on April 22, 2008 at 10:09 PM | PERMALINK

Computers are/will be as important as cars.

Posted by: M.Carey on April 22, 2008 at 10:13 PM | PERMALINK

Funny how the less you fund education and basic research, the less innovation and invention there is.

Then, too, we're also starting to run up against the laws of thermodynamics. The law of conservation of mass/energy says that we'll run out of oil and gas someday unless we're carbon-neutral. It's like Ali Baba's cave after he got rid of the 40 thieves: with nobody putting more gold in, and Ali and his family taking gold out, at some point the gold runs out. When depends on how much gold the thieves put in - and they're not around to ask.

(I'd use a Republican kid's Daddy's trust fund as an example - but investments yield interest. If you put $100 in an investment yielding 5%/year, at the end of a year you'll have $105.00. If you store 100 gallons of gas for a year, and there's no evaporation loss, you'll still only have 100 gallons of gas. Maybe that's why they keep thinking we'll never run out of oil - Daddy's trust fund keeps sending those monthly checks...)

Posted by: RepubAnon on April 22, 2008 at 10:13 PM | PERMALINK

How well does the drop off in technological advancement parallel our decline in moral values?

We shouldn't overlook the role permissivity plays in increasing our reliance on foreign oil.

Posted by: Memekiller on April 22, 2008 at 10:15 PM | PERMALINK

Green Revolution?

Think again. Or again.

Posted by: thersites on April 22, 2008 at 10:18 PM | PERMALINK

On the other hand, while Philip K. Dick certainly was wrong about the technological details, he sure got a lot of shit right about the (d)evolving shape of society.

Posted by: thersites on April 22, 2008 at 10:20 PM | PERMALINK

Unlike 1958, we can now send people to the Moon, though Krugman is correct overall.

Actually, we can't send people to the Moon now. That portion of the space program was largely dismantled in the 1970s under Nixon, so if we wanted to send people to the Moon (and get them back) it would take several years to rebuild the infrastructure necessary to do so.

Posted by: Stefan on April 22, 2008 at 10:25 PM | PERMALINK

The things Krugman complains about have advanced many times more than Krugman's own field of economics. All of this nanotech stuff is new, we have many renewable technologies on the brink of being competitive. Our analysis capabilities are orders of magnitude better. True we don't have fusion, or too cheap to meter solar power, but the advances have in fact been many.

The real problem was one of perception. The whole flying cars, and colonies are Mars stuff, was pure fiction, which any rational consideration of the laws of thermodynamics would have quickly quashed. I was quite amazed a couple of months ago, watching 2001 a Space Odyssey, my comment was: wow computers are ten thousand times better than depicted in the movie, but space travel is ten thousand times tougher.

Posted by: bigTom on April 22, 2008 at 10:25 PM | PERMALINK

Thersities, these articles prove my point. If the reason people are starving is because governments are letting food rot in storage bins, then the problem isn't technology, it's distribution.

It might be unsustainable, it might be economically unjust. But like nitrous oxide in the gas tank, it has a big impact. It makes more food grow where much, much less did in the past

Posted by: anonymiss on April 22, 2008 at 10:33 PM | PERMALINK

Disagree for two reasons.

One is that many of the "manipulations of the physical world" that occur now are on a scale so small that they just don't smack you in the face like an electric light bulb or a spaceship. However, nanoscale engineering is an incredibly fine manipulation of the physical world, a capability that didn't even exist in the 60's. You don't want to include computers, but the creation of the circuitry inside them is a "manipulation of the physical world" that squeezes a roomful of wires into a 1 cm^2 chip. Micromachines are a nascent example, DLP chips being the most noticeable, but consider this:


Spelling your name by dragging individual atoms around with an atomic force microscope is a pretty amazing "manipulation of the physical world."

The second reason is that projections of the future are inevitably projections of the present into the future. 2001 saw a world of Moonbases, orbital hotels and PanAm space clippers because it was created at a time when the apex of human endeavor was -- going to the Moon. When manned spaceflight turned out to be alternately boring, terrifying and dangerously stupid as well as extraordinarily expensive, it became pretty clear that this particular future was not going to happen, was really just a product of its own past. Today's cutting edge SF writers speak of bioengineering and nanotech, but that is still just projecting today into the future.

Yeah, you didn't get your flying car. But you have one coming in 2009 (Google "Loremo") that gets 157 mpg. You have the equivalent of a Star Trek communicator that everyone holds in their hands. I have a piece of lab equipment that makes a passable imitation of a tricorder.

No, you and Krugman are wrong, but you're wrong for an interesting reason. You are looking for sudden, revolutionary changes and, when you don't see them, assume that nothing has changed. But change is largely incremental. It creeps up on you when you're looking elsewhere.

One physicist's point of view.

Posted by: pjcamp on April 22, 2008 at 10:38 PM | PERMALINK

As long as scientists are having waste time defending evolution, vaccines and fighting over global warming as well as other gains we have already made, we'll be treading water. We need to connect the fact that just because people believe something it might not be so. The sun doesn't circle the earth anymore, the earth is no longer flat and the world is much older than 6000. You want a flying car, quit believing and start thinking. We are going to be the most advanced 3rd-world country if we let the faithful lead us.

Posted by: reboho on April 22, 2008 at 10:39 PM | PERMALINK

Nuclear power? Satellites and all the advances and benefits they confer? Various late discovered (polio for one) vaccines? Lasers?

The first working laser was demonstrated in May 1960 by Theodore Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories. Recently, lasers have become a multi-billion dollar industry. The most widespread use of lasers is in optical storage devices such as compact disc and DVD players, in which the laser (a few millimeters in size) scans the surface of the disc. Other common applications of lasers are bar code readers, laser printers and laser pointers.

In industry, lasers are used for cutting steel and other metals and for inscribing patterns (such as the letters on computer keyboards). Lasers are also commonly used in various fields in science, especially spectroscopy, typically because of their well-defined wavelength or short pulse duration in the case of pulsed lasers. Lasers are used by the military for target identification and illumination for weapons delivery. Lasers used in medicine are used for internal surgery and cosmetic applications.
Lotsa stuff. Just gotta look.

Posted by: steve duncan on April 22, 2008 at 10:42 PM | PERMALINK

The IT revolution doesn't matter because being able to send voice, documents and video around the world is trivial. Computer do manipulate the physical world. Miniaturization has advanced remarkably. Remember when a meg was a "lot"? Now we can fit a gig on something the size of a fingernail.

Posted by: Mo on April 22, 2008 at 10:43 PM | PERMALINK

Thersitis, these articles prove my point.
I'm not reading them quite that way. TheHindu Businessline article seems to be saying that there is less food in storage. But be that as it may:
A technological food-production "revolution" that's not sustainable, and that doesn't serve the needs of the growers as well as the consumers (because without the growers we're pretty well screwed as consumers) doesn't qualify as an advance.

Posted by: thersites on April 22, 2008 at 10:48 PM | PERMALINK

All this progress and my keyboard still trips me! How embarrassing to "discreetly" fix someone's misspelling of my handle and screw it up!

Posted by: thersites on April 22, 2008 at 10:53 PM | PERMALINK

Flying car, hell, where's my jet pack?

Anyway, I think flying cars would be a terrible idea ... people can barely handle two dimensions in a car, I shudder to think what would happen if we were to throw in a third.

Posted by: Tony on April 22, 2008 at 10:54 PM | PERMALINK

I agree, mostly, with pjcamp. Feynman's 'There's room at the bottom' hypothesis has become reality, the changes that this has caused are real and continuing-- changes that weren't 'flying car' stuff, but still a big deal. And the changes aren't just due to computers on people's desks-- don't forget communications-- ordinary people now have access to bandwidths that no one would have anticipated in 1958.

Posted by: MattF on April 22, 2008 at 10:55 PM | PERMALINK

I do see the push back from the petro-giants as keeping some very needed cutting-edge technologies away from the light of day. The oil cartels keeping alternatively powered vehicles and mass transit alternatives away from industrial exploitation may have killed the planet. We use lasers, super conductors, high density storage devices and other technologies for the world's restless leg syndrome and let the cancers grow. late 20th century, early 21st century profound advances=mass download/storage of porn and Humvees driven to the 7-11.

Posted by: Sparko on April 22, 2008 at 10:57 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with pjcamp 10:38pm that computers (specifically, invention/miniaturization of the transistor/integrated circuit) are as much a "manipulation of the physical world" as cars or electrification. In any case, the important question is the effect of technology on our lives, and and I think the information revolution is at least as revolutionary as electrification, particularly considering that it's not over yet.

Also, if Krugman's concern is our ability to innovate, I don't see why he would distinguish innovations changing our physical world from innovations in medicine--though that might actually strengthen his point since antibiotics were widespread in 1958 (I think) and nothing in the last 50 years approaches that discovery.

Posted by: Aristarchus on April 22, 2008 at 11:00 PM | PERMALINK

Folks, we're overlooking The Big One: the TV remote.

Posted by: calling all toasters on April 22, 2008 at 11:02 PM | PERMALINK

what about the ASS-HAT revolution led by luminaries like GWB, Rush Limbaugh, Mel Gibson, Ben Stein and Rupert Murdoch.

we're being pushed backward, but people seem content as long as their Wii doesn't dissapear to do it.

we all may wake up to find ourselves in FLDS...

Posted by: andyvillager on April 22, 2008 at 11:06 PM | PERMALINK

After WWII the futurists were predicting we would have our own nuclear powered commuter helicopters. What almost everyone missed (notable exception: Arthur C. Clark, see “The City and the Stars”) was the information revolution. While other aspects of technology are bumping up against physical and thermodynamic limits, the development of microelectronics has allowed us to manipulate data in ways no one could have dreamed of. I think it was at Bell labs in the early sixties that computer scientists sat down to decide what the largest possible computer memory a personal computer would ever need to access. Their answer was 256kbytes, which seemed outlandish at the time, but quickly led to early operating systems (including DOS and early windows) being a bit hamstrung in dealing with larger memories. My own memories of the seventies include working with a PDP8 with 4k of memory, and using an ASI minicomputer at a national lab that had a then unheard of 1Mbyte of extended core memory. The 1 Mbyte of memory took up the space of about 4 telephone booths (remember phone booths?).

Posted by: fafner1 on April 22, 2008 at 11:11 PM | PERMALINK

I should clarify: the Humvees driven to the 7-11 are using talking GPS. And they drive through blocks of vacant houses and have yellow ribbon magnets affixed to their tail gates. Breath-taking advances!

Posted by: Sparko on April 22, 2008 at 11:12 PM | PERMALINK

Thers, I call BS. Fossil fuel ain't sustainable by a long shot, but it's kind of the cornerstone of Krugman's energy innovations.

We figured out how to grow a lot more food on the same amount of land. We didn't give it to a lot of poor people, which makes us shitty human beings, but doesn't mean the particular technological innovation does not exist.

Posted by: anonymiss on April 22, 2008 at 11:15 PM | PERMALINK

I think the greatest failure of late 20th century science is the inability to harness fusion energy. Maybe once we achieve the "singularity" some artificial intelligence will say "Oh, by the way, here's how you do that fusion thingy."

Posted by: e. nonee moose on April 22, 2008 at 11:21 PM | PERMALINK


I think we're arguing two different points. To cite another example; the Humvee that Sparko is driving to the 7-11 is a technological innovation, as is the material science behind the yellow-ribbon magnets. But from another perspective they contribute nothing to human progress.

Posted by: thersites on April 22, 2008 at 11:23 PM | PERMALINK

It depends on what one thinks the meaning of "we" is.

For a Princeton economics professor, and probably for most of the people with whom a Princeton economics professor is likely to socialize, 2008 probably looks a lot more like 1958 than 1958 would have looked like 1908.

Is that really true for most of the world's people? I don't think so, and were he to reflect on the point I doubt Krugman would think so either. Across large stretches of Asia, Africa and even parts of Latin America, 1958 and 1908 would have been hard to tell apart. Only from a parochial point of view is it sensible to regard the vastly greater changes introduced in these and other regions since -- modern communications and transportation systems, adequate diets with greatly reduced threat of famine, exponentially greater exposure to the world economy and the world's other cultures -- as mere incremental improvements in man's ability to manipulate the physical world.

Posted by: Zathras on April 22, 2008 at 11:25 PM | PERMALINK

some artificial intelligence will say "Oh, by the way, here's how you do that fusion thingy."

Why should it deign to tell us squishy things?

Posted by: thersites on April 22, 2008 at 11:26 PM | PERMALINK

To my knowledge, there was never a single science fiction story that ever contained the line, "So, I went down to my local Sears store to buy an IBM computer."

Posted by: Art Smith on April 22, 2008 at 11:27 PM | PERMALINK

"...though that might actually strengthen his point since antibiotics were widespread in 1958 (I think) and nothing in the last 50 years approaches that discovery."

Yea, but antibiotics don't approach the discovery of sanitation in terms of human health impact.

That is simply the way things go in any 'problem solving' area of technology. You usually get a few really big bites out of it at some point and everything from then on must have a lesser effect in terms of absolute improvement.

Put me in the camp of Krugman's argument being extremely weak. Lots of technological advances are being made, they just aren't the ones imagined when he was a kid.

Posted by: jefff on April 22, 2008 at 11:30 PM | PERMALINK

Shale oil, coal gasification, and eventually the breeder reactor would satisfy our energy needs at not-too-high prices when the conventional oil ran out. (conventional wisdom of the early '70s critiqued by Krugman)

The reason those "energy alternatives" didn't pan out as predicted was due to the conventional source, CRUDE OIL, being artificially restricted through embargo by OPEC in 1973. IOW, there was plenty of OIL to satisfy our needs for a relatively long time if we could just make the right deals and political compromises... When it comes down to the sobering reality that there REALLY IS NOT enough oil to go around no matter what, THEN we will really do these type of "alternative investments" in a serious manner. So, in that sense I disagree with Krugman in the current political context and believe we would see these R&D projects get serious traction.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on April 22, 2008 at 11:30 PM | PERMALINK

Err, you missed a few revolutions. Electronics, in the 1940's and 50's. Integrated circuits in the 70's through today. Biotech is still mostly in the lab--the big biotech revolutions are yet to come.

Posted by: Jim Lund on April 22, 2008 at 11:36 PM | PERMALINK

nothing in the last 50 years approaches that discovery.

You're right. That genetic engineering stuff is pretty weak stuff.

Posted by: Mo on April 22, 2008 at 11:36 PM | PERMALINK

Is the world supposed to completely change in some spectacularly exciting way every 50 years in order to satisfy your competitive urges? Are you some statistics-obsessed 14-year-old keeping charts in colored pencil on your bedroom walls that list sports statistics and world-historical movements?

Just because you have not lived through some period of explosively new "modernity" that enables you to talk about how "it's a whole new paradigm" does not mean that the world is not significantly changing.

Everything changes, all the time. The 1970s seem like ancient history now. The obscenities George W. Bush has unleashed against the American government and the American way of life are as revolutionary as just about anything.

Nations are rising and falling every day. Great cities are dying while other spring up.

You are nothing more than the tiniest mote of dust, grabbing at some illusion that you can understand and define and encapsulate the world's changes. Even as the shortening of the strands of DNA in the male chromosomes in every cell of your body ensure the eventual disappearance of human males.

You live in California--a howling desert that will one day again be a howling desert, earth that will one day become mountains and sea bottoms and fiery magma.

The biggest changes happen very slowly.

Posted by: Anon on April 22, 2008 at 11:44 PM | PERMALINK

We have a Founders Gene problem. When a particular innovation takes off, like the car, then after markets tend to stabilize our use of the technology crowding out better ideas. New innovations tend to ride on the backs of the old one, economies of scale choke off the market for similar innovations to the one being produced.

Posted by: Matt on April 22, 2008 at 11:45 PM | PERMALINK

This conversation itself would have been inconceivable in 1958 outside of big university seminars.

Yes, that is computers...but it is a kind of manipulation of the physical world to be able to sit on my sofa with my laptop in suburban Texas and chat with thousands across the planet.

As for actual technology? The human genome project was an astonishing accomplishment inconceivable in 1958. The benefits of which are only beginning to be realized.

In any event I think the major difference between the first and second halves of the last century is that we learned NOT to be so eager to manipulate the physical world. Our ability to manipulate the natural world actually peaked in the 1930s with massive projects like Hoover Dam and Grand Coolee Dam. We learned to move rivers and mountains and have come to regret it as did the Soviets some years later. The Chinese will no doubt come to regret their manipulations in their future too.

Posted by: Kent from Waco on April 22, 2008 at 11:46 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, I agree with the posters who mentioned nanoscale engineering. Materials engineered at the nanoscale level can have some pretty incredible properties, and nanomachines have amazing potential, too. Both are a fundamentally new way of manipulating the physical world. However, they are still in the incubation stage as technologies, so for now Krugman is still right.

Posted by: DanM on April 22, 2008 at 11:52 PM | PERMALINK

Speaking of flying cars (not to mention hovering skateboards) Back To The Future II was set in 2015, just 6 years away. Better get cracking on "Mr. Fusion" too.

Posted by: jimBOB on April 22, 2008 at 11:55 PM | PERMALINK

I remember when I was a kid there was this persistent urban legend among the kids I knew that something like flying cars were on the way- a van that you stuck wings on (but that we we didn't have them just yet for whatever reason). I think it might have had some basis in truth- something like an astrolite mini-plane that converted between being a car and a plane.

Anyway, I'm satisfied enough with cell phones and the Internet. I got a cell phone recently compared to everyone else, and I'm still regularly amazed at how neat it is. And it's really neat how the Internet has made so much in our lives so much more convenient, in so many ways. Shopping and companionship are a few keystrokes away; you can telephone your family from wherever you are. It's funny to think that just in the 1980s, if we could have done these kinds of things, it would have ruined the plots of a lot of movies and Tv shows that depended on that little bit of inconvenience to drive some crucial detail of the plot (lonely stranded traveler at airport meets another lonely stranger; message can't reach recipient in time; etc.).

Posted by: Swan on April 22, 2008 at 11:59 PM | PERMALINK

I think this is all very interesting, but I won't be able to make up my mind until SocraticGadfly gets here to tell that he's written something about this.

Posted by: jerry on April 23, 2008 at 12:03 AM | PERMALINK

Flying cars are a reality, the problem is that people have a hard time with two dimensional driving and three dimensional driving would result in havoc.

Posted by: Jet on April 23, 2008 at 12:07 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, I realize Kevin is doing another dancer leg rotation thingy, but the legislative nightmares are innumerable as where flying cars are concerned

Street lights hundred of feet tall? Speed limits for different altitudes? IP addresses for cars [GPS] Vertical gyros, acelorometers,sink rates, artifical horizons, glide slopes, wind shear, ATAC,GPS..drunk drivers??

Mind boggling. Your better off driving Kevin

Posted by: Jet on April 23, 2008 at 12:15 AM | PERMALINK

I'm teaching Blade Runner, made in 1982, tomorrow afternoon for a film class. One of the most startling things about it's vision of the future (2019) is that nearly human-like androids are roaming around (oh, and flying cars), but there's no concept of anything remotely like the internet.

I also think its kind of odd that Kevin neglects to think about the ubiquitous changes ushered in by the internet while posting on a blog to be read on the internet...

Posted by: indecisive on April 23, 2008 at 12:17 AM | PERMALINK

I'd almost agree with pjcamp, except what I'd say is that computers have rendered advances in the material world less needed and less relevant.

I live in Kansas. Fifteen years ago, if I wanted to see the Los Angeles Times, I'd have to wait a day or two for it to arrive by mail. Now I have RSS delivering me the Times' latest stories so quickly that I see LAT stories before many Angelinos do. There are so many similar examples across so many similar fields; the material world isn't changing as quickly or as dramatically because we don't need it to -- we've got the revolution we want going on in our computers, and that's a much more radical shift than flying cars.

Posted by: Joel on April 23, 2008 at 12:22 AM | PERMALINK

This isn't a new point: the difference between 1900 and 1950 was much more then from 1950 to now.

Most of us could find our way around a 1952 kitchen.

Posted by: Archie on April 23, 2008 at 12:23 AM | PERMALINK

So, overall, technology has outpaced society. Who to blame for Kevins aero-car?

Capitalism sees that bottom line profits are key to growth. If we dont expand we die [simply put]

Yet this same low wage [high profit=cheap labor] results in a society who cant afford to pilot such a vehicle, much less own one. Even so, does McCain, for example, have the ability to pilot one?? He did crash 4 military jets, after all, and would a flying car be any different? Does a flying car have parachute seats? What about insurance on a flying car?

Doesnt creation run in reverse? [create a flying car and see what happens, screw the worry, eh?]

Posted by: Jet on April 23, 2008 at 12:29 AM | PERMALINK

Being a child of the '50s who grew up reading my dad's science fiction as well his Popular Science mags, I can relate to Krugman's lament, regardless of the excellent counter-arguments offered here.

Implicit in all the 1958 fantasizing about what 2008 would look like was the assumption that the revolutionary advances in vehicular propulsion and energy sources that had taken place in the previous 50 years would continue apace. When you consider that in just the 30 years from 1928 to 1958 we had progressed from internal combustion propellor planes barely able to fly the Atlantic to putting satellites in orbit and nuclear-powered submarines able to cruise the ocean depths for months at a time, optimism about advances in moving people and things from one point to another very rapidly seemed entirely reasonable.

From personal jetpacks to family helicopters to 300 mph cars to daily suborbital commutes via scramjet, many simply took it on faith that the engines and powerplants required to provide all that propulsive energy would be developed in fairly short order. While there were plenty of pie-in-the-sky theories explaining how all this flying about was going to be powered, nuclear power was the most commonly identified default fallback.

I think your average 1958 scientist or engineer would have been very surprised to find out that in 2008 automobiles the world over would still be powered by the humble gasoline-powered internal combustion engine, and that electrical power for much of the world was still generated by the burning of coal and fossil fuels. Fusion has proven so far to be a chimera. Nobody has tried the idea of using microwave satellites to beam down power converted from solar energy in space. Nuclear power plants have not, for a variety of reasons, achieved the level of power generation that was widely assumed back in 1958. Putting a pound of something into earth orbit and beyond is still hugely expensive, at least in relation to the optimistic scenarios of vacations on the Moon and routine trips to the inner planets. The sci-fi staples of the warp drive and anti-gravity are as remotely far in the future as they ever were.

As many here have pointed out, we have made amazing advances in a variety of other fields that few back in '58 could have dreampt of. It's my hunch as a layman that advances in fields like nanotechnology and materials engineering are going to play a crucial role in the eventual development of the power sources fantasized about 50 years ago.

Posted by: bluestatedon on April 23, 2008 at 12:29 AM | PERMALINK

Besides television, has anything really changed how people live since the talkies?

Posted by: Brojo on April 23, 2008 at 12:31 AM | PERMALINK

Good thread, Kevin Drum.

In terms of technologies that disrupt the landscape, nothing can beat the 1908-1958 period of the rebuilding of America to fit automobile and airplanes. We're still living within that fundamental structure.

I imagine the next radical technology will take us back to a more sustainable environment.

Posted by: PTate in MN on April 23, 2008 at 12:33 AM | PERMALINK

Agree with Krugman... but note that I'm limiting my argument to the 'western world'.

1900 - Many people in the west were still riding animals as primary transport. Steam locomotives were as high-tech as transport got. Telegraph was the primary means of long-distance communication.

By 1960 we had the following life changing technologies and fundemental knowledge:

Motor vehicles
Powered flight all the way up to Jet Aircraft
Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Power
Quantum theory
Radio and Television
Rockets and Orbiting Satellites
Open heart surgery
Electron Microscope
Herbicides and Pesticides
Magnetic tape and Magnetic disk storage.
Yada and etc.

Fundemental Technologies discovered/invented after 1960.

Computers? Nope.
Genetics/DNA Nope.
Lasers? Nope

In the western world you could transplant someone from 1958 to 2008 and most of the world would be familiar enough to make complete sense of.

Yeah, that's a really nice car. That's a TV, That's an airplane. Wow, computers sure are small now... everybody has one? (etc).

Transplanting someone from 1900 to 1960 the changes would be absolutely astonishing.

If you shift the discource to include 'third world', you're really just shifting the time base for introducing the same technologies.

For much the third world... 1960 was like our 1900.

Posted by: Buford on April 23, 2008 at 12:36 AM | PERMALINK

You cant have flying cars in a dumb downed nation.

Posted by: Jet on April 23, 2008 at 12:38 AM | PERMALINK

My wife would observe with some acidity that she finds her way around a 1952 kitchen every day.

She just wants to know when the Jetsons kitchen is going to be installed.

Posted by: bluestatedon on April 23, 2008 at 12:39 AM | PERMALINK

Ya know, BSD, i found that gas ranges, and iron skillets, cooked the best meals I ever had. She probably wouldnt like Jetsons kitchen and I would be one of the first to enjoy her home cooking.

Posted by: Jet on April 23, 2008 at 12:44 AM | PERMALINK

Putting the Village Idiot in the White House -- now that's Real Progress.

Posted by: deejaayss on April 23, 2008 at 12:55 AM | PERMALINK

The most salient thing I can think of that has changed since 1958 is the improvement in treating heart attacks. People do not die from heart attacks like they used to. The internet, though, has changed peoples lives so much they do not even notice how integral to their lives it has become.

Posted by: Brojo on April 23, 2008 at 1:00 AM | PERMALINK

I'm with Kevin, I'm really pissed that jet packs aren't an everyday appliance yet. I'm 46, they should be here by now.

Posted by: jon on April 23, 2008 at 1:02 AM | PERMALINK

I have to respectfully disagree. I think the internet and ubiqutousness of cell phones are huge changes. Sure they might have happened before 2001 but then cars happened before 1908.

What matters is when the technologies got widespread and in the 00's, universal and cheap cell phones took off, as did widespread broadband access to the internet. It's revolutionary, as much as anything in the first half of the twentieth century.

Posted by: Glacier on April 23, 2008 at 1:27 AM | PERMALINK

Manipulate the physical world is the charge: Bose Einstein Condensates at a few nanoKelvin, atomic force microscopes that can detect a single atom and move a single molecule and place it wherever you want, microscopes that observe single molecules, build any genome .... it is true we can not yet get unlimited electricity for free but someday we will wake up to solar cells on your car, in your clothes, and technologies to suck the CO2 out of the air to make syngas fuel and clean up the planet.... Somebody needs to buy Krugman a subscription to Scientific American.

Posted by: Dave on April 23, 2008 at 1:35 AM | PERMALINK

I'm not certain that the perspective is all that appropriate. I think it may be more useful to examine the basic technologies that have been advanced and look at how they've been put to use.

I offer one example that is a huge alteration of the norm and I'll let you take it from there. The new aircraft from Boeing, although the first deliveries have been delayed a few months, is chock full of composite materials that have been used for fabricating a majority of structural componemts of the airframe. That changes more than half a century of manufacturing engineering techniques.

I'm not sure Krugman is up on all the changes that have actually taken place over the years and thus has failed to accurately portray the extent to which technology has been adopted into the products we use every day.

As for flying cars. I don't think that is realistic by any stretch. Government would need to be a significant part of that and I seriously doubt government is able to deal with all the implications that people piloting such 'vehicles' would entail. I'm referring mostly to the infrastructure that would be necessary to prevent people from crashing the things all over the place. I strongly suspect government is a significant limiting factor in more things than we may appreciate. Regulation of things is necessary but it has to be intelligent regulation and I don't see government producing that any time soon.

Posted by: thepeoplechoose on April 23, 2008 at 1:38 AM | PERMALINK


Huebner provides U.S. patent data which show that, when normalized to total U.S. population, there was a patenting peak in 1914, a significant drop from 1914-1985 to 50% of the 1914 value, and a recent rise between 1985 and 1999 back to 75% of the 1914 value. He suggests this distribution looks "most" like a bell curve, that the 1985-1999 spike is only a temporary anomaly, and that the per capita "innovation rate" of the U.S. has been declining since 1914.

Most R&D today is done by employed techs, who in the U.S. are forced to sign contracts giving up any rights to their inventions. Since they have no incentive to invent anything major, they don't for the most part. Another factor in innovation decline is the immigration tsunami, which sent great numbers of top U.S. R&D people fleeing for other fields, their places taken by third world hacks--a vicious cycle having developed as Americans no longer want to enter these glutted-with-immigrant tech fields, so we add more H1B visas and lower the quality of research each year.

Posted by: Luther on April 23, 2008 at 1:38 AM | PERMALINK

Actually biotech, at least agricultural biotech could well turn out to have been a huge fiasco.


Posted by: John on April 23, 2008 at 1:41 AM | PERMALINK

Actually... we COULD send people to the moon tomorrow - the problem would not be getting them there - it would be getting them BACK!

Posted by: Syd on April 23, 2008 at 1:58 AM | PERMALINK

pjcamp said it.

The new ways to manipulate the physical world are not as big or noisy as the old, but they are and will be more far reaching. Even if it doesn't go boom or clank it can be profound.

Excepting computers, the net, and biotech in the last half century is like excepting electricity, the internal combustion engine, and the atom from the previous fifty.

That said, nobody has found a good new way to make energy magically appear.

Posted by: capitalistimperialistpig on April 23, 2008 at 2:42 AM | PERMALINK

There's no reason why aeroplanes, or even helicopters, couldn't be mass-produced and churned out at comparable costs to automobiles.

The reason why they're not is, essentially, because the average person is even less capable of operating them safely than they are cars. Hence, the FAA has made getting a pilot's license sufficiently tough to deter most people from trying.

Krugman also doesn't seem to appreciate the huge difference between the airliners of 1958 and 2008. Just because a 787 looks like an overgrown 707, doesn't mean that they're anything like the same under the skin.

Posted by: Robert Merkel on April 23, 2008 at 3:35 AM | PERMALINK

Having this argument / discussion on a blog seems ironic.

And sort of disproves the point. I believe my "flying car" has an Intel processor.

Posted by: Keith on April 23, 2008 at 3:43 AM | PERMALINK

Hell, consider document reproduction technology. In 1975 most document reproduction was done only at the time the document was typed, using carbon forms. In 1982 my first-grade elementary school used one of those old blue-only mimeograph machines to make duplicates of quizzes. Even once computers got going, you had the lovely choice of 16-pin dot-matrix printing or daisy-wheel printing, both with ugly monospace fonts, on tractor-feed paper you had to tear the edges off of.

Today, nobody thinks twice about photorealistic glossy printing, color copies, scanning, and color faxing, all with a single inkjet device that costs about as much as two good business shirts.

That's pretty "manipulating the physical world" to me, and it's changed absolutely every aspect of life from recreation to business.

I easily could come up with two dozen more examples off the top of my head. Not sure which Earth Krugman's been living on...

Posted by: IdahoEv on April 23, 2008 at 5:52 AM | PERMALINK

Ev, not so. In 1975, just about every office had Xerox machines. Elementary schools didn't, true, for cost reasons. They WERE readily available.

And the fanfold computer paper with the tractor holes was common in the 1960's. Computers "got going" MUCH earlier than the PC in 1980. They were common in both business and education. I was there, and made a large amount of money from designing and coding software for them before Steve Jobs ever went into the garage to build one.

Posted by: CN on April 23, 2008 at 8:27 AM | PERMALINK

We are manipulating our world, just not in the good ways Krugman would have it.

The technological and medical changes brought about between 1908 and 1958 have led directly to the negative consequences we have seen since then: overpopulation, global warming, increased air and water pollution, scarce water, erosion, reduced biodiversity, extremely high prices for corn and wheat, weapons that can contaminate and/or evaporate entire metropolitan areas.

Krugman asks the wrong question. Ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge (consciousness?) we have had this kind of blind faith that any decision we make for rational reasons will improve our quality of life. Whether we invent a new technology, decide how best to make a business profitable, build a new city -- up to now we have thought rational = good.

But, as we are seeing, even decisions taken for rational reasons have unanticipated, and often bad, consequences down the road. What Krugman, and we, need to be asking is, what will be the consequences of [fill in the blank] 50 or 100 years from now? How would you block flying cars loaded with plutonium from flying into the Sears Tower in Chicago? What if we find a "cure" for old age and people live lives that are centuries long? What if scarce wheat triples in price because farmers are planting so much switchgrass for biofuel?

These are the kinds of questions real leaders address if we are serious about planning for our kids' futures. Instead, we get debates about flag lapel pins. It makes me ill.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on April 23, 2008 at 8:31 AM | PERMALINK


There. I'm sorry for shouting, but I feel a bit better. I hope you will forgive me.

Krugman's point is not that innovations in information technology are unimportant. His point is that innovations in the exploitation of fossil energy have not been forthcoming. Every computer, every PDA and ipod, every plasma TV and smartphone, all depend on electricity. Which, in this county, we mostly get from coal and natural gas-burning power plants. In addition, just about every car, truck, train and plane relies on an oil-burning ICE. The plastics that one of the early posters hailed as so revolutionary are petroleum products, as are thousands of industrial solvents and household chemicals. Most importantly, the Ag revolution which has allowed us to feed so many more people relies on millions of tons of nitrogen-fixing fertilizer, derived from natural gas.

The point is not to diminish the many revolutionary accomplishments of IT and medicine and agriculture over the past few decades. The point is that underlying those accomplishments, powering the world, are fossil fuels. And there has not been a revolution in our exploitation of them. Greater efficiencies? Yes, most certainly. We can now pump oil from under 10,000 feet of water and another mile of rock. But we have not made a car that can run for a 100 miles on a two tablespoons of the stuff. All the new stuff we make --- the cars, the factories, the tons of fertilizer --- all require ever-more fossil fuels. If we can't obtain them, easily, cheaply, plentifully, then we are in deep shit.

"How much did information technology change our everyday lives between 1908 and 1958?"

Telephones, radios, and televisions all became commonplace consumer devices found in every home.

Posted by: D. on April 23, 2008 at 8:50 AM | PERMALINK

Hey, as a black man, I'm just glad to have made it to 2008, because if there is one thing the 1950s science fiction was sure about , it was that there were NO black people in the future. There were none in Tow Swift, there were none in Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, there were none in 99 % of all science fiction novels. Oh there were sometimes CHINESE- in a kind of Yellow Peril kind of way, but no darkies at all.
If there was one thing that our 1950s guy transplanted to 2008 would have been astounded about, it would have been Indians doing advanced information technology.

Posted by: stonetools on April 23, 2008 at 9:16 AM | PERMALINK

The point is not to diminish the many revolutionary accomplishments of IT and medicine and agriculture over the past few decades. The point is that underlying those accomplishments, powering the world, are fossil fuels. And there has not been a revolution in our exploitation of them.

Then this is an asinine comment. Look at agriculture. Until the biotech revolution, it's been essentially unchanged since the ancient Egyptians. Made more efficient? Sure, but it's still the same basic process. We still have to eat the same foods that we did before. Or art. Until the camera (and later, the PC), art was limited to the exact same mediums since the invention of canvas. And photography is just fancy painting. Painting, singing, dancing, theater and sculpture are older than dirt. And so on.

Posted by: Mo on April 23, 2008 at 9:23 AM | PERMALINK

Change - then consolidation.

The early 20th Century was an era of radical change, the time since then has been consolidation, making sense of the change in our simian, slow-changing brains.

Posted by: sidewinder on April 23, 2008 at 9:24 AM | PERMALINK

Krugman is totally overlooking changes in material science. The new Boeing plane is going to have plastic wings for example. Just about everything is lighter, stronger and cheaper to produce than an equivalent material 20 or more years ago.

Posted by: TW Andrews on April 23, 2008 at 9:28 AM | PERMALINK

"'The point is that underlying those accomplishments, powering the world, are fossil fuels. And there has not been a revolution in our exploitation of them.'

"Then this is an asinine comment. Look at agriculture. Until the biotech revolution, it's been essentially unchanged since the ancient Egyptians. Made more efficient? Sure, but it's still the same basic process."

I believe you have misunderstood me. When we speak of the revolutions in say, IT, we're talking about exponential changes --- the computing power that used to take up an entire room now being squeezed into a microchip. We have not seen such exponential increases in the efficiency which with we use fossil fuels --- do today's cars get better gas mileage than they did in the 70s? Yes, definitely. 10x better? 100x better? No, far from it. I'm sure today's power plants are better at extracting energy from burning coal. I don't believe that there 100x better than they were 30 years ago, however. If you look at Krugman's original post, he's referring specifically to the technologies which we use to extract and develop fossil fuels --- methods for transforming oil shales and tar sands into synth crude, for instance. Because we have not seen a revolution in the efficiency, we need to find more and use more fossil fuels whenever we want to do more.

Put it this way --- one way of looking at the industrial revolution was that technologies were invented which allowed us to work more efficiently. Another way --- another angle on the same problem --- is that technolgies were invented which allowed us to exploit fossil fuels, to replace human muscle power with steam or combustion or electric driven engine power. This is still largely what's powering us today.

Put it

Posted by: D on April 23, 2008 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

What about "Tom Swift and his flying eskimo pie"? ["or, Adrift in the land of the icebergs"] Now there was a transformative innovation.

Posted by: genome on April 23, 2008 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

All the new stuff we make --- the cars, the factories, the tons of fertilizer --- all require ever-more fossil fuels. If we can't obtain them, easily, cheaply, plentifully, then we are in deep shit.

D. is right. With peak oil we will be looking at a future of involuntary Luddism. We could be living again like people on Little House on the Prairie not because we want to and it is good for the planet, but because we don't have any choice. The next big transformation: The end of throwaway culture?

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on April 23, 2008 at 10:27 AM | PERMALINK

We have to differentiate between incremental advances--electronics, composites, battery technology, etc--and revolutionary advances like the aforementioned electrification or the Star Trek "Warp Drive," the only analogue of which is probably nuclear fusion (30 years out at current pace). We also have to differentiate between technological feasibility and economic feasibility. Were oil to become suddenly obsolete due to, say, great acceleration in fusion, the economic cataclysm would be a lot greater than out-of-work buggy-whip makers.

Posted by: Starfish on April 23, 2008 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

stonetools at 9:16 nails the obvious that the rest of us overlooked. I suspect it was less malevolence than simple neglect, since most SF writers and readers were/are white.

Much as R. Heinlein became an embarrassment, especially in his personal politics, give him credit where it's due. Midway through Starship Troopers there's a scene in which the first-person narrator looks in the mirror and, through what he casually mentions, we learn that he's black. No muss, no fuss, just a casual observation and back to the story. It didn't have a big impact on me (white guy) at the time, but I read an essay by Samuel R. Delaney in which he describes reading this scene as being a life-changing moment for him.

Glad you're with us, stonetools. Nice friggin' future here, isn't it?

Posted by: thersites on April 23, 2008 at 11:08 AM | PERMALINK

I would like to point out that for the last 2o years our grad schools in Chemistry and Physics America have been stocked with foreign grad students first from China and now from Eastern Europe. That was great as these kids are smart and motivated and they generally stayed in America. Now they go back to their home as China and other places are investing more in science and technology. So the science advances will be responsive to other countries needs and investments.

Although this may seem a bit off topic I think the problem Krugman is highlighting is a bigger issue that his flying car.

Posted by: Dave on April 23, 2008 at 11:16 AM | PERMALINK

If you use 1978 as your comparison year, the lack of advancement -- social, economic, technological -- from 1978 to 2008 when compared to 1948 to 1978 is astonishing.

Posted by: Jose Padilla on April 23, 2008 at 11:19 AM | PERMALINK

Where's the economic incentive to burn fossil fuels more efficiently? By maintaining downward pressure on efficiency the autmakers don't face the expensive prospect of re-tooling and the oil companies sell more oil. It's far cheaper for automakers to fight tighter CAFE standards than it is to re-tool their plants.

Markets don't always reward the more efficient company. That's just another free market myth. We assume the outcome of a seemingly rational debate about auto pollution will result in better policy and better technology. Not so far.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on April 23, 2008 at 11:25 AM | PERMALINK


Welcome! As thersites said, Heinlein was ahead of his time on racial integration. "The Cat who walks through Walls" and "Tunnel in the Sky" had characters who were dark skinned or of African origins. His 1948 juvie "Space Cadet" explicitly uses aliens as a metaphor for human racial minorities.

In "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" the moon is racially integrated and it denounces a case of racial prejudice. "Farnham's Freehold" denounced racism by putting a white family in a society predominately black. It was basically designed to encourage empathy and discourage racism by "putting yourself in the other person's shoes."

I do agree that Heinlein was a maverick in this department and many of the pulp science fiction from the 30s on contained the stereotypes of the "swarthy" lazy villain and the cunning devious Chinese.

Posted by: Tripp on April 23, 2008 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

Perhaps there has not been a big change in how Krugman lives since 1958, but globally there has been a HUGE change.

Not only has there been a huge population increase there has also been a rise in the global standard of living. All this is due to a huge increase in global production. Essentially we are farming on a scale never seen before (both in acres planted and crop yields) and we are extracting and using energy on a huge scale as well. Look at the HUGE automated coal digging machines and how fast they can get the coal.

China's GDP is now sixteen times what it was! US GDP has increased as well, although not as much because China is using our proven technology to catch up.

Clearly this geometric growth rate is not sustainable but one cannot deny that this amazing growth rate has happened in the past fifty years.

Posted by: Tripp on April 23, 2008 at 12:04 PM | PERMALINK

The flying car thing actually made it to the prototype stage. While visiting a transportation museum with my father (a retired military pilot) several years ago, I was giggling over an advertising poster for a sort of uber-station wagon which not only flew but could be used as an amphibian vehicle. The poster featured a photograph of a 50's era family man complete with suit, hat and briefcase, climbing out his flyingcarboat after a hard day at the office and being greeted by his high-heeled and pearled wife and his crew cut sons.

My father said that this was actually built and tested but for reasons that seem only too apparent to me was never commercially developed.

Think of the horror: giant SUV's driven by cell-phone chatting morons are bad enough on the ground.

Posted by: Mandy Cat on April 23, 2008 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

Krugman mentions the breeder reactor as a proxy for the whole issue of nuclear energy in general. I'd like to suggest that the reason we didn't see nuclear energy continue to grow, or any sort of sustainable nuclear fuel cycle develop, is precisely because of the low cost and perceived abundance of coal and natural gas during the intervening years. Weak electricity demand growth, a glut of uranium on the market and public antipathy towards all things nuclear didn't help either.

There's nothing _at all_ impractical about fission breeding, it's just that the required fuel reprocessing is currently more expensive than digging rocks out of the ground (a familiar story with your plastic soda bottles as well, by the way) There's also a pretty vocal cult of non-proliferation wonks who assert that reprocessing is just plain, well, evil. Both of these phenomena can be viewed as cases where a polico-social consensus for a technology didn't develop because there was an easier way out of making painful, hard choices: burning cheap natural resources. The desire to stave off global warming and develop new energy resources is likely to prompt a rapid development of nuclear power, in which case a progression to breeder reactors will be required.

When breeders appear commercially, probably in several decade's time, they are not neccessarily going to be of the explodin' sodium type. Most reactor types _can_ breed more fuel than they consume with some modifications to the basic design. The common U238-PU239 cycle requires a fast neutron spectrum and much reduced moderation, something only contemplated recently in light-water systems. The Th232-U233 cycle prefers a moderated reactor, which we already have.

Posted by: Hugh Strong on April 23, 2008 at 12:45 PM | PERMALINK


The flying car idea illustrates the problem with new forms of locomotion. Even if I could own my own jet pack, space ship, or flying car, the safety aspects of operating them would be more than the average person could handle. When flight stops abruptly due to poor maintenance, careless operation, poor training _or just less than absolutely perfect manufacturing_, the passengers and driver stop living, too. It's not the same with a car.

Posted by: Hugh Strong on April 23, 2008 at 12:54 PM | PERMALINK

There is one scifi book that nailed perfectly what the future would look like - John Bruner's THe Sheep Look Up.

I'm still waiting on a Train.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State on April 23, 2008 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

Luther writes: "Another factor in innovation decline is the immigration tsunami, which sent great numbers of top U.S. R&D people fleeing for other fields."

What exactly do you believe drove "top U.S. R&D people" to flee for other fields? A reluctance to work with foreigners? Fear of declining salaries?

I think your statement is incorrect. Why would immigration drive away US people from research? Most scientists see the influx of talented foreigners as a big plus.

Posted by: Aristarchus on April 23, 2008 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

Jeebus, Blue Girl. You have f*cking nailed it! Mrs. T. and I were just talking about Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar) the other night, and he slipped out of my tired brain again.

Posted by: thersites on April 23, 2008 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK

Speaking of SF. When our IT manager is struggling with a recalcitrant server, I'm fond of telling her "In the future, this will all be done by computers." Why doesn't she like me?

Posted by: thersites on April 23, 2008 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

Shorter Krugman:

If I ignore every significant technological advance since 1958, then 1958 is no different than 2008.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on April 23, 2008 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

Shorter Me:

If straightforward refinements of 1958 technology are, as I would argue, sufficient to solve the bulk of our energy scarcity and emissions problems, whatchacomplainingabout, PK?

Posted by: Hugh on April 23, 2008 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

Every other year Wired Magazine features a flying car on the cover and informs its readers they are just about ready to go into production.

Posted by: Brojo on April 23, 2008 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

The July 1934 issue of Modern Mechanix magazine has a picture of the "Airliner of the Future" on the cover. It is a huge flying wing with six propellers pulling it and four more pushing it.

Inside you can find an article on how to 'feel' music. Just take your speaker wires, attach them to carbon electrodes, hold one in each hand, and turn up the volume!

Showing that some things will never change I note ads for weight loss gimmicks and ads for new bass lures.

Posted by: Tripp on April 23, 2008 at 4:18 PM | PERMALINK

Not much change in daily life since '58?!

Come with me to work (I'm an ICU nurse) and I'll show you how to have a drive-through heart attack. In '58 the standard of care was like this: Put the MI patient on bedrest with no hot or cold foods or fluids (because the esophogus is real close to the heart and we wouldn't want to stimulate it), a little oxygen, check his EKG every 6 or 8 hours and hope you don't find him dead. That was it. Today you can be rushed to a Cath Lab, your coronary arteries opened up, the lines and tubes removed and you can be home in 23 hrs. The 23 hrs is because insurance co's will pay for 'procedures' and 'observation' in a different way than 'admissions'.

Then I'll take you out on my boat and show you how the GPS 'talks' to the Autopilot to steer a course directly to the sea-buoy off Sanibel Island.

Maybe I'll have to ask you to wait while I transfer some money from my savings account to my daughter's account in another state. But it'll only take a minute because I can do in on-line. So you'll have to microwave the coffee...

Krugman, like lots of really brilliant people, can be an incredible jackass.

Posted by: JohnMcC on April 23, 2008 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

"Not much change in daily life since '58?!
Come with me to work (I'm an ICU nurse) and I'll show you how to have a drive-through heart attack."

Americans have gotten a good deal fatter since 1958, but, thank Jebus, heart attacks are yet to be a daily event. Krugman's quote specifically references the physical, material world: Buildings. Appliances. Cars. Roads. The machines at a hospital are indubitably much different in 2008 than they were in 1958 --- even the way the doctors and nurses dress reflects vast changes. But imagine now walking out your front door in each of those years --- 1908, 1958, 2008. Between 1908 and 1958, cars emerge, powerlines go up, the road gets paved, and, if you're in a city, modern multi-story buildings get built. Between 1958 and 2008 all those big things stay the same, pretty much --- the way we get around, the way we get power, the way we heat and build our homes. Shops change --- you get big box stores and strip malls. But we don't get, say, moving sidewalks. Or human sized pneumatic tubes. Or transporter beams. Or space hotels or a nuclear fusion generator in the back yard, or even a solar panel roof (sure, that's possible now, but it's not typical).

Maybe we can get some of those things, but we don't right now.

Posted by: D on April 23, 2008 at 5:24 PM | PERMALINK

let's go back to 1958 then. And find a 20 year old female college student and ask her which of the three things I take advantage of on a regular basis she wants:

1: my iPhone, the sum collection of world information instantly in my hand (ok, close to instantly) and instant, cheap communication with almost everyone in the world (today alone, I have talked to my dad in tel aviv, my sister in london, texted my cousin in Tokyo and im'ed my old roommate in LA, all without leaving my chair or incurring extra costs (I am in dc)

2: the LASIK surgery that turned me from legally blind to 20/20 in 15 minutes.

3: the airplane capable of reaching any of the above destinations without stopping.

4: my girlfriend's birth control pills.

Anyone want to bet she doesn't take option four?


Posted by: Northzax on April 23, 2008 at 6:44 PM | PERMALINK

Hugh Strong wrote: "... we didn't see nuclear energy continue to grow ... because of the low cost and perceived abundance of coal and natural gas during the intervening years."

Be that as it may, utility-scale wind-generated and solar-thermal-generated electricity is already cheaper than nuclear-generated electricity, and distributed solar photovoltaic electricity will soon be so -- with none of nuclear's toxic pollution or dangers of weapons proliferation, terrorist attack or catastrophic accident. So there is certainly no economic case for an expansion of nuclear today.

Which is why the nuclear industry will not even stick a shovel in the ground to build a new nuclear power plant unless the taxpayers provide billions in subsidies, loan guarantees and liability insurance (including insurance against financial losses due to cost overruns and delays).

Hugh Strong wrote: "There's also a pretty vocal cult of non-proliferation wonks who assert that reprocessing is just plain, well, evil."

That's because reprocessing creates a grave danger of weapons proliferation, which is why a 2003 MIT study that recommended a three-fold expansion of nuclear generating capacity also strongly advised against breeders and fuel reprocessing. You don't address the substance of this concern in your comment -- you merely call those who are concerned about it names -- a "cult" of "wonks". I guess a fair reply would be that there is a "cult" of pro-nuclear "zealots" who refuse to recognize the very serious dangers and harms associated with nuclear power.

Hugh Strong wrote: "The desire to stave off global warming and develop new energy resources is likely to prompt a rapid development of nuclear power"

The need to reduce CO2 emissions from electricity generation is certainly a major component of mitigating anthropogenic global warming, and the nuclear industry has certainly sought to exploit this need in the propaganda that it has deployed to win tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies, loan guarantees and insurance, as per the recent energy legislation (without which subsidies, as I mentioned previously, the "free market" won't touch nuclear power).

The reality is that nuclear power is neither an effective nor a necessary way to reduce CO2 emissions from generating electricity. It is far more expensive and less effective than either efficiency improvements, or clean renewable electricity sources like wind and solar. And it takes far too long to build nuclear power plants -- let alone to build the thousands of nuclear power plants world wide that would be needed to make even a small dent in CO2 emissions. And during the decades it would take to build them, the construction process would be a major emitter of CO2. Wind power and solar can be deployed much faster and more cost effectively, as can efficiency improvements.

The idea that nuclear is a key solution, let alone "THE" solution, to global warming, is just a self-serving myth promoted by the nuclear industry and pro-nuclear zealots.

Efficiency and clean renewable energy can do the job. There is no need for nuclear power to address global warming, nor is nuclear a cost-effective way to do so, and thus there is no reason to accept the toxic pollution and grave risks of nuclear power plants and the nuclear fuel cycle.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on April 23, 2008 at 6:46 PM | PERMALINK

Killer Robots!

Posted by: thersites on April 23, 2008 at 7:06 PM | PERMALINK
. But imagine now walking out your front door in each of those years --- 1908, 1958, 2008. Between 1908 and 1958, cars emerge, powerlines go up, the road gets paved, and, if you're in a city, modern multi-story buildings get built. Between 1958 and 2008 all those big things stay the same, pretty much

Sure, the big changes aren't in the same areas: but I'd say its a big technological change in how we, on a personal level, "manipulate the physical world" that last year when my over-60 mother had knee surgery, it didn't affect her ability to do her own grocery shopping, because she does it all online. The fundamental, day-to-day technology of 2008 society is as far from that of 1958 society as the latter is from 1908 society. The differences may not be as obvious from a still photograph -- presuming that photgraph is zoomed out far enough that you don't see all the bluetooth headsets -- and almost anyone who tried predicting the areas of change in 1958 would have been wrong, but the pace didn't slacken, its just that the direction was unexpected. This isn't because change wasn't revolutionary, but precisely because it was; evolutionary change continues on in expected directions, revolutionary change (the information revolution, in this case) comes out of the blue and sends things off in an unexpected direction.

Posted by: cmdicely on April 23, 2008 at 7:50 PM | PERMALINK
Every other year Wired Magazine features a flying car on the cover and informs its readers they are just about ready to go into production.

Probably they are usually the Moller Skycar, which Moller has been "nearly ready" to go into production with since, IIRC, the 1970s, and taking deposits premised on imminent FAA certification since the early 2000s.

Posted by: cmdicely on April 23, 2008 at 8:05 PM | PERMALINK

Folks, the reason we don't have flying cars and space travel is due to two simple reasons. First, we are not working on either of them, there is no or extremely little work right now on a practicle personal approach to true space travel (I mean the kind of clearly public funding that would be required to get all the things in place to do it). Second, and this is more important we have a very broken business and political process where the Petro chemical industry has a far too powerful stranglehold over inovation. So, right now the Chinese are the only ones really working on space travel (props goes out to Burt Ratan but hey his effort is far too small to make a true impact) and no one is really working on the flying car thing.

By the way all the stifiling of research by the Bush administration coupled with extreme anti-intellectualism and full throated embracing of religious extremeism has set us back around 10-20 of the years needed to get anything flying anyway.

Posted by: timlf on April 23, 2008 at 10:05 PM | PERMALINK


On solar and PV:

The problem with both of these is that they'll always need considerable fossil-fired backups. Only wind is economically viable, and it receives considerable subsidies of half the cost of generation or more in many places. That's why wind farms are sprouting like weeds, not because it's a well-planned addition to generation.

Nuclear _did not_ get any taxpayer subsidies besides R&D until very recently. The industry pays full freight on Price-Anderson, waste disposal and decommissioning. The funds involved are federally mandated, but all the payments are PRIVATE.

But as for the construction of new plants, I think that everyone in the industry is quite deluded. The 1970's experience, in which high energy prices lead to crashing demand growth and a dearth of new plant orders, is likely to be repeated. But, even if the California conservation experience is repeated, that is likely to result in constant generation, and thus constant emissions. We need falling emissions, so wholesale replacement of the electric sector is likely to be the outcome of any legitimate cap-and-trade scheme.

"That's because reprocessing creates a grave danger of weapons proliferation, which is why a 2003 MIT study that recommended a three-fold expansion of nuclear generating capacity also strongly advised against breeders and fuel reprocessing."

Reprocessing does no such thing. The anti-side debate is flawed because it fails to acknowledge two things. First, when constructed in this country, a reprocessing plant is under our control, and we already have nuclear weapons! They're left with an extremely weak moral suasion argument, that if we don't do it, others might "see the light" and be persuaded not do so either. Has it worked?

But there's a deeper problem with much of the non-proliferation enterprise. Readily-delivered nuclear weapons are 1950s technology, requiring only precision manufacturing techniques and nuclear know-how. The prime proliferators, Pakistan and North Korea, are not known for their industrial prowess in high technology areas. These facts suggest that the only real barriers to proliferation are non-technical (stop it or we'll bomb you/sanction you/not sell you civilian reactors) and that states who _want_ to become nuclear (quasi-pariah) states can do so. The prior possession of any enabling technology, including enrichment or reprocessing, merely removes a speed bump to the acquisition of nuclear arms.

Let's take the case of Japan. They have reprocessing, but they don't have nuclear arms. That's because their defense policy is, and has been, basically made in Washington. Given an American security guarantee, they have no reason to pursue nuclear weapons. If they didn't have this assurance, I'm pretty certain that they'd have gone nuclear decades ago, along with NK, SK, TW and China, just because of all the regional animosities over everyone's history and intentions.

In reality, any successful arguments against civilian reprocessing in the near term are likely to be of an economic nature. Since there's a limited amount of fissile material in the ground, these arguments are likely to collapse under their own weight within a few short decades of any nuclear renaissance.

What opposition to reprocessing does do, even in an LWR regime, is to make the waste problem politically intractable. After all, if a waste repository can't be opened, and the industry can't reprocess, opponents can point to the stream of waste coming out of reactors and claim that there's no solution. But if Yucca can be opened without reprocessing, there's still the herculean task of opening a new repository every decade to handle new waste once the old ones fill up. There's nothing to suggest that that's politically sustainable. In many states in this country, construction of new reactors has been linked to the government actually taking the waste from the old existing ones and using some (unspecified) method for disposing of it. Thus, opposition to reprocessing has become another tool used by the antis to totally constipate the entire nuclear lifecycle and prevent any plants from being built.

"The reality is that nuclear power is neither an effective nor a necessary way to reduce CO2 emissions from generating electricity."

That's just plain anti-nuclear dogma. In reality, any reliable, carbon-free electricity source could fill the same role as nuclear, but the only historical cases where the electrical sector has been carbon-clean involve massive quantities of nuclear or hydropower. Hydro is fantastically limited in most countries, Solar's still pretty unaffordable, wind wants to be backed up with rapidly-depleting natural gas, so nuclear is likely to win by default.

Counterpoint: France. Compare their per-capita carbon emissions before and after their reactor buildout. Their entire PWR buildout took less than 25 years, and was substantially complete within 15.

Posted by: Hugh on April 24, 2008 at 8:03 AM | PERMALINK

"Probably they are usually the Moller Skycar, which Moller has been "nearly ready" to go into production with since, IIRC, the 1970s, and taking deposits premised on imminent FAA certification since the early 2000s."

When attached to a crane and hovering in ground-effect, it yaws about quite nicely.

The whole "citizen inventor" thing just doesn't work in capital-intensive sectors like transport and energy. (Slight exception to a few of the people working on electrifying the drive train, such as Tesla) It often costs billions to develop a new car, nuke plant, jet engine or airplane, making for very high barriers to entry.

This means that many of the "struggling, neglected genius inventors" and "business opportunities" are scams, stock frauds and subsidy-seekers, just because it's so hard to be "real" in this arena.

Posted by: Hugh on April 24, 2008 at 8:15 AM | PERMALINK


Ray Bradbury wrote poignantly about race: his 'Martian Chronicles' is quite explicit about it (after a nuclear war, Mars is dominated by black people).

Slightly later of course we had the whole 'Planet of the Apes' series which is explicitly about racial prejudice.

Robert A Heinlein certainly, although someone quotes 'Cat who Walked Through Walls'-- a novel written in the 1980s.

From memory, the main character in Starship Troopers is hispanic/ filipino, rather than black? Juan Rico.

ST is post 1958 anyways, from memory.

I think most SF writers would have missed that the world would be one where 2 successive Secretaries of State would be black, where 1 of the top 3 candidates for the presidency would be half black, (half Kenyan, no less), and where (do I have this right?) 1/4 black men would spend time in US prisons.

ie we tend to underestimate the very good, but also the very bad.

Posted by: Valuethinker on April 24, 2008 at 9:21 AM | PERMALINK

We have improved genetic testing so we can now tell the races apart.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on April 25, 2008 at 11:59 AM | PERMALINK

You are cordially invited to see my flying car project at www.strongware.com/dragon

Posted by: Richard A. Strong on May 26, 2008 at 9:18 PM | PERMALINK

You are cordially invited to see my flying car project at www.strongware.com/dragon

Posted by: Richard A. Strong on May 26, 2008 at 9:18 PM | PERMALINK

h9Cfdq hi! http://msn.com my site

Posted by: gosha03 on February 12, 2009 at 5:59 PM | PERMALINK



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